It’s kinda crazy to think that 2017 will mark the 15th anniversary of the Kingdom Hearts series. Who would’ve thought that a game that brought together the worlds of Disney and Final Fantasy would not only produce a successful franchise, but an extremely passionate fanbase? As the series has continued to grow and evolve beyond the 2002 release of the original Kingdom Hearts, one of its most defining (and criticized) features has been the story.
Kingdom Hearts’ deep and layered story has become quite the barrier to entry for many players that wish to get into the series, especially considering how the games have been spread across multiple different consoles. But with the advent of the hd collections, and the upcoming release of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue (yes, that’s its actual title), now is a great time to get into the games in order to prepare for Kingdom Hearts III.
So today, I’ll be giving each installment in the series a brief overview, as well as telling you whether or not it’s a must play in order to understand Kingdom Hearts III, and the series as a whole. Though I personally recommend playing every game in order to have a comprehensive understanding of the series, I’ll be trying to be as objective as possible. After all, this list is for people who want to have at least a basic understanding of the story, not encyclopedia level knowledge. Without further ado, let’s begin.
Released in 2002 for the PlayStation 2, Kingdom Hearts was easily one of the biggest surprises in gaming history. A teenage boy who dresses like Mickey Mouse and wields a key shaped sword teaming up with Disney and Final Fantasy characters? While that doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for success, nearly 15 years of games and merchandise say otherwise.
Kingdom Hearts was an action RPG, with bits of platforming and space shooting thrown in for the sake of variety. The game’s biggest draw was the fact that players could explore various locales from famous Disney films, and team up with their favorite characters. In contrast to the rest of the series, the original Kingdom Hearts features a fairly simple story (though it does definitely have plenty of complexity if you look deep enough). Sora, along with Donald Duck and Goofy, are on a journey to find Riku, Kairi and King Mickey, as well as prevent the influence of Darkness from spreading across the worlds.
The first Kingdom Hearts is a must play title. It introduces us to series protagonist Sora, as well as other important characters such as Riku and Ansem. In addition, many elements of Kingdom Hearts lore are introduced in this game, such as the Keyblade, the Heartless, the Princesses of Hearts, the Realm of Darkness and insight into the inner workings of the Heart. And just like pretty much every other Kingdom Hearts title, the events of this game have a huge impact on later games in the series.
Kingdom Hearts later received an updated re-release known as Kingdom Hearts Final Mix. Final Mix contained content that was added to the American release of Kingdom Hearts, as well as additional abilities, equipment, Keyblades and secret bosses.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories
Released in 2004 for the Game Boy Advance, Chain of Memories was a pretty surprising announcement for fans of the first game. I mean, it was on a handeheld instead of a console, and featured a completely different combat system where your attacks and skills were dictated by cards. While I do like certain elements of the card battle system, I vastly prefer the combat system from the original game.
Another weird thing about Chain of Memories is just how much story importance it has. This game was the first instance of people dismissing a Kingdom Hearts game as a non-canon spin-off just because it wasn’t on a console and didn’t have a number. This is probably the biggest misconception of the series. Up to this point, every release in the series in considered canon to the overarching narrative, including the browser/mobile game (more on that later).
Chain of Memories would later receive a PlayStation 2 remake known as Re: Chain of Memories. Although it’s running on the same engine as Kingdom Hearts II, it still features the card system from the original Chain of Memories. But hey, at least the story scenes are fully voiced. Re: Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts Final Mix and a cutscene theater of 358/2 Days are available in the Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix collection for the PlayStation 3.
I’m gonna go ahead and say that you should play Chain of Memories. It doesn’t hold quite as much importance as the first game, but it does introduce a highly plot important location, a group of antagonists known as Organization XIII and the concept of Nobodies. The game also has pretty substantial character development for series deuteragonist Riku.
Kingdom Hearts II
Released in 2005 for the PlayStation 2 was my personal favorite game of all time, Kingdom Hearts II. Kingdom Hearts II returned to the action RPG combat of the first game, only with tons of added bells and whistles. The game is way faster than its predecessor, and Sora has so many new abilities that he can mow down literally thousands of Heartless. Kingdom Hearts II also has one of the best boss design systems I’ve ever seen, an aspect of the game that is criminally overlooked.
Story wise, Kingdom Hearts II is where the series really began to come into its own. It gave us much more insight into Organization XIII and Ansem, the antagonist from the first game. We also learn a lot more about the Nobodies, specifically Roxas and Namine. In addition, various lines of dialogue in the game foreshadow events that we will learn more about in future games.
Similar to the first game, Kingdom Hearts II received a Final Mix version with tons of bonus content (almost enough to make a whole other game). When I say Kingdom Hearts II is my favorite game, I’m specifically talking about Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix. The tweaks it made to the gameplay and the incredibly difficult bosses it added really changed the game for me.
Kingdom Hearts II is a must play title. It tells us so much about the lore and history of the Kingdom Hearts world, information that is crucial to understanding events in future games such as Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance.
Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days
Released in 2009 for the Nintendo DS, 358/2 Days is the first Kingdom Hearts title to not feature Sora as the protagonist. Chain of Memories allowed players to take control of Riku after completing Sora’s story, but Days does not even give the option. Players instead take control of Roxas, a member of Organization XIII who has the ability to wield the Keyblade.
358/2 Days is the first title that I’ll say isn’t an absolute must play. While the game does introduce a new character that is fairly important to the narrative, it mainly serves to further flesh out the story of Roxas, and the rest of Organization XIII. As I said at the beginning, you should play every game if you want a thorough understanding of the entire series. But if you just wanna know the basics, 358/2 Days is a game that you could just use a Wiki to read up on, or watch the cutscenes in Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
Released in 2010 for the PlayStation Portable (seeing a pattern here), Birth by Sleep featured three completely new characters in the form of Terra, Aqua and Ventus, Keyblade wielders who fought 10 years before Sora would start his own adventure. This trio of heroes were training to become Keyblade Masters under the guidance of Master Eraqus.
In the years leading up to its release, Birth by Sleep was the source of much discussion and speculation. What does the title of Keyblade Master mean? Why does Ventus look exactly like Roxas? These questions and many more were the source of discussion on many forums and message boards, and their answers have a profound impact on many characters and events in the series.
Birth by Sleep featured a slightly different version of the combat system from Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II called the Command Deck. Instead of a traditional magic bar, players were able to equip various physical and magic attacks into their deck, with the only cost being deck space and reload times. In addition players are also given tons of other battle options such as Shotlocks, D-Links and Command Styles.
Birth by Sleep would later receive a Final Mix upgrade, with tons of bonus content and story bits. Birth by Sleep Final Mix, Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix and a cutscene theater of Re: Coded are available as bundle called Kingdom Hearts HD II.5 Remix for the PlayStation 3.
Birth by Sleep is a must play title, one that is one the same level of importance as the two numbered games. It introduces us to the Keyblade War, the Mark of Mastery and tells us so much about the history of the Kingdom Hearts world. Birth by Sleep also serves as an origin story for Sora and Master Xehanort, the protagonist and antagonist of the series, respectively, as well as Castle Oblivion from Chain of Memories.
Kingdom Hearts: Re: Coded
Released in 2010 for the Nintendo DS, Re: Coded was a remake of a Japan exclusive mobile phone game simply called, Kingdom Hearts: Coded. Re: Coded featured the return of the Command Deck from Birth by Sleep, as well as an emphasis on platforming and alternate gameplay styles.
While Re: Coded does have some pretty cool gameplay ideas, this is the first example of a Kingdom Hearts game having fairly little story importance. There are a few extremely important story bits, but they could’ve easily been summed up in a secret movie as opposed to a full length game.
Re: Coded really doesn’t have to be played at all, and you would honestly be much better off watching its cutscene theater. Like I said, it does actually have a few moments that are really important, but I’d recommend reading about them rather than playing the entire game. Though it is admittedly really fun (except for the platforming segments, I don’t really like these in any of the Kingdom Hearts games).
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance
Released in 2012 for the Nintendo 3DS, Dream Drop Distance, or 3D, featured the return of Sora and Riku as protagonists, similar to Chain of Memories. The game introduced the Drop mechanic, which basically meant that when a special meter ran out, the player would automatically switch to controlling the other character. 3D also brought back the Command Deck, though this is probably its worst incarnation, as your options are severely limited compared to the two previous games. 3D’s last major gameplay addition was Flowmotion, a skill that allowed Sora and Riku to perform tons of high flying, acrobatic feats.
While Dream Drop Distance never received a Final Mix version, it will be included in Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, alongside 0.2 Birth by Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage and Kingdom Hearts X: Back Cover. Kingdom Hearts 2.8 is set for a December 2016 release, exclusively on the PlayStation 4.
Dream Drop Distance is an extremely important game, and has been cited by series creator Tetsuya Nomura as the game that bridges the entire series together. It serves as an epilogue of sorts for Birth by Sleep, and sets the stage for the events that will unfold in Kingdom Hearts III. 3D is an absolute must play title, one that has just as much importance as Birth by Sleep and the two numbered games.
Kingdom Hearts X
Released exclusively in Japan during 2013, Kingdom Hearts X (pronounced as chi or key, it’s a Greek letter) was a browser based MMO that took place during the age of Fairy Tales, before the Keyblade War. Players create their own unique avatar, and choose to align with one of five different unions, each with their own Foreteller, an extremely powerful Keyblade Master.
This is probably the biggest example of people being upset about a “Kingdom Hearts spin-off”, as even many hardcore fans didn’t initially think it would be canon. But trust me, this game is super important to the Kingdom Hearts narrative. The story of the Foretellers, the first Keyblade War and the Book of Prophecies are going to have a huge impact on the events of Kingdom Hearts III.
A version of Kingdom Hearts X called Kingdom Hearts: Unchained X was released for mobile devices in 2015 in Japan, and 2016 in other territories. Unchained X has largely the same plot as the original game, with a few changes here and there. In spite of how important it is, I wouldn’t say that Kingdom Hearts X is a must “play” title. I emphasized the word “play” because I haven’t fully beaten the game, but I have done tons of reading up on the story, so I do have a full understanding of the events that are depicted. So you don’t have to necessarily play the game, but you do need to know what happens.
Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue will feature Kingdom Hearts X: Back Cover, a cutscene theater that shows the events of the story from the perspective of the Foretellers.
Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage
Soon to be released as a part of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, 0.2 Birth by Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage tells the story of Aqua after the events of the original Birth by Sleep. I can’t say much more than that without going into spoilers for multiple other Kingdom Hearts games, but just know that this game is important to understanding Kingdom Hearts III on a story and gameplay level, as it is built in the same engine and uses the almost the exact same combat system. Tetsuya Nomura has gone on record saying that 0.2 in conjunction with Dream Drop Distance serve as the prologue to Kingdom Hearts III (hence the title “Final Chapter Prologue).
The Finale of The Dark Seeker Saga: Kingdom Hearts III
Understanding the story of Kingdom Hearts takes a considerable effort (as evidenced by the length of this article). But I’ve always been of the mindset that as long as you play and pay attention to the games, you’ll be able to at least keep up with what’s going on. While the series has notoriously been spread across tons of consoles, the release of the HD collections has contained the series to just the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, with Kingdom Hearts III also releasing on the Xbox One.
There’s still quite a bit of time to pick up the games before the release of Kingdom Hearts III, so I’d strongly advise anybody who has ever wanted to get into the series to try now. And if you ever get stuck or confused about certain story elements, there are tons of fansites such as KH13 and Kingdom Hearts Insider that have tons of helpful resources and information. Thanks for reading, and be sure to have an awesome day!