Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory hands-on preview

By Luke Albigés,
Want to hear the most Kingdom Hearts thing ever? The best way to understand the franchise's convoluted narrative is soon going to be 'play this weird music game.' Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory serves as a celebration of the series as much as it does a recap, featuring over 140 music tracks from across all the games to play through, as Kairi reflects on and narrates the events of the mainline games. While we haven't seen much of that side of things outside of a couple of trailers, we have at least been able to try out the gameplay across a few different modes, and come bearing glad tidings — it's great fun, and the difficulty scales wonderfully to cater for rhythm action pros and the musically illiterate alike.

Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory Xbox One

One thing that most great music games have in common is readability. Look at the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and you'll always see the note chart front and centre, with simple coloured blobs speeding along it to show you what your fingers should be doing. Melody of Memory isn't quite so clear in its presentation, and the button layout takes a little adjusting to. The A, LB, and RB buttons all make your squad members attack whatever is in front of them (oddly, the buttons you press don't need to correspond to where the enemies are) in time with the beat, Y is used to have Sora cast magic (usually to deal with unreachable enemies), while B is used to jump whenever you see an arrow prompt — red ones are quick hops to avoid damage, blue ones must be followed up with attacks to strike airborne enemies, and green ones are your cue to press and hold the button to make Sora glide, guiding him left and right along a path of notes while his buddies carry on as normal below.

Even though most prompts come with closing timing circles to help you match the beat, the fact that all basic 'notes' are tied to all kinds of different enemies with their own animations means the chart can get extremely busy, particularly on higher difficulties. As a result, sight-reading tricky sections can be tough at times, and the harder songs will almost certainly take a couple of tries before the sequences fall into place. That said, charting is generally really good, with patterns that escalate over the course of a track in a manner reminiscent of Thumper's increasingly elaborate beats. While it might take a few goes, it's incredibly satisfying when it does all come together, in a way that just makes me want DJ Hero 3 more than ever. Now I've made myself sad.

The three core difficulty settings — Beginner, Standard, and Proud, just like in the core games — each have their own charts, but there's an additional and ingenious 'Style' system that can be layered over the top of each as well. If you're finding things too hectic, you can enable One Button Style to consolidate all different actions into a single button press, letting you focus purely on the rhythm and not which exact buttons you should be pressing. Conversely, if you're looking for a greater challenge, Performance Style adds in a bunch of extra optional notes in the form of button prompts. You're not penalised for missing these so they can be seen more as flourishes (even if the temptation to go for them might see you throwing yourself off the rhythm by getting greedy), and the game tracks these additional notes separately with their own combo counts. It's a really smart way of increasing difficulty in a gradual and personal way, and Proud Performance charts will likely be where skilled players spend a lot of their time, even if the extra notes don't actually add to your total score and are just for bragging rights.

Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory Xbox One

These Field Battle songs are the only style of gameplay we've had a chance to try out so far, aside from the local co-op mode, which is an enjoyable modified two-player twist on the same format. But as anyone who has played the superb Theatrhythm Final Fantasy 3DS games (with which this shares a lot of DNA, down to the chibi characters that dance around on the loading screens and menus) will know, different tracks will offer different experiences in the full game. We've seen from the trailers that Event songs will return in the form of Memory Dive tracks — effectively key cutscenes from the games playing out as Sora and pals ride along a simple single-bar note chart in the foreground — and it looks as though the new boss battles will use a similar notation style as well. Online multiplayer also offers a twist on the Field Battle tunes, where power-ups can be activated to mess with your opponent's note charts (like in versus play in the earlier Guitar Hero games) as you compete with other maestros from around the world. There's an AI option in Vs Battle as well, should you wish to get used to the unique effects that can mess with your flow before taking the fight online. Last but by no means least, the World Tour mode lets you fly your Gummi Ship to dozens of Disney-themed worlds as you retread the stories of the main games.

One thing that's a little surprising is how the game really doesn't look to be leaning into the Disney aspect as much as one might expect, at least from what we've seen so far. Speaking with NintendoLife recently, co-director Masanobu Suzui said, "Disney songs that were used in Kingdom Hearts worlds will be included, but they're not really the main majority." The worlds and characters of the various Disney properties from the core games are all present and correct in Melody of Memory, then, but you might want to temper expectations if you were hoping to be able to play all your favourite singalong classics from the movies. Still, it feels a little weird that Square wouldn't use popular tunes like Let It Go and This Is Halloween in marketing if they are in fact in the game, but perhaps that's a conscious decision to help Kingdom Hearts stand apart from the Disney properties it references. Or maybe Square just hates money, although Marvel's Avengers would appear to debunk that theory pretty hard.

Either way, original Kingdom Hearts music is very much at the heart of this experience, and we're fine with that. Kingdom Hearts has some amazing tunes spanning almost two decades of games, and you don't even have a chance to get past the title screen here before an amazing jazzy new arrangement of Dearly Beloved is unleashed as proof of that. Fingers crossed Utada Hikaru's vocal tracks make the cut as well, as we can't imagine a Kingdom Hearts music game without Simple And Clean, Sanctuary, and Face My Fears: the main themes of the three numbered games (numbered with integers, at least, because apparently that's a distinction you have to make with Kingdom Hearts), with suitably flashy accompanying movies that would make wonderful Memory Dive stages.

Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory Xbox One

Some might balk at the fact that Square Enix will be charging full price for something like this, but you're not going to find it wanting in terms of content. With almost 150 songs, a solid spread of modes, a small army of characters to level up, and score attack potential for days thanks to scalable difficulty that can provide a challenge to match any skill level, Melody of Memory will keep fans busy for a hell of a long time. Given how well it's set to summarise the series so far, it may even serve as a solid entry point for Kingdom Hearts newcomers, although obviously the nostalgia hit of the fantastic and familiar soundtrack is going to be lost on fresh ears.

We've not pulled in the achievement list yet, but our sister site TrueTrophies has managed to get hold of the PlayStation trophy list, so we have an idea of what to expect. While it's mostly cumulative stuff with pretty big numbers attached, there are a few skill-based bits as well — anyone who isn't at least decent at music games (or willing to put the time in to get decent) will struggle to get 50 Full Chains on Proud mode, for instance, while reaching Platinum rank in COM Battle could also be a pain, depending on how vicious the AI gets. The equivalent mode in Theatrhythm resets your grade on a single loss, too, so that could be pretty savage if it remains that way here.

Anyone with any love at all for the Kingdom Hearts series is really going to get a kick out of Melody of Memory, and even just from what little we've played so far, the game only gets better the more you get used to its systems. Having put hundreds of hours into the Theatrhythm games, I've already got my first few Proud Full Chains notched up here (including one All Excellent Full Chain), so I can't wait to add to my tally when Melody of Memory releases on November 13th. It's a good thing nothing else is happening that week...

Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.