At long last, diehard Kingdom Hearts fans have received the musical love letter to their beloved series that they’ve long awaited. Taking influences from musical spinoff Theatrhythm, Melody of Memory grabs your hand and gleefully parades you through some of the most heartfelt moments in the long-running Kingdom Hearts series, which is now spread across over 14 games (if you also include minor entries like Re:Coded and Kingdom Hearts 0.2). One of the best parts about this rhythm-based game is you don’t have to be a huge Kingdom Hearts fan to drop in and enjoy bite-sized chunks thanks to the plethora of iconic Disney music and easy-to-learn gameplay. It does, however, end up feeling shallow after several solid hours of play. Given its simple controls and on-rails levels, very little of it feels remarkable or unique in practice compared to other rhythm games, and you may find yourself mindlessly breezing through it.
Make no mistake: This is not a new Kingdom Hearts roleplaying game, nor a deep franchise recap, and while some of the story is touched on, only the broadest strokes are covered. In fact, little is added at all – save for a section at the very end which explicitly tells us where developer Square Enix plans to set the next Kingdom Hearts game and includes a little bit of interesting lore about Kairi, but not much else. It’s a story clearly centered around reliving those nostalgic moments rather than establishing many new ones. If I didn’t have the context in my head, the soundtracks alone wouldn’t have provided that much of a pull to continue.
It doesn’t do much to bring new people into the series’ elaborate story, but longtime Kingdom Hearts fans looking for a nostalgia fix will be pleased to discover that Melody of Memory channels the series’ roots better than even Kingdom Hearts 3, warts (and Keyblades) aside. It brings back characters and levels from movies like Aladdin, Tangled, Peter Pan, and much more from across the series, while generously doling out collectibles and art pieces that pay delicate homage to the respective games that inspired them.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20main%20attraction%20here%20is%20the%20World%20Tour%20campaign.”]Featuring the same brightly-colored PS2-era stylized graphics and controls that replicate exactly how it felt to slap a Heartless around with Sora’s Keyblade way back in 2005, Melody of Memory does its best to make you feel sentimental and that is absolutely its best strength.
The main attraction here is the World Tour campaign, which has you collecting stars and progressing through a world map that represents almost every soundtrack across the entire series. There were a few that I skipped, but in all, the compilation seemed robust. Regardless it’s a wonderful trip down memory lane, set to the beat of music from Kingdom Hearts 1 all the way to last year’s Kingdom Hearts 3. A single playthrough will eat up no more than five to 10 hours, depending on how much of it you choose to explore.
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If you do, you’ll find some substance here: you can earn and craft items like healing potions that can save you from failing a level if you miss too many notes, and you do still earn experience points and level up a team. In fact there’s even a synthesis system that stylishly hearkens right back to the one that fans will recall from Kingdom Hearts 2. It’s unfortunate that items often feel useless and unnecessary then, and as such, the crafting system can be totally ignored or end up as little more than window dressing. Unless you’re really struggling with the basic rhythm gameplay, nothing you do or prepare here ever really matters, even during the harder boss battles. That isn’t to say synthesis is totally pointless. The best section of the synthesis menu is where you can earn access to special levels and collectibles, which are certainly worth it if you want to see everything.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=There%E2%80%99s%20a%20synthesis%20system%20that%20stylishly%20hearkens%20back%20to%20the%20one%20from%20Kingdom%20Hearts%202.”]You progress through the World Tour system by earning enough stars to unlock gates that contain the next set of levels. Luckily this is pretty straightforward, and you do it by completing challenges such as “Finish the level with over 50% health” or “Break every barrel and crate,” and those can also unlock new treasures and even new playable characters. That reward loop is satisfying when you’re on a roll, but there were moments where I felt like I was treading water when I needed to go back and redo a challenge until I could earn enough stars to pass through to the next sequence of levels. You can often choose which route to travel down (there are usually at least two) and there are also a few side-routes to pursue if you’d like to spend the extra time digging deeper, but the path to the end is pretty simple and clean.
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Everybody’s here for the ride. You get to play with Sora, Riku, Roxas, and even Kairi. And you can also bring iconic Disney characters like Mickey Mouse or other supporting characters to join you along the way, though it’s disappointing that there isn’t much of a gameplay impact based on which characters are in your team. Speaking of, you do progressively level your teams up and there are stats like Strength and Defense in play. However, I didn’t notice any impact from those either.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Everybody%E2%80%99s%20here%20for%20the%20ride.”]In addition to regular tracks, Melody of Memory features boss battles and Memory Drives. The latter shows iconic scenes from past Kingdom Hearts games, including the boss fight with Ansem and even classic Disney bits like Toy Story and Frozen’s “Let It Go.” The only problem here is that Melody of Memory has too many things going on at once, forcing you to focus on hitting notes at the right moment while the scene just kind of happens in your peripheral view, making it hard to appreciate.
The good news is that there are a ton of ways to enjoy the wealth of Kingdom Hearts memorabilia included in Melody of Memory, including a Track Selection mode and a Museum mode that lets you go back to those special scenes and experience them however you want. The Story Theatre is the best part of this, because it lets you go back and catch up on the most important parts of the story without getting inundated by gameplay.
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If you want to tweak things like latency, volume, and other options, there’s a Music Stage menu that gives you a decent level of precision over these things. That said, I couldn’t find an option to turn down the often blaring soundtrack when inside of the menu screen, which would have annoyed me if I were trying to stream with Melody of Memory running in the background. Accessibility isn’t too much of a problem here, as you can simply turn on the Demo mode and let entire levels play themselves for you if you just want to watch. Or you can play with the One Button style mode if you still want a small challenge but not too much. It’s also great that the Proud difficulty mode and the uber-challenging Performer style mode exist for those looking for a tougher challenge as well, though the latter two modes really make Melody of Memory yearn for a special controller like the one from Guitar Hero.
For the first time in a console-bound Kingdom Hearts game, there’s a multiplayer element to share with your friends. You can jump into split screen co-op multiplayer and experience everything with a friend on the same couch, or you can go online and compete in the VS Battles mode. Battles are fun but gimmicky; two people go head-to-head and use tricks, like blurring the other player’s vision to trip them up while you ensure your own victory by outscoring them. It’s great that they included it here, especially because we haven’t really seen much Kingdom Hearts multiplayer before.