Spoiler Warning: Full story details discussed below
It honestly feels like trolling at this point. It’s not like there weren’t worrying signals leading into this game, but even by those standards this takes the cake. After Kingdom Hearts 3 essentially fridged Kairi, there was a large fan pushback against yet another instance of her being the “woman in peril.” The Re Mind dlc took a half step, allowing you to play as Kairi but alongside Sora. Nomura essentially then tripled down by speaking of a larger role for Kairi in Melody of Memory which meant that she was narrating the game. Meanwhile all the trailers showed footage of playable Sora, Donald, and Goofy. Even in her own game she was deprioritized. Now having finished the game, Nomura’s statement is incredibly laughable and Melody of Memory goes the extra mile in showing Kairi out of the way. I didn’t have high hopes but it’s incredible how the game sinks even below those standards. I believe @headfallsoff on Twitter put it best.
That reaction may seem outsized for what is a relatively simple rhythm game. Melody of Memory picks up where Kingdom Hearts 3 left off with Sora missing and Kairi being put to sleep so she can explore her memories for clues of Sora’s location. Melody doesn’t include any of that upfront though; there’s no opening cutscene when you start the campaign. The game literally drops you directly onto the map, no story context given. Kairi’s talked up narration doesn’t even begin until a few worlds in. The campaign is meant to work as a recap of the story so far. As you complete musical stages on different worlds, which highlight musical pieces of characters from past games, you’ll unlock recap movies where Kairi narrates a high level overview of past events. Melody of Memory is supposed to be a celebration of Kingdom Hearts as a series and the Square Enix blog even lists it as an ideal entry point for the series. As a celebration of the series it’s surprisingly on point, meaning it feels half-baked and extremely messy. All of the tracks you play are one – two minute loops of original orchestral music and instrumental versions of classic Disney songs (minus “Let it Go” which remains untouched). There’s surprisingly no Hikaru Utada songs on the main campaign, arguably the main Kingdom Hearts music. I was shocked I only got to play “Simple and Clean” on the opening cutscene before I even received a tutorial. The majority of the unlocks are for the condensed museum area. The museum gives a very sleight overview of Kingdom Hearts, with unlockable stills of past cutscenes, character portraits, and music. Better yet, Museum mode isn’t even unlocked until you play a song in the single select mode “Track Selection.” There’s not a lot of reason to go digging into the Museum as it only gives you the barrest of high level collectibles.
As a series entry point, Melody of Memory fails spectacularly. The recap videos are dispersed along the campaign map after completing tracks on plot important worlds. The worlds themselves are also grouped together by their associated games. Completing the tracks on “Hollow Bastion” will unlock a recap of Sora’s battle with Riku and Sora losing his heart. Having played the games, I understand the significance of this part. Riku fully gives into the darkness, Sora gives up his heart to release Kairi, creates both his Heartless and Nobody, and is healed by Kairi. For anyone watching without playing the original games, they’ll only have the faintest idea who these characters are let alone what a Heartless even is. The recap videos tell you what happens in the scenes, but miss the broader context of what that actually means. There’s no background explanation for the series’ dense lore at any point during the game. The example above is when the lore is fairly straightforward but the later cutscenes fail to provide deeper context for the scene’s it’s showing you. The side games are especially egregious. The “Birth by Sleep” levels don’t even let you know that it takes place before all of the other games and gives no context to who these new sets of characters are. The “365/2 Days” levels give zero background on Xion who even in the context of the game is hard to explain. Melody of Memory is essentially the Kingdom Hearts wikipedia entry stripped down to it’s bare essentials. The chances that this game is being used as an entry point is already pretty slim, but it’s laughable that they marketed it as one.
Finally at the end of the campaign (about 8 hours with me playing every track once), you are rewarded with new cutscenes which is ostensibly why Kingdom Hearts fans like myself purchased the game. Melody of Memory suddenly breaks it’s recap structure and drops you directly into new story cutscenes. It’s jarring and really feels like it should’ve been placed alongside the other cutscenes in Kingdom Hearts 3. Nevertheless it’s Kairi’s time to shine as she becomes the main character. Hooray! Kairi arrives in the “Final World” and instead of finding Sora runs into a manifestation of Xenahort. He starts saying vaguely ominous things and Kairi charges into battle. You can tell Xenahort is playing with her and he’s definitely stronger in battle. Kairi backed into a corner starts to power up. As Kairi seems to dig deep and find the power to defeat Xenahort, she starts to glow and becomes…Sora. Kairi literally transforms into Sora.
Are you serious?? It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out. Typical hero arcs (whether Shonen Anime or beyond) dictate that the hero has to find the strength in themselves to overcome the obstacle. Kairi is apparently not up to the task so Sora literally has to take over her body to do the deed for her. It literally is Sora too, not some sort of will being manifested from Kairi. Xenahort remarks at this stating that it’s impressive he’s able to reach there but knows why Sora is unable to talk. The context too is that this is all taking place in Kairi’s head. This is her world made real, so Nomura is essentially saying that she lacks the emotional resilience to beat her darkest fears and that it’s better if her boyfriend steps in for her. Sora will fight your battles, just cheer him on. After being captured in both 1 & 3, you would think that Kairi would have built up her strength. During 3 she was literally even training as a Keyblade wielder. Her arc at the end of Melody is her coming to terms once again that she’s not strong enough. Kairi gets to go train some more while Riku does the hero (man)’s job of rescuing Sora. It’s a new low for a character that has always been treated like a pawn. Riku even has to put down her request to join him, which is just heartbreaking.
Kairi doesn’t get a moment to shine nor is she even part of one of the playable characters in the selectable “parties” (groups of 3 characters you can play as on the rhythm game levels). It’s baffling, especially when Riku’s party contains two minor Dream Eaters from “Dream, Drop, Distance.” Her important role is talking about how cool everyone else is. She gets the exciting role of telling all of the players about the exciting adventures all of the rest of the cast took part in. She rarely ever gets to use the first person; she has and always will be relegated to the side. When the expectations are literally at the floor it’s hard to believe it’ll go lower. It’s hard to believe that Nomura actually thinks that Kairi’s treatment is positive especially when the larger fan reaction is negative. It seems like nobody wants Kairi to suffer more than Nomura does.