When I first played Kingdom Hearts, it was an unforgettable experience. I loved the world and all of its characters, both new and familiar, and the story was so deep and intricate that I found myself absorbed. At the time, Kingdom Hearts was a stand-alone game, but in the years since, its world has grown, with multiple sequels, prequels and spin-offs joining the franchise, each with their own unique stories and characters.
The sheer amount of tales to be told can be overwhelming to those new to the franchise, and as such, the series can be seen as inaccessible. With the release of Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, which features two new stories, Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover and Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep, as well as a high-definition remaster of Dream Drop Distance, the series now comprises eleven individual stories. As impossible a task as it may seem, this article aims to condense these stories, and explain the many worlds and history of Kingdom Hearts for new and old fans alike, giving you everything you need to know to get started with Square Enix’s much loved and ever-growing franchise.
The Kingdom Hearts franchise largely follows series protagonist, Sora, as he discovers his destiny as a keyblade wielder, an ancient weapon that allows the user to travel between worlds, and battle the forces of darkness. The series features many characters and worlds from Disney’s most popular films, with everyone from Mickey Mouse to Jack Sparrow making appearances throughout the franchise, as Sora works to prevent the rise of darkness throughout their many worlds. Though the main console entries follow Sora, several games follow other protagonists and Sora’s fellow keyblade wielders, such as the prequel game, Birth by Sleep, which features three protagonists – Aqua, Terra and Ventus, all who have an important place in Kingdom Hearts lore.
Despite 2002’s Kingdom Hearts being the first entry into the series, the first chronological entry is actually 2017’s Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover, which is more a film than it is a video game. The story explores key details of the history of Kingdom Hearts’ world, and hints at the future direction of Kingdom Hearts III, though it isn’t necessary to watch it before playing the franchise. Following Back Cover is Kingdom Hearts χ, a browser-based RPG released 2016, which takes place 100 years prior to the original entry. It features a generic keyblade wielder as they fight to protect the light of their world, and though it does feature the lore of Kingdom Hearts, this entry, which was later ported into free-to-play mobile title, Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ, is largely designed as a separate story, and as such is also unnecessary to understanding the whole story.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, a prequel to Kingdom Hearts released for the PSP in 2010, is one of the more important parts of the franchise, as it features the events of the Keyblade Wars, which have a large influence on Kingdom Hearts’ history. Taking place 10 years before the events of the original game, Birth By Sleep features keyblade wielders Ventus, Aqua and Terra as they search for Master Xehanort, Ventus’ former tutor, and a Keyblade Master. The game features individual stories for each of the three protagonists, and ultimately culminates in a battle against Xehanort, who ends up possessing Terra, and Vanitas, who is the personification of the darkness in Ventus’ heart.
This concept is explored more fully in other entries in the series, and quite honestly it took me nearly three whole games to understand it, but in the world of Kingdom Hearts, when a person loses hope, their souls can split, and form a being known as a Nobody, and another being know as a Heartless. A Nobody is the husk of a person who has lost their heart, while a Heartless is a being of pure darkness that embodies that person’s heart. When Ventus was under Xehanort’s tutelage, he began losing hope for the future, and thus formed Vanitas, a Heartless.
Ventus and Vanitas fight in order to prevent the forging of the χ-Blade, the original and most powerful keyblade, leading to Vanitas being defeat, Ventus falling into a deep sleep, and Aqua being trapped in the realm of darkness. When the χ-Blade was destroyed, it split into seven pieces of light that became the hearts of the Princesses of Heart, and thirteen pieces of darkness. While in stasis, Ventus’ heart is reborn inside Sora, leading to the events of Kingdom Hearts. Confused yet? You’re not alone – Birth By Sleep is one of the more dense titles in the series, and while I do recommend playing it, it’s not an essential title. Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep takes place just after the events of this game, and features Aqua during her time trapped in the Realm of Darkness.
All of these events lead directly into Kingdom Hearts, where we finally meet Sora, the inheritor of the keyblade. One night, Sora’s hometown, Destiny Islands, is attacked by Heartless. During the fight, Sora’s friends, Riku and Kairi, disappear, and Destiny Islands is destroyed. Flung into space, Sora is soon rescued by Donald Duck and Goofy, who serve as his loyal companions, and together they travel through various Disney worlds searching for Riku and Kairi. Throughout the game, they must battle various Disney villains including Maleficent, Scar and Oogie Boogie, who seek the Princesses of Heart. These Princesses, one of which happens to be Kairi, can open the keyhole to Kingdom Hearts, the source of all the hearts and power in the world.
Riku, betraying Sora, aligns himself with the Disney villains and eventually faces Sora, as he is possessed by darkness, but is ultimately defeated. Sora then finds Kairi barely alive, and sacrifices his own heart to save her, leading to the creation of Roxas and Naminé, the Nobodies of Sora and Kairi. Using her own power as a Princess of Heart, Kairi restores Sora’s soul, and he must then battle Ansem for control of Kingdom Hearts. Unbeknownst to Sora, Ansem is actually the Heartless formed from Xehanort when he possessed Terra in Birth by Sleep, though this is not explained in Kingdom Hearts. Once Ansem is defeated, the various worlds destroyed by the Heartless reform, as Sora sets off to find Riku and Mickey Mouse, who have once again disappeared.
This search is charted in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, a card-based game made initially for the Game Boy Advance. Sora, Donald and Goofy must traverse a massive fortress called Castle Oblivion, the home of an evil organisation called, creatively, Organisation XIII. Sora begins to lose his memories in the castle, and in order to regain them, is placed in a pod-like machine by Naminé, the Nobody of Kairi. While Sora sleeps, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days explores the life of Roxas, Sora’s Nobody, and a member of Organisation XIII. Featuring various missions and worlds both familiar and new, 358/2 Days provides an essential link between Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II. Charting Roxas’ relationship with Axel, a fellow member of Organisation XIII and Xion, a false replica of Roxas, created from Sora’s memories of Kairi. Once Roxas learns the truth about Xion from the leader of the Organisation, Xemnas (the Nobody of Xehanort), Roxas defects and is found and captured by Riku, who wishes to resume Sora’s memory recovery. Roxas is then inserted into a virtually simulated Twilight Town, created by DiZ (the original Ansem the Wise, who had his identity stolen by Xehanort), without his memories, as shown in Kingdom Hearts II, so that Sora might wake up.
Kingdom Hearts II, the first direct sequel the original game, begins with Roxas exploring exploring the simulated Twilight Town as seen in 358/2 Days. While Organisation XIII attempts to free Roxas, he is able to fight them off, and eventually merges with Sora once more, awakening him from his stasis pod, and restoring his memories. Re-uniting with Donald and Goofy, Sora seeks to find Riku and stop Organisation XIII, who aim to take the power of Kingdom Hearts for themselves. Eventually, they encounter Axel, the former friend of Roxas, who recognises Sora, and sacrifices himself in order for the trio to gain access to the headquarters of Organisation XIII. There, they battle Xemnas, the leader of Organisation XIII, and eventually defeat him, allowing Sora and Riku to return to Destiny Islands. There, they receive a letter from King Mickey warning them of a new journey and darkness ahead of them.
Kingdom Hearts II was followed by Kingdom Hearts coded, a puzzle-solving mobile title that was later remastered and ported to Nintendo DS as Kingdom Hearts Re:coded. It features Sora travelling through the digital realm in order to unencrypt two secret messages in Jiminy Cricket’s journal left by Naminé. These messages warn Sora that he must protect those connected to his heart – Roxas, Axel, Xion, Terra, Aqua and Ventus, and also warn of the return of Master Xehanort. In order to prepare Sora and Riku, Yen Sid, the ancient sorcerer, entrusts the pair to begin the Mark of Mastery, a test to prove that they are worthy of becoming Keyblade Masters. Dream Drop Distance, a remaster of the original Nintendo 3DS title, is included in Kingdom Hearts 2.8, and follows Riku and Sora as they undertake this exam, travelling through various realms in order to prepare for Master Xehanort’s return.
With the release of Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, another multi-layered chapter of lore has been added to the mammoth franchise, filling in the gaps left by previous entries and setting the stage for the eventual release of Kingdom Hearts III. With the upcoming release of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 Remix on Playstation 4, the series is more accessible than ever, and now is the perfect time to get into the franchise. The many worlds of Kingdom Hearts are beautiful and complex, if a little bit confusing at times, and I encourage anyone interested in the franchise to get playing. As one of the most interesting and endearing action-adventure franchises on the market, years later, Kingdom Hearts still remains an exciting and wholly different beast.
Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue is out now on PlayStation 4.