Review | Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory

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Before I discuss Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, I should make clear that I am not its intended audience. I’ve never played a Kingdom Hearts game, I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game, and I’ve had the minimum exposure to Disney that someone born in the 90s can possibly have. As such, I can only play and review MoM as a rhythm game, not as a Kingdom Hearts game. (I will mention the story later, however, because long-term KH fans will need to pay attention to this game’s ending).

MoM can be summarised as a controller-based rhythm game that takes players through songs from previous KH games in chronological order, including other spin-off games. The World Tour campaign features 140 songs across around 100 stages, and each stage is based on a location from a KH game. (Barely any Final Fantasy characters appear in MoM; its focus is on the Disney and Kingdom Hearts characters).

One of the most intriguing parts of MoM is how it approaches the core rhythm game task of hitting notes. The game’s layout during the tutorial and the early Field Battle stages suggests that its controls will be simple. Notes travel down the screen in three lanes, while three buttons can carry out regular attacks, so at first it feels like one button per lane is the way to go: LB for the left lane, A for the middle, and RB for the right lane. This works… for early songs on Beginner difficulty. After that point, the other mechanics kick in and make MoM about more than just memorisation.

An in-game screenshot set inside the world of Mulan.
As this level is based on Mulan’s world, it features Mulan as a guest party member.

The middle lane isn’t just for hitting notes, but also for jumping (the B button), aerial hits (B then any attack), special attacks (Y) and gliding along aerial strings of notes (holding B while steering with the left stick). Almost every button on a controller has a role in MoM, so remembering which button you need to press in any moment can be the most difficult aspect of the game to get used to.

For me, the user interface and the approach used in these Field Battle Stages was confusing at first. If you’re accustomed to games like Rock Band, where you hit notes presented on scrolling background as they cross a target close to your edge of the screen, you’ll miss plenty of notes when starting out in MoM. Your impulse to try and hit the notes as they get close to your team of characters is wrong: instead, you need to ignore your characters and look for a target circle that shrinks down to each note’s circle. Matching these circles is the goal – you’ll get Good, Excellent and flashy Rainbow Excellent ratings depending on how accurate your timing is.

While the idea of multiple buttons performing the same role is odd at first, it adds an unexpected form of flexibility to the game. The more you play MoM, the more you develop your own ways of hitting specific patterns. For example, I have to hit aerial enemies by pressing B then RB, even though they are in the middle lane; trying to use B then A results in me getting confused and subsequently trying to press A to jump.

Each on-screen note on a level is a relevant enemy from KH, and missing a note means you take damage from that enemy, up to the point of failing the song if you run out of health. These are both clever ways to ground MoM in its parent series, and using enemies rather than regular notes also makes it play differently from most rhythm games. In MoM, the enemies are moving targets. Enemies can run at different speeds in each lane and overtake each other, fly at you, or jump up and down through the track. However, MoM includes features that help players cut through the chaos. For me, the most useful adaptation is the line that connects notes which must be hit simultaneously. This helped me get to grips with the visual style by drawing my focus back to the circles and lines rather than the enemies. I’m also willing to bet that some of the hardest songs would be unreadable without these chord lines.

Playing the World Tour mode is the main way to unlock songs for casual and online play. In the World Tour mode, players progress through worlds of 1-3 songs. These worlds are grouped chronologically by the game they first appeared in; completing enough songs (and their associated challenges) in worlds from Kingdom Hearts opens the path to worlds from Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and to Kingdom Hearts II etc. While this structure makes sense and helps the game feel more like a dedicated journey through the series rather than a loose collection of songs, it creates the games’ biggest weakness; the early-game music is the least interesting part of the game.

After playing through the tutorial and the first few worlds of World Tour, MoM felt like an interesting idea for a rhythm game without the music to back it up (Existing KH fans can ignore this complaint, as the power of nostalgia will override this). However, my opinion quickly changed when I started playing online versus with Adoboros, who chose later-game songs that showed off the variety and quality of songs available. Tracks from the later games in the series are far more engaging and fun than songs from the early games. Dramatic and intense “fight music” like “Fight and Away” and “The 13th Struggle” are especially enjoyable, but I found the piano-led orchestral tracks surprisingly fun to play as well.

“Fight and Away” played by someone far more skilled than me!

Because the worlds are ordered chronologically, songs in the World Tour mode can vary in difficulty dramatically within adjacent worlds or even within the same world. MoM accounts for this well, by giving players plenty of information upfront so that they can choose the right difficulty for them on each song. Firstly, every song has a numerical rating from 1 (easiest) to 15 (hardest) which is independent of the three difficulty levels. For example, the simplest songs in the game reach around 8-9 on Proud difficulty, while more complex songs will be around 9-10 on Standard difficulty. This helps players compare the complexity of songs more directly; two songs with a rating of 9 will offer a similar challenge, even if one of those is on Standard and one is on Proud. Also, MoM offers a demonstration mode, where players can watch a song on any/all difficulties before playing it, to see what types of challenges that track will provide.

One feature which has not been thought through as deeply is the calibration option, which is unintuitive due to its poor UI. Rather than any kind of test track for calibration, there’s just a slider that goes from -15 to +15. This slider doesn’t provide any information about what these values mean nor any way to quickly check the effect of new values. (It turns out that – numbers make the music happen sooner than the visual cue, while + numbers push the music later than the visual cue).

An in-game screenshot of an "Event Music" stage. In these stages, the gameplay requires one music lane rather than three.
Event Music stages have a more familiar interface and are accompanied by scenes from their KH game.

Alongside the regular stages, two other stage varieties appear in Melody of Memory. In the Event Music stages and Memory Dive stages, players fly in front of pre-rendered scenes from KH games. These stages have only three kinds of notes: red notes (press an attack button), green notes (hold an attack button then release it at the right time), and yellow notes (press one or both analogue sticks in the indicated direction). Boss Battle segments use the same interface, but take place during a battle instead – in this mode, your performance affects how much damage the boss character will do to you in each section of the song. As these stages have fewer inputs, they might be a good way for players to familiarise themselves with the game or to jump up to the next difficulty.

MoM also includes difficulty adjustments and in-game safety net items to help players approach individual songs, and the game overall, in a way that works for them. The songs don’t just have three available difficulties, but also three available input modes, making nine possible versions of each song. The “One Button” mode lets players perform every action with any attack button, which is useful for players who are struggling with jumping between all of the face buttons. On the other hand, the “Performer” mode adds extra targets to a track, such as analogue stick directions and left/right trigger hits. Performer mode is for players who find that the maximum Proud difficulty just isn’t complicated enough to learn; it takes so much dexterity that even though I can pass most songs on Proud, I can’t pass any songs on Proud+Performer.

The safety net items are also grounded in the KH series – items such as health-restoring potions are crafted from materials established in past games. After completing each song and each world, players receive various types of Shards and Gems. These are used to craft potions, EXP boosters, new songs, and collectible cards. Players can also convert Shards into other types of crafting materials, and even into Gems that make other crafted materials more effective or less costly to craft. This sounds like overkill – I’ve never played a rhythm game with 18 different crafting materials before, and I doubt I’ll see one again – but players who just want to unlock all of the songs and grab some basic potions won’t need to delve deeply into the crafting system.

Moogles are the only trace of Final Fantasy visible in this game.

MoM offers split-screen co-op play as well as competitive online play. In split-screen, players work together to complete a song, while competitive online play is a head-to-head score battle with some form of numerical skill rating. (However, the online player-base is so small that these numbers aren’t much use at the moment). Split-screen is a much more limited mode, with a smaller tracklist of around 25 songs, and a reduced set of note types that make the tracks far simpler than single-player tracks. Online play also features the option to enable “tricks”, which are power ups that work like the battle mode in Guitar Hero III.

Finally, I’ll come back to the story of Kingdom Hearts, and how MoM connects to the series. MoM is set after the end of Kingdom Hearts III, and takes place from the viewpoint of partial-protagonist Kairi. During MoM, Kairi recalls and narrates the events of the existing Kingdom Hearts series. These cutscenes should be an effective recap for existing KH fans who have played at least a few previous games. (Given that the series takes place over nearly 20 real-life years, and across multiple console families, recaps are required!). However, I don’t think MoM is a good introduction to KH as a whole. Seeing such small chunks of story means that a new player would have to already know about in-world concepts like the Heartless and Nobodies, as well as knowing about the series’ emphasis on hearts, alternate worlds, and the way multiple characters can be formed from one character, to make sense of the story as it’s presented here.

However, MoM is not just a recap, and this is only revealed at the end of World Tour. After completing the last of the Kingdom Hearts III worlds, a new section opens up. This section contains around 20 minutes of new cutscenes that go beyond the story of Kingdom Hearts III and provide new information that fans of the series will need in future.

Overall

So far I’ve played MoM for around 15 hours, which included reaching the end of the World Tour mode, playing a few hours of online VS, and trying out local co-op.

While I enjoyed Melody of Memory’s gameplay and found its style of controls interesting, I initially didn’t enjoy the available music. However, just a small amount of progress in World Tour opened up the songs that let the game be at its best. Its control scheme grew on me too; once I got more familiar with it I appreciated that changing the way I approached pressing certain patterns could make the difference between me getting them right or not.

The way that MoM handles difficulty adjustments, optional support items and giving players information is excellent, as it lets the game be enjoyed by people at pretty much any skill level- from KH fans who wouldn’t normally play rhythm games, to people who excel at the hardest modes of similar games.

For me, Melody of Memory is in my Cool tier, but that’s mostly because of its retail price – I borrowed the game and grew to really like it, but only after I’d played it for a few hours and experienced some of its high points earlier than I would have been able to as a solo player. If borrowing the game wasn’t an option, then the demo alone would not have convinced me to buy this game at its £50 RRP.

If you’re a KH series fan and you want to keep up to date with the overarching story, you’ll either need to play this game or find a video of the ending online. If you’re a rhythm game fan who is after a new challenge, then I’d recommend Melody of Memory if you can find it on sale, due to its novel approach to rhythm game track design, its varied tracklist, and its large selection of ways to adjust the game to you want to be challenged.

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