Aside from Tetsuya Nomura, one of the names that crops up most often when discussing Kingdom Hearts is Yoko Shimomura. It’s for good reason – her music for the series is famous enough to have been featured on Classic FM’s Hall of Fame list, and catchy enough that you’ll often fail to finish any game in the series without at least one of her tracks being stuck in your head for weeks. After 18 years of musical build-up, Square Enix has finally crafted a rhythm game to celebrate Shimomura’s talents with Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory.
Melody of Memory attempts to combine the combat loop of Kingdom Hearts with the musical timing of a rhythm game and a dash of auto-runner, and from what I’ve experienced so far, the seemingly disparate gameplay styles blend wonderfully.
In the upcoming spin-off – although the always-canon nature of the series means every spin-off is essential – the player must control Sora, Donald and Goofy simultaneously as they battle Heartless, jump over enemy attacks and glide through the air as they travel across a predetermined route around familiar environments from past games in the series – all to the rhythm of the area’s associated music. Who wants to visit Olympus again?
The main challenge of the game comes from having to control three characters at once. The famously unreliable AI of Donald and Goofy from previous games have been banished in favour of giving the player full control over the trio. This is obviously a necessary change for a gameplay style that requires far more precision than a real-time RPG, although one wonders if Square/Disney finally got sick of all the “Donald is useless” memes.
Controlling the whole trio at once is often simpler than it sounds – on easier difficulties the player will only need to focus one or two ground enemies at a time. However, there are times when the gameplay becomes more challenging, such as when Sora needs to cast magic or glide while Donald and Goofy continue to attack Heartless on the ground. There’s an asynchronocity to the gameplay that’s hard to master, but satisfying when/if you do.
Melody of Memory is shaping up to be a fantastic celebration of Kingdom Hearts’ musical history
In the demo I played there were three gameplay difficulties to choose from: beginner, standard and proud (no sign of critical mode as of yet), as well as the option to watch a demo of the level being controlled perfectly by the AI. Beginner mode serves as a perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with either rhythm games, Kingdom Hearts games, or both. However, I have a feeling that most players will soon upgrade to the more challenging difficulty levels.
Another difference between the difficulty levels is that the lower levels tend to have you playing the rhythm of the music, whereas the higher levels have you playing the melody lines of the music more often. The higher the difficulty, the more it feels like you’re playing the music – and the more fun the game becomes.
Standard mode offers the experience most players will be comfortable with, while proud mode offers a challenge that only the most experienced and dedicated players will enjoy. Overall, the difficulty seems well-balanced, and players can see their scores for all the difficulty modes for each level, as well as a “Full Chain” medal(which can be earned by completing a level without missing a single enemy) or an “All Excellent” medal (which can be earned by hitting every enemy with excellent timing, with no misses).
Melody of Memory wouldn’t be a Kingdom Hearts game without an RPG levelling system. For each of the playable characters your stats, such as HP and strength, can be increased by gaining experience points through completing levels. This seemed to have no real effect on my short playthrough, but it remains to be seen if this has a greater effect in the full game. Also featured, but inaccessible in the demo, is an item system where you can choose to take consumable items into a level for extra benefits.
For the most part, it seems that the music (as well as the assets) for this game is recycled from the current-gen remakes of the previous games, but that’s by no means a criticism. This means the fully-orchestrated versions of the soundtracks are being used, and they sound as gorgeous as ever; the high audio quality of the soundtrack really makes the game feel like more than just a rhythm game, but moreso a gleeful celebration of the series’ past as the long-running series moves into its second phase. Even the title screen – which plays a new, jazzy rendition of Dearly Beloved – adds to the celebratory theme of the game. I’d recommend headphones for the best experience, but standard TV speakers are more than enough for the average playthrough without the player suffering any gameplay disadvantages. I’ve been waiting a long time for a rhythm-based Kingdom Hearts game, but it feels like the wait might have been worth it.
Melody of Memory offers multiple different gameplay styles such as an accessibility-friendly One Button mode (which simplifies the gameplay dramatically and removes the challenge of controlling all three characters separately) and Performer mode (which adds extra button prompts to the levels for more complexity). I personally wasn’t a fan of either additional modes, since one had the effect of over-simplifying the gameplay, while the other over-complicated the gameplay. For my play style, standard mode seems to be the sweet spot for now.
Overall, Melody of Memory is shaping up to be a fantastic celebration Kingdom Hearts’ musical history – and it’s not like the franchise has ever waited for an excuse like an anniversary to celebrate itself. It seems to be hitting a middle ground of both rhythm game and action RPG that fans of both genres will be able to enjoy. If the story is as excellent as the gameplay, it could turn out to be one of the better spin-offs in the series history. At least the title is easy to remember this time.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory will have a free demo released tomorrow on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.