An outward observer of the Kingdom Hearts series might notice that the “third” entry in the series just came out last year, but while Kingdom Hearts III is the third mainline entry in the series, there are nearly 20 years of side-stories, remakes, and awkwardly-numbered prequels spanning a whole array of game consoles that make up the twisted tapestry of the Kingdom Hearts series.
Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory is the latest part of the constantly evolving universe of this wild series. More importantly, though, it’s a celebration and compilation of years of Kingdom Hearts history for diehard fans to dig into, and in that regard, the game delivers in spades.
This isn’t developer Square Enix’ first rodeo when it comes to rhythm game spinoffs from prestigious JRPG franchises. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy and the unlocalized Theatrhythm Dragon Quest were musical celebrations of each series that packed in as much music and as many cutesy chibi characters as possible, while also sprinkling in some light JRPG mechanics to encourage progression. Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory borrows a bit from the DNA of those games, but while you’ll see adorable little versions of your characters during loading screens, the game itself goes to great lengths to look and feel like the actual 3D Kingdom Hearts games that each song comes from.
You’re hitting buttons in rhythm with the music, sure, but you’re not just matching up with colored notes on a track highway. Sora, Donald, and Goofy automatically run down a vertical lane while enemies and items come towards you, and you’ll need to hit buttons to smack enemies away, pick up lightning attacks, and soar through the air in time to the tunes. At first, it’s a tricky sort of rhythm system to adjust to. Without direct and obvious incoming notes to react to, you’re instead forced to learn the animations and placements of the various enemies to help you react in time. Once you get used to it this can be incredibly fun and rewarding, but a few elements like the jump-indicators for mid-air enemies still catch me out now and then.
The dedication to the aesthetic of the games runs deep, and it adds so much to the experience of the game. Each song you play comes from a specific world in a certain Kingdom Hearts game, and everything from the background environment to the enemies that appear on the stage will reflect that. New characters will even pop into your crew, including Disney guest characters when you’re playing tracks from worlds like Aladdin or The Nightmare Before Christmas, for example. Being immersed in the sights that go alongside the sounds is great, but it also ends up highlighting the random pockets of missing musical history in the game. Kingdom Hearts III suffers the most, with barely any music featured from that game at all, and the most iconic tracks from a few side games have also gone missing.
You wouldn’t discover this right away, though, as there isn’t a traditional free-play mode with the entire tracklist to start with. Instead, you’ll have to play through the World Tour campaign in order to unlock and experience each song in turn. This is also where the brand new story elements of the game live, but don’t get your hopes too high about that. Despite trailers for Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory teasing this as Kairi’s big solo adventure, she is (as usual) barely a factor in the story. She simply narrates brief recaps of story scenes from the previous games in the series, so you won’t even be playing as her throughout the entire campaign. Kairi still plays a key role in the new story content, which does a very exciting job of clearly setting up the next chapter of the Kingdom Hearts story, but this juicy lore only comes at the very end of the game, so you’ll be playing through 5-10 hours of World Tour before seeing any new info.
At the very least, the World Tour is a fun time. You explore a huge and winding overworld map made up of countless themed mini-worlds where each song lives, and you’re tasked with completing challenges in order to unlock gates to new worlds and even obtain collectible memento cards. Challenges give a decent incentive to give your all during songs, but they’re usually simple and repetitive “complete the stage with X% of health” or “hit X number of flying enemies” challenges that won’t pose much of a threat unless you’re playing on Proud mode. Item crafting gets introduced at a certain point in the story, but with so many challenges tasking you with completing a song without using items, I was way more incentivised to ignore the system than I was to make use of it.