Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard people freaking out about a little game that's releasing this week: Kingdom Hearts III.
Back when the first Kingdom Hearts came out in 2002, the story was mainly populated by familiar characters from Disney and Final Fantasy games. But in the eight titles since then, the tale has grown into an sprawling epic and taken on a life of its own with brand new plots, characters, world-building, and a few far-out theories. People often joke that trying to explain the story of the Kingdom Hearts series looks like this:
Well, they're not wrong. But why is it so complicated?
Most people are only aware of the "main series" Kingdom Hearts games (a.k.a. KH1 and KH2), but as I mentioned earlier, there are nine games in total, and if you skip even one, you will miss out on crucial parts of the story. Sadly, keeping up on all these titles has been a real test of dedication since they are spread across a variety of platforms (PS2, PSP, GameBoy Advance, Nintendo DS, 3DS, and iOS/Android to be exact), although the entire series was mercifully condensed into a single collection for PS4.
To make matters more confusing, the games were not released in chronological story order, which required fans to do some serious Dr. Who-style time manipulation in their heads. But if you've seen footage for the new game, you know it looks really, really cool. You probably want to play it. But what if you've missed some (or even all) of the previous Kingdom Hearts games? Can you still enjoy KH3?
You absolutely can!
I've partnered with two of my good friends and fellow Kingdom Hearts fans: Christian Kobza (you can find him on Pushsquare and New Game Network) and Valkav (you can find him on Twitter). Together, we've created an epic, all-in-one, definitive, special edition guide that will get you up to speed on the Kingdom Hearts series. Here is the quick and dirty version of each game's plot, presented in chronological story order.
Keep reading, and before you know it, you'll be playing Kingdom Hearts III with confidence!
P.S. It should be obvious, but if you're concerned about SPOILERS, best stop now. This whole article is 100% spoilers. That's pretty much the point of it.
Kingdom Hearts X Back Cover (2017)
Years ago, six Keyblade masters reigned over their realm with the aim of protecting the light. Their cloaked master (known only as the “Master of Masters”) tells them that his book of prophecies foretells of a coming darkness and the end of their world.
The Master of Masters meets with his apprentices to assign an individual role to each one before he ends up vanishing. After the Master of Masters’ untimely departure, the Keyblade masters begin believing that there is a traitor among them. They agree that the traitor must be swiftly dealt with lest the prophecy of the coming darkness be fulfilled. Secret alliances are forged, friendships are dissolved, and fights break out among the group as they try to identify which master is the traitor.
One of the Keyblade masters named Ava gathers her union of Keyblade wielders and dubs them the “Dandelions” before ushering them to go into hiding for their own protection. It is revealed that another cloaked Keyblade master by the name of Luxu was given a special task by the Master of Masters. The master gives Luxu his Keyblade without a name which he states must be passed down through apprenticeship.
The situation worsens until war breaks out. After the fighting is over, the Keyblades of the fallen stand upright in the ground. This becomes known as the Keyblade graveyard. Luxu takes the Keyblade without a name and a black box out to the Keyblade graveyard. It remains unclear what the box contains.
Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep (2010)
It is many years later. After becoming obsessed with the events of the Keyblade War, an elderly Keyblade master by the name of Xehanort begins seeking the X-blade, a weapon which will allow him to access Kingdom Hearts and begin the Keyblade War anew. In an attempt to create it, he carves the darkness from the heart of his young pupil, a boy named Ventus, and makes an evil doppelganger called Vanitus. When the two hearts eventually rejoin, the confrontation will create the X-blade.
In the Land of Departure, Ventus is training with his two closest friends (Aqua and Terra) under Master Eraqus (fun fact: an anagram of Square) to become Keyblade masters. Terra and Aqua take the final exam together, but Xehanort manipulates the test so that Aqua succeeds while Terra fails. The disappointment threatens Terra's control over the darkness in his heart, but there is little time to sulk. Xehanort has unleashed hordes of Unversed throughout the various worlds, and Eraqus sends Aqua and Terra out to dispatch them.
During his travels, Terra discovers that Vanitus is the source of the Unversed, but a fight ensues between the three friends when Aqua and Ventus learn that Terra aided villains to gain this information. Nevertheless, the trio converges on the Keyblade Graveyard to confront Xehanort. Terra is overtaken by darkness, allowing Xehanort to possess him, and Vanitus rejoins Ventus, creating the X-blade.
Ventus' consciousness battles Vanitus for control over his body. He wins, but loses his heart in the process, becoming comatose. Aqua transforms the Land of Departure into Castle Oblivion, a safe resting place for Ventus, before returning to confront Xehanort. In the ensuing battle, the X-blade is destroyed, and Aqua sacrifices herself to save Terra's body from the blast. Xehanort survives in Terra's body but loses his memory. He is taken as an apprentice by the Keyblade master Yen Sid (fun tip: try reading the name backwards). Meanwhile, Ventus' lost heart finds a home in a young boy named Sora.
Kingdom Hearts (2002)
Ten years later, Sora and his friends Kairi and Riku are living happily on Destiny Islands. The three of them have always wondered what other worlds lie beyond their own, but have never ventured off the island. Riku is especially determined to venture out, and his determination births a seed of darkness inside his heart that unknowingly draws the Heartless to their home.
Sora is visited by a strange cloaked figure called Ansem, who cryptically tells him that their world has been connected. Meanwhile, in another world, King Mickey has noticed that the stars have begun to fade out, one by one, and he leaves the Magic Kingdom to investigate. He leaves a letter for Donald, instructing him to seek out someone that holds the “key” to their survival.
A storm strikes Destiny Islands, and Sora is mysteriously granted a Keyblade when he goes looking for his friends. He ends up in a battle with a giant Heartless. When the battle is over, Sora awakens in another world -- Traverse Town -- and meets Leon (from Final Fantasy VIII). Meanwhile, Riku wakes up in the Hollow Bastion with Maleficent.
Sora is introduced to Yuffie and Aerith (from Final Fantasy VII), and he learns that the worlds are now connected and that the Heartless are born of darkness in people’s hearts. The Keyblade chose Sora, and the Heartless are now tracking him through it because they fear its power.
Donald and Goofy meet Sora in Traverse Town, and they invite him to explore other worlds together to help him find his friends. Sora and his new allies use the gummi ship to travel between worlds, defeating Heartless and using the Keyblade to seal the keyholes of each world along the way. Keyholes lead to the core of each world, and the Heartless are using them to make the worlds disappear.
Maleficent and several other Disney villains are working together to try and stop Sora. She attempts to corrupt Riku by turning him against Sora and convincing him that she can lead him to Kairi if Riku helps her. Maleficent needs seven maidens of the purest heart, called the princesses of heart, to open the final door to the heart of all worlds, Kingdom Hearts. The darkness in Riku’s heart continues to grow, emboldening his determination to save Kairi and making him deaf to his inner conscience.
Sora and the gang face off against Maleficent in the Hollow Bastion, and Riku becomes possessed by Ansem. Sora duels with the possessed Riku, who has gained a dark version of the Keyblade that can unlock people’s hearts. Upon defeating the possessed Riku, Sora uses the dark Keyblade on himself, plunging himself into darkness and freeing the hearts of the seven princesses. This turns Sora into a Heartless, but with Kairi’s heart restored, her light guides Sora back to his friends and he is restored.
Sora and his friends use the gummi ship to fly to the End of the World for a final encounter with Ansem. He then seals the door to Kingdom Hearts with the help of Riku and King Mickey from the other side. Sora finds Kairi in the abyss, but with the door to Kingdom Hearts sealed, the connection between worlds begins to fade away, and Kairi is left alone on Destiny Islands. The final scene shows Sora, Donald, and Goofy walking down a dirt road, where they run into Pluto, carrying a letter with King Mickey’s seal.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (2004)
The story picks up immediately. Sora, Donald, and Goofy are traveling down a dirt road to Castle Oblivion. Upon entering the castle, the trio lose some of their memories, which are now stored in cards.
Chain of Memories takes place in two story arcs: the first from Sora’s perspective, and the second from Riku’s. Sora’s journey has him visiting the worlds from the previous game and defeating the Heartless, but each floor of the tower erases even more of his memories. Members of a mysterious Organization XIII show up at each floor, challenging Sora’s abilities. Sora’s memories of Kairi are altered, instead having him remember his time on Destiny Islands with someone known as Naminé.
Riku confronts Sora at various points throughout his journey, telling him to go home and that he has let everyone down, especially Naminé. The story later reveals that this Riku is actually a replica created by Vexen, one of the Organization XIII members, for the purpose of weakening Sora’s spirit.
Sora eventually learns that all of his memories of Naminé have been fabricated, replacing his real memories with false ones. Naminé explains that she has the power to unlink people’s memories and rearrange and alter them, but it was all against her will -- the Organization was holding her captive in Castle Oblivion. With most of the Organization defeated, she agrees to restore Sora’s memories to his former self, and he and his friends go into a sleep state.
Riku’s story arc shows his struggle with the darkness inside him, getting help from King Mickey to fight the power that Ansem had over him. He meets a man named DiZ who has been disguising himself as Ansem to awaken Riku’s inner strength. Naminé gives Riku the same choice: to erase his memories of Castle Oblivion and seal the darkness inside him, or to keep his memories and deal with Ansem.
Riku confronts Ansem in a final battle, defeating him with a little help from King Mickey. DiZ grants Riku and King Mickey robes worn by Organization XIII to prevent their members from tracking them down. The story ends with Riku joining the king to walk the path between light and dark, allowing both to be his strength and guidance. - Valkav
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (2009)
The events of Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days take place between Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II. The story focuses primarily on three members of Organization XIII: Roxas, Axel, and Xion. The majority of the game has Roxas performing missions for the Organization to defeat Heartless with the Keyblade and collect their hearts for Kingdom Hearts, which he is told will make him complete.
Roxas, Xion, and Axel become close friends as the story progresses, and Roxas learns what it means to care about someone. Neither Roxas nor Xion remember who they were before joining the Organization, so they don’t have any friends outside of each other and Axel. Xion begins to remember things from her past and people she used to know. In an effort to uncover her identity, she sneaks into Castle Oblivion and learns that she is a replica created from Sora’s memories of Kairi. Organization XIII created Xion as a fail-safe in case Roxas was unable to fulfill their plans for him as a wielder of the Keyblade. Since she embodies Sora’s memories, Sora cannot awaken while Xion lives.
Roxas is Sora’s Nobody, which is a being created when a strong-willed individual loses their heart. When Sora drove the dark Keyblade into his own heart in the original Kingdom Hearts game, Roxas was born. His missions from the Organization task him with traveling to the various worlds that Sora visited, which has the unexpected side effect of causing Sora’s memories to invade Roxas’ mind.
Xion attempts to leave the Organization, but Axel is ordered to bring her back. Feeling betrayed, Roxas decides to leave as well. Xion is reprogrammed to attack Roxas, but he defeats her in combat, destroying her and freeing Sora’s memories. Xion’s dying wish is for Roxas to free all the hearts she’s collected, to prevent the Organization from having Kingdom Hearts. The final scenes show Riku facing off against Roxas, so that DiZ can capture him and restore Sora’s memories. Roxas wakes up in Twilight Town, having no recollection of Organization XIII. - Valkav
Kingdom Hearts II (2006)
Roxas has lost his memories and is living happily in the simulation of Twilight Town created by DiZ. Axel infiltrates the simulation in an attempt to retrieve Roxas, but Roxas is haunted by memories of Sora and refuses to leave. He follows the memories to Castle Oblivion where he learns from Naminé that he is a Nobody. Roxas merges with Sora, allowing Sora, Donald, and Goofy to wake from their year long sleep.
Sora, Donald, and Goofy travel through the various worlds, fighting both heartless and the schemes of Organization XIII, which is lead by Xemnas (Xehanort's heartless). They learn that Organization XIII, a group composed of Nobodies, intends to open the door to Kingdom Hearts in the hopes that it will allow them all to gain hearts. At the World That Never Was, Sora reunites with Kairi and Riku. They also learn that Roxas and Naminé are their Nobodies, created when Sora and Kairi lost their hearts in the events of the first Kingdom Hearts.
After Sora defeats the members of Organization XIII, he and Riku team up to defeat Xemnas and close Kingdom Hearts once again. Their quest completed, the friends return to Destiny Islands and bid farewell to Donald and Goofy. However, as the game ends, a letter in a bottle arrives from King Mickey.
Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded (2011)
After Sora and Riku defeat Xemnas, Jiminy Cricket (who has been traveling with Sora to chronicle his adventures) discovers a mysterious message in his journal: "Their hurting will be mended when you return to end it." King Mickey transforms the journal into digital form to investigate the message, but the journal turns out to be corrupted by Heartless. King Mickey, Donald, and Goofy transport themselves inside the journal along with a virtual version of Sora. Inside, they join up with a virtual version of Riku and proceed to eliminate the Heartless.
When Data-Riku is kidnapped by Maleficent, she corrupts his code and turns him against Data-Sora, but Data-Sora is able to save Data-Riku by defeating the Heartless and resetting the journal. This allows them to follow the source of the mysterious message to virtual versions of Roxas and Naminé. Data-Naminé reveals that the real Naminé is responsible for the mysterious message. She believes that it is the real Sora's destiny to save the people tied to his heart--namely Ventus, Terra, Aqua, Roxas, Axel, and Xion.
After King Mickey returns to the real world, he sends this news to Sora via a message in a bottle, which is found in the closing scenes of Kingdom Hearts II.
Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance (2012)
Keyblade master Yen Sid summons Sora and Riku to complete their Mark of Mastery exam to prepare for combating Xehanort’s rapidly growing power. To do so, he sends them to sleeping worlds which have succumbed to darkness and are inhabited by dream eaters. Sora and Riku must travel to each world and reawaken them by sealing their sleeping locks and stemming the tide of dream eaters.
Riku and Sora are unable to see each other within the dream worlds, and it is revealed that Riku is only inhabiting Sora’s dreams rather than the actual sleeping realms. They both encounter Xehanort’s various forms throughout their journeys, including a man that they later learn is a younger Xehanort who traveled through time to assist his older self in leading Sora astray.
Meanwhile, since many of the original Organization XIII Nobodies have been defeated, the original selves of a few members awaken in the Hollow Bastion lab. Lea (formerly known as Axel) steps in to help King Mickey who is being confronted by Pete and Maleficent; both are now working for Xehanort. Lea goes with King Mickey back to Yen Sid, who agrees to help him become a Keyblade master.
Xehanort needs thirteen vessels of darkness to restart the Keyblade War, reforge the X-blade, and reawaken Kingdom Hearts. He attempts to make Sora one of these vessels, but King Mickey barges in just in time to save Sora from Xehanort’s possession. Riku ventures back to Yen Sid’s tower where he finds a still-sleeping Sora who must be awakened. Riku dives back into Sora’s dreams where he successfully reawakens Sora’s heart. With the exam completed, Yen Sid bestows upon Riku the title of Keyblade Master for managing to reawaken Sora when he couldn’t do so himself.
Kingdom Hearts 0.2 A Fragmentary Passage (2017)
After sacrificing herself to the darkness for Terra’s protection, Aqua finds herself aimlessly wandering the fragmented realm of darkness for years. On her trek, she encounters illusions of Ventus and Terra created by her heart. The Terra apparition begins to show signs of struggle and morphs into Xehanort. As Terra struggles to fight off Xehanort’s presence, Aqua is whisked away where she starts drifting into the dark abyss. Just as she begins to concede to becoming one with the darkness, King Mickey comes to her aid and helps her regain consciousness.
King Mickey tells Aqua of his plan to lock the door between the realms of light and dark to prevent the heartless from taking the hearts of more worlds. Aqua and King Mickey encounter the door that’s allowing the darkness to escape, and he uses a Keyblade he found in the realm of darkness in coordination with Sora and Riku to seal it for good. Meanwhile Aqua fends off the heartless that threaten to stop them which coincides with the events at the end of Kingdom Hearts. After her success, Aqua drifts back into the darkness and begins wandering once again until she encounters Ansem the wise in a black coat.
Back in the present day, Yen Sid sends Kairi off to Merlin for Keyblade training with Lea while King Mickey and Riku set off to find the entrance to the realm of darkness. Sora (who’s accompanied by his old pals Donald and Goofy) shows up after everyone has left and decides to go visit his old friend Hercules in an attempt to master the power of waking.
Okay, that was a lot of information to digest all at once, but if you want my advice, it's this: don't worry too much about every little detail of the plot. Just play the game and have fun! After all, we've been waiting a long time for this!