Fandom Fast Food: What even IS Kingdom Hearts?

This week sees the release of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue, a game that is somehow not the most ridiculously-titled entry in the popular JRPG franchise. It includes an HD remake of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, a new movie that examines the events of Kingdom Hearts Unchained X from the perspective of the Foretellers, and Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage – , which is a direct sequel to Birth by Sleep following Aqua’s adventures in the world of Darkness.

....

…okay, sorry, let’s backtrack.

With all the hype surrounding Kingdom Hearts III’s development, a lot of new or lapsed fans are flocking to the franchise, wanting to see what all the fuss was about back when the girl they liked in 9th grade was talking about it. Unfortunately, Kingdom Hearts is a franchise that tries as hard as it can to be completely inscrutable, so even people who have played all the games can get lost in its complicated plot.

So you want to get to know Kingdom Hearts? Let me help you out with this handy guide. Just skip to the questions that apply to you!

How many Kingdom Hearts games are there?

All told, the Kingdom Hearts franchise is comprised of the following games.

  • Kingdom Hearts – The beginning of Sora’s journey to defeat the Heartless.
  • Chain of Memories – Sora goes on a memory-altering head trip between games.
  • Kingdom Hearts II – Sora fights a new threat called the Nobodies while searching for his missing friend.
  • 358/2 Days (just “Days” for short) – Follows the villains of KH2, as well as key character Roxas.
  • Birth by Sleep Takes place ten years before KH1, establishing why this story is even happening and why it would be worse without Aqua.
  • Coded – Mickey Mouse goes into a computer to stop an evil magic virus or some shit. Skippable.
  • Dream Drop Distance – Sora and Riku take the keyblade mastery exam and learn more about the evil they’re fighting.
  • Unchained X – Phone game that takes place hundreds of years earlier. Super Skippable.
  • 0.2 – Fragmentary Passage – Follows Aqua after the events of Birth by Sleep.
  • Kingdom Hearts III – Theoretically it will exist at some point in the future.

How do I play all of them?

Until recently, you would have needed a PS2, GBA, DS, 3DS, PSP, smartphone, and PS4/XBONE to play the entire saga. However, thanks to these new remixes, you can get the first six titles on this list in the 1.5 and 2.5 HD Remixes on PS3. There is even a compilation coming to PS4 that will be both collections on one disc. So, if you want to get the entire saga on one console, you can get it by only buying 3 products for the PS4: Kingdom Hearts 1.5+2.5, Kingdom Hearts 2.8, and Kingdom Hearts III.

Here's a chart if you're more of a visual learner.
Here’s a chart if you’re more of a visual learner. I spent 20 painstaking minutes in GIMP making this.

Days and Coded are both just cutscene compilations on the remixes, but frankly their gameplay wasn’t very good, so you’re better off just watching the cutscenes anyway.

 

Okay, but what order should I play them in?

Some would argue that you should play them in chronological order, but those people are stupid. The franchise is meant to be played in release order. However, the remixes don’t organize them that way, so you have to jump around a little bit to get the story the way Nomura intended.

Here’s the quick version:

  1. Kingdom Hearts
  2. Chain of Memories
  3. Kingdom Hearts II
  4. Watch Days cutscenes (While Days takes place before KH2, it will spoil one of the larger plot reveals in the opening hours of KH2.)
  5. Birth by Sleep 
  6. Watch Coded cutscenes (or don’t, honestly, it’s pretty boring)
  7. Dream Drop Distance
  8. 0.2
  9. Watch the Unchained movie included with 2.8

That sounds like a lot of work. Can I just play the two main games before starting III?

No, absolutely not. The two main numbered games form a little story arc on their own, but everything that came out after KH2 exists to set up the conflict for KH3. Kingdom Hearts III will make a lot less sense if you don’t understand what happened in these games.

At the bare minimum, you have to play Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance. Coincidentally, those are the two best spinoff games, so you should also play them because they’re just good games. To get all of the intricacies, you really will have to go through the whole thing, even if it’s just cutscene compilations.

 

I’m gonna level with you, I was sort of hoping you’d just tell me the whole story so I can jump straight to Kingdom Hearts III.

 

Well why didn’t you lead with that? Get comfortable and use the bathroom now, this is going to take a while.

FULL SPOILERS FOR ALL KINGDOM HEARTS GAMES FOLLOW. IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS, STOP BEING LAZY AND PLAY THE GAMES

The story of Kingdom Hearts starts hundreds of years before the first game, when the world was in one whole piece. Light and Darkness both existed in harmony, and the guardian of the Light was Kingdom Hearts, a sentient collection of hearts that was essentially the heart of the universe. Protecting Kingdom Hearts and protecting its Light from those who would seek to corrupt it was the X-Blade, a Very Important Thing that is still pronounced “Keyblade” because Japanese people don’t understand how Greek letters work and we want to confuse people who like playing games sans subtitles.

The sages and warriors of the world made Keyblades in the X-Blade’s image and dedicated their lives to defending Kingdom Hearts and the precious Light it contained. Eventually factions started wanting to take the Light for themselves, because people are assholes. So the Keyblade War happened, where five different armies of Keyblade warriors fought and killed each other over who could wield the X-Blade and along with it control Kingdom Hearts.

Naturally that ended poorly for everyone: all five armies were left in ruins, and the X-Blade shattered, breaking into seven pieces of Light and thirteen pieces of Darkness. Kingdom Hearts shattered as well, leaving everything in darkness until the tiny fragments of Light grew and became separate, unconnected worlds. These worlds became the Disney worlds that players visit throughout the franchise.

So yeah, that happened.

BIRTH BY SLEEP

Meet Terra, Ven, and Aqua. Bad things are going to happen to them very soon.
Meet Terra, Ventus, and Aqua. Bad things are going to happen to them very soon.

The Keyblade Order lived on somehow, and at the start of Birth By Sleep we see that there are two Keyblade Masters still training pupils: Master Eraqus and Master Xehanort.

Eraqus believed in the power of Light and the crusade all Keyblade Bearers must embark on to banish Darkness, meaning He Is Totally Going To Live, You Guys.

Master Xehanort was a dick.

He wanted to have the power of Kingdom Hearts to himself just like the Dumbasses of Old, so he had a plan: the X-Blade shattered into Light and Darkness, so if he gets a really big light and a really big darkness and smashes them together, he can reforge the X-Blade. That is definitely how science works.

Xehanort had an apprentice named Ventus, Ven for short. When Ven was a child, Xehanort pushed him to his limit while training, trying to force him to embrace the Darkness in his heart. That didn’t work because Ven was a good soul at his core. Xehanort decided it would be faster to forcibly extract the Darkness out of his heart, raise him and his dark other (Vanitas) until both had regenerated full hearts (hearts can regenerate themselves, by the way, That Will Be Super Important Later), and then have them re-merge. However, when he did this, Ven fell into a coma and it looked like he might not wake up.

Thinking the experiment a failure, Xehanort took the boy to his childhood home of Destiny Islands so that he could die somewhere peaceful. At the same time, on the same island, a boy named Sora was being born. Ventus’ heart reached out to Sora’s, because…uh…Stem Cells? Sora helped Ventus to recover from a wound to his heart that normally would have killed him. This left a strong connection between their hearts that would be very important later.

Surprised that the boy lived, Xehanort dumped Ven off with Eraqus, who had two other apprentices, Terra and Aqua. Xehanort trained Vanitas in secret.

Several years passed, all three of Eraqus’ apprentices found themselves running around Disney worlds for various reasons, and Xehanort sprang his trap. His original plan was to put his brain into Ventus once Ventus and Vanitas re-merged and created the X-Blade, but he found that Ventus’ heart was too strong and pure of Light. Thankfully, Terra fit the angsty rival archetype, and Xehanort took full advantage of that to trick Terra into killing his master, Eraqus. Then Xehanort stole Terra’s body. The contingency plan turned out to be a good idea, because his plan didn’t work: the crude, impatient method of recreating the X-Blade resulted in an imperfect version. Because Xehanort possessed a young body and he’d have most of a lifetime to correct this error, he decided to give up on the experiment and kill Ventus and Aqua.

Aqua decided she was going to become the baddest-ass in the entire Kingdom Hearts universe and fix the boys’ fuck-ups. She defeated Vanitas-possessed-Ventus. Ventus went comatose because, thanks to the connection they forged earlier, his heart took refuge within Sora’s body rather than fall to Darkness (because apparently that’s a thing that can happen). Aqua took Ven’s body to the world where they trained, and activated a failsafe the now-dead Master Eraqus had left behind that turned the place into an impregnable castle. She stashed the body in the lowest sub-basement that could only be accessed through means currently unknown.

Aqua tried to take Terra’s body back from Xehanort in a climactic battle (that Aqua won), but was unable to get it back. When it looked like Terra was going to be lost to darkness, Aqua jumped into the Realm of Darkness after him. She sent her Keyblade and magic armor to the surface with Terra inside, essentially sacrificing herself to save her friend. Xehanort, in Terra’s body, woke up, supposedly without his memories. He became the apprentice of a scientist named Ansem the Wise, and took part in his experiments on the nature of the Heart.

Ansem’s research discovered that when a human gives in to the Darkness in their heart, they actually turn into a creature called a Heartless, a mindless being driven only by the hunger to devour and consume more hearts. He is quickly visited by none other than Mickey Mouse, who is a King in this universe and a powerful Keyblade Master. After talking to him and learning more about the nature of hearts, the Keyblade, and the war between Light and Darkness, Ansem realizes what he has done and shutters the experiments.

Unfortunately, Xehanort had actually been faking his amnesia the whole time, and chose this as the time to strike. He convinces the other lab assistants to continue the research in secret, and continues taking notes under Ansem’s name. He runs an experiment on Ansem the Wise’s daughter, Kairi, and discovers that her heart is pure Light. There is not a single drop of Darkness in her. It turns out there are seven girls, known as the Princesses of Heart, who are pure Light. Although it hasn’t been confirmed as of yet, it’s likely their hearts are actually the seven fragments of light from when the X-Blade shattered. Xehanort then pulls out his Keyblade, kills all of the lab assistants, and then himself, transforming all of them into Heartless.

The tide of Darkness sweeps their world and Ansem the Wise is forced to retreat and send his daughter to another world where she would be safe.

KINGDOM HEARTS

Kairi, Sora, and Riku are best friends. Sure hope nothing bad happens to them, either.
Kairi, Sora, and Riku are best friends. Sure hope nothing bad happens to them, either.

Kairi washes up on Destiny Islands and is taken in by a family. Time passes and she becomes good friends with Sora, the boy who helped Ventus all those years ago, and his friendly rival Riku. All three of them want to see what other worlds are out there, so at 14 they decide to build a raft and go exploring. Nobody bothers to tell them that rafts are incapable of space travel.

The Heartless invade, and their world is destroyed. Kairi, being pure Light, cannot be turned into a Heartless, so when she is consumed by darkness her heart retreats into Sora’s to keep her safe and her body falls into a coma. Riku embraces the Darkness, thinking it can save Kairi and his home. Sora is chosen by the Keyblade, and embarks on a journey across the worlds to fight back the Darkness.

Heartless Xehanort, going by the name Ansem, is leading the Heartless in an attempt to open the door to Kingdom Hearts. If he can open the Heart of All Worlds, he’ll become all-powerful by absorbing the darkness inside.

Needing a human host capable of wielding a Keyblade, Xehanort manipulates Riku into turning against his friends and possesses him (he’s got an MO), leading to climactic battle between the two friends (he’s got an MO).

Sora defeats Riku, then finds out the truth about Kairi’s heart – the only way to free her from her coma is if Sora unlocks his own heart. He does, sacrificing his life to bring her back. Sora comes back to life as a Heartless, but the connection forged with Kairi while her heart was inside his lets her pull him back, giving him a physical form indistinguishable from his true body. Sora marches to the gates of Kingdom Hearts, defeats Heartless Xehanort, and opens the doors to Kingdom Hearts, obliterating Xehanort with the light held within.

Unfortunately, there is a portal to the Realm of Darkness in Kingdom Hearts, and in order to stop it from spilling out, it must be locked from both sides by the Keyblade. King Mickey was already in the Realm of Darkness because reasons. He insists that Sora must leave him there so they can both lock it. Riku helps close the door on the darkness side, making Sora promise that he’ll take care of Kairi. They lock Kingdom Hearts together, and having defeated Heartless Xehanort, all of the worlds consumed by his darkness are restored, including their home, Destiny Islands. However, Sora doesn’t want to return home until he has saved Riku and King Mickey from the darkness.

358/2 DAYS + CHAIN OF MEMORIES

They happen concurrently, as if that's not confusing enough.
They happen concurrently, as if things aren’t confusing enough.

What Sora will discover is that there is more threat to the world than just Heartless. When a particularly strong-willed person gives up their heart, their body can sometimes reform as an empty shell called a Nobody, an intelligent creature with the sole desire to reclaim its own Heart. When Sora sacrificed himself, he created a Nobody named Roxas (All the Nobody names are anagrams of their original life’s name, plus an X. Because X-Blade. Aren’t they clever?). Because Ven is still attached to Sora’s heart, Roxas takes the form of Ven. Yes, I know, just go with it.

When Xehanort killed all of Ansem’s assistants (and then himself), they all became Nobodies. Xemnas, Xehanort’s Nobody, bands them together with a few other powerful Nobodies to create Organization XIII. The group’s mission is to collect enough hearts that they can open Kingdom Hearts and retrieve their own hearts from inside and they don’t care how many worlds they have to destroy to make that happen.

Roxas is recruited into the Organization after being found by a member named Axel. Roxas is highly prized by the Organization because he still has the ability to use the Keyblade, which will help them collect hearts more quickly. In an attempt to increase productivity, Xemnas orders that a construct be created from Roxas’ memories (specifically his memories of Kairi). Those memories become Xion, created, a construct that can also use the Keyblade. This is exactly as stupid as it sounds.

Roxas, Axel, and Xion become great friends, eating ice cream at the clocktower of a world called Twilight Town every day after their missions. Axel is also super gay for Roxas. That’s an important plot point.

Meanwhile, Sora stumbles on the castle where Aqua originally stashed Ventus’ body, although he doesn’t know about any of that. Xemnas, perhaps still pulled by Terra’s memories, has established the castle as the Organization’s secondary base of operations, calling it Castle Oblivion.

When Sora sacrificed himself, Roxas wasn’t the only new life created. Since Kairi’s heart was also released in the process, a Nobody for her was also created, named Namine (because screw the conventions, she’s a special star flower). Due to the strange circumstances of her creation, Namine can alter the memories of Sora and anyone connected to him. At the request of Marluxia, an Organization member who wants to mutiny, she alters Sora’s memories to replace Kairi with herself. They hope he can be turned into a weapon against the Organization under the false pretense she was captured and Sora needs to cut down the Organization to rescue her.

Xemnas catches wind of this and sends Axel to rectify the situation. Sora finds out the truth, and Namine promises to set everything right. Namine must erase Sora’s memories of everything that happened in Castle Oblivion to system restore his brain. Sora has to be put to sleep to make sure everything goes correctly, so she puts him in a stasis pod.

Riku and Mickey show up at Castle Oblivion. Riku comes to terms with his past mistakes, and finds Namine working on Sora’s memories. He promises to keep Sora safe until she can wake him up. He and Mickey continue on their journey, vowing to fight the Organization from the shadows as agents who travel the Realm of Darkness. In the course of the game, all of the traitorous members of Organization XIII have been killed by Sora, Axel or Riku.

Bringing Sora back requires putting all of his memories back, including the ones used to create Xion (Becoming a scientist in the Kingdom Hearts world must require a lot of nodding and not asking questions). Xemnas wants to wake Sora up so that they can use him to collect more hearts. He tries to trick Roxas and Xion into destroying each other. Xion loses control and Roxas is forced to destroy her. Those memories are reincorporated into Sora and everyone loses all memories they had of Xion. As the memories are still fading, Roxas leaves the Organization despite Axel’s protests. Roxas also needs to remerge with Sora so he can get his real body back before he wakes up, so Riku comes along and defeats him, carrying his unconscious body back to Namine.

KINGDOM HEARTS II

Oh, yeah, right, Donald and Goofy are your main party members in this game. Forgot to mention that.
Oh, yeah, right, Donald and Goofy are your main party members in this game. Forgot to mention that.

The real Ansem the Wise, working with Namine and Riku, creates a fake datascape (which is the fancy Kingdom Hearts way of saying VR world) where Roxas lives like a regular teenager while his memories are reincorporated into Sora. Roxas figures out that this is happening when Axel breaks into the simulation and tries to get his best friend back, but it’s too late. Roxas is merged back into Sora, and the latter wakes back up. Those three sentences take three hours of gameplay, you’re welcome.

Sora goes on yet another journey to different Disney worlds, thwarting Organization XIII’s plot to build Kingdom Hearts and trying to find Riku and Mickey. Turns out that in order to tap into his full dark powers, Riku actually had to transform back into Heartless Xehanort, and he had resigned himself to the fact he would never be able to face Sora and Kairi again after that. Eventually Kairi is captured by Organization XIII, so everyone is reunited at their home base, The World That Never Was. Ansem the Wise uses a magic science gun to blow up the door to Kingdom Hearts, sending himself to the Realm of Darkness in the process. That also turns Riku back to normal, because sure why not. Axel sacrifices himself to help Sora get into the Organization’s castle, because he was super gay for Roxas. In the end, Sora and Riku team up to destroy Xemnas, splitting open a doorway that takes them to Destiny Islands where everyone is together again.

Of course, that can’t be the end of the story. Mickey goes on a weird-ass journey through the internet (please don’t ask) and discovers that when a Heartless and a Nobody from the same person are destroyed, their original self will be reincarnated (theology degrees in the Kingdom Hearts world require about as much patience as the science degree). This means that the original Master Xehanort who caused all that trouble ten years ago is going to be back, with a vengeance. Mickey writes a letter to Sora, Riku, and Kairi, telling them the whole story about Aqua, Terra, and Ventus.

The only way to stop Master Xehanort when he returns in his full Keyblade-powered glory is to free the three heroes of the past. Sora decides to help. He tries to insist that he go alone, but Riku and Kairi tag along.

No, we’re not done yet.

DREAM DROP DISTANCE

The only game where Sora and Riku aren't fighting or moping!
The only game where Sora and Riku aren’t fighting or moping!

So Time Travel is a thing. Because this needed to be more complicated. Just roll with it. Here are the rules:

  • You can only go to places within your lifetime and places you’ve been.
  • You can bring people with you, but they have to go back.
  • When you return to your time, you forget everything that happened, but important things you learned still remain etched in your heart so you’ll probably still act on them subconsciously.

Turns out, through these shenanigans, that both main games were all part of the same plan. Remember how the X-Blade broke into seven pieces of light and thirteen pieces of Darkness? After his failure with Ventas, Xehanort purposely split himself into a Heartless and a Nobody so that he could cover more ground.

Heartless Xehanort attempted to gather the seven Princesses of Heart so he could open Kingdom Hearts, but he was really subliminally being compelled in order to form one half of the X-Blade.

Xemnas similarly thought that he was a benevolent leader who was going to bring his people’s hearts back, but really, he was being compelled to open up Kingdom Hearts so he could hook all thirteen members’ bodies to Master Xehanort, creating thirteen hearts of Darkness. Moreover, a creature without a heart does have the ability to regenerate their own Heart, as seen by Axel’s totally gay feelings for Roxas, so Organization XIII would have gotten their hearts back without ever gathering heartless.

If both plans succeeded, he could create the X-Blade, then remerge into his human form to wield it. Unfortunately, both plans were destroyed by Sora and Riku, so he had to go with Plan C.

Xehanort went back in time to meet his youngest self on Destiny Islands, before any of the bullshit happened. He passed the Time Travel Hot Potato to Young Xehanort, and told him he had to gather his other selves through time to create the ultimate army of Darkness. Thirteen of them to be exact (if you count his horcruxes. Yes. He has horcruxes. This article is too long already. Go with it).

Sora and Riku took the Mark of Mastery exam, the most ancient of rites to prove a Keyblade Master’s worth.

Unfortunately, Xehanort’s Time Brigade showed up to fuck up the test. He wanted to bring Riku back into the fold as the 13th Xehanort, but Riku has finally stopped being angsty about having gone dark one time, and was able to repel Xehanort’s influence. Xehanort set his sights on Sora instead.

Carrying around the hearts of (at different times) Ventus, Kairi, Roxas, and Xion within Sora’s own heart weighed him down. Sora’s strength is how open and accepting of a heart he has, but carrying those burdens for most of his life has made him highly susceptible to falling to Darkness. Xehanort was able to trap him and poison his heart, rendering him comatose. Riku charged in to rescue him before he could get turned into Xehanort, including a last-second assist from Mickey and reincarnated Axel (who has a Keyblade now because fuck you that’s why).

Xehanort didn’t seem bothered by this. He is convinced that it is fate for his 13 Darknesses and 7 Warriors of Light to clash on the battlefield, and give birth to the X-Blade.

Riku, having resisted the Darkness and rescued Sora, was named the leader of the Warriors of Light. Sora (no longer comatose) decided that to be ready for the coming war, he had to go off alone and truly confront the darkness in his heart. Riku and Mickey began training Lea (Axel) and Kairi in combat so they could be ready when the time comes.

(We’re almost done I promise)

Aqua has been spending the last ten years in the Realm of Darkness, fighting Heartless and surviving. She arrives at a beach where she meets Ansem the Wise, who was flung there by the device he used to destroy Kingdom Hearts. His memory is fuzzy, but he tells her about a boy named Sora who has the power to save everyone and stop the coming tide of Darkness. She is moved by hope, and resolves to survive until Sora can help her escape and they can work together to succeed where she failed.

So that’s it. That’s Kingdom Hearts up to this point. I glossed over a lot (didn’t even mention most of the Disney stuff. Sorry, you’ll have to get your Cinderella summary elsewhere), but that should be enough to follow what’s going on once Kingdom Hearts III rolls around.

Did I miss anything? Anything you’re still confused about? Drop a comment below and I’ll do my level best to explain it.

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