Saturday, July 10, 2021

Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory (PS4)

Last year, the Kingdom Hearts series concluded the long-running Dark Seeker Saga with Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind, which also included a glimpse at the series’ future. Although no one knew how the series would continue from there, it’s safe to say that few expected the announcement of a rhythm game, Melody of Memory (MoM), as the first post-Kingdom Hearts III (KHIII) title. Upon its announcement, Tetsuya Nomura also revealed that it went into development at the same time as KHIII and would serve primarily as a celebration of the series’ iconic music. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about actually playing the game right away after playing the demo, but the knowledge that it also contained new story content intrigued me enough that I picked it up during a sale. Suffice to say, while the gameplay felt fresh, I made the right decision not buying MoM at full price.

MoM presents a Kingdom Hearts twist on the rhythm game genre. Players can unlock and play as one of four teams with different characters from across the series: Classic with Sora, Donald and Goofy; Days with Roxas, Axel and Xion; 3D with Riku, a Meow Wow and a Komory Bat; and BBS with Terra, Ventus and Aqua. All teams have access to the three types of music tracks, Field Tracks, Boss Tracks and Memory Dives. In Field Tracks, the chosen team automatically runs forward on a musical staff while players hit various targets and defeat enemies in time with the music. While it may not sound exciting on paper, MoM goes out of its way to replicate the Kingdom Hearts experience as much as it can within the genre, including reaction commands, so it doesn’t feel too out of place. This includes setting items to give you an edge and earning EXP that increases the current team’s level, along with their HP, Strength and Defense stats. Naturally, losing all of your HP from missing too many notes results in an automatic loss.

The core systems are easy to pick up.

Boss Tracks operate similarly to Field Tracks, but with a few differences. As the chosen team fights the boss in the background, players must hit notes scrolling along a musical staff overlayed over the action, which now include Slide and Hold notes. Depending on the player’s performance during Dark Zones, where notes have a purple aura around them, they can more easily dodge certain attacks from the boss, or at least mitigate the damage.

The last type, Memory Dives, feature no enemies, but feature the chosen team automatically flying across a music staff and include the Hold and Slide notes from Boss Tracks. These are also overlayed on top of pre-rendered video, mainly compilations of related clips from the games.

Memory Dives use pre-rendered footage.

Throughout the course of normal gameplay, players earn Rhythm Points based on their performance in each song. As the cumulative total increases, players can earn different types of Collector’s Cards on top of the ones they can earn from completing songs. Collecting a certain number of each type of card also grants various bonuses, including Rhythm Point boosts and slightly increased stats. Guest characters like Aladdin and Peter Pan can also appear in tracks from their respective worlds and introduce special targets that offer Rhythm Point bonuses when hit.

While the same basic framework applies for the entire game, different gameplay modes each provide a different experience around it. The one that players will likely spend several hours on is World Tour mode, which acts as a creative method of recapping the events of all the previous games and is the primary way of unlocking new songs. Here, players must clear different worlds and Darkened Worlds to collect stars and open up more worlds. Each world typically has one or two songs each and each song has three different star challenges that can span the three difficulty levels (Beginner, Standard and Proud). Fortunately, completing the game doesn’t require collecting every star, though a majority are necessary for access to a handful of songs based on popular boss fights from the series.

Each song in World Tour has multiple star challenges.

Unfortunately, as well as World Tour presents itself, it does have its shortcomings. It’s here that you’ll first notice the general lack of KHIII songs compared with other games in the series and, even then, most of those are Memory Dives. MoM’s simultaneous development with KHIII likely explains this, but that does mean that very few of its original tracks make it in. Another issue is that despite the inclusion of tracks from popular boss fights, only four tracks in the game are actually Boss Tracks, including the final boss. This is rather disappointing, as additional Boss Tracks could have added more variety to the overall experience.

I wish there were more than four bosses.

As you unlock songs through World Tour, you’ll have more material for Track Selection, which lets you freely play any song you’ve unlocked, including Boss Tracks and a few songs exclusive to this mode. This mode provides the bulk of the game’s replay value, at least hypothetically, and introduces two additional gameplay styles to help tailor the difficulty to your liking. One Button Style adjusts the gameplay to enable playing songs with only one button. Due to this level of simplification, however, scores in this style are recorded separately from the others. For an increased challenge, you can also select Performer Style, which adds Performer Targets into the mix for increased accuracy in notation.

Play any track to your heart's content.

If you get tired of the single player content, MoM also features multiplayer against both COM opponents locally and online against other players. Gameplay in this mode is mostly identical to the Field Tracks in the main game, but with the addition of a Trick Gauge that both players automatically fill up based on their performance. When the gauge fills, at least one Trick activates, invoking one of several negative effects like invisible enemies or stricter timing. This system does mix things up a bit, but it’s not particularly exciting, especially if you’re good enough at the track that the Tricks aren’t too much of an obstacle.

It's interesting that they even included a multiplayer system at all.

When fighting COM opponents, you have a rank that starts at Bronze 3 and can go as high as Platinum 1. Your rank determines the difficulty of each COM opponent and you must win three out of five battles in a match to improve your ranking. Each opponent also drops a Collector’s Card on victory. Online matches have a similar system, but the winner gets two cards while the loser only gets one by default and both players also exchange their individual ProfiCards. Should you opt for an online opponent, you’re matched based on your selected battle preferences and skill level. Based on how long it took me to try and find a match, however, I got the impression there isn’t much of an online scene for MoM, which isn’t too surprising considering how the interactions aren’t too meaningful.

Somewhat surprisingly, MoM also has a local couch co-op mode where two players, one as Sora and one as Riku, complete songs together. This mode features an altered musical staff that’s split down the middle to encourage teamwork while following the rhythm of the song. The only real downside is that this mode features a much smaller track selection, with only 21 songs in total, some of which players must unlock first.

Local multiplayer is always welcome.

No matter where you are in the game, you can access the Team Menu with the push of a button. In this menu, you can do more than simply check on the stats of each separate team. Depending on how much you care about completeness, you’ll also spend plenty of time in the Synthesis menu. Here, you can synthesize helpful items, unique music stages for Track Selection, ProfiCard Icons, Collector’s Cards and, of course, synthesis materials. Synthesizing items will also increase the Moogle Level, up to Level 8, and open up more items for synthesis. If you’re short on materials, you can also jump directly to specific songs that are more likely to drop the items you need. While it seems silly for a rhythm game to have this sort of depth, it certainly fits right in with the already established Kingdom Hearts gameplay systems.

Got to get those extra tracks!

The last accessible portion of the game is the Museum, where players can freely view just about everything they’ve unlocked, including cards, cutscenes and Memory Dive movies, as well as various gameplay records. Rather fittingly, you can also simply relax and listen to any of the 140+ songs that you’ve unlocked throughout your playtime. Considering the breadth of the series’ music library, MoM has a well-curated selection of songs from all across the series, notably using the original synthesized versions of tracks instead of the re-orchestrated versions. A few non-KH tracks also made their way in, including “Let It Go” from Frozen and “A Whole New World” from Aladdin.

No surprise that "Let It Go" made it in.

As for the voice acting, Christopher Lloyd reprises his role as Master Xehanort and I noticed that Richard Epcar re-recorded lines originally done by Billy Zane during a boss fight against Ansem from the original Kingdom Hearts. I also have to mention that while I don’t mind Chirithy’s voice in general, it gets grating during the multiplayer because he never stops talking.

Notably, MoM mostly recycles character models from the pre-KHIII entries for a good majority of the game as opposed to the most recent versions of the characters. I can only guess that they made this decision as either a cost-cutting measure or a consequence of the simultaneous development with KHIII, but it also arguably ties in with the premise of the story. Either way, MoM commits to its genre with musical imagery seamlessly blending in with the Kingdom Hearts aesthetic. If you have a passing knowledge of musical notation, you may also appreciate the extra touch of having target placement on the musical staff correspond with the pitch of the track.

As for the story itself, it accurately summarizes the Dark Seeker Saga, comprised of every game from the original Kingdom Hearts to Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind, trimming the fat that would otherwise make it more difficult to follow. This summary also firmly confirms that every game was indeed canon, though it leaves out content from Kingdom Hearts Union χ[Cross], Dark Road or Back Cover, likely to avoid unnecessary confusion. At the end of World Tour, however, we discover the context of the game, exploring Kairi’s memories, and witness new story material that builds off of Re Mind and sets up the next game. Of course, only time will tell what the next game has in store or even when it would release.

Hopefully the next game will be worth the wait.

Despite the drastic change in gameplay style, MoM still feels like a Kingdom Hearts game at its core and provides a decent entry point for those who don’t want to spend potentially hundreds of hours playing through the Dark Seeker Saga for the story. Existing fans may also find motivation through the new story content and for a new way of enjoying Yoko Shimomura’s compositions. That said, the game's average length makes it hard to justify at full price and I’d suggest anyone interested simply wait for a sale.

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