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May 2021

Kingdom Hearts Melody Of Memory

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Rhythm
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: March 30, 2021


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PC Review - 'Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory'

by Cody Medellin on April 21, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Featuring over 140 musical tracks and 20 characters from throughout the series, Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory is a rhythm-action game that provides fans with an unmissable opportunity to relive their favorite moments like never before.

Buy Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory

With the duo of Theatrhythm Final Fantasy games, Square Enix was able to take the familiar scenarios and music from its headline RPG series and put it into a rhythm game format. It might seem like an odd pairing to rhythm game fans, who are used to the genre being taken over by licensed creations fitting more popular genres of music, but it was the kind of game that hardcore Final Fantasy fans didn't know they wanted. Seeing how well it worked, Square Enix decided to repeat the trick, this time using another series that has garnered worldwide acclaim with Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory.

Melody of Memory starts off with gameplay where you control Sora as he flies down a winding path of notes while the game's famous "Simple and Clean" by Hikaru Utada plays along in video form. You can use any button to hit these notes, but unlike most rhythm games, you don't have an ever-present marker to let you know where your hit area is. Instead, in a style similar to Osu, the note you're supposed to hit next will get a circle over it once it becomes eligible to hit, and more points are gained if you tap the button just as the circle goes perfectly over the note. Arrows eventually come into play, where you need to hit the necessary directional button to capture it. The good news is that all of the note hits can be done with one button of your choosing, and other familiar rhythm game elements, like sustained notes, are still present.

Throwing the player straight into the fire like that while asking them to discover the controls by themselves may seem cruel to those who are used to the modern gaming blueprint of beginning with a tutorial, but that is forgotten once you discover that your performance in this opening level doesn't officially count. Win or lose, you'll always reach the title screen without a reminder of how good or bad you did. That news might come as a relief to those who were distracted by the movie that plays at the beginning, which ends up being a supercut intro to some of the major events in the series.

After this, Melody of Memory goes into a proper tutorial that asks players to throw away everything discovered from the cold opening except for the basic note and ring system. Instead of constantly flying through the air in a zigzag pattern, the trio of Donald, Goofy and Sora marches down a pathway that may curve around but is always located in the center of the screen. You now have three note buttons to hit, and regardless of the lane the notes appear in, any button can be used to hit the note, a rule that applies whether you're hitting one, two, or three simultaneous notes. Notes are now denoted by the various Heartless minions from the games, each one coming toward you at various speeds that keep time with the major song beats.

Arrows are no longer tied to your movement but indicate whether you need to jump before hitting a note or slide to avoid enemy projectiles. Sustained notes have you flying in the air, where you can use your movement buttons to collect notes while you hit another button to hit special crystals that unleash magic spells on enemies. Failure occurs if you miss enough notes to drain the energy meter to zero. It sounds complicated on paper, but the system is easy to grasp in practice, but it's a mystery why the initial rhythm system is introduced so early when you're rarely going to use it.

From here, the campaign flow will feel familiar to rhythm game fans. There are three difficulty levels; the highest level provides more notes, and some notes require tapping a different set of buttons. Each level features one or two songs, and each song has three different goals, such as reaching a certain score, hitting a specific chain count, or breaking all of the objects on the ground. Beating each goal yields stars, and getting enough stars unlocks another set of levels that can be played in any order. Beating each level also gives you other items that can be used for crafting, which can come in handy since the game adopts RPG elements such as leveling up. You can use some items during a level to increase the amount of XP gained or buff up defenses to withstand more note misses before taking a loss.

Like the series, Melody of Memory also sports boss fights at key moments, and this is where the rhythm mechanics change once again by blending both of the earlier styles. There's full-on gameplay happening in the background, while the note highway ends up in the bottom right of the screen with a more definitive hit line. The notes take on properties of the campaign runs, while the arrows take on the properties of the game's opening level. This time, you can have two arrows at the same time, which necessitates hitting two of the movement buttons for that direction or flicking both analog sticks toward the arrow's direction. Just like that opening level, the boss fights playing in the background can be distracting, since you'll be tempted to watch the action. Beyond that, the fights aren't more difficult than the rest of the game.

If you're a fan of the series, you'll love the presentation. There's a bunch of little details, such as the fact that you're flying around the galaxy in a gummi ship or that most of the Heartless are dressed up or transformed to match the level's theme. The Disney levels mean that you'll fight alongside Peter Pan or Beast, and even though the levels are a loop of significant areas from the main games, they look rather nice. Later on, you can switch out your team for trios from other Kingdom Hearts titles, and fans will get a kick out of the loading screen, which shows the heroes in a style akin to the company's other rhythm game series, Theatrhythm. Undoubtedly, the star of the game is the soundtrack, and while some of the songs may be too mellow when paired with the on-screen action, everything else fits perfectly. Even the harshest of series critics would admit that the soundtrack is a highlight.

Those same fans will be the first to note some of the game's oddities. For one, the XP system seems to be superficial. Defense aside, none of the other stats seem to make a difference, so playing a level when your party is level 50 doesn't seem that different from playing that same level when the party is at level 5. The same goes for the different parties you can helm, so beyond being forced to play with certain characters in some segments, there's no motivation to change from the default crew of Donald, Goofy and Sora, with some special guest characters occasionally subbing in. The theming for Sora and company is also missing, so that'll disappoint those who were hoping to see them dress up in a way to match the world.

For those who are more into rhythm games than Kingdom Hearts, other issues will rear their heads. While the songs are great, they were clearly designed to be looped instead of having definitive beginnings and endings. Fitting them into a rhythm game means that you'll hear the track play twice before it fades away to end the level. It works similar to the likes of Taiko no Tatsujin and Dance Dance Revolution, but those games could always fall back on not tiring out the player via physical activity as a reason for their tracks ending midway. This title doesn't have that luxury.

Due to the lack of significance in leveling up, crafting loses all of its appeal until you realize that it is another method to gain more songs that can't be added by beating a level. The cut scenes that summarize some of the big story beats do so in such a broad manner that newcomers will have a tough time getting up to speed. There's also no introduction to the story, so unless you've beaten Kingdom Hearts III, you have no idea why Kairi is narrating a retelling of these events. Oddly, I did experience some moments when I was playing with a controller and some button presses weren't recognized during songs, leading to missing some easy hits. Whether this is a wider issue is unknown, but it is something to look out for if you want to complete each song with a full chain combo.

The campaign is the game's main focus, but getting through the episodes related to the first Kingdom Hearts titles opens up all of the other modes. Museum is self-explanatory, as you can view the artwork and movies you've unlocked and listen to the songs you've played through. Track Selection gives you the chance to replay any unlocked song for a better score. Boss Fights and Field Battles — the names given to the levels where you run across a track — are present, but what will interest people the most are the Memory Dives. Whether you unlock them via normal progression or through crafting, these songs are essentially music videos that you play using the rhythm mechanics from the opening level, complete with a tutorial. For fans, this is the only way to check out some of the tracks from the Square Enix orchestral albums, the vocal recordings of some of the Disney songs in the series like "A Whole New World," and the trio of tracks from Utada Hikaru that served as the opening themes in the mainline games.

For multiplayer fans, the co-op mode lets you and a friend tackle a different playlist of songs together. Since both players occupy lanes normally reserved for a trio of characters, it is easier to focus on your own notes, whether or not they need to be hit in tandem with your partner. The mode is local-only, which might seem like a missed opportunity until you see that no one is online in the other multiplayer mode, versus, so you're stuck playing against CPU opponents. It may be fine if you're trying to unlock everything in the gallery, but it quickly gets old.

As for PC specifics, there are a few surprises in tow. Despite having a sparse options menu with no formal support for ultrawide resolutions, the game has frame rate caps of 60fps, 120fps, and one that matches your monitor's refresh rate. Keyboard controls are also present for solo and co-op play. They're also fully customizable, which is a boon when compared to the gamepad, where you can change the button graphics to match the Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch, but you can only change the functionality of the Accept button in menus.

Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is really for the existing fans of the series. The recap of the series thus far isn't enough to get people caught up on what's going on without losing lots of detail in the process. The rhythm mechanics are good, but they have a learning curve regarding the hit area and which system you're working with, not to mention the occasional moments when the game can drop inputs. However, the music fits well with the rhythm game mechanics, even if it isn't laid out in a way that genre fans would expect, and the catalog of over 140 songs will keep players engaged even before we even consider the two multiplayer modes. Overall, it's worth checking out as a companion piece to the main games rather than as an essential primer.

Score: 7.5/10

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