The story of Kingdom Hearts is a jumbled (yet lovable) mess. With spinoffs on top of remakes, it’s hard to figure out just what’s going on in this now 15-year-old franchise that debuted on the PlayStation 2, but has since spanned new consoles, mobile devices and handhelds.
Here’s a quick recap of Kingdom Hearts' story, so you can make sense of it all as you prepare for Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue and Kingdom Hearts 3.
Making sense of the story
Kingdom Hearts is home to nine core games — Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts 2, Kingdom Hearts Coded, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance, Kingdom Hearts χ and A Fragmentary Passage (which is one of three parts of 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue). Kingdom Hearts 3 is also on the way. Everything else is either a compilation or remake.
But enough about lists, let’s move into the story.
Grasping the lore
The entire conflict of Kingdom Hearts is spurred by the Keyblade War, an event that occurs roughly 100 years before most of the games. Powerful beings are consumed by their need to harness the titular power of Kingdom Hearts, which can essentially be equated to a god-like utopia similar to the Judeo-Christian concept of heaven, Valhalla or Mount Olympus. To that end, those individuals create Keyblades, powerful weapons that draw strength from that sacred place. A holy war begins over the χ-blade, the strongest weapon of them all, and at the end of it two factions emerge, governed by darkness and light. The fallout of this war creates the Keyblade Graveyard, a grim reminder of the lives that were lost over Kingdom Hearts.
In the main timeline of the series, an evil force named Master Xehanort (the primary antagonist) decides to take this power for himself and splits his soul into multiple incarnations to reach his goal. This includes a Nobody, a being that's born when someone loses their heart (which is akin to a soul in the traditional sense). His Nobody, Xemnas, creates a clandestine group called Organization XIII, in a further attempt to take over Kingdom Hearts.
So there’s your primer, now it’s time to dive more into the actual events that have been playing out for the better part of a decade.
The Disney connection
While some aspects of Disney may seem shoved into Kingdom Hearts just for the sake of it, the entire universe is built around its properties. Most of the worlds you visit in any given game are drawn from classic Disney films like Peter Pan, Snow White and Fantasia, and several Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Master Yen Sid are major facilitators of the core plot.
While the vast majority of each world's storylines are self-contained, Sora, Goofy and Donald pick up on character traits from various people they meet, which influences their development. Their involvement is mostly a MacGuffin, but Disney princesses such as Jasmine, Snow White and Cinderella also appear as Princesses of Heart — maidens who are an integral part of accessing Kingdom Hearts (gathering them all in one area will summon a keyhole).
The story so far
Although it seems odd to start with Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep, given how much later it launched, it’s the game that sets up the events of most of the series as it’s the first to occur canonically.
Peace and prosperity have spread after the Keyblade War, which are of course juxtaposed with Xehanort’s dark plans that he’s been hatching for years on end. In an effort to stave off the darkness for as long as possible, three young pupils — Aqua, Ventus and Terra — are training to become Keyblade Masters. Through careful manipulation not unlike Palpatine and Anakin's arc in Star Wars, Xehanort draws Terra toward the darkness, with Ventus following suit. Aqua, the most pure of the group and unfettered by evil, saves Terra and Ventus’ souls. She triumphs over evil, but Xehanort remains alive, and the trio is trapped across several realms, unable to carry on the fight. But all hope isn’t lost, as King Mickey Mouse (yes, that one!) is now the driving force of the light and attempts to set things right.
Fragmentary Passage, which is part of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, tells the tale of Aqua's travels through the world of darkness after failing to defeat Xehanort directly after Birth By Sleep. It bridges the gap between Birth and the latest entry Dream Drop Distance.
After all of this conflict plays out and Xehanort while plotting his potential takeover, 10 years later in the original Kingdom Hearts, a new, similar trio of Sora, Riku and Kairi are now in the spotlight. Mickey enlists Goofy and Donald Duck to protect Sora, who becomes a Keyblade wielder after his home is destroyed by the encroaching Heartless — dark beings guided by Xehanort. After defeating two of Xehanort's many split entities, the team encounters and defeats Organization XIII with the help of Sora's spirit alter-ego (Roxas) and Riku, who eventually becomes a Keyblade Master.
Kingdom Hearts 3 will deal with the final confrontation between darkness and light, with Sora and Xehanort at the crux of the conflict (if we live to see it released).
The key players
Part of the reason Kingdom Hearts is so appealing is because of the likability of its cast, so here’s an even further breakdown of some of their most important characters and their traits and accomplishments.
Sora, voiced by actor Haley Joel Osment, is the main focus of the series and always tries to look at the bright side of everything. He has a true hero's journey arc, dreaming of adventure on his once peaceful island before being thrust into the fray with his friends Riku and Kairi. With plenty of help from Goofy and Donald Duck, his new cohorts, he travels through countless realms to restore order and fight the darkness, but not without some trials and tribulations.
During the events of Chain of Memories (which takes place after the first Kingdom Hearts), Sora enters Castle Oblivion and discovers that the castle itself devours memories. He must enter a device called a memory pod to recover them. Sora and his crew then move on to defeating Organization XIII in Kingdom Hearts 2 and at the behest of Master Yen Sid (a retired Keyblade Master), to the Mark of Mastery exam in Dream Drop Distance to gain the power to defeat Xehanort.
Except, he doesn’t. At least not yet.
Where is Sora now?
In a sort of twist, Sora fails the Mark of Mastery exam during the course of Dream Drop Distance and does not become a true Keyblade Master. Instead, Riku rescues him from the clutches of Xehanort and vows to try again and pass the test with the help of Goofy and Donald.
Riku serves as a parallel of sorts to Terra's journey, but ends up getting a handle on his dark side instead of succumbing to it. Dabbling in the dark arts, he constantly rides the line in an effort to increase his power (and show up Sora), but his pure heart always shines through.
As the resident ronin (basically, a wandering samurai), Riku isn't always reliable, and generally shows up during climactic moments to save the day. This all changes with Dream Drop Distance, as the two friends unite to defeat a common enemy and attempt to become Keyblade Masters. Unlike Sora, he succeeds.
Where is Riku now?
Riku aces the Mark of Mastery exam as a result of saving Sora (if you’re confused, the actual exam is arbitrary, different for each person, and generally involves completing a task — in this case, saving worlds). As a result of his close proximity to the darkness, Riku has developed a resistance of sorts to it, and displayed his prowess as a Keyblade Master. He's sent off on a secret mission by his master, Yen Sid, while Sora follows his own path.
Aqua, Ventus and Terra
Aqua, Ventus and Terra were the original group that attempted to take down Master Xehanort before Sora and Riku took a crack and him and failed. But before any of this happens, Ventus, training under Xehanort (who at this time is a humble instructor), is used unwittingly as a catalyst to bring back the χ-blade, but he simply isn’t strong enough and falls into a coma in Birth By Sleep.
This results in the creation of a dark being called Vanitas, separate from Ventus. Ventus’ original self is basically left for dead by Xehanort, but eventually links with a young Sora spiritually — a process that saves his life, but scars him with mental illness and the loss of his memories. During this same period, in a failure that Xehanort stages, Terra fails the Mark of Mastery exam. Aqua passes. Due to his jealousy and inability to cope with his defeat, the seeds of Terra's darkness have been planted.
Attempting to move on with his life, Ventus meets Aqua and Terra, who accept him as a friend and colleague. Nearly giving into darkness completely, Terra attempts to help his friends while he can, but cannot escape his fate of being stuck in one of Xehanort's souls.
Ventus meets a similar end as he’s forced to merge with Vanitas, then defeated, rendering him comatose inside Castle Oblivion.
Aqua, on the other hand, is able to resist, and sacrifices her life to save Terra from falling into darkness forever. In doing so, she accidentally unleashes unspeakable horrors, sets off the events of most of the series, and is trapped in the Realm of Darkness.
Where are they now?
Terra's location is currently unknown as of Dream Drop Distance (the latest game in the series) — though he is thought to still be possessed by one of Xehanort's many forms, and is still resisting a full takeover.
Though he guides Sora and Riku from time to time spiritually, Ventus is still trapped in Castle Oblivion after having lost his heart in a battle with Xehanort and being destroyed the renewed χ-blade in Birth by Sleep.
Aqua however is still fighting the good fight. She's shown in the secret ending of Dream Drop Distance, having conquered the Realm of Darkness — a journey you'll see for yourself in A Fragmentary Passage.
The general consensus is that all three warriors will survive and fight with Sora and Riku in the final battle to come in Kingdom Hearts 3.