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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Review: Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory (Nintendo Switch)


Review by Matt S. 

As a property, I have so many issues with Kingdom Hearts, and a lot of it stems from being something that should have been so easy for Square Enix. Take Disney, and Final Fantasy, and mash them together. Let Donald Duck summon those great monstrosities of the Final Fantasy series. It would have been perfect. Instead, Kingdom Hearts is a mess of its own lore and clumsy action JRPG gameplay that manages to push both Disney and Final Fantasy to the periphery of what people need to focus on while they play. The one element of Kingdom Hearts that I love is the music, so Melody of Memory, being a rhythm game, does best suit my interest in the series, but even then it's far from perfect.

The music of Kingdom Hearts is a blend of original scores, and select tracks from Disney favourites. Thanks to that, whether you enjoy bopping along to the heritage of Square Enix's JRPG music (certainly a wonderful thing in its own right), or Disney classics from Wonderland, Halloweentown or Agrabah, Melody of Memory has you covered. To an extent. Because the music is pulled from the games, rather than the films, some of them lack the sung lyrics, and while that's fine in the context of background music for an action JRPG as the main Kingdom Hearts series shows, in the context of a rhythm game it comes across as the cheap karaoke version of familiar favourites. I had to belt out Under the Sea and This Is Halloween as I played just because my brain refuses to hear those songs without the excellent lyrics. Not only has this made it hard to get good scores, as I was distracted, but more to the point, no one wants to hear me singing. Ever. Not even me.

Still, with several marquee tracks - Let It Go, A Whole New World, et al, the lyrics were in there, and those were the highlights of Melody of Memory. I love rhythm games and have long felt like a Disney rhythm game to the standard of a Hatsune Miku title is long overdue, but with Disney not producing games itself, being a very western company, and all the rhythm game developers being Asian, I suspect that Melody of Memory is the closest we're going to get for quite some time. Thankfully, with an overall tracklist of 140+ songs, even discounting the Kingdom Hearts originals, there's a good celebration of Disney's long heritage of music in there.


To get to the big bugbear in the room next: Memory of Melody is yet another game that assumes that Kingdom Hearts has a narrative and lore worth sharing. The only way to play music is to first unlock it in the story mode, which starts out as a summary of past game events (though disjointed enough that if you're not already familiar with the narratives you'll be lost), before, right at the end, just dropping some new tidbits in there. Yes, Kingdom Hearts fans, you absolutely must play this game to stay on top of the evolving narrative, and it's nuts the way this series continues to have the most minor side-stories like GBA games and mobile titles be core to the understanding what is going on. What's in Memory of Melody isn't much, but if you are one of the series' most dedicated, you'll appreciate the tantalising look into the future for the series, I feel. Everyone else can look forward to yet another layer of confusion.

Meanwhile, I just wanted to play some rhythm game action, and thankfully Melody of Memory has a wonderful basis here. The basic gameplay works much like 3D take on the Theatrhythm formula, if you remember back to when Square Enix turned its Final Fantasy music into rhythm game action. In standard levels you play as three characters from the series, as they run across a path which, visually, links to whatever world they're in. The Aladdin levels look like the streets of Agrabah. The Little Mermaid levels take you across the seabed, and so on. As the heroes continue their jog, enemies pop up in front of them in time with the music, and you need to use a combination of regular and magic attacks to defeat those enemies. At first, the 3D effect threw me, and felt less precise as a visualisation of music when compared to Theatrhythm's 2D presentation, but as I played on I learned to listen to the music better and it all started to snap into place for me. Overall Melody of Memory effectively straddles the line between simple controls that can be memorised in seconds, and complexity in the patterns to challenge your rhythm and timing. Beginners to rhythm games shouldn't find the lowest difficult level frustrating, while rhythm game veterans will find the highest difficulty setting challenging enough (particularly to complete perfectly). Melody of Memory never becomes intimidating like a Miku game on Extreme or something like DJ Max can become, but there's enough there for any but the most elite rhythm game fans to enjoy.

Aside from the standard levels, there is the occasional boss battle which works in much the same way, mechanically, but is presented very differently. The presentation of these is excellent, if a little distracting in that you're going to want to watch the action, while the gameplay is tucked away in such a way that it's difficult to split focus. That doesn't bother me personally, but then I've spent so many hundreds of hours with Hatsune Miku dancing around in the backgrounds of rhythm games that I've become quite good at shutting out the excitement when I want to focus on getting a good score. For others, it will be a learning process and newer rhythm game fans - especially those enamoured with Kingdom Hearts and therefore most likely to want to watch those "cut scenes" - will find those levels the most challenging and distracting.


What bogs the otherwise exquisitely good rhythm game action down is its obsession with items, a loot system, and RPG mechanics. None of this is needed, all of it is superficial, and while it was certainly part of the Theatrhythm games as well, it's so much harder to just ignore here. Other than a mild way of helping players that are finding the game truly testing (when you "miss" notes, your party takes damage, and take too much and it's game over, but a potion will help mitigate this), none of these elements play a role in the gameplay beyond being modifiers. The core gameplay remains, as with every other rhythm game ever, simply about getting the timing right and getting a good score at the other end. I'm not sure if Square Enix lacks confidence in a rhythm game being self-evidently enjoyable, or they were worried that people might stop seeing Melody of Memory as a Kingdom Hearts game if it didn't have "JRPG elements" in it, but either way, the game comes across as too busy and cluttered with all this stuff that distracts from the core action.

Once unlocked in the story mode, the music becomes available for free selection, and this is the bulk of where I've spent my time with Melody of Memory has been. Thanks to the excellent mechanics, and the precision with which the scoring system works (there are two kinds of "excellent" timings, for example - a rainbow "excellent" meaning you've hit the note at the absolute best time, and a standard "excellent" which is a micro-beat out, but not enough to drop the scoring for that note down to one of the various degrees of mistimed notes), the compulsion to play favourite tracks over and over again to get the best store possible is almost overwhelming. For players that want to change things up, though, there's also a battle mode, where you can play against humans (online or locally) or the AI. The base gameplay is exactly the same - both you and your opponent compete for points by playing through the same track - but the action is spiced up with the addition of "tricks" that you can attack your opponent with, which cause enemies to disappear, shrink, or otherwise make it hard to stay "in time." These occur at random and you have no control over them, so it doesn't add any tactical depth to the action (and makes it all-but-impossible to get the best scores), but it does have the habit of helping those multiplayer matches to stay close.

I haven't been as conflicted about a rhythm game as I have Melody of Memory. On the one hand, the rhythm game action itself is wonderful and the music, across 140 tracks, is sublime. On the other hand, being forced to play through a truncated and baffling summary of the Kingdom Hearts narrative just to unlock those tracks has done little to enamour me to the series, and there are far, far too many little additions that distract from what the game does best (i.e. the rhythm action). The grand sum of it is that Melody of Memory is much more a game for existing fans of Kingdom Hearts than it needed to be, and once again Square Enix has struggled to fully capitalise on the rich opportunity that the Disney license provides them. 



- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

The critic was provided with a copy of this game for review.

Review: Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory (Nintendo Switch)
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