Keys, music, and I guess maybe a little bit of story, too.
Kingdom Hearts is a truly bizarre piece of the gaming landscape; on paper, this series about anime teenagers visiting worlds from various Disney films really shouldn’t exist. Yet, surprisingly, it does, and even more surprisingly it has some of the best selections of music in video games, largely composed by industry legend Yoko Shimomura. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest had already gotten the rhythm game treatment in the form of the Theatrhythm series, and many had been asking for years when Kingdom Hearts would get its turn. Enter Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, the first game in the franchise to be on Switch and exactly what fans of Shimomura’s work had been asking for for years. Was it worth the wait? I certainly think it was.
Melody of Memory is a rhythm game built around a library of music from throughout the series history, from 2002’s Kingdom Hearts to 2019’s Kingdom Hearts III. Gameplay is split into three types of levels, with the most common being field levels. While playing a field level, the three members of your team will walk along a path as enemies appear in front of them. Pressing A, L, or R will make one of your characters attack the enemy, and sometimes you’ll have to hit two or even all three buttons at once to defeat a group. As you walk you will run into ability crystals, activated by pressing X. You will also encounter arrows informing you that you are about to have to jump with B, with red arrows indicating you have to jump over an attack, blue arrows indicating you have to jump to hit an airborne enemy, and green arrows indicating you are entering a gliding section. You can glide by holding B and using the left stick to collect green musical notes along a track. It’s a good thing that this is the most common type of level, because it’s honestly the most fun to play.
The other two types of level are boss battles and “Memory Dives,” which both play similarly. All the same controls apply as with field levels, with the addition of directional notes that require you to flick the left or right stick (sometimes both) in a certain direction. In boss battles, the notes will come in from the side as your team fights in the background. At certain points in the song, notes with a dark aura will begin to appear, meaning the boss is about to perform a special attack. How much of this attack your team will dodge is based on how well you hit these notes. I personally found boss battles to be entertaining, but not nearly as fun as field levels. Memory Dives are similar to boss battles, but the differences between the two are enough to make Memory Dives by far the weakest level type. Controls are completely identical, but instead of coming from the side notes come from in front of you, with a camera angle that not only is constantly shifting but also makes it hard to gauge timing. These levels are accompanied by a pre-rendered video that plays in the background, and sometimes these videos cause the notes to blend in with the background, making it even harder to see what’s happening.
The standout feature of Melody of Memory is obviously the musical selection, containing tracks from Kingdom Hearts, Re:Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts II, 358/2 Days, Re:Coded, Birth by Sleep, Dream Drop Distance, and even the recently released Kingdom Hearts III. Songs can be unlocked for free play either by completing the World Tour mode or by creating them through the synthesis menu. For the most part, the tracklist hits all of the right beats, but there are some notable omissions. For instance, there is a complete lack of anything from the worlds based on Tarzan or Pirates of the Caribbean. Each world in the game has a normal track and battle track associated with it, sometimes multiple, with the exception being the selection from Kingdom Hearts III, which I can only describe as disappointing. Not only is there only one song from each world, but a majority of them are Memory Dive levels, implying the team simply didn’t have time to put together the assets to let you play these songs in field mode. Bizarrely enough, one of the songs missing is even Face My Fears, the opening of KH III, despite the fact that the other games’ openings and even III’s credits theme, Don’t Think Twice, are in the game.
There are four teams you can play as, with each playing identically: Team Classic (Sora, Donald, Goofy), Team Days (Roxas, Axel, Xion), Team 3D (Riku, Dream Eaters), and Team BBS (Aqua, Terra, Ventus). One of the missed opportunities lies in their appearances, as there are no alternate costumes to be found in Melody of Memory. Sora is stuck in his KH1 costume, Riku is stuck in his Dream Drop costume, and Roxas never leaves his Organization cloak. Even when going to worlds where traditionally a costume change occurs (such as Halloween Town or The Pride Lands), those default appearances still stay the same. I feel like alternate costumes would have added to the game’s charm, and I’m not sure why they’re not in there considering a bulk of the game is reused assets in the first place and especially since the teams are already cosmetic in nature. The last small disappointment is the story content, which is potentially a big factor on fans’ minds. I regret to inform you that the amount of new story is negligible, clocking in at maybe 25 minutes, and even getting to see any of it requires you to spend upwards of 9 hours in the World Tour mode. If you’re planning on buying this game just for the story, you should probably give it a pass.
All that being said, despite those small disappointments, Melody of Memory is a fantastic rhythm game that is heavily bolstered if you already have a love for these soundtracks. Not only that, there are two types of multiplayer. VS can be played locally between two Switches, online, or against a CPU, but this mode is honestly not that fun. The co-op mode more than makes up for this, however, featuring levels custom made for local two-player action that is incredibly well implemented. If you like Kingdom Hearts, and you like the music of Yoko Shimomura, I would personally call Melody of Memory a must buy. Just don’t expect to find a blowout story reveal buried in this title, and you should find yourself bopping along to the rhythm and having fun in no time.