Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), Switch, Xbox One
Kingdom Hearts is a rhythm game now…. OK! No one expected this to compete with fan favorites like Beat Saber or Crypt of the Necrodancer. I did, however, expect it to be canon, meaning it's required playing if you want to understand the tangled and convoluted Kingdom Hearts story. And hey, the music in Kingdom Hearts has always slapped! Who wouldn’t want to press buttons to some bangers to bridge the gap between some astounding plot revelations?
I hope you aren’t a Kairi fan…
We’ve all made the joke about how useless Kairi is as a character. Heck, I did full stand-up comedy bits about it at anime conventions on the east coast. But this… this is low. I don’t just feel bad for Kairi fans, I feel bad for anyone playing this just to bridge the gap between Kingdom Hearts 3 Re:Mind and whatever comes next.
It is, for all intents and purposes, a direct sequel to Re: Mind. Sora has disappeared and Kairi is going to search for him the only way she knows how…
By doing nothing…
Spoilers for the end of Kingdom Hearts 3 here, after Master Xehanort shattered her heart, or existence, or whatever, she and the scientists at Radiant Garden figure that she might be able to gather some insight as to what happened to Sora by examining her own heart. This means essentially going back in time and re-living all the events of prior Kingdom Hearts games. Square Enix sure does love to re-use those assets.
In Melody of Memory, you embark on a retelling of the events of the whole series, song by song, and nothing really happens, until the game dumps 40-plus minutes of disappointing exposition on you at the end, but before I get to that groan-inducing lore dump, here’s something that really, REALLY bothers me.
Kairi is the protagonist in this game and you don’t even get to play as her. A good section of the Kingdom Hearts fanbase has been asking for a game featuring Kairi for a while, and even though Square does have assets of Kairi fighting due to her role in Re: Mind, you actually play through the whole game as Sora, or in the case of Recaps of 358/2 Days or Birth By Sleep, Roxas and Aqua respectively. This is a whole Kairi-focused game where Kairi is the protagonist and yet, she does NOTHING!
This is only further amplified by the bits of story that we do eventually get. I’m not going to spoil it, because the Kingdom Hearts fanbase gets really upset about that, but I will say that all that you get is a showcase of how weak Kairi is. In fact, when the final cutscene comes about pushing the characters on to the next phase of the journey, the game goes out of its way to mention how weak Kairi is, even though she’s literally the one responsible for getting everyone there, just so that she can be conveniently written out of whatever comes next.
It is the most profound mishandling of her character yet, and that’s saying something. Outside of her plot, all you get are a few revelations, half of which the community had already theorized, and the other half are just a few names and vague statements that we know nothing about. Dollars to doughnuts Tetsuya Nomura knows nothing about them either and will just figure out what it means later.
Simply put, if you are playing this for the story, don’t. Just watch the cutscenes on YouTube. You’ll still be frustrated but at least you won’t have to pay money to be frustrated.
A uniquely Kingdom Hearts rhythm experience
Oh yeah, there’s an actual game here.
Here’s how it works. Sora (or whoever you are playing as) will run through a track with heartless (or nobodies, or unversed, or whatever) strewn along with two allies to his side. Pressing the standard attack button makes Sora swing his keyblade while pressing the shoulder buttons controls his allies to the left and right respectively. Pressing a jump button makes Sora jump and holding it makes him glide. He can also press another button to trigger special abilities and another to use items.
For the most part, it’s exactly the control layout of a standard Kingdom Hearts game, despite it being repurposed into a rhythm game. It’s actually kind of neat how they got everything to fit. Long notes, for example, will require Sora to glide back and forth on the note track. Loud percussion usually involves all of your characters attacking at once. Double beats are large enemies that need to be attacked more than once. It’s all a very cool idea.
There are numerous difficulty modes that actually change up the game quite a bit. The easiest difficulties have you tapping a single button to a simple rhythm while the hardest adds yet more buttons to contend with and has your characters swinging around their keyblade like a high-speed blender. There is also co-op mode which vastly simplifies inputs for two players to play at once, and versus mode which essentially is just a score attack mode. You can play online, but you can’t seem to play with your friends, which means you are stuck with randos which might as well be AI (which by the way, you can also play against.)
Finally, there are some special modes, like boss battles, which completely change up the control scheme, and this is probably the coolest feature that Melody of Memory has to offer.
Melody of Memory is absolutely supported by its tracklist which includes 145 tracks from throughout the series, each with multiple difficulty modes. You can be chilling to popular Disney songs like Beauty and the Beast and then suddenly get amped to tap out the beat of Rage Awakened. Simply put, Kingdom Hearts music is good so a game about Kingdom Hearts music is good… except…
Everything behind a lock
So actually playing Melody of Memory is fun, but Master of Masters forbid if you actually got to play the tracks you wanted. Nearly everything is locked behind some sort of progression gate, which means you have to play the story mode to unlock it.
Problem #1) the story mode is locked to normal difficulty. This means easy modes are useless because any track you have access to will already have been completed on a harder difficulty.
Playing through songs also gets you items when you can then synthesize. Some of these synthesized items are just new songs to unlock, while others are items that can help you as you play.
Problem #2) getting the items to synthesize tracks requires grinding on levels you already have, which is not fun.
Problem #3) every track has a series of missions that you need to complete in order to get the best rewards and the most common mission is “clear without items” making all synthesized items completely useless.
The game takes about six hours to complete, but an unfortunate amount of that time is just grinding. A rhythm game shouldn’t feel grindy. You are just padding length at this point, which is stupid because there are 145 awesome tracks that could fill the length! Or maybe just give us some story cutscenes that are worth a damn! Don’t make us do busywork in a rhythm game, that’s ridiculous!
Copy pasted together?
There are a lot of weird decisions in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory. For example, many of the tracks are low definition tracks taken straight from the PS2 games, when there are higher definition orchestral versions available from Kingdom Hearts 3 and from the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra, and I only bring these up because there are tracks from both of them in the game as well, so why include lower quality ones?
The cutscenes that play out behind tracks are also a strange mishmash. Once again they seem like they are taken directly from their game of origin, which means cutscenes from Days look rough around the edges. I get that Square Enix loves their asset re-use but all of this could have used a bit more polish.
In a word: sloppy
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is a disappointment in many ways, but all of them can be described as sloppy. Whether it’s the borderline insulting mishandling of Kairi’s character in the plot, the poorly thought through roles that items and difficulty levels play in the game, the random only online system, the strange decision to include low-quality versions of some tracks, or the cutscenes that look copy-pasted from lower-definition games on lower definition systems, nothing feels 100 percent polished or refined.
It’s not a lack of effort that makes Melody of Memory frustrating to play, its lack of thought. Melody of Memory feels like there was no one in the QA room questioning design choices, which resulted in a ton of little flaws that build up to a frustrating experience.
Truth be told, I can’t quite think of a reason to recommend this game. The story is disappointing and while the track-list is impressive, you can find many of these same tracks in high-quality as custom community made tracks in other rhythm games like Beat Saber. The only real appeal is the unique gameplay system that mimics Kingdom Hearts combat, and if that can keep you playing for hours, then more power to you. But for me, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory was less a game and more a chore that I had to get through in order to stay current on the Kingdom Hearts plot, and that’s unfortunate because with a little more thought it could have been a much better game and a much better addition to the story.