Kingdom Hearts has been around for almost twenty years, and in that time there have been seventeen game releases that have told the story of Sora and his friends as they try to stop an evil presence known as The Heartless. Of course, as any fan knows, I doubt even Stephen Hawking could decipher its eighteen-year narrative. It’s convoluted concepts, myriad of characters, and attempt to explain it all whilst adding more arcs and ideas became the standard early on, so much so that I can’t recall much from its history, even though I’ve played almost every one. One thing that is crystal clear is just how incredible the music has always been, and Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory makes this the main focus.
Yoko Shimomura’s compositions have always been a defining positive regardless of the game. She knows how to build emotion, whether it involves shedding a tear or celebrating in triumph. I’ve been an admirer of hers for a long time, and the fact that Square Enix and indieszero have made her music the focal point of a Kingdom Hearts game is a no-brainer. It’s essentially a rhythm game that covers the main story of the Kingdom Hearts series, letting you relive the big moments through cutscenes narrated by Kairi that are scattered between the levels.
Whilst there are few new story beats, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory does give you a brief glimpse of what’s to come. If you’ve always wanted to get into Kingdom Hearts, its the perfect primer to understand what the story is all about, and if you haven’t played them before this will set you up for the future of the series. As a long-time fan, it offered the warmth of nostalgia without it being tainted by revisiting the originals and finding all the flaws that playing near twenty-year old games often do. It reminded me of the epic journey Sora, Donald, and Goofy embarked on, and gave me a brand new way to experience it.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is a straightforward rhythm game that doesn’t necessarily throw new ideas at you the more you play. That’s not to say what you can do is bad, but the repetition of playing some of the songs does begin to grate on you. There are difficulty levels that increase the amount of enemies thrown at you, and the ability to synthesise new items and tracks helps to alleviate the humdrum of going from track to track. It’s main mode is World Tour, taking you through the main story of Kingdom Hearts and giving you the chance to listen to over 140 of the original songs that Shimomura wrote. You control the Gummi Ship moving from area to area, taking part in one or two songs per world.
Each song plays out in a familiar environment, starting off in Destiny Islands and going between original worlds to the likes of Agrabah, Arendelle, and Halloween Town. You move on rails and must use the ability to attack and jump to the beat. As the game progresses, your team will change, but there will always be three characters on screen. Pressing X will make one character attack, then by pressing L1 and/or R1, you can choose to attack with the other party members. The enemy detail is great depending on where you are, but they generally follow a similar pattern of design. Some enemies require more than one attack to defeat them, others fire things at you from the air, but generally they’re the only real attacks they launch against you.
You can glide through the air to collect notes in time to the music, hit a magic triangle that bewitches Heartless with a colourful glow, and getting to see the combat that featured in the main games is pleasant enough to keep you playing. Alongside the Field Battles are another couple of game types. Memory Dive sees cutscenes play out in the background as you travel through the air hitting button prompts to finish, and boss fights play out as if you’re fighting them, except you’re hitting similar prompts to do damage. Whatever the style of level you are playing, if you lose all your health from missing the prompts or taking damage, you’ll have to restart. There are items to be equipped before you begin every track, so if you are struggling you can have a health potion on hand.
With each track, there are three objectives that give you stars for completing. These might include finishing a song with 55% health, defeating a particular amount of enemies, or reaching a certain amount of points. By collecting these stars the new worlds will open up. Getting a high score means you’ll get a better grade and a wealth of Shards used for synthesising, and collectables including Cards featuring scenes from the main series.
Each successful attack you land will build a chain which improves your score, and the less mistakes you make, the better you will do. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is the timing. When an enemy approaches, a circle will shrink in front of them. As it reaches the smallest point you need to attack, but it isn’t always in time to the beat. If you rely on hitting buttons to the beat, you’ll often miss a prompt, in turn leading to a succession of misses as you’re thrown off your rhythm. It’s annoying because the music is so good, but sometimes the gameplay suffers and you’ll end up breaking your chains because of it.
Take “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid, for example. I’ve heart it hundreds of times in my life, and trying to play along to every beat caused me to get walloped by the enemies. Some of the other songs don’t always have a prominent beat as they are more ambient, making the timing elements even more of a let down. A lot of the music in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory gets it right, which is all the more annoying when it fails.
The biggest draw to Kingdom Hearts has always been the presence of Disney, whether it’s the characters or the worlds. You get to head back to the settings for Hercules, Alice in Wonderland, and Nightmare Before Christmas to name a few, and by doing so your team will feature the likes of Ariel, Aladdin, and Peter Pan as guest characters. It’s a nice feature, and whilst it doesn’t really impact how you perform, the dedication to the series’ source material is ever present. You can also synthesize tracks to play in Track Selection which aren’t featured in World Tour, such as “Circle of Life” from The Lion King.
Track Selection lets you replay all the songs you’ve unlocked from World Tour, with the option to choose between three settings. One Button will let you do everything by, you guessed it, pressing one button. This takes away much of the stress and lets you listen without doing much of the work. Basic is the normal setting, whilst Performer throws even more prompts into the mix for those wanting an added challenge. You can view unlocked content in the Museum, and head online to play in Vs. mode. There’s also a co-operative element that lets you play along with friends.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory takes a stripped back look at the story of the series whilst putting the fantastic music at its core. Whilst some of the tracks have big timing issues, I still enjoyed the simple gameplay, and getting to revisit my time with Sora and Co was fun while it lasted. For those of you hyped for the new story content, it isn’t until the game reaches its climax, and even then it’s not in abundance. However, it’s still cool to see what lies ahead for the future of the series.
Plenty of great music to play along to
Fun way to revisit the story of the main games
Lots of additional challenges and collectables to unlock
Timing can be a big problem