Kingdom Hearts and rhythm games, historically speaking, do not get along. Rhythm-based mini-games have been featured in nearly every major KH release. They’ve all, well, sucked. They’ve also been underdeveloped, frustrating, and dull. The biggest offender is quite infamous among fans. The Atlantica world in Kingdom Hearts 2 took the form of one of the most obnoxious music games of all time. Which is to say that the prospect of Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory — a full-length musical rhythm game — is potentially troubling. If the announcement sent dread down into the dark part of your soul, that’s understandable.
And yet here we are; the next entry in the eclectic Kingdom Hearts franchise is Melody of Memory, a musical rhythm game set, apparently, inside the memories of Kairi, the most prominent girl in a series which habitually sidelines its women. Kairi is hunting for hints of where Sora has gone in the wake of Kingdom Hearts 3. That gives us as players a chance to reengage with moments from the history of the series. Just, you know, now in musical form.
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Square Enix recently gave us a chance to preview a demo of the game — which is now available on all the platforms the game is releasing on. That means the Nintendo Switch, the PlayStation 4, and the Xbox One. Now I’m happy to report the game is: not bad! The demo, which included four songs from the lengthy (and generally very good) audio back catalog the series had built up in the past couple of decades, showcases a simple but entertaining system that’s similar to any other music game out there. Except now it has a Kingdom Hearts sheen. Each song is actually a combat encounter, with the interactions taking the form of actions typical to Kingdom Hearts battles: slashing, dodging, casting magic, and gliding around like a very good child who quite likes her habitual viewing of Peter Pan at the end of the day.
What elevates Melody of Memory, and what might make this game actually worth playing for anyone beyond the obsessive lore nerds, is the secret greatest asset Kingdom Hearts has: Yoko Shimomura. The composer is one of the best in the business. She’s spent years perfecting a vibe and a style in the Kingdom Hearts games that’s nearly unrivaled. Her original compositions are baroque and emotive, ranging from dramatic to heartbreaking to sweetly warm. As a rhythm game, Melody of Memory is clearly going to lean on the simplistic side. But as a means through which fans and newcomers can experience Shimomura’s music — to shine closer attention on songs that you might not really get to focus on during the bombastic boss fights of the main series? It might be downright unrivaled.
I still have concerns, though. Is a team that historically bungled every rhythm game it’s ever attempted going to be able to create tracks that are eventful and fun, without being frustrating? And why does Kairi, the most continuously underserved character in the series, only get her first star turn in the story of an unexpected, musical side game? The most exciting thing Melody of Memory could do as a game would be to develop Kairi as a character. Give her something unique and striking to experience!
Nothing about the demo indicated one way or another if this game will hit those correct notes, though. Kairi might yet again end up a supporting character in her own game, if that, playing second fiddle to flashbacks and pretty songs. I really can’t say. What I do know, at least, is that the songs will be very good this time.