Anytime I get a question about Square Enix’s elaborate crossover Kingdom Hearts, I can’t help but groan.
It’s not because I hate talking about Kingdom Hearts, mind you. Ever since I played the first game at a childhood friend’s house back in 2002, I’ve become enamoured like so many others in the fantastical worlds and touching stories within the series.
Blending all things Disney with Square Enix’s flagship Final Fantasy series has always seemed oddly endearing. Like throwing two contrasting colours onto the same canvas, it’s about how the two properties come together to help build a uniquely original universe filled with characters both new and old. Explaining any part of that universe to the uninitiated, however, can feel herculean.
Yet as we get closer towards the release of the series’ latest entry, Kingdom Hearts III, I'm getting even more questions from friends who find themselves caught up in the hype. Some ask me where to begin while others ask me which games they can skip. A few just want to know if it’s any good at all.
So, to save myself a lot of trouble in repeating myself as well as helping anyone in the similar state of mind, I figure there’s no better time than the present to get something like this out there. Here’s everything you need to know before you play Kingdom Hearts III if you’ve never played any of these games before.
I hope this goes without saying but… spoilers for the entire Kingdom Hearts series ahead.
So, what’s going on in Kingdom Hearts?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. The Kingdom Hearts story spans over a decade’s worth of games with only two of them containing big ol’ roman numerals instead of convoluted subtitles. But, there is a clear place to start: Kingdom Hearts.
The most straightforward game of the series, unexpectedly, Kingdom Hearts established most of the foundational vernacular that we have come to know and love from the series. Circling three characters in Sora, Riku, and Kairi, the three of them are separated by a giant storm. After Sora runs into Donald Duck and Goofy, who are on their own journey of finding King Mickey, the three of them team up to help each other find their lost friends. Along the way, they run into various characters from the Final Fantasy games and Disney movies. Don’t get too worked up into how they all incorporate into the broader picture, though.
Ansem, the game’s villain, attempts to unlock the power of the Heart of All Worlds, otherwise known as the titular Kingdom Hearts. Luckily, Sora and his pals are able to stop him, but they’re separated once again from their friends. While Kairi returns to their home to await their return, Sora, Donald, and Goofy venture off once more to search for Riku and King Mickey.
This leads them to Castle Oblivion in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, where Sora’s memories are tampered with by someone called Naminé. Eventually being put into stasis, Sora awakes in Kingdom Hearts II with his memories of the previous game removed.
Kingdom Hearts II revolves around a group known as Organization XIII, a bunch of folks in black trench coats that want to create a new Kingdom Hearts. The members of Organization XIII, however, are referred to as Nobodies, which are beings that are generated from the body of someone who becomes a Heartless. Since Sora became a Heartless to save Kairi in the original Kingdom Hearts, he generated two Nobodies: Naminé, the girl from the previous game (who was actually created because part of Kairi’s heart was within Sora when he became a Heartless…?) and Roxas, who you play as during the game’s opening moments.
If things sound confusing, it’s because they are. The franchise has built itself on this sort of indigestible jargon of Hearts and Souls and Light and Dark and Nobodies that it fails to ever really properly define. But, let’s continue on.
After Sora stops Organization XIII and its leader, Xemnas, we figure out that both he and the villain of the original game, Ansem, were created from someone known as Xehanort - the true antagonist of the series. Ansem being the Heartless of Xehanort and Xemnas being his Nobody, after both are defeated, Xehanort is reborn which leads us into Kingdom Hearts III.
Ah, got it. So that’s it?
Well, no. There are many other games in the Kingdom Hearts timeline, all of them varying in how important they are towards the series’ overarching plot.
Take the next game in the series, for instance, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. Running parallel to Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories' storyline and leading up into the opening of Kingdom Hearts II, 358/2 Days is about Sora’s Nobody, Roxas. It follows Roxas’ life in Organization XIII as its thirteenth member, his relationship with fellow members, and his important role in the reconstruction of Sora’s memories. It’s a game that cleared up some unknown aspects of Organization XIII and helped flesh out previously underutilised characters but, all in all, there’s nothing vital here.
While Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days is more of a side-story, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is practically as important as either of the mainline titles in the series. Taking place ten years prior to the original Kingdom Hearts, Birth by Sleep focuses on three new protagonists: Terra, Ventus, and Aqua. The three characters act as predecessors for Sora, Riku, and Kairi, and do battle against the series’ true villain, Xehanort, who was only hinted at before. The game ends with Ventus’ heart split into two, the dark portion creating Venitus. Xehanort, hoping their inevitable conflict would create the mythical χ-blade which he could use to open Kingdom Hearts, but is foiled as Ventus sacrifices his own heart to destroy it. Terra, meanwhile, is overcome by the darkness within his heart and is used by Xehanort as a vessel in their final confrontation. Aqua, trying to save Terra, is then trapped in the Realm of Darkness.
Birth by Sleep’s direct connections to Kingdom Hearts III is hard to parse out, especially since it sets up so much previously unknown knowledge. What you need to know is that Terra, Ventus, and Aqua each passed the ability to wield keyblades onto Sora, Riku, and Kairi respectively, and that Sora can save those attached to his heart, meaning that the fate of those in Birth by Sleep is in his hands.
While there are many other games in the series still, there aren’t as many specific story beats that are crucial to the understanding of Kingdom Hearts III’s plot. Kingdom Hearts χ, for instance, deals with events even before that of Birth by Sleep which may more may not come into play, while Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance has Sora and Riku taking the Mark of Mastery exam to become keyblade masters, which Sora fails. They’re nice, enjoyable games on their own but for what we’re discussing here, they carry little importance.
I skipped all of that. Just give me the important bits.
Right. So, Kingdom Hearts III is the culmination of events mainly setup by Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, and Kingdom Hearts II. That may sound like a lot, but as we’ve just been over, we can boil what you need to know into a couple of key points.
As you may remember from Kingdom Hearts III’s trailer from E3 2015, we see two young boys playing chess - one is Xehanort, the other is Eraqus, the master of the three protagonists of Birth by Sleep. Xehanort believes that there must be balance between the light and the dark, and to do so, needs to open up access to Kingdom Hearts - the Heart of All Worlds.
After the events of Birth by Sleep, he is split into two forms - his Nobody, Xemnas, and his Heartless, Ansem. Throughout the events of the first two mainline games, Sora fights both Xemnas and Ansem, which results in Xehanort’s resurrection. Ready to finish what he started, Xehanort prepares a battle for the ages - seven lights against thirteen darknesses.
The seven lights, most likely, are represented by the keyblade wielders: Sora, Riku, Kairi, Ventus, Terra, Aqua, and King Mickey. However, due to the events of Birth by Sleep, Ventus, Terra, and Aqua are all MIA. No doubt Kingdom Hearts III will focus on Sora gathering them for the final showdown.
The stage is set, the pieces are in their places, and it looks like we’ll finally be able to close the book on Xehanort’s saga (hopefully) when Kingdom Hearts III comes out later this year. Now, you’re a bit more prepared for it.