Review: Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory

The announcement of a Kingdom Hearts rhythm game received a mixed reaction from the fanbase, to say the least.  Comments ranged from accusations that, “No one wanted this!” to excited cries of, “Who DIDN’T want this?”  As a fan of the Theatrhythm series, and as someone who believes that the music is the best part of the Kingdom Hearts games, I was thrilled by the news.

And there was something else about the game’s announcement that intrigued fans: new cutscenes that indicated that Melody of Memory would finally explore Kairi’s past and tell the story from her point of view.

There’s a lot to talk about in regards to Kairi.  I have strong feelings about how she’s been treated throughout the series and in Melody of Memory, so let’s stick a pin in that one and come back to it.  Warning: there will be spoilers for the whole series and this game in particular.

Melody of Memory is probably one of the most accessible Kingdom Hearts games to play if you’ve never played a Kingdom Hearts game before, because there’s very little plot involved.  As you unlock songs through the World Tour, Kairi gives a general recap of what happened in each game.  There are over 140 songs to choose from, mostly from Kingdom Hearts 1, Kingdom Hearts 2, Birth by Sleep, and Dream Drop Distance.  There are also some choice selections from each of the games in the rest of the series, except the mobile games.  Sorry, mobile games.

That being said, it’s a game that’s best enjoyed if you have played the rest of the series.  Otherwise, while you will almost certainly enjoy the beautiful music, you won’t get that feeling of nostalgia that comes with playing your favorite tunes or feel any emotional impact from the cutscene montages.

The game offers a variety of difficulty levels depending on your experience with rhythm games.  There’s the typical Beginner, Standard, and Proud difficulties.  However, the game also includes “One Button” style, where you only need to press one button for the notes and certain commands are done automatically, and “Performer,” where extra commands are added just to make the experience even more excruciating the stuff of nightmares challenging

I experimented with each difficulty level and ultimately preferred the regular style of gameplay using a Standard difficulty.  But I found that certain songs played better with different difficulties.  Ironically, Beginner proved to be more of a personal challenge than Standard or even Proud because it’s so slow that it’s hard to time it to the beat.

The songs themselves come in three categories: Field Battles, Boss Fights, and Memory Dives.  In Field Battles, a party of three characters runs across a winding track of musical notes through a 3D rendition of one of the worlds in Kingdom Hearts.  Boss Fights are exactly what they sound like, except that you’re trying to hit the right musical notes as they flash across the screen while your party unleashes attacks on the boss.  In Memory Dives, you hit musical notes while your party flies over a montage of cutscenes.  Memory Dives are mostly reserved for character themes, and they’re beautiful to watch, taking you through the personal journeys of Sora, Riku, Kairi, and friends.

Unlike Theatrhythm, where you can mix and match characters, Melody of Memory gives you four different preset parties to choose from: Team Classic (Sora, Donald, and Goofy), Team Days (Roxas, Axel, and Xion), Team BBS (Aqua, Terra, and Ven), and Team 3D (Riku, Meow Wow, and Komory Bat).  You can add Mickey as a special fourth member of any team by using a Summoning Star.  While this all leads to some really fun gameplay — the most satisfying moment has to be playing the Xemnas Boss Fight with Team Days — it really stings that the original trio of Sora, Riku, and Kairi is nowhere to be found.  Maybe they can be added in later as DLC?  Time will tell.

It’s also a little painful that this wonderful game that celebrates music left out Symphony of Sorcery, the world in Dream Drop Distance based off of Fantasia.  C’mon, I want to play “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” or “The Nutcracker Suite!”  Where’s that Chernabog boss fight with “Night on Bald Mountain?”

Which leads to another point: while there are a ton of Field Battle songs and a decent number of Memory Dives, only four songs got turned into Boss Fights.  The ones that did make it into the game are fantastic; I just wish there was a little more variety there.

Yet, overall, this game is a lot of fun and absolute blast for people who love the Kingdom Hearts soundtracks.  It reminded me of everything I love about this series.

Now.  Let’s talk about Kairi.

If you’re not familiar with the Kingdom Hearts series, I’ll give you a quick rundown on most of the controversy concerning her character. (I say “most” because I refuse to talk about shipping.)  The first game introduced us to the hero, Sora, and his two best friends: Riku and Kairi.  Riku is the rival who turns into his enemy.  Kairi is the princess who needs to be rescued from the forces of darkness. 

As the story continued over the course of the games, Riku received a beautiful, compelling redemption arc and is widely considered to be one of the best written characters in the series.  He’s been a major character throughout and has been playable in almost every single game, either for a bonus fight or for an entire story scenario focused on him.

And Kairi?  Well, at the time that this article was written, Kairi is playable in one boss fight in the Kingdom Hearts 3 DLC, and a grand total of two songs in Melody of Memory which are not available as tracks that you can replay outside of the story.  She’s appeared in most of the games, but only had a major role in a couple of them.  Her appearances in Coded and Dream Drop Distance are limited to nonspeaking cameos.

The fandom has been waiting for the Moment When Kairi Gets to Shine pretty much since the series began.  We watched her get a Keyblade at the end of Kingdom Hearts 2.  “This is it,” we thought, “Now she’s going to be more active in the series from this point forward!”  That didn’t happen.  Then she appeared for her aforementioned silent cameo in Dream Drop Distance where Yen Sid implied that he wanted her help in the coming Keyblade War.  “This is it!” we thought.  And then Kairi proceeded to get sidelined for the majority of Kingdom Hearts 3 because she was off-screen, training, only to get kidnapped and killed during the final battle.  Why?  Because the villain decided that Sora, the hero, needed “motivation” to fight.  Even though he was already fighting.

But then we learned that the DLC for the game would focus on Sora’s plan to rescue Kairi from death and that she would be a playable character during one of the boss battles.  “This is it!” we thought.  The battle was amazing and it was so much fun playing as Kairi.  And then…the DLC revealed that after Sora disappeared, Kairi put herself in a coma for a year so that a group of scientists could search her heart for clues to his whereabouts.

Everyone had an active role in the search for Sora.  Kairi went to sleep.

But then… the trailer for Melody of Memory came out!  We saw cutscenes alluding to Kairi’s childhood!  She was fighting a mysterious figure!  She was on the cover, front and center!  “THIS IS IT!” we thought.

I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this.

The game ended with Riku going off on a journey to find Sora by himself.  Kairi stayed behind because she realized she still needs more training.

It is frustrating to be a Kairi fan.

I’ve seen some Twitter threads from fans suggesting that there’s still reason to hope.  Weird as this might sound, I’m actually inclined to agree, because Kairi’s treatment in Kingdom Hearts 3 sparked an intense, furious backlash from the fandom, and they made their displeasure known.  Virtually no one thought she was given her fair due in that game, and Re:Mind and Melody of Memory appear to be responses to that.  Most tellingly, Kairi has not opted to go back home and wait for her friends to return like she did previously.  Nonetheless, I think it’s really important that the fandom doesn’t dismiss what happened here.

When Sora embarked on his first big adventure in Kingdom Hearts, he had no formal training whatsoever.  The only “experience” that either he or Riku had was the many hours they’d spent hitting each other with toy swords.  That’s like saying a ten-year-old who gets into water fights with a Super Soaker has enough experience to join the army.  And yet, it was more than enough “experience” for Sora to fight Disney villains and the Big Bad of that game.  Nobody said anything about “training.”  And nobody said anything about “training” to Riku either.

People can come up with as many plot-related excuses at they want, but at the end of the day, there is no good reason for Kairi to get left behind on this adventure.  This new world that Riku’s going to explore might be “too much” for her to handle, but that’s because the writers have made it that way.  And at this stage of things, it’s completely inexcusable.

But Like Kairi, I’m getting tired of waiting.

I’m hopeful that while Riku’s off rescuing Sora in an alternate universe, Kairi will take center stage for the problems facing the heroes back at home. She plans to train under Aqua, and that has the potential to be a lot of fun.  But like Kairi, I’m getting tired of waiting.

Overall, Melody of Memory is an excellent rhythm game that I have spent many happy hours playing, and something that I believe most Kingdom Hearts fans will enjoy (unless you really hate rhythm games). I only wish it could have done more to build up Kairi as a character.

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