Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is less than a month away now, and the hype is real. It’s the first (and potentially only) Kingdom Hearts game to come to Nintendo Switch, and developers Square Enix and Indieszero are innovating a bit in the rhythm genre space with its rhythm action gameplay. Square Enix gave us the opportunity to preview a demo on PlayStation 4, as a Nintendo Switch build was not yet available, and I have to say — I came away genuinely impressed.
The Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory demo included no story elements to experience or items to experiment with. It comprised just four levels to play as Sora, Donald, and Goofy, each song roughly a couple minutes in length. “Welcome to Wonderland” and “Hand in Hand” featured from the original Kingdom Hearts, “The Rustling Forest” came from Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, and “Wave of Darkness I” came from Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep.
Each song is set against a backdrop of where the music was originally used in the series, such as “Welcome to Wonderland” featuring Wonderland, but in truth you will be so busy playing that you will basically never notice any of the background. Or at least I didn’t, until I reviewed my video footage. That being said, the visuals of those past Kingdom Hearts games are recaptured nicely. There’s no mistaking when you’ve entered Traverse Town, and the textures and lighting certainly look better than they did on PlayStation 2. Although, it’s fair to say that what I experienced wasn’t tasking the PlayStation 4 hardware, nor should it really challenge Nintendo Switch either.
Despite how Square Enix keeps emphasizing the rhythm action angle of Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, I was still expecting the game to play similarly to Square and Indieszero’s Theatrhythm franchise. In practice though, Melody of Memory really does carve out its own identity. The action element is truly there, even if it is mildly gimmicky.
The way it works on PlayStation 4 (and it will surely directly translate to the Switch Joy-Con) is that the X button is attack, the Circle button is jump, and the Triangle button is magic — like in the main series. If an enemy is approaching, you need to attack it on time with the song rhythm to vanquish it. If an enemy projectile is coming at you or there is an enemy in the air to hit, you need to jump on time with the rhythm. (You can also hold the jump button down to glide and collect green orbs.) If a crystal comes along, you can activate magic with it to defeat a big enemy.
Sometimes, you have to take multiple actions simultaneously. To accommodate, L1 and R1 are also attack buttons like X. In fact, if there are two or three enemies to attack simultaneously, you need to hit an equal amount of attack buttons at the same time. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter which of the three buttons you choose to press to attack. Additionally, while you are gliding and moving as Sora by holding down the jump button, you may still have to keep hitting an attack button so that Donald and Goofy vanquish enemies down below. The ultimate effect is that while Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory has relatively few gameplay mechanics at its core, they compound each other so quickly that gameplay is still enjoyably frenetic.
What most struck me about this Melody of Memory demo though was how Square Enix and Indieszero have seemingly done a fantastic job with the difficulty settings. Each level/song has its own inherent difficulty level that you can see, but on top of that, the game offers three general difficulties — Beginner, Standard, and Proud. And each one delivers on its promise really well.
Beginner is easy but not brain-dead simple; you still have to at least make an effort. Standard offers an experience that forces you to pay close attention, even if you aren’t really in danger of losing. And Proud makes sure you give it your all with tricky enemy combinations and moments where you’re just shredding the attack button and hoping the end is near. “Wave of Darkness I” was easily the most difficult demo track, and I actually “died” several times on Proud before I finally conquered it. It gave me a great feeling to come out on top.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory keeps track of your high score for every level on each difficulty, and successfully finishing a level at all seems to net you a minimum “A” grade, with “A+” etc. following from there. However, the difficulty and scoring options don’t end there. Square Enix goes the extra mile to tremendous effect with “Styles,” which include One Button and Performer modes that you can apply on top of the base difficulty you have chosen.
One Button Style is exactly what it sounds like: Attacking, jumping, and magic are all performed with the same button. The level you’ve chosen mostly won’t change at all otherwise; Beginner will still make it easy and Proud will still make it challenging. However, it removes the complexity of having to hit so many different buttons. That makes the game immensely more accessible to players with special needs without completely eradicating the difficulty, which is outstanding. Even better, this Style also has its own high scores for each level. Square Enix and Indieszero have accomplished something wonderful with Melody of Memory’s One Button Style.
Meanwhile, Performer Style is for the expert players. It adds several new controller buttons to press to whatever level and whatever difficulty you have chosen, and the game doesn’t give you as much help with telling you the right moment to press them. While it doesn’t hurt your combo if you miss these special additions, they can add a terrific bonus to your final score. Still, Performer Style is clearly a mode for the elite to flaunt their skills.
Your party members actually get experience and level up between levels, adding more health, strength, and defense with which to survive more enemies. The depth of it all, once items are added to the equation in the final game, remains to be seen.
The Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory demo did have a co-op option, but unfortunately, in this era of COVID I had no one with which to try it out. We can safely assume it offers more of the same entertaining rhythm action though, and the Nintendo Switch version in particular will have extra, exclusive multiplayer functionality.
Ultimately, even though the demo only contained four levels, I have come away from this Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory preview feeling really jazzed for the full game. The music is great, the gameplay is easy to grasp and difficult to master, the visuals are faithful, and the difficulty options are fantastic. As it stands so far, I can’t imagine rhythm game fans or Kingdom Hearts music lovers wouldn’t deeply enjoy Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory releases on Nov. 13 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.