It should come at no surprise that Square Enix produced a music/rhythm game based on Kingdom Hearts. This is a pool Square Enix has dipped into multiple times already, and frankly it’s more surprising it didn’t happen sooner. Part of that is the concept of a Kingdom Hearts “spinoff” really doesn’t have a definition, since Literally Everything is Canon. That’s true in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory as well. Despite largely being a Cliff Notes-style recap of pretty much the entire series’ plot to date, Melody of Memory does a lot to look and feel like a unique experience. And as fans will expect, the ending is absolutely bonkers.

As a music game, there are similarities between Melody of Memory, and Square Enix’s earlier Theatrhythm series. This is likely due to the partner dev studio being the same, as many concepts are inherited here. For example, music stages are split up to represent different aspects of the Kingdom Hearts games, from explorative combat sequences, to boss fights and even cutscenes. Each type of level has its own style, ranging from the player’s visual perspective to the kinds of inputs needed to clear notes.

What really sets Melody of Memory apart is that it’s either running with the same toolset as the Kingdom Hearts HD releases, or at the very least shares assets. While Theatrythm had its own look and feel, this game is more like the systems of Kingdom Hearts adapted to a music game, rather than the other way around. Your characters are running down a track to face familiar enemies, and everything from the animations to the kinds of abilities you see are ripped right out of the game.

It is still a music game, though. So while Sora and company are bashing bad guys PlayStation 2 style, your involvement is making sure they do so in timing along with the music. Different note styles require different actions, from basic attacks to jumping and even flying sequences. 

The look of the game is jarring at first, since the models and action almost feel divorced from the gameplay due to the contrast in style and/or fidelity. But once you get more of a feel for what’s happening, and the timing to do well, the input and visuals come together more than they might at first. That said, while the prompts do exactly what they say they do, there are a couple of major issues that keep this game from being as great as it could be.

For one, since we’re talking about prompt icons over literal Kingdom Hearts action, sometimes all the movement and visual effects can make it difficult to see! This is especially true when the note charts get a little more complicated and the game tries to trip you up with tricky placement. This isn’t common, but it’s really annoying when it happens! Part of the issue seems to be the size of the prompts, which are also ripped from the Kingdom Hearts UI. The basic attack being the tiny, yellow lock-on icon from the original game makes it super hard to see when a bunch of explosions and wiggling Heartless are covering the tracks.

Related: Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory Demo Impressions | Gawrsh!

The other problem, and this is a lot more subjective, is the music itself. Most of the music is in its original form, with a few arrangements here and there. The music is good, but a lot of times it just doesn’t lend itself well to this format. It feels like, just from playing it, the note charting was difficult to get right. I found myself having to listen harder and focus on the prompts more than usual in this genre, due to the more whimsical, multi-layered faux-orchestra style Kingdom Hearts is scored with. The charts will quickly change which layer or instrument they represent without warning, and music like this isn’t always held up with a leading tune.

In contrast, much of Final Fantasy’s music still has that core tune in each song, driving the whole thing. It’s an evolution of Nobuo Uematsu’s music starting on the Famicom, likely, but it feels like that’s the main distinction. Yoko Shimamura’s Kingdom Hearts score is good stuff, but it’s also a lot more sophisticated or complex, making it translate clumsily to this genre at times. It also makes the difficulty balancing feel off, or even nonexistent. One moment a song will be full of tough calls and timing, only for the next one to be a slower tempo with extremely easy notes to hit.

That said, the game itself seems to compensate for these issues. Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory has a ton of different difficulty options, and doesn’t pass/fail you based on your straight up performance. You control one of a few available teams of three, and you actually go about leveling them up and improving their stats. When you miss a note you take damage, but there are items and other ways to get by even if you’re struggling. All you need to do is survive, and you can make your way through the story mode at least.

And making your way through story mode is interesting. There’s a big ol’ Gummi map comprising the different games in the series, unlocked world by world. Each stop has one or two songs, and you’ll occasionally run into a lock. Some locks just require beating levels, but others require a number of stars. Stars come from a set of three missions in each level, mobile game-style. These add some meta-level goals to each level beyond just score-chasing or survival. You’ll be tasked with hitting certain percentages of note styles, doing a cumulative number of specific actions (requiring replays), and even swapping the difficulty up or down. In this way, Melody of Memory feels like more than just a tracklist, and had me thinking about the framework differently than I expected.

Speaking of framework, we’re going to rub up against some spoilers here but it’s important to mention the story’s framing here. At the end of Kingdom Hearts III, Sora did that thing where he zaps his own heart to revive someone else again. It’s a bigger deal than ever though, and after spending some final moments with Kairi he fades away to… somewhere. Melody of Memory takes place after that, with Kairi having her memories analyzed in an attempt to figure out where Sora is. Thus, all the recap stuff through the story is told by Kairi. 

This doesn’t really mean anything until the very end of the story. You don’t even get a setup of the premise when you start the game for the first time. Then, in true Kingdom Hearts fashion, the ending sequence is a massive, expository lore dump. There are hints at possible revelations, and even some minor stage-setting for whatever game comes next. It’s kind of hilarious how much this stuff clashes with its tribute-like musical focus, since the game doesn’t really seem to care until you get to the final level. As far as what is contained here, it really depends on what your expectations with this series are. I was tickled, but others will likely be confused, angry, disappointed, stoked, or all of the above. It’s a very Kingdom Hearts ending.

Related: How to Play Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory 

I really just wanted to sit down with Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory and let its Kingdom Heartiness wash over me. If it ended up being a good music game or gracefully tied into the series those would have been bonus. Instead I got what I was expecting; a combination of strange framework, creative but flawed gameplay, and some truly jarring, self-indulgent sequel setup at the end. I had a fun time with the music, and am set up for whatever’s next without needing to maintain a bunch of YouTube bookmarks. Mission accomplished.

Pros:

  • Unique gameplay ideas
  • Cool arrangements and surprising music inclusions
  • Fun story mode structure

Cons:

  • Music doesn't always translate well to the genre
  • Visual noise can make notes hard to see
  • Messily-implemented framing device

Score: 8

A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review