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Kingdom Hearts 3: everything we know

We’re close to finding light in the darkness

Disney / Square Enix

Despite Kingdom Hearts 3s perpetual development period, dense lore and multiple side releases, the Kingdom Hearts franchise is still a beloved brand with the most ambitious crossover of all time: Square Enix and Disney. Now, Square Enix seems confident that Kingdom Hearts 3 will come extremely soon, and fans are waiting in anticipation.

Even if there remains a lot unknown about this major installment, there’s just as much that we do know that’s trickled out over time. Director Tetsuya Nomura hasn’t been shy about his excitement for the game over the years, and we’ve seen content to match, including trailers, gameplay demos and interviews. We even have the obligatory Utada Hikaru theme song!

Here’s what we know so far about the upcoming Kingdom Hearts 3.

[Last updated October 1.]

What is Kingdom Hearts 3?

Kingdom Hearts 3 is the next installment in the Kingdom Hearts RPG franchise, which combines new heroes with favorite characters from Square Enix and beloved Disney properties.

When’s the release date?

Kingdom Hearts 3 will be released January 25, 2019 in Japan, and on January 29th in North America.

The latter date was shared by director Tetsuya Nomura via a live trailer premiere at a Kingdom Hearts Orchestra Event. The January 25 date was later confirmed on Twitter, with an apology from Nomura for the slight delay from its initial 2018 goal.

What’s the deal with the Kingdom Hearts series, anyway?

Much of the series’ popularity stems from the surprisingly engaging crossover between popular Final Fantasy characters and well-known Disney titles. The mash-up has entertained video game fans since the original Kingdom Hearts launched in 2002. Since then, though, the series has also garnered a reputation for its myriad side games that overwhelmingly expand upon the lore.

kingdom hearts
One of the cool Pixar-themed abilities featured for Kingdom Hearts 3.
Disney / Square Enix

The diversions from the major installations started with 2004’s Chain of Memories, which takes place between the first and second games, before Kingdom Hearts 2 was released in 2005.

While fans have waited 13 years for Kingdom Hearts 3, Square Enix and Disney made and deemed six other games as relevant to the plot. Plus there are several remasters of both of the mainline games and the “in-between” games, several manga series, some novellas and even two mini-”movies.” One game, Coded, even got two remasters, after the original mobile and DS versions vanished with time.

Kingdom Hearts has garnered a reputation for its lore, which is both extremely dizzying to even the most hardcore fans and, as some would sneeringly call it, “edgy.” It involves a lot of light-versus-darkness backstory, body possessions, people with the same names, people with the same appearance but not the same name, and quite a lot of poorly executed, clearly-not-peer-reviewed research attempted by characters with no business doing such.

Do I need to know or have played other Kingdom Hearts games first?

Hopefully not. According to an interview with director Tetsuya Nomura, he has been “thinking very precisely about how to make sure both those who have been with the series for a long time and those for whom this will be the first KH title will be able to follow along.”

But knowing the series will definitely help. A cast of no less than five new, vital characters and some characters that look like older characters but kinda, sorta aren’t really those older characters are likely going to play a major part. Plus, there’s a rehash of an old villain group, something about time travel and a lot of emotional investment to be found in the storylines leading up to the game.

Officially, if he were to pick one thing to play before KH3’s release, Nomura recommends the Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue collection. It’s a KH3 “prologue” compilation that includes a remaster of the Nintendo 3DS original Dream Drop Distance, backstory film χ Back Cover and a new game, 0.2 Birth by Sleep -A fragmentary passage-.

Some motivational words for the best Kingdom Hearts fans.
Kingdom Hearts Twitter | Disney/Square Enix

What if I really want to play all of the other games?

The good news is, you don’t need to hunt for ancient systems to try all of them. Almost every Kingdom Hearts game has been remastered for the PlayStation 4. A few entries are even condensed into cutscene compilations, reducing the amount of grinding necessary or just cutting out unpopular gameplay altogether.

If you’re investing for the first time, the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX PS4 combo disc is the most economic option. The only real changes from the original versions of these, released individually on PS3, are upgraded gameplay running at 60fps, a Kingdom Hearts “theater mode” and one other cutscene extension. Still, if you have only one of the PS3 discs, you can just pick up the other.

Here are the games you’d need to seek out to catch up:

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX

This collection is available on PS3 and PS4, as part of the 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX, and includes the following:

  • Kingdom Hearts Final Mix — The 1.5 ReMIX version, originally only available in Japan, is a remaster of a remaster; Final Mix was the whole game plus some goodies, and this version adds some visual and soundtrack upgrades.
  • Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories — Originally a Japanese exclusive, Re:CoM is a 3D remake of one of the more controversial games in the series, with this version made available to the West in 1.5 ReMIX. It does have some lore important for Kingdom Hearts 2 and beyond.
  • Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days — This is actually a “theater mode” of cutscenes from this DS-exclusive game, which featured “errand”-style missions as primary gameplay. It’s a great time if you really want to cry a lot.

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX

This collection is available on PS3 and PS4, or as part of the 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX, and features the following:

  • Kingdom Hearts 2 Final Mix — This is not only the full Kingdom Hearts 2 game, but also includes English versions of battles, items and cutscenes exclusive to the original Japanese Final Mix.
  • Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep Final Mix — This version of the formerly PSP-exclusive game upgrades graphics and soundtrack, and it remaps controls for the PS4. It’s an absolutely vital entry to the Kingdom Hearts universe’s lore and introduces characters confirmed for KH3.
  • Kingdom Hearts Re:coded — The original Coded was actually released twice before: once in 2008 for mobile phones, and once more as a remaster for Nintendo DS. This time, Coded is only playable in “theater mode,” featuring dubbed cutscenes. It’s great for filling in plot holes, but it’s otherwise not an essential entry.
Aqua faces what appears to be a sentient wave of Heartless in Kingdom Hearts HD 0.2 Birth by Sleep -A fragmentary passage-.
Disney / Square Enix

Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue

Only available for PS4, this is what director Nomura recommends you try before KH3, as both playable games in this collection are confirmed to directly tie into the series’ next big entry. It features the following:

  • Kingdom Hearts HD 0.2 Birth by Sleep -A fragmentary passage- — The most direct prequel to Kingdom Hearts 3, it’s essentially an introduction to the game’s visual and mechanical upgrades, including the use of Unreal Engine 4 and some new gameplay features. It takes less than four hours to beat, or less than two hours if you skip cutscenes, so it’s an easy pick-up. There’s also a fantastic remix of “Simple and Clean,” the original Kingdom Hearts’ theme song.
  • Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD — Lovingly and sometimes officially referred to as Kingdom Hearts 3D, this first launched as a 3DS game that featured characters from the hit JRPG The World Ends With You. It’s also somewhat vital to KH3, but consider this: There are TWEWY characters. And you get to keep the new enemies as pets, Nintendogs-style. It’s a great time.

Kingdom Hearts Union χ

If you’re really interested in the lore and history of the universe, go no further than your phone. Originally a browser game, Union χ is a free-to-play, turn-based RPG for mobile that allows everyone to become a Keyblade wielder. As many free-to-play games work today, you need to spend a little bit of money if you want to grind through efficiently. But even if you do, there’s just about three-and-a-half hours’ worth of cutscenes to watch.

If so many of these games have relevant plot, why is this one “Kingdom Hearts 3” and not any of the others?

Director Tetsuya Nomura said in an interview with Famitsu that, with respect to releases like Dream Drop Distance or 0.2 Birth By Sleep, he intentionally “separated the parts that would have ruined Kingdom Hearts 3’s tempo if they were told then.” He actually describes 0.2 Birth By Sleep as being as large as one of KH3’s worlds alone and calls KH3 itself “overwhelmingly big.” That’s to say, there’s just so much content that trying to tell it all in KH3 would ruin it.

In short, the separation has to do with the respective scopes of all the different projects. And it’s understandable, because both the story and unique gameplay of most of the other games and releases do warrant some time and attention on their own. They tend to be much smaller than the first and second installments — small enough that most were initially released on handheld consoles, minus 0.2 Birth By Sleep for PlayStation 4 — but big enough that they take quite a few hours to finish.

kingdom hearts timeline
An outdated version of the Kingdom Hearts timeline

So, what is the story leading into Kingdom Hearts 3?

Prior games have introduced storylines that lead directly into Kingdom Hearts 3, whether that’s been confirmed by developers, trailers or the games themselves.

These are the major storylines confirmed to lead into KH3 in some manner:

  • Sora recently got into a situation in which he almost succumbed to darkness. As a result, Sora’s friend Riku has been declared the newest Keyblade Master, despite Riku’s own past steps into darkness. However, Sora is still needed to keep the universe in check. He then travels to the Olympus Coliseum, from the Disney film Hercules, to regain his strength.
  • A decade or two before Kingdom Hearts took place, an old guy named Xehanort had the original, ultra-powerful form of the Keyblade called the χ-blade (pronounced “key-blade”). In the process, he caused a rift between a trio of Keyblade apprentices: Ventus, Terra and Aqua. When Aqua tries to fix everyone else’s messes, she gets herself stuck in the Realm of Darkness, and now Riku and Mickey Mouse are out to save her.
  • In Xehanort’s hunt for the χ-blade, he particularly messed up Ventus, known as Ven for short; because of this, Ven’s heart is in a coma inside Sora. (This is the gist of why Ven and Roxas from KH2 look identical.) The aforementioned process also created a “clone” called Vanitas, who is seen in the KH3 trailers harassing Sora for Ven’s heart, as Vanitas is a miserable kid-clone in a literally heartless existential crisis.
  • There’s a legend that 13 wielders of darkness will clash against “Seven Guardians of Light,” the Keyblade wielders, and all 20 of these fighters have had fragments of the χ-blade passed down to them in some manner. But, the clash will end up actually creating the χ-blade. On one hand, the χ-blade is pretty scary — but on the other, seven Keyblade wielders pack enough punch to keep even the most powerful enemies at bay. In short, there may be quite a bit of exposition related to this, including finding out who all the Seven Guardians of Light actually are.
Vanitas is working hard for Sora’s heart. Kinda.
Disney / Square Enix

What sort of gameplay are we expecting?

Kingdom Hearts 3 builds on the more fun aspects of the series’s hack-and-slash gameplay. Teasers and trailers have focused on extremely theatrical battle sequences, from the very first announcement video, in which Sora rode a wave of heartless, to recent looks at quick-time actions in boss fights. In mid-May, Polygon attended a preview of the gameplay to get a better idea of what to expect.

Nomura has gone out of his way to talk about making the battles flashier and described players interacting with the environment more, whether for moving around the map or utilizing parkour-like skills as combat abilities. You can also have up to five allies fighting in your party at any time.

An attack using the “Mirage Staff” Keyblade event.
Disney / Square Enix

Keyblades will get extra abilities with two “transformations,” according to Nomura. “You start out with your first phase of transformation, and if you successfully connect your combos, the [next] transformation will happen,” he said. For instance, the Toy Story world’s blade will start as a giant hammer, then transform into a drill. During the gameplay preview, giant yo-yos and other gorgeous Keyblade-specific attacks also spanned the battlefield.

The Disney worlds will be present like those from previous games, with Sora and friends making connections to beloved characters while taking on Kingdom Hearts-focused missions.

In past games, worlds were “sectioned” into rooms in order to manage loading, a feature likely familiar to fans of older Legend of Zelda games. However, a 2015 trailer shows Sora moving off a ledge without the player sitting through another loading screen, meaning we’ll likely see more open areas in newer worlds with less time waiting.

For fans wanting immediate comparisons, Nomura has indicated that 0.2 Birth by Sleep -A fragmentary passage- will have gameplay most similar to that of Kingdom Hearts 3.

Update (Oct. 1): At a panel at Tokyo Game Show, the Kingdom Hearts team revealed players will be able to wield and swap between three Keyblades at once, with the powers of all three available at any time.

Sora and the gang meeting Boo from Monsters, Inc.
Kingdom Hearts 3 | Disney/Pixar & Square Enix

Which Disney characters and worlds are in this game?

Having acquired Pixar since the release of Kingdom Hearts 2, Disney brings tons of new possible worlds to the franchise. It also looks like the company is leaning into its recent 3D-animated releases.

Confirmed Disney/Pixar settings are:

  • Kingdom of Corona (Tangled)
  • San Fransokyo (Big Hero 6)
  • Olympus Coliseum (Hercules)
  • Andy’s Room (Toy Story)
  • Monstropolis (Monsters, Inc.)
  • Kingdom of Arendelle (Frozen)
  • Port Royal (Pirates of the Caribbean)

In the Toy Story world, there’ll also be an original “Galaxy Toys” store setting. While it’s original to the Kingdom Hearts universe, it’s crafted to look like it came right out of a Pixar classic.

Certain Disney characters are featured as summons called “Links.” In short, they appear and assist you using extremely powerful, character-themed abilities. So far, we’ve seen:

  • Ariel (The Little Mermaid)
  • Wreck-It Ralph (Wreck-It Ralph)
  • Simba (The Lion King)

Remy from Ratatouille is briefly seen with Sora in the Square Enix E3 presentation trailer. In an interview with Game Informer, Nomura explains it’s a minigame: “[Y]ou collect ingredients throughout the game and then take them to Remy for a full-course meal. If you succeed, your status increases for a duration, but if you fail nothing happens.” While this is absolutely an adorable and creative addition, we’re not sure if this means Ratatouille gets a full world or not.

There will also be attacks called Attractions that are based on amusement park rides, including those from the world-famous Disney Parks. We’ve seen Mad Tea Cups, Big Magic Mountain, the Pirate Ship; and a Shooting Ride (likely based off of the Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin or Toy Story Mania attractions).

An official screen capture of the Wreck-It Ralph Link ability.
Disney / Square Enix

So ... why did it take so long?

Some of the development length — as it’s been nearly 13 years since Kingdom Hearts 2 — is due to the studio switching engines during production, upgrading from their in-house engine into Unreal Engine 4. And that may have taken a while, because Kingdom Hearts 3 itself is massive, as Nomura has repeatedly shared.

Nomura also shared to GameSpot, in the same interview, that they weren’t working with as many resources and staff as they’d hoped.

The long development period gave time for Square Enix to release all of those side games, which gave fans a lot to chew on in regards to the series’ many plot holes.

Kingdom Hearts 3 gameplay, featuring Sora activating a Summon ability.
Disney / Square Enix

But KH3 is actually happening this time? For real?

Yes, for real.

A good sign that it will definitely launch this year is that fans of the mobile game Kingdom Hearts Union χ were able to play some of Kingdom Hearts 3’s minigames at an April event, and a trailer featuring these debuted shortly after. Plus, the fact that Square Enix is holding a promotional event at all is optimistic.

While the original 2018 goal in Square Enix’s most recent financial report, lying to stockholders is typically bad, so we’d better hope for Nomura’s sake it sees the light of day.

Oh! Isn’t there usually a cool theme song with these games?

Yep! Both of the prior main entries had original theme songs, both performed by Japanese-American pop star Utada Hikaru and released in English and Japanese. For the first game, it was the iconic bop “Simple and Clean” (“Hikari” in Japanese). The next game featured “Sanctuary” in English and “Passion” in Japanese.

In February, Hikaru unveiled the next game’s first themes: “Don’t Think Twice” in English and “Oath” in Japanese. You can check out “Don’t Think Twice” below:

Update (Oct. 1): In addition to “Don’t Think Twice”/”Oath,” Hikaru will be doing a new collaboration with EDM producer Skrillex and legendary hip-hop producer Poo Bear as the new theme.

According to Kingdom Hearts social media, Skrillex, a known fan of the series, approached the team about remixing “Don’t Think Twice,” likely in the same manner done for the first game. Things escalated, and now, there’ll be an entirely new song called “Face Your Fears” likely as the opening for the game.

We haven’t heard it, but it’ll likely drop closer to the game’s release in January.

When’s the next time we’ll learn more about the game?

We’ve been given plenty of trailers and announcements for E3 and Tokyo Game Show — so until Square Enix and the Kingdom Hearts Team make their next announcement of an announcement, we’ll just have to wait and see. With only a few months left until the game’s official release, though, information is sure to trickle out.

Update: Although Square Enix has never given or delayed an official release date for Kingdom Hearts 3, director Tetsuya Nomura said that the game’s development is taking longer than originally expected, pushing out its anticipated launch. We’ve clarified that above.