It’s been a long journey for Kingdom Hearts fans.
Brought to us by Square Enix veteran Tetsuya Nomura, the Kingdom Hearts series started life in an elevator conversation and evolved into an unprecedented crossover, bridging Disney and Final Fantasy’s worlds within an original storyline.
Focused on Sora, Riku and Kairi’s battle against the Darkness, it released in 2002 – but it was only last year that we got our hands on Kingdom Hearts 3. 2020’s already brought us Kingdom Hearts 3‘s Re:Mind DLC and the series’ release on Xbox One; but Square Enix has made it clear that it isn’t finished yet.
Bringing us a six-minute presentation last week, it made several announcements. Firstly, it confirmed new content for mobile entry Kingdom Hearts Union χ[Cross], detailing its final chapter. Secondly, we got a new look at fellow mobile title Dark Road, which released this week. It also confirmed Kingdom Hearts 3’s soundtrack is being officially released this Autumn, something that will undoubtedly please fans.
Melody of Memory was undoubtedly the biggest surprise, releasing later this year across all major consoles. Most previous spin-offs have followed Kingdom Hearts’ traditional action-RPG formula (with some exceptions) but this instance is a rhythm game. Reminiscent of 3DS title Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy, each level is on-rails, requiring players to press buttons in line with the music, traversing classic worlds like Agrabah or Twilight Town.
Featuring online play, four different gameplay modes and a return to pre-Kingdom Hearts 3 graphics, the trailer reveals little; but as a concept, a musically-inspired entry holds potential. The soundtrack has always been one of Kingdom Hearts’ stronger aspects; and featuring over 140 songs, Melody of Memory brings memorable tunes like Dearly Beloved, Sanctuary and Traverse Town. It’s almost surprising this didn’t happen sooner after Theatrhythm’s success – but what has fans concerns is what appears at the trailer’s end.
As the footage glitches out, a warning appears that “Melodies and memories hold the secret of his final plan”, giving us brief footage of Young Xehanort and Kairi, confirming a connection to Re:Mind. During the 13-year gap between Kingdom Hearts 2 and 3, Nomura developed many spin-offs, ranging from distant prequels to not-quite sequels, and Melody of Memory follows an established trend. To put this into greater perspective, Kingdom Hearts 2 was the third game in the franchise release, but Kingdom Hearts 3 was its twelfth.
From a business perspective, expanding a popular franchise to include many platforms makes sense – but in the case of Kingdom Hearts, many releases have been specific to one particular format. Did you have a Nintendo DS? Great, here’s 358/2 Days and Re:Coded. Mobile phone? Got it, Union χ[Cross] is on its way. 3DS? Dream Drop Distance. PSP player? No problem, Birth By Sleep.
Gaming isn’t cheap and when most entries require a new console, it quickly becomes prohibitive. Modern remix compilations have done much to resolve this;l but back then, expecting players to go through them all was unrealistic at best.
As a concept, there’s nothing wrong with spin-offs. They provide unique perspectives on established universes, bringing new protagonists or new gameplay ideas ill-suited to a main entry. Within Kingdom Hearts, Birth By Sleep and Dream Drop Distance hold a significant impact on the overall storyline, but people wanted a resolution to Sora, Riku and Kairi’s arc. Lesser spin-offs meant Kingdom Hearts’ narrative scope was soon exhausted, adding new layers to an increasingly convoluted plot.
To Nomura’s credit, sequels are naturally unfriendly to newcomers. You’re arriving midway through the saga after all, but assumptions make for bad storytelling and in Kingdom Hearts 3, Nomura made many. It presumed familiarity with each entry, referencing even obscure entries like χ Back Cover and 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage. It made its story impenetrable to all but die-hard fans. Many hoped for a conclusion, to finally see the end of our trio’s saga but sadly, Kingdom Hearts 3 left more questions than answers.
This wasn’t entirely surprising. Nomura himself confirmed in 2013 that Xehanort’s story would encompass phase one, calling it the Dark Seeker Saga. This begged the question, however: just what does phase two entail? We don’t know – but several large mysteries remain unsolved, namely Sora’s disappearance. We understand from Re:Mind that to save Kairi, Sora sacrificed himself and upon returning to the Destiny Islands, he disappears. Mysteriously though, he ends up in Shibuya with Yozora, a character that previously appeared within Toy Story’s world.
A year later, the whole group is still searching for Sora, trying to find clues through Kairi’s heart and within Riku’s dreams. Xigbar is another anomaly, revealing his true identity as Luxu from Union χ[Cross], apprentice to the Master of Masters. We know he’s protecting a mysterious black box, rumoured to contain the Book of Prophecies, but just what information does it hold? Many questions also remain about his master, a man whose true name shocked even Xehanort when whispered.
It’s a confusing entanglement of plot points, but all have one element in common; they have no links to Disney or Final Fantasy. Phase Two is gearing up for a huge tonal shift, and so it’s possible we may be saying goodbye to the premise that made it a success. Melody of Memory may be the first stepping stone. The absence of Final Fantasy characters in Kingdom Hearts 3 didn’t go unnoticed either, only featuring briefly within Re:Mind. It’s slightly trickier for Disney characters; Donald, Goofy and Mickey are key players and there’s still a demand for Disney characters outside their usual settings.
Melody of Memory won’t be the game that brings Kingdom Hearts fans their desired closure. But it should hopefully prove revealing to Nomura’s phase two intentions. Kingdom Hearts still retains a loyal fanbase, but it’s clear that franchise fatigue has set in, and Melody of Memory, despite looking promising and sporting an excellent soundtrack, is set to prolong a storyline long past its sell-by date.