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Source images: Square Enix | Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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Kingdom Hearts is complicated — so we’ve summarized the first two games for you

The SparkNotes versions of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2

Kingdom Hearts 3 is almost here after years of waiting, and perhaps you want to be equipped to handle the current conversation — but have very little idea as to why. You know the basics: Anime-styled heroes join up with Disney characters to take on Disney villains and anime-styled villains. It’s not unfair to assume that complete newcomers are now perking their ears up, wanting to know more about this series. But we also can guess that many people played Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2 when they were much younger, and are now coming back to check out Kingdom Hearts 3.

If you want a simple recap of what happened in Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2, we’re here to quickly catch you up. Prepare yourself for a journey into some truly wild places.

Kingdom Hearts

Sora is a hero cut from a familiar, Square Enix JRPG cloth: He’s got plenty of zippers on his clothes, very spiky hair, and a strangely beautiful face. He’s also a teen with dreams of venturing far away from his home on Destiny Islands — as do his lifelong best friends, Riku and Kairi. Their dream is realized when a storm brings darkness to their world, sweeping Sora away with it. Sora comes out on the other side of it with a fancy sword, the Keyblade, and his foot in a strange new land, but his friends are nowhere to be found.

A picture of Sora from KH2
Here’s Sora, our teenage hero. He’s the playable lead of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2.
Square Enix

Even in this place, Traverse Town, Sora finds darkness in every corner. He also meets two new companions, Donald Duck and Goofy, who are on the hunt for their own missing friend. (The Disney crossover is seriously never explained, so let’s just leave it at that.) Donald, Goofy, and Sora team up to find King Mickey Mouse, Kairi, and Riku, respectively, who have all disappeared in the eye of that universe-engulfing storm.

The darkness is the result of an infestation of Heartless — which are darkness incarnate — that is seemingly controlled by Sleeping Beauty’s iconic witch Maleficent. Sora is the only one who can get rid of them and brighten up the world, thanks to the Keyblade. To do so, he must defeat Maleficent and other villains she’s teamed up with.

When Sora finally reunites with Riku toward the end of his journey, he discovers that his best buddy is also working for the bad guys now. It’s a bummer, but things wrap up fairly neat and tidy at the end: Riku isn’t actually evil, but instead possessed by someone who is. That would be Ansem, who is an extremely powerful, human-looking version of a Heartless.

Sora fights Riku — and Ansem — into submission, causing his best friend to remember his true self. King Mickey shows up to help the gang seal away the darkness that was let out when someone opened the door to a hallowed, all-powerful place called Kingdom Hearts (!).

Riku-Ansem from Kingdom Hearts 1
This is what Riku looks like when he’s possessed by Ansem. He looks mostly the same! Just way more buff and with an even less practical outfit.
Square Enix

All’s well that ends well, right? Nah. Riku and King Mickey end up getting stuck on the wrong side of the door. Ugh. Great. Guess we gotta move onto a sequel now.

Kingdom Hearts 2

Let’s say you made the jump right from Kingdom Hearts to Kingdom Hearts 2. In the interest of expediency, this shouldn’t be an issue, right? Two follows one, according to basic number theory. But Kingdom Hearts does not obey earthly logic. If you skipped right ahead to KH2, there’s a whole bunch of weird stuff you missed out on, as you’ll quickly tell.

Kingdom Hearts 2 begins with a spiky-haired hero, just like Kingdom Hearts does. But this isn’t Sora — it’s Roxas, a teen that looks a whole lot like a blond version of Sora. Why are we playing as him? Why are we suddenly in a place called Twilight Town, instead of any of the areas we remember from the previous game? It’s unclear. But there are similarities to the carefree start of Sora’s adventure, suggesting that we’re in for something of an homage to KH1.

Roxas from Kingdom Hearts 2
Roxas looks a lot like Sora (Winter Version).
Square Enix

Roxas is having a good time with his friends ... until he happens upon monsters that look similar to the previous game’s Heartless. All of a sudden, he receives a Keyblade out of thin air to ward them off. Roxas destroys the monsters and carries on, business as usual.

Then, Roxas’ storyline dovetails with Sora’s, roping us back into the real Kingdom Hearts saga. Here’s when things get incredibly strange: Roxas has a sudden realization that he is supposed to help out Sora, who we have no reason to believe Roxas has ever met. And we also discover that Sora is currently in a very deep sleep, stuck inside a chamber held within a creepy castle. Roxas and Sora share a bond within their hearts — again, despite not having any context for their relationship — and Roxas discovers that the key to waking up this boy is to sacrifice his own heart to repair Sora’s.

And so, he does. Again, we have no idea why Roxas cares this much about Sora.

All of this happens in the first hour of Kingdom Hearts 2. If you didn’t play the preceding game, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, which was originally released as a Game Boy Advance exclusive, oh well! You’re just going to get more confused from here on out.

Sora and co. are back in the driver’s seat; it turns out Donald and Goofy waited around for an entire year while Sora napped for the first time since the beginning of Kingdom Hearts 1. Thanks to Roxas’ sacrifice, Sora remembers what happened in the first game, for the most part. But he also learns of some things that he missed out on while he was asleep, including the creation of Nobodies. These are monsters like the Heartless, except they work for a mysterious, coat-clad group called Organization XIII.

A group image of Organization XIII from Kingdom Hearts 2
This is Organization XIII, all in uniform. The guy in the middle, floating above them? That’s Xemnas, a.k.a. the man in charge, a.k.a. Xehanort’s Nobody.
Square Enix

Sora has to now take care of these Nobodies and figure out what the Organization is up to, on top of his continued Heartless/missing friend problem. All of this revolves around more world-hopping, during which Sora, Donald, and Goofy manage to run into Mickey, who helps them in a crucial fight.

Mickey also helps Sora discover that Ansem, the Big Bad from the end of Kingdom Hearts, is not who he says he is; instead, he’s another bad guy, whose real name is Xehanort. Xehanort is a powerful, slightly unhinged man who seeks ultimate power. Ansem was his mentor, but in his quest for total domination, Xehanort destroyed Ansem and took on his name. He also gave up his heart to become a Heartless, seizing on his pent-up anger to buff him up. At the same time, he gave way to a Nobody — meaning he’s got extra forms for days. That Nobody is Xemnas, who’s in charge of Organization XIII.

King Mickey stops by to help out Sora, Donald, and Goofy
There’s our boy, King Mickey Mouse, joining the crew as they fight off 1,000 Heartless at once.
Square Enix

Now Sora and the crew must go after Xehanort, who remains on the lam. Sora has to hit up a place called The World That Never Was in order to fight him, running into and picking off the Organization XIII members that wish to protect their boss along the way. He also finds Kairi and Riku once more, even helping Riku once again see the light after being consumed by darkness. Once Sora is ready to face off against the Organization, he finds out that they’ve made their own version of Kingdom Hearts, whose power they seek, and which serves as their base.

Hidden there is the real Ansem, who feels bad about sacrificing a bunch of the more decent Organization members. To make up for it, he blows up the fake Kingdom Hearts. This gives Sora the chance to fight off Ansem’s Nobody, Xemnas, who is the only member of the Organization left standing.

An image of Master Xehanort
This is what Xehanort looks like in his true form.
Square Enix

After destroying Xemnas, Sora and his pals rejoice. But they still don’t know how to leave the place that they’re stuck in, the remnants of The World That Never Was. Out of nowhere, a letter stuffed into a bottle drops down to Sora and crew. Uncorking the bottle somehow props open a door that has Destiny Islands, just as we remember it, right on the other side.

And everyone lived happily ever after. Except, of course they didn’t! We still need a third game. Kairi finally reads the message in the bottle, and it has bad news in it. Now, in Kingdom Hearts 3, it’s time for us to find out what that bad news is.

What’s next (aka Kingdom Hearts 3)

We have made it to Kingdom Hearts 3. This is what to expect when you start up the game — and get ready, because a lot has happened since the end of KH2.

Art of Aqua, Ventus, Terra, and Mickey in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
Y’all don’t even know about these guys yet! That’s Aqua, Ventus, and Terra, from left to right. They’re extremely important, and they don’t show up in KH or KH2 at all.
Square Enix
  • Xehanort is back as the main bad guy, but there’s actually about five versions of him at the moment — and he’s trying to make at least eight more, to rebuild the Organization;
  • The short-term goal is to find a trio of former Keyblade masters, named Aqua, Terra, and Ventus;
  • In the end, the team needs to defeat Xehanort to prevent him from gaining access to Kingdom Hearts, once and for all.

There’s much more to learn, if you’re willing

There are plenty of gaps you may want filled in here, and that’s fair. Doing so requires digging into an important trio of non-numbered Kingdom Hearts games, namely Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep; Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories; and Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, in that order.

We’re not saying you should go back and play all those games for more on what’s up in KH3 — but should you be interested in what’s up, these three games are where to start. But for anyone pressed for time or lacking in much interest beyond the SparkNotes, we hope you found this helpful.