Sora’s giant feet don’t stop him from keeping up with the tempo.
Kingdom Hearts: Memory of Melody is a fast-paced rhythm game that pays homage to the classic tunes of Square Enix’s nearly two-decade old franchise. With 143 songs spanning nearly a dozen video games and several Disney animated classics, fans of Sora, Kairi, Riku and the rest of the Keyblade wielders will be blasted with nostalgia. The mechanics and gameplay are solid, with a unique twist on the prompt-driven rhythm game formula. But newcomers to the franchise’s notoriously complicated storylines will find Memory of Melody a bewildering place to start.
A Whole New World?
The music of Kingdom Hearts, mainly composed Yoko Shimomura, holds a special place in the hearts of the series’ devoted fans, and it’s the most appealing aspect of Memory of Melody. Hearing the eerie piano of Hollow Bastion from KH1 or the lazy xylophone from the Other Twilight Town in KH2 brings me back to the days of the PlayStation 2 — when the only thing I had to worry about was which spells I’d take to fight Maleficent. From “Simple and Clean” to “Circle of Life,” there are no shortage of good songs to fight through.
The gameplay of Memory of Melody borrows a bit from Guitar Hero, Crypt of the Necrodancer, and the singular eccentricity of series mastermind Tetsuya Nomura. World Tour is the main mode of Memory of Melody. In it, you’ll pilot the Gummi Ship to the many worlds of KH, going through Kingdom Hearts 1-3, Chain of Memories, Dream Drop Distance, 358/2, Re:Coded and the Final Mixes. As you progress, you’ll unlock new teams to fight and cutscenes explaining the series’ intricate lore. Once you get through the main story of Memory of Melody, you’ll get even more cutscenes, which introduce some intriguing new plot points. It took me about seven and a half hours to get there, which isn’t a lot of meat on the bone for $60.
The majority of gameplay features a three-lane field that appears in front of you with three characters walking forward. It’s your job to attack any enemies or objects in your way to the beat, pressing between one and three attack buttons depending on how many enemies appear. Some enemies needed to be defeated with spells, while must be jumped on and thwacked. Green music notes can be consecutively collected while gliding through the air that need to be collected consecutively to maintain your combo meter.
There are three levels of difficulty for each song, and precise enemy placement lends each variation a satisfying increase in challenge. Thwacking Heartless enemies on every beat feels responsive and smooth, allowing you to keep tempo. Enemy designs are also tailored to each stage, with the round Large Body bouncing to the “Mickey Mouse March” or flying enemies soaring at you while bashing to a “Whole New World.”
Nostalgia is a foundational element of the game’s appeal, with songs, levels and characters reminding you of the franchise’s many high points at every turn. Looking back on fond memories is a treat, but that’s diminished somewhat by the many moments when it becomes obvious Square Enix cut corners by reusing models and assets instead of creating new animations and textures. Virtually every enemy or scene is reused from a previous game.
While the basic gameplay loop of attacking enemies to the beat is satisfying and charming, some enemies do have visibility problems. In the Dream Drop Distance-inspired levels, it can be hard to see when enemies are coming, or what button to press, since the pastel color palette of the prompts can get washed out by the similar hues of the background.
Some levels provide an opportunity to let a guest character join your party, just like in the main series. Simba, Peter Pan, Aladdin and Ariel replace your third teammate, though the change is purely cosmetic. Most of these visiting party members are just fine, when the Beast joins the fight, his giant cape and jump animation block your line of sight on enemies, making it hard to see what’s coming. Thankfully, these animations can be turned off.
Let It Go
Each previous Kingdom Hearts installment gets its own series of levels inspired by the locations from that particular game. Once you complete enough challenges in the stages, you’ll have to defeat a boss to progress to the next one. These meatier fights feature new mechanics, using red attack icons, green icons that need to be held and yellow joystick flicks. Special “dark attacks” must be completed or you’ll take extra damage from the boss. There are only a handful of these encounters, but their snappy replayability gives them a longer shelf life.
In addition to these centerpiece battles, dream levels will see your team fly through the air while cutscenes play in the background. Suspiciously, all of the Kingdom Hearts 3 levels take place in this mode, and it’s hard not to assume this choice was made to save development time creating new assets or reworking the level design to fit the more visually refined aesthetic of the most recent mainline title. These stages change up the monotony a bit, but have nearly identical gameplay to the boss fights and aren’t nearly as fun. Still, there’s some scenes to savor, with Elsa’s “Let It Go” cutscene from KH3 still bringing a tear to my eye.
Alongside the World Tour, the game's Museum allows you to peruse the numerous cards and images you’ll collect by progressing through the game at various difficulties, a Track Selection allows you to play any song you’d like, and VS Battles pit you against a player (online or co-op) to see who can score the most points. These modes are cute, but feel like padding rather than crucial elements of the game’s identity.
Memory of Melody is an enjoyable rhythm game with solid mechanics, and benefits enormously from the addition of some of the best music ever made for video games and Disney animation. If you love Kingdom Hearts, you’re likely already planning on getting this game for the story. The narrative here isn’t as groundbreaking as most of the other spin-offs, but still engaging and interesting. That said, if you were never a member of Sora’s squad, there are plenty of other rhythm games out there. 7/10
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