Friday, January 22, 2021

Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory (NSW, PS4, XB1) Review

The reviews are about to pile up here on SuperPhillip Central for the rest of the month. First, we engage in a musical journey through the Kingdom Hearts series of games with Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, available on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Let's take a look (or is it a listen with this music game's case?) with the SPC review.

A fun rhythm game? Great music and gameplay are the key[blade].

We've previously seen Square Enix properties get the rhythm/music game approach with the Theatrhythm series on the Nintendo 3DS, offering battles and adventures that took place on musical stages, and featuring franchises like Final Fantasy for two entries and Dragon Quest for an un-localized one. If there was ever any series left under Square Enix that needed a rhythm game for its sensational music, that series would have to be Kingdom Hearts. Now, this has become reality with Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, developed by Indiezero of Theatrhythm fame.

Really, one could describe Melody of Memory as an evolution of Theatrhythm. The major difference here is that while the entries for Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest stayed in 2D, Kingdom Hearts sees a leap to full 3D. It's especially awesome to see all the variety of locales and environments, such as the world of Alice in Wonderland or Hercules' ancient Greece, in wonderful three-dimensional glory, as Sora and friends run through them, attacking foes in time with Yoko Shimomura, et. al's phenomenal music. 

Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory's main mode, the sea salt ice cream of the package, if you will, is the World Tour. This mode takes players through a musical journey of Kingdom Hearts music through the memories of Kairi. She regales players between groupings of song stages with recaps of events from the series' long history. Everything from 2002's original Kingdom Hearts up until SPC's Game of 2019 Kingdom Hearts III is touched upon. Not all of the story content here is recycled, though, as there is some new story elements at the end of the game. However, that requires approximately ten hours of playing through music stages to see--albeit this is an extraordinarily fun task.

There are different types of music stages in Melody of Memory, but the majority--and thankfully so since they're the most enjoyable--are Field stages. These have your party of three characters--whether Sora, Donald and Goofy; Roxas, Axel and Xion; Aqua, Terra and Ventus; or Riku and a pair of Dream Eaters--running along a path. As enemies come towards your party, you'll press one of three attack buttons to defeat them, and this is always done with the beat of the music or as notes are played. On many occasions, you'll need to defeat multiple enemies at once, requiring the press of the normal attack button and one or both shoulder buttons (depending on if there are two or three enemies you need to dispatch at once). There are also Ability Crystals that your lead character uses to smash and summon magic, which is designated to the top face button in traditional Kingdom Hearts control style. Lastly, there are moments where your lead character must jump to attack enemies, jump to avoid enemy attacks, and glide, having you guide them along a series of notes with the analog stick or D-Pad.

Field music stages are without a doubt the highlight of Melody of Memory.
The developers must have known, too, as they are easily the most abundant in the game.
Timing is everything. After all, this IS a rhythm game. The better you time your strikes and attacks to the notes and beats, the better your score. Of course, there are visual prompts to follow along with, as you'd be pretty much up Timeless River without a paddle without them! These prompts are two rings: one that stays in the center and one that surrounds the outside and closes in on the center target. Press the button as the two overlap for a Rainbow Excellent grade on that note, rewarding you more points. The grades go from Rainbow Excellent to just Excellent, to  Good, to a complete Miss, also effectively depleting a chunk of your party's HP and breaking your current combo chain in the process. 

While Field levels are the most fun to play in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, they aren't exactly perfect experiences. This problem is with the transition from 2D, which the Theatrhythm games had, to 3D, which Melody of Memory has. On a 2D plane, it's simple to see notes, beats, and whatnot coming up, but in Melody of Memory, more often than I'd like, the paths that your party travels on occasionally has a lot of curves and undulations. This makes seeing the visual cues and prompts more difficult than it necessarily needs to be. 

The problem isn't just relegated to Field levels. They rear their nasty head into the "Memory Dives", the second type of music stage in Melody of Memory. These have your lead character gliding while a cinematic scene of some sort plays on the screen. It's here where the visual cues indicating what type of action you need to take--whether it's a button press, button hold, an analog stick directional push, or whatnot--can easily get obscured and lost. The screen can just become way too busy visually, much like the Field levels can. 

Meanwhile, Memory Dive stages are my least favorite type of stages in the game, 
though that isn't to say they're horrible--no, not by any stretch of the imagination!
The last type of stage in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory are the boss battle stages, which show your party doing battle against--who else--a boss. The controls here are set up the exact same as Memory Dives, and you are essentially watching a cinematic. It's more interactive, though, as there are certain sections of these battles where the prompts will be covered in shadow. This indicates the boss is readying an attack. Depending on how many prompts you successfully nail with proper timing, you'll limit the damage (or completely nullify it) from their attack. There are but a handful of boss battles in the entire game, but they are entertaining all the same--at least more so than Memory Dives. 

Sadly, boss battles happen all too infrequently in Melody of Memory's World Tour mode.
That's why it's a bit disappointing that so much of the World Tour mode features Field stages, yet the final game represented in the mode, Kingdom Hearts III, is mostly comprised of Memory Dives. Perhaps Melody was too far along in development to add creatures and scenes from Kingdom Hearts III as Field stages, but either way, it's a bit of a bummer. 

Nevertheless, World Tour features practically every location and major battle represented by songs in Melody of Memory. While some Disney worlds are notably absent, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Tarzan, there are nearly 150 songs across the entire Kingdom Hearts series showcased in Melody of Memory regardless. World Tour also has a cute way to traverse its map, bringing along the Gummy Ship from the series to move around. Most worlds in World Tour feature two songs each: one for the field version of the world and one for the battle version. (For instance, The Three Musketeers world of Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance fame features both All for One and One for All.)

Alongside each song in World Tour is a trio of challenges to complete. In order to pass through some gates that otherwise block your progress in this mode, you need to complete some of these challenges. Most are rather simple, offering tasks like clearing a song without using an item, defeating a certain percentage of a specific type of enemy, or hitting a number of slide notes cumulatively across all song play-throughs, to name a few examples. 

Partners like the "zero to hero" Herc occasionally join in on the musical fun.
Each song has three difficulties: Beginner, Standard, and Proud. The former, of course, has the smallest amount of notes and challenging prompt patterns while the latter offers a stiff challenge with massive strings of complicated prompts and patterns to play through. Each song on each difficulty is rated in challenge by a number: 1 being the easiest and 15 being the hardest. Starting off, I needed to get acclimated to the game well enough, as jumping and hitting targets took some getting used to with the timing, but eventually I moved on to Standard. By the time I completed World Tour, I felt comfortable enough with the game to make the bold leap to trying out Proud versions of songs. Occasionally I did well. Most times, however? Not so much.

Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory's World Tour mode also comes with an item synthesis and collection system. You can earn items from regular play, as well as synthesize them in true Kingdom Hearts fashion to create everything from potions to heal yourself mid-song, to entirely new songs to add to your collection. Such songs available are the familiar lyrical songs from Kingdom Hearts I - III (though Face My Fears is questionably absent), but more notably, themes from Disney movies along with a sample of their cinematics such as Aladdin's "A Whole New World" or Beauty and the Beast's eponymous song. You can also collect a host of cards, picturing the cast, characters, enemies, Keyblades, story scenes, and more to add to the longevity. While most of the collectable cards here are random in attaining them (random as in what you'll get--not how you'll get them), there's a degree of fun in acquiring them and browsing through one's collection. I at least loved getting a new card here and there as I played.

Last but certainly not least is the multiplayer mode of Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, which has two players battling it out while playing a song of either player's selection, chosen randomly between the two songs chosen. As you successfully hit notes, you fill a gauge that when full, unleashes some kind of effect on the other player. This can be anything from making prompts appear at the last possible moment to making enemies completely invisible. The player with the most points at the end of the song not only wins the match but wins a reward in the form of a collectable card. While playing songs with other players runs pretty much without any hitches or lag, I feel this is a superfluous mode. I appreciate its inclusion, but I most likely won't spend too much more time with it.

Perform tricks in online matches to turn the battle in your favor--or put the match completely out of reach!
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory takes 18+ years of series history, most notably the sensational soundtracks, and puts them in one concise musical collection that can be enjoyed by any rhythm game fan or music lover. Those only interested in buying this game for the story should probably just catch the ending on YouTube or something, as the new story content isn't worth the $60 price of admission. Memory Dives and the occasional clutter that inhibits seeing and reacting to note prompts on time also detract from the game, but overall my experience with Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory was a positive one. I definitely ended my time with the game on a good note.

[SPC Says: B+]