The long-awaited release of Kingdom Hearts III on other console platforms last year brought a conclusion, of sorts, to a storied saga which began way back in 2002 on PS2. We say 'of sorts' because the notoriously unwieldy narrative of this series will naturally continue in future games; this Square Enix / Disney crossover universe has grown over eighteen years to become a gargantuan, multi-tentacled, cross-media franchise with more spin-offs, semi-sequels, prequels, inter-quels and ludicrously-named re-releases than you can shake an unnecessarily big key at.
For fans of the series, keeping track of the minutiae of its twisting narrative and working out exactly what titles like Kingdom Hearts HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue even mean is all part of the fun. For players looking to dip their toe into the pool of this appealing action-RPG series, though, it's tough to know where to start. The universe may seem impenetrable to a newcomer, but upcoming rhythm game Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memories might well serve as the best possible introduction to this most labyrinthine of series.
"I really hope so," co-director Masanobu Suzui tells us via interpreter in a recent interview with both him and series director (and Final Fantasy series veteran) Tetsuya Nomura. Suzui-san is the founder of Indieszero, a development studio with ties to Nintendo (most recently collaborating on development of Sushi Striker and Dr Kawashima's Brain Training for Nintendo Switch).
"Obviously, at the end of Kingdom Hearts III we've kind of reached the end of a particular story arc within the Kingdom Hearts series, so I think it's a really good opportunity for fans and people who've already played the games to look back over that period, or for new players to really come in and pick that up as a good overview."
Melody of Memories was revealed back in June and fans of Theatrhythm Final Fantasy quickly saw similarities between this new game and its 3DS forebears. It's no surprise that they're similar, as Suzui-san was the director on that title, too. Given the success of the Kingdom Hearts series over the past eighteen years, we guessed that a rhythm game must have been on the cards for a while.
"The first Theatrhythm came out in 2012 and then, of course, after that we had the Curtain Call version for iOS and then the Dragon Quest version that was released in Japan," Suzui continues, "so we were obviously busy with all of that development. But Kingdom Hearts as well has an absolutely fantastic soundtrack--some excellent music in it--so we were really excited about the possibility of being able to do a rhythm game there. About five years ago, Hazama-san [producer, Ichiro Hazama] and myself took a proposal to do a Kingdom Hearts rhythm game to Nomura-san. Yes, so that was about five years ago."
The idea may have been around for a while, but timing is everything, especially with a franchise this big with multiple projects and parties involved.
"At that time, the result was that it wasn't quite the right time; it would be a little bit difficult, so it didn't go ahead. But then a bit further down the road, Disney also came back and said 'Well, have [you] considered doing a rhythm game for Kingdom Hearts? We heard that might have been something in discussion and we're quite open to that'. And so then Nomura-san took another look at things and we decided to go ahead with it this time around."
Once the green light was given, updating the basic foundation of rhythm-based battles with a fresh Kingdom Hearts spin became the focus. We wondered how much of a departure Melody of Memories is from the gameplay and mechanics of Theatrhythm. "The idea of how music is important and how gameplay is important hasn't changed at all. That's still something that is very central to this game," says Suzui. "The one thing we really wanted to consider is taking this into the direction of 3D. Since Kingdom Hearts is a 3D game, we wanted to create this in a 3D way, so we thought about how we wanted to make this and how we wanted to implement it and that's the main change."
In fact, inspiration for how the added third dimension should work in the game came from an existing source. "The initial idea that we got from Nomura-san was based on the 15th anniversary jukebox website where there was a little Sora running across the top of a musical score. Initially, we tried to build that into it, and that's eventually the direction that we went."
Implementing that extra dimension, however, presented new problems. "First of all the camera was quite difficult - it ended up making a lot of people motion sick - so we had to create a lot of different prototypes and this camera element and the action elements are areas that we've tweaked a lot as we've gone on."
Nearly two decades since the first game in the series, we wondered how the working relationship with Disney has changed over that period. Along with the excitement of having Mickey, Donald and all the other treasured characters from the House of Mouse, there must also come tight restrictions over how they're used. We asked Tetsuya Nomura if it's easier to get things done or approved now than it was 20 years ago?
"My general impression is that, for example, overseas (in this case obviously American) companies tend to change people--have personnel changes--more often than Japanese companies," Nomura says. "So obviously, whenever the person from Disney that's dealing with the Kingdom Hearts series changes, we see some changes."
there's a lot more recognition within Disney that Kingdom Hearts is a 'thing'. So, there were some things that were easier to do when we weren't as well known
In fact, in some ways, it was easier in the old days when Kingdom Hearts was an unknown quantity, as Nomura-san explains: "To be honest, in the early years not many people at Disney really knew much about Kingdom Hearts. It was a little sort of tucked away thing, if you will. But now it's more widely known, there's a lot more recognition within Disney that Kingdom Hearts is a 'thing'. So, there were some things that were easier to do when we weren't as well known, but on the other hand there are some things that are easier to do now we have that larger name recognition."
Dealing with a huge corporate entity like Disney means that internal policies can fluctuate frequently, too, which inevitably affects projects and possibilities. "In the past decade plus, there have obviously been a lot of rule changes at Disney itself so in the past some things that we weren't allowed to do, we are now allowed to do. And on the other hand, some of the things we were previously allowed to do we are no longer allowed to do. So, I think the biggest thing that hasn't really changed is that it's always changing."
Melody of Memories revisits the narrative and worlds from the entire Kingdom Hearts series, with a rich cast of characters that will feature familiar faces even if you've never touched a KH game before. "With both Kingdom Hearts and Disney characters, there's about 20-something characters in there," Suzui confirms. "There are the main parties, which have three members, and there are four of those different main parties that you can change between. In addition to that, there are the guest Disney members that will appear in their specific Disney-themed worlds. For those guest characters, when they appear there will be world-specific [details]; for example, different sounds, different symbols, etc, so you can see that kind of impact on the gameplay."
We've paid a lot of attention to the backgrounds, the characters that are being used to really bring back the memories of the original games as they were, to capture that original essence
For a series was bafflingly complex as Kingdom Hearts (narratively-speaking), we imagined that combining story elements into the rhythm experience must have been a challenge. "Players will be able to follow the story through the music and through the different worlds [through the World Tour mode]," Suzui tells us. "Obviously, the important points in the plot in each world will be looked back on in cutscenes and movies as the players progress through it with Kairi's narration - Kairi's storytelling [Kairi is Kingdom Hearts III's protagonist]. This will cover events from Kingdom Hearts 1, 2, Birth By Sleep, Dream Drop Distance, etc, going on."
While you might think it's simply a case of throwing cutscenes behind the rhythm action, Suzui-san believes the narrative and gameplay nit together well. "I think that the gameplay itself--the rhythm game and the story--are quite interwoven there, quite well stacked on top of each other, if you will. We've also obviously paid a lot of attention to the backgrounds, the characters that are being used to really bring back the memories of the original games as they were, to capture that original essence. So, we think that it'll be really good in that sense for both elements."
So, the game looks to capture the spirit of the series, which should please franchise fans looking for a dose of the KH's inimitable charm on Nintendo's console. We were interested to find out more about Melody of Memories' structure and how it differs from that of Theatrhythm. We ask Suzui-san about the main modes available (including online) and if the game will feature similar Event / Field / Battle Music Stages.
"There are three what we would call different 'styles' or different 'segments' that you would play the rhythm action in;" he tells us. "That's the Field, the Memory Dive and other Battles. There are three different ways you can play in that style. But then, to widen it out to the modes, separate to those different styles of play you've got the Online Versus mode, you've got Co-op mode, then you've got the Music Select, and then you have the Main World Tour."
The game has over 140 tracks, with some Disney classics mixed in with the original Kingdom Hearts tracks. We asked about the split between Kingdom Hearts and Disney music. "We chose those 140 songs really looking at the Kingdom Hearts series and focusing on the Kingdom Hearts music," Suzui continues, "so there's not a lot of Disney songs in there really. Obviously, Disney songs that were used in Kingdom Hearts worlds will be included, but they're not really the main majority. We also discussed this--I discussed this with Nomura-san and Hazama-san as well--we really wanted to bring the Kingdom Hearts worlds to the fore and use the music that was there."
the Switch version of Melody of Memories is getting an exclusive mode: "Free For All mode"
With this being the first Kingdom Hearts game to come to Switch, we wondered if the console's touchscreen or other features might be put to use. "It's all going to be button-based controls," Suzui-san confirms. "Obviously you can detach the Joy-Cons, you can split the controller up and play the Co-op mode together with those individual Joy-Cons. We've also included local play for the Versus mode, so you can play local [...] Versus instead of just online play." However, the Switch version of Melody of Memories is getting an exclusive mode: "Free For All mode, where you can play with a large number of people on local communications with the Switch." More information and details on this Switch-specific mode will be coming soon.
With time tight in our interview, we finished our conversation by asking Nomura-san how this game's development and schedule has been affected by the unusual events of 2020. Orchestrating all the elements of a project that involves both Square Enix and Disney would surely be a challenge at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic. "It has had a bit of an impact on the schedule, which is running a little bit later than the original plan," Nomura says. "It's not a huge impact by any stretch of the imagination but, for example, it has had an impact on recording--voice recording, etc. We can't follow the same schedule we would usually be able to in these circumstances."
With various aspects of the game under wraps for the time being (including the exact number of tracks), it's fair to say that Melody of Memories will give series veterans a shot of nostalgia as it takes them to worlds from the series' history and, perhaps, offers post-Kingdom Hearts III narrative nuggets.
The game is launching worldwide in November, so we don't have long to wait to find out. Our main takeaway from the conversation was that while series fans will love revisiting the music and characters from the series, it'll hopefully be a great entry point for anybody who's not up to speed on their KH lore; a handy 'Previously on Kingdom Hearts...' catch-up. Goodness knows that even some die-hard aficionados wouldn't mind one of those and, from the looks of things, this is shaping up to be the perfect memory jog and love letter to the series so far
Our thanks to Suzui-san, Nomura-san, and the team at Square Enix for their time. This interview have been lightly edited for clarity and we've edited it since publication to amend some in-game terms to their official English equivalents. Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memories launches in the West on 13th November.