Kingdom Hearts is getting musical with Melody of Memory, the franchise’s first rhythm game, coming out November 13 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch.

This will be the series’ first new game since the mammoth 2019 release of Kingdom Hearts III. But if you think Melody of Memory is just a cute music game, you’d be wrong. It also includes a story-based campaign that picks the narrative up where Kingdom Hearts III left off.

I had a chance to talk with Melody of Memory co-director Masanobu Suzui and producer Ichiro Hazama about adapting Kingdom Hearts to this new genre. This is an edited transcript of my interview, which I conducted through a translator.

Keys to a musical kingdom

GamesBeat: How similar is this game to the Theatrhythm titles?

Masanobu Suzui: The Theatrhythm series took the songs from Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, such great, wonderful pieces of music. The concept was to revisit those songs and give everything a nostalgic feeling. With Kingdom Hearts and Melody of Memory, the idea started when we were working on the Theatrhythm series. Hazama and I both worked on a development plan for something similar with Kingdom Hearts. That was about five years ago, but it never really came through.

After a number of years passed, we were given the opportunity to create this, a rhythm-action game using the music of Kingdom Hearts. With this challenge, we tried not to go the same route as Theatrhythm. We focused on Kingdom Hearts and its exhilarating gameplay, while still being able to enjoy it and make it very accessible to play. We tried to reimagine the concept from the ground-up, and were able to start with the project that we now call Melody of Memory.

GamesBeat: Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are both more turn-based titles, while Kingdom Hearts is an action game. Did that influence your design of this rhythm game?

Suzui: With this rhythm-action game, you’ll be attacking enemies that come up to and then have to react with short notice. There may be multiple ones coming pretty rapidly. If we were to just take the action elements of the mainline Kingdom Hearts games and translate it into that setup, it wouldn’t have that sort of speed and momentum to keep up with the enemies popping up onscreen. It was a challenge.

We made different prototypes to see what would work. When we were looking at the animation when the characters swing the Keyblade, and when it’s about to hit the enemy, we took this animation technique where we would take some of the keyframes out. You’ll have the motion of the Keyblade hitting the enemy exactly on the timing, so it matches that rhythmic tempo, but still, from an animation perspective, it looks like the character is swinging the Keyblade. We were able to achieve that, and it gives a great response, something you need for a rhythm game.

In addition to that, when you’re playing the different stages, you’ll be in a three-person party. It’ll be Sora and two other characters. You’ll be attacking the enemies in order as you go. That also helped with that nice tempo when the enemies appear rapidly. It still looks natural and plays well.

Above: Buddies fight enemies to the beat of music together.

Image Credit: Square Enix

GamesBeat: Along with action, the RPG side is also important to Kingdom Hearts. What kind of RPG elements are in Melody of Memory?

Suzui: First of all, there is a progression system. You leveling your characters and powering them up. Your party members will have increased HP and attack power; they grow stronger as you level up. With more HP, you’re less likely to get a game over. If your attack power is higher, it’ll become easier to knock out your enemies. There’s also a system where you collect cards. They unlock support elements for your characters. You’ll also be prepping before each stage with items that you can use to bolster your party. With those items, you’ll be choosing five different types before going into the stage. You’ll be able to collect materials so that you can synthesize items, which can make battles more convenient. There are materials you can collect and use for synthesis, and they will also unlock new songs. We have different elements that allow for replayability, so players should be able to enjoy the game for a long time.

Of course, story is very important throughout the Kingdom Hearts series, and Melody of Memory isn’t an exception. We have a mode called World Tour. Your characters will use the gummi ship to travel around the different Disney and Kingdom Hearts worlds. There are certain missions you have to accomplish in each area, and when you clear that, you’ll unlock another section of the world. You’re following the storyline from the first Kingdom Hearts game, going through and revisiting different stories throughout your journey. You have different stages, and in between there are opportunities to watch past events as movie clips. We have Kairi narrating over that.

Big soundtracks

GamesBeat: The franchise has had several games with big soundtracks. What was the process of picking songs for this game like?

Ichiro Hazama: There’s a vast library of songs and tracks associated with each of the Kingdom Hearts games. When we were thinking about which songs to choose, I requested certain things of the people in charge of the process. We definitely wanted to pay respect to Yoko Shimomura and the songs she composed just for the Kingdom Hearts series. We also have songs that are very particular to Disney. And we can’t forget Hikaru Utada’s songs as well. We wanted to cover those three major pillars. Taking that as our foundation, we had our teammates go through the song selection process.

Suzui: The song-selection process was definitely very difficult, because we all have our favorites. We all have very strong feelings toward a lot of the different tracks that were used throughout the series. The team members were very torn on which songs to pick. But we had some sources of inspiration. For example, we looked at the concert tour series that was held over the years. We looked at some of the set lists and the songs contained there. Sometimes we looked at fan polls about the franchise’s most popular songs. There were many different polls on different websites. We kept that World Tour mode in mind, and that it would cover the Dark Seeker saga. We also tried to look at what songs we had to have in a particular world. What would bring out the memories of that particular area? It’s a hard decision, but we managed to narrow it down to 140 songs.

Above: A peek at the music selection screen.

Image Credit: Square Enix

GamesBeat: As you’re working on a rhythm game like this, do you get tired of these songs?

Suzui: Not yet, to be honest. We haven’t gotten sick of it yet! But honestly, we’ve chosen some of the best songs. We feel like we’ve chosen some really good songs. It feels more like we’re just soaking it in. It becomes a part of you, almost muscle memory, like you’re playing this music yourself. As you get better at the gameplay, you feel like you’re actually playing the songs. That’s part of the excitement of getting better at it. It sinks in. That’s the kind of motivation that we had on the team. The staff members were like that as we we kept playing.

GamesBeat: Music games like these can have a lot difficulty variety, and it can get pretty extreme. On the hardest level, how difficult do you think these songs can be?

Suzui: There were some instructions from Shimomura about making the songs a little more complex, so that players would be busier with their hands in this game. There are certain songs that are designed to be more difficult. We labeled the difficulty of the songs on a scale of 1 to 15, with 15 being the most difficult. And then we also have what we call the performer style. You’re trying to hit the enemies, but you also have an extra performance moment where you’ll have to press extra buttons, sometimes multiple buttons. Sometimes I’m doing these stages and I zone out for a moment, but if you lose track of things, enemies can come at you suddenly and you can get a pretty quick game over. Some of the development staff are really good, and when they play those stages I wonder if they’re really human, looking at how busy their hand movements are. But they seem to be able to beat these songs easily.

GamesBeat: Memory has been an important theme of Kingdom Hearts, with games like Chain of Memories and Coded. If you’re continuing that theme here, why is memory such a pillar of Kingdom Hearts in general?

Hazama: Unfortunately, series director Tetsuya Nomura isn’t here, and he would have been the best person to answer if we’re talking about Kingdom Hearts as a series. But speaking just for Melody of Memory, we’re going to be revisiting the narrative from the first Kingdom Hearts all the way up to Kingdom Hearts III. We go a little bit further forward into the timeline after the events of the DLC Re:Mind. As a player, you’ll be looking into the different memories or records that were kept of the different adventures that Sora and company have gone through and experienced throughout the series. Memory is definitely an important concept throughout the Kingdom Hearts series, and with Melody of Memory, it’s also going to be also a very important pillar.