Kingdom Hearts recurs. From day one, it offered the possibility of revisiting classic Disney worlds as an anime self insert. You play through reimaginings of Hercules or Frozen or Sleeping Beauty. It’s a nostalgia machine, with a spiky haired, shonen engine. Even beyond the marketing pitch, the games concern themselves with memory lost, broken, and eventually regained. Series protagonist Sora has forgotten himself and split into multiple selves, each defined by different aspects of his memories, several times. New beings are formed through the combination of memory and matter. In Kingdom Hearts, memory is a metaphysical force. It forges the vital connections that form the series’ core relationships. Furthermore, the games play with the collective memory of the franchise. The direct sequel to Kingdom Hearts, the Game Boy Advance spin-off Chain of Memories, is almost a 2D remake of the original game. Sora revisits his memories of the same worlds, given a different narrative framing. The last major KH release, the DLC Re:Mind, is a revisitation of Kingdom Heart 3’s ending, showing scenes cut from the original run. Kingdom Hearts has always been re-remembering, revising, and reimagining itself.
Melody of Memory cuts that recurrence down to the bone. It’s a rhythm game, casting players to tap their controllers along to tracks across the series’ 18 year history. It is also a retelling of every single Kingdom Hearts game so far, except the two free-to-play mobile games. You play through the memories of series mainstay Kairi at a 4/4 pace. She narrates every step in a 18 year retrospective.
Despite its relative mechanical lightness, it’s loyal to previous games, both structurally and in minute to minute play. It is a rhythm RPG, though light on number crunching and role playing. Rather than the abstract, note-like representations of music in rhythm games like Guitar Hero or Beat Saber, Melody of Memory gives its notes the form of enemies from throughout the franchise. Mistiming a note or hitting the wrong button means suffering an enemy’s blow. Before starting a song, you can equip items that will replenish your health, summon friends, or increase your experience gain. You complete quests like “defeat this percentage of ground enemies” or “dodge every air attack.” You dash around a map of worlds, just like the ones in the mainline games, until the narrative forces you onward. However, rather than being a showcase of the series’ strengths, Melody of Memory is a microcosm of its weaknesses.
For example, co-director Masanobu Suzui pitched the game as a good entry point for new fans. The series has an outsized, but not unearned, reputation for complexity. A single game that summarizes every story so far is, in theory, a good pitch. Melody of Memory is not that game. Kairi’s narration is thinly written, neither capturing the emotional highs of each game or making them understandable. Though multiple playable characters and a diverse soundtrack help it some, it does little to capture the eccentricities of each title. All the unlockables are art pieces or collectable “trading” cards, stuff that would only mean something to you if you already had familiarity with the franchise. If, god forbid, you are interested in buying a ticket for the KH train, you would be much better off listening to a recap podcast like Lore Reasons or Got It Memorized, or frankly, just starting from the beginning.
The problem also lies, partially, with the soundtrack. Kingdom Hearts music feels like it is always simmering, never boiling. It feels like music that is meant to loop, meant to fade, meant to disappear under combos and spells. You only remember it when it is annoying. Furthermore, each Disney world only gets two tracks, an exploring song and a combat song, with maybe an extra one for a boss battle. It leaves the emotional tenor of each world feeling flat. Emphasizing the music kills whatever joy or nuance each world has.
There are of course exceptions. The Hikaru Utada songs “Simple and Clean,” “Sanctuary,” and the sadly absent “Face My Fears” are easily some of the best vocal music in videogames, and truly great pop tracks. Boss battle themes like “Vector to the Heavens” display real crescendoed complexity. My favorite memory of this game is playing Vector over and over again on the highest difficulty, until my fingers could catch the song’s rhythms and nuances. However, across over 140 tracks, few make me feel more than the lull of gaining levels in a regular RPG. Also, more than few have kicked around my head like alarm clocks, interrupting and irritating.
The rhythm game itself attempts to capture both a satisfying rhythm game and a recreation of Kingdom Hearts. It does neither justice. With enemies, player characters, symbols, and backgrounds flooding the screen, it can be difficult to read the rhythm, especially on higher difficulties. It also lies in a weird compromise between playing a character and, virtually, playing an instrument. The “combat” can feel weightless and disconnected and it is difficult to feel the impact of hitting the right notes when there is so much happening on screen. It’s also an accessibility nightmare, allowing no button remapping, colorblind options, or text scaling. Playing handheld on Switch, it did not take long for my hand to hurt from the way I had to hold it to play, although my pain subsided once I switched to a regular controller. There is a one button mode, allowing players to forgo having to hit multiple buttons at once, but it is only available for tracks that have already been unlocked. If the intent was to open up Kingdom Hearts to more people, the game is an abject failure.
Finally, after the recaps, there is a smidgeon of new narrative. It amounts to a teaser trailer for whatever game will next be announced. Despite being the conclusion to many of the narrative threads of the series over the past 18 years, Kingdom Hearts 3 felt more like a 30 hour post credit tease, with a lot of narrative fluff concluding in “hope you had a nice stay, come back next time!” The small bits of new narrative in Melody of Memory feel like a natural extension, almost explicitly being just an ad for a different game. It also triples down on the series’s history of denying its female characters any kind of strength or agency, making them into Martyrs or Damsels or both. Kairi cannot be a hero in the game that bears her visage and which constantly uses her voice.
Melody of Memory is both a shallow recap and a messy rhythm game, but I cannot deny the ways it charmed me. I beamed when I found out that my favorite character, Roxas, was playable. Though I played the game for this review, I did not rush through it, but completed side objectives and redid tracks on higher difficulties. A couple songs even brought me to tears. Despite all my complaining, Kingdom Hearts can still cut me, still make me feel.
It is difficult to describe why Kingdom Hearts, despite its innumerable flaws and peculiarities, is often sharp and compelling. Its obsession with switching bodies, forgetting and remembering, as well as blurred and fractured identity, makes it resonant for many of my queer friends. I even wrote about how Birth by Sleep, still the most powerful game in the franchise, resonates with growing up queer and christian. However, as Kingdom Hearts has continued, it’s gotten difficult to see it as about anything other than itself, about this particular congruence of brands and intellectual property. In this truncated, reduced version of every game so far, the shallowness of the Disney worlds is more apparent, the way the franchise passes over its most interesting thematic concerns is more apparent, the fact that this is extremely a franchise for kids and does not take that seriously is more apparent. In this moment, Melody of Memory feels like a shadow of the series’s conservatism, of its inability to really examine or play with memory or melody. Whatever profound or resonant thought about selfhood or nostalgia or the trauma of remembering is buried in summary, in lulling, tired melodies. Fundamentally, Kingdom Hearts recurs in the way capital recurs, pushing on despite its contradictions and always banking on something new. We deserve better stories than this, but now, more than ever, I know we won’t find them here.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory was developed and published by Square Enix. Our review is based on the Switch version. It is also available for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.