After two iterations of Theatrhythm Final Fantasy and Theatrhythm Dragon Quest, it was only a matter of time before Kingdom Hearts got its own rhythm game spinoff. Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is that game, and though it doesn’t carry “Theatrhythm” in its name, the legacy of those other games is strong—both in Melody of Memory‘s rhythm systems and in how it celebrates the Kingdom Hearts series through its music.
The Theatrhythm games took creative influence from their RPG roots in how they approached the basic rhythm game setup of pressing buttons in time to music. All three battles split their levels between “field” and “battle” stages: field stages saw you leading a party across an expanse of terrain by following a path of note markers, and battle stages had your party attacking foes by striking not markers flowing across the screen, in either classic Final Fantasy side-on battle formation or classic first-person Dragon Quest view. All three games also mixed in an RPG meta system that saw you levelling up characters over the course of the game, unlocking new characters and collectibles in the process.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory follows the same principle, but it’s drawing from a 3D action RPG series, resulting in an approach to level design that is, at least superficially, quite different to the Theatrhythm games. There’s no longer a distinction between field and battle stages; almost all stages are field stages, which now combine “exploring” and combat in the way that Kingdom Hearts does. Each level sees your party of three running along a track that weaves through a diorama of the location the level is based on, with enemies and barrels popping up along the course accompanied by note markers. Different marks determine your action in that moment—a basic attack, a special move, a jump to dodge an attack or strike an airborne foe, a glide sequence—and together, all these actions form a map of the music track you’re playing.
Melody of Memory also mixes things up with the occasional boss level, which mostly follows the same format but takes place in an arena with the note markers travelling towards you. Your party fights automatically in the background to the rhythm track, but performing well on a section results in your squad successfully blocking one of the boss’s special attacks.
The fundamental rhythm mechanics don’t really change through all of this—you’re still, at the basic level, pressing buttons in time to the music—but how that is contextualised is key. In Melody of Memory, the action is visually reminiscent of the Kingdom Hearts games it’s based on, with a 3D, over-the-shoulder perspective and your party fighting and dodging in “real-time”.
For the most part, that works wonderfully—Melody of Memory looks and feels like a rhythm game version of Kingdom Hearts, which is clearly the goal. That said, the 3D, third-person perspective can occasionally be a nuisance, with bigger models obscuring the things coming along the track behind them and perspective sometimes making it hard to quickly visually identify how an upcoming string of foes will map to beat. The note markers are always visible over the 3D models and have a Project DIVA-style shrinking ring as a guide for timing, which can help to alleviate those issues, but the markers don’t appear until just before their corresponding button is meant to be pressed. As a consequence, Melody of Memory tends to rely heavily on familiarity with the music and rhythm game instinct, even on its easier levels.
How much enjoyment you find in Melody of Memory is really going to come down to how much you like Kingdom Hearts music in the first place. With 140-odd tracks in the game spanning the full history of the series, there’s plenty of music to spend your time mastering, including a handful of licensed Disney classics like “Circle of Life”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “A Whole New World” (“Let it Go” is also there). Personally, the track listing is a bit hit and miss for me—outside of a handful of pieces, I don’t find Kingdom Hearts music nearly as memorable as its Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest counterparts. Your mileage may vary, and the very premise of Melody of Memory as a whole means it’s going to appeal more to the people who already have that established connection with the Kingdom Hearts soundtracks.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory also has a meta RPG system running alongside its core rhythm game, though it’s a much lighter touch than that of the Theatrhythm games. As you play, your party earns experience and levels up, but those gains in strength don’t really have any impact on the game other than giving you a bit more leeway to make mistakes. Higher HP and defence means you can weather more misses before failing a track, and higher strength makes you more able to stun big foes—thus avoiding any damage if you miss any later hits on that particular enemy.
None of this really impacts the central goal of trying to perfectly hit every note in a track, though, which can make the whole levelling system feel a bit redundant. Contrast this with the Theatrhythm games—Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call in particular—which used their RPG systems to augment the rhythm game in much more meaningful ways through all manner of unlockables that were directly tied to your party’s strength. Melody of Memories‘ lack of the same doesn’t undermine the core appeal of the game, but it feels like a missed opportunity all the same.
That’s not to say Melody of Memory doesn’t have its own assortment of collectibles to find. There’s a museum full of artwork, videos, and the like spanning the full Kingdom Hearts history, which you’ll gradually unlock as you play through the game and gather materials for crafting. It’s still a celebration of Kingdom Hearts, after all, and even as someone who isn’t a massive fan—I love the first game, liked the second a lot, but dropped off after that—Melody of Memory still manages to constantly make me want to go back and replay the whole series.
If nothing else, it makes me want to at least try to understand the famously convoluted overarching Kingdom Hearts story. The main story mode in Melody of Memory—through which you have to unlock most of the tracks before you can play them in other modes—is basically a summary of each Kingdom Hearts game, but without going into any real detail. If you’re already well-versed in Kingdom Hearts lore, this can be a handy way to revisit what you already know, but don’t expect to clear up any burning questions you might have or quickly fill in the blanks from a game or two that you missed.
In short, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is a game that does well what it sets out to do: celebrate the Kingdom Hearts series through its music. It’s got an impressive track-list and a solid rhythm action core to go with it, though it lacks some of the bells and whistles that the Theatrhythm games before it had. If you’re not already a big fan of Kingdom Hearts (or at least, its music), it might be a bit more difficult to connect with Melody of Memory, but for fans of Sora, Donald, and Goofy’s adventures, this is a great way to relive them.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is developed and published by Square Enix. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.