I think I’ve finally learned why I can’t stop playing Kingdom Hearts games, even if, at this point, I can’t stand them.
Here’s how I figured it out. One time I asked my dad, one of those cultured white guys who loves jazz and museums, why he’s so obsessed with watching the stock market. People contain multitudes, but an interest in The Fine Arts and The Man don’t usually go together.
“I like watching the numbers go up,” he said. He likes watching the numbers go up so much that he’s willing to overlook that capitalism is evil, money is fake, and Big Tech is trying to kill us.
I, too, like watching the numbers go up. I don’t understand money and have none of it, so my numbers game is the video game. Give me experience points, give me level-ups, give me big combos, give me more and more and more collect-’em-alls to collect all of. I hunger for them. I crave them! The easier those numbers are to grow, the better.
That said, I’m a little harder to please than Mr. Frank is. As much as I love a good number, I also love a good story, a good art style, and good music. The veneer around my upward-moving numbers matters a whole lot to me. Which is why a series like Kingdom Hearts — and particularly its latest game, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory — is so much fun and yet so utterly, painfully infuriating.
Kingdom Hearts, at its best, is an action RPG where you get to press the same button over and over to beat up a Disney villain or revive your bestie Donald Duck. Most Kingdom Hearts games outside of the mainline stories — that is to say, most Kingdom Hearts games — take that natural sugar and add way, way more to it. They have overly complicated battle systems, like the collectible card game-inspired Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Or they’ve been bogged way down with story details that make a simple “Boy wants to save the Disneyfied world” tale into something metaphysical and asinine: possessions, digital realms, time travel.
I say this with all the affection in the world; I have spent a decade of my life and thousands of words protecting Kingdom Hearts from people who think it’s “stupid” or “nonsense” or “bad.” I can call this stupidly nonsensical/bad franchise all of those things, because I love it, actually. End of discussion.
I play all of these games despite how convoluted the storytelling is. I play them because I like hitting a button to beat up the evil creatures that populate the Kingdom Hearts universe, for increasingly vague reasons, and watch my experience points or attack chains increase. As soon as a cutscene rolls around, I sigh so dramatically as to make my throat hurt a little. I could skip through them, of course, but this is an RPG, and I feel that I owe Square Enix the courtesy of sitting through its nonsense story. Plus, it’s funny to watch Mickey Mouse obsess over Riku, or to see Woody from Toy Story attempt to sacrifice himself for Sora.
Melody of Memory arrives as the first game in the series to take place after the tepid storyline-ender Kingdom Hearts 3. And, hey, good news! Melody of Memory is maybe the least aggravating Kingdom Hearts side game I’ve ever played, going all-in on the button-pressing and mostly putting the story stuff to the side. It’s a rhythm game where Sora and pals run along a moving piece of sheet music, each note represented by a monster in front of them. You either have to hold down a note to attack monsters, or quickly press a note, or maybe jump over the note entirely. Truly, it’s a rhythm game; if you’ve played one, you know what you’re getting into. Just swap out sentient drums or male cheerleaders or rock bands with Kingdom Hearts characters.
I love rhythm games, and this one’s mostly a blast. Kingdom Hearts has great music, even if the vast majority of its music is either reiterative of itself or derived from Disney. Melody of Memory is light on the Disney fare, which is a bummer, because I wanted to beat some Heartless up to the tune of “Circle of Life.” (There is a level where you play along to all of “Let It Go,” which is practically an obligation for any Disney-related property at this point.) The battle music from Kingdom Hearts is charming and never too long, repetitive in the most endearing way. Really, it’s like the series itself, at its best.
I obsessively tapped buttons on my Switch controller to the rhythm of multiple remixes of a battle theme, eyes glazing over until all I saw was Sora, and all I knew were notes. I watched myself chain notes, an almost delirious out-of-body experience. There was one time I only missed one note and got a chain of 154 notes in a row, and I can’t remember the last time I felt so satisfied. Kingdom Hearts just has a knack for making a quickly pressed button come across as an achievement; the concern isn’t that the attack is strong enough, but instead that you attacked quickly enough. The same is true here in Melody of Memory, in the most reductive and appealing way.
So, yes, I loved all that. I even replayed levels multiple times to complete all the sub-missions, which are tasks to help you earn extra stars (which you sometimes need in order to progress). I was all-in on those levels, baybee. They were mostly kind of ugly, scrolling sheets of music with some minor set dressing inspired by the in-game level they’re based on, but I couldn’t get enough of ‘em.
Sometimes, though, the levels ended, and instead of moving to the next level, Melody of Memory shoved a damn story into my face. And this wasn’t a new or unique story: No, it was a recap of almost the entire Kingdom Hearts franchise thus far. Almost every single game (even minor-minor-minor ones like Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep — A Fragmentary Passage) get represented here, with some of their music getting reproduced as levels in exchange for their cutscenes edited down and included in this game. It is horrendously boring and obnoxious. One moment I’m bopping along to the surprisingly baller electronica from Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded, a game whose story was so mind-numbingly pointless that I had to skip it. Then, boom, level’s over, and hey! Remember Re:Coded? No? Well, here’s a 30-second cutscene story recap. And then another one! Don’t you love hearing Kairi (our narrator) say “digital realm” over and over?
No, Melody of Memory. No, I do not.
When Kingdom Hearts is edited down in this way, into brisk scenes and synopses, it becomes unbearably confusing. I’ve taken the time to make sense of the overarching plot, probably more than most people have. Along the way, I’ve learned to appreciate Kingdom Hearts’ audacious density, even if I’m also a judgmental human being who can’t let a bad script get off easy. That audacious density works even less than usual when it’s compacted into a 10-hour game covering nearly a hundred hours’ worth of storytelling. There’s no good way to condense a long, winding Kingdom Hearts story down, especially not when it’s in between levels of a rhythm game where you just want to hit some notes to the tune of “Simple and Clean” again, already.
If you’re a Kingdom Hearts lover who can’t get enough of the story, this is probably still not going to work for you, because listen: These are old cutscenes, repurposed, dubbed over with lackluster narration, broken down so much as to almost be unintelligible. There’s no time to explain who Xehanort is or where a Nobody comes from in these brief videos, but you bet Melody of Memory is gonna keep carrying on about them anyway. It is ridiculous and I want my music and nothing else, please.
There are a few new story details here, but barely. There’s basically three minutes of post-Kingdom Hearts 3 content for a dedicated fan to experience in the main storyline. Have fun going through 10 hours of jaunty rhythm game levels and buzzkilling cutscenes just to find out almost nothing new. That is, if that’s really what you’re here for.
I had to admit, I sort of was, because I’m a glutton for punishment. Mostly, though, I was here to press some numbers in time to some music and watch the numbers go up. It’s hard to go wrong there, and Melody of Memory didn’t. The inanity of the story beats almost kept me from finishing the game, and yet I couldn’t stop playing. It was a perfectly fun way to then remember just how annoying Kingdom Hearts can be.