Delving into Kingdom Hearts for a newcomer is, in a word, overwhelming. The backstory spans nearly 17 years, more than seven games, and as many as six different video game systems. Adding complexity, the series’ release order doesn’t mirror its in-universe chronology.
So: What the heck even happens in Kingdom Hearts? We’ve done our best to clarify that on the eve of Kingdom Hearts 3, the game we’ve long waited for to complete this sprawling saga. If you’re a newcomer, a dabbler, or a fan, we’re here to explain Kingdom Hearts in as much detail as you care to have.
Kingdom Hearts in 100 words
Need the shorthand version? Here’s our best attempt:
An ancient battle between light and dark fractured the world. Now, an evil wizard, Xehanort, aims to re-create that historic battle — the Keyblade War — to forge the X-blade and gain access to the power of the Kingdom Hearts. Sora, Donald, Goofy, King Mickey, and their allies band together as the Guardians of Light and take out Xehanort and his 12 allies before they can gain access to the knowledge and power that lies within Kingdom Hearts. But first they need to find new allies and rescue some old Keyblade students: Terra, Aqua, and Ventus.
Struggling to understand even half of those made-up words? Keep reading. You’ve got a lot to learn.
First, the timeline
You may think that this ancient battle begins in the original Kingdom Hearts. But the story of Kingdom Hearts does not begin with the game Kingdom Hearts. And Kingdom Hearts 3 is not, in fact, the third Kingdom Hearts game — it’s the 10th in the series.
It’s not like Square Enix and Disney rolled out the story in a chronological fashion, either. Behold, the Kingdom Hearts game timeline, compressed into one handy image by YouTuber Everglow:
There are tons of games that don’t have numbers attached but are very much important to the overarching story. We call them spinoffs, because they deviate from the central plot of Sora’s journey, as depicted in the core games. But many of these games have bearing on the events of Kingdom Hearts 3.
We’ll start with Kingdom Hearts χ. Everything begins generations before Sora, the young protagonist of the Kingdom Hearts series, existed. A sage known as the Master of Masters foretells that a battle between light and dark will happen, and trusts their apprentices, known as the Foretellers, to protect the light above all else. The Master of Masters then disappears, seemingly forever.
The Foretellers continue on peacefully, but several members begin to suspect that one among them intends to betray the order. The group splinters and a war between them boils to the surface — instigating the cataclysmic event they were supposed to protect the world against. The war between the Foretellers will become known as the Keyblade War, named after the weapons they each wield.
Keyblades are weapons extracted from the heart of a warrior. The stronger the heart, the stronger the Keyblade. The strongest of them all is the X-blade, the only tool capable of accessing Kingdom Hearts — a repository of all the hearts (we’d call them souls) of beings and worlds. Whoever controls Kingdom Hearts has unlimited power, knowledge, and all the other stuff that good guys typically protect from bad guys in stories like this.
During the Keyblade War, the X-blade is fractured into 20 pieces: 13 dark pieces, and seven light pieces. The Keyblade War ends the known universe, but the hopes of children (seriously), as well as a hidden Foreteller and their followers — they call themselves Dandelions — live on to rebuild the world.
Introducing Master Xehanort
Next is Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. Now it’s time to skip into the future — not quite to Sora, but we’re getting there. Xehanort is a creepy dude living on the Destiny Islands. Being a general creep and all-around villain, Xehanort decides that he wants to re-create the Keyblade War in order to bring back the X-blade and claim the legendary Kingdom Hearts for himself.
Xehanort befriends a fellow Keyblade wielder named Eraqus, and tells him of his plot to re-create the X-blade. Eraqus thinks that Xehanort’s ideas are dangerous, so the two part ways. Eraqus opens up a school to teach students how to become Keyblade masters, while Xehanort attempts to find a pupil of his own whom he intends to swap bodies with. Being creepy, old, and villainous in both mind and body can only take you so far.
Xehanort recruits a nice young man named Ventus, who turns out to be too weak to serve as Xehanort’s new host. So Xehanort changes his plans and unlocks the darkness in Ventus’ heart, splitting him into the light-filled Ventus and the dark-filled Vanitas. But this exhausts Ventus, and he falls into a coma.
Xehanort takes Ventus to Destiny Islands, assuming he’s on his last legs. This is when something very important happens: the first appearance of Sora. Xehanort and Ventus cross paths with newborn Sora, and his pure, good heart finds an instant connection with Ventus’. As a result of their newly forged heart-bond, Ventus regains consciousness. This impresses Xehanort, who had been convinced he was leaving Ventus for dead. He decides that Ventus may able to learn the ways of the Keyblade after all — just not under his tutelage.
Xehanort eventually drops off a half-hearted Ventus with his old buddy Eraqus to train him, allowing Xehanort to focus on Vanitas. Xehanort acts remorseful when he runs into Eraqus, leading Eraqus to think that Xehanort is no longer after Kingdom Hearts. Here, Ventus makes some new friends: Aqua and Terra, Eraqus’ other students. Aqua is an incredible Keyblade wielder, but Terra is filled with too much darkness in his current state to ever become a true master. Before Xehanort leaves Ventus behind, he senses within Terra an opportunity for a new host.
Xehanort recruits Terra, preparing him to become another new vessel. Vanitas convinces Ventus to follow after his friend — luring him into a trap. Aqua leaves Eraqus to save her friends. Terra eventually figures out that Xehanort is a total weirdo, and leaves the wizard’s service.
During this time, Terra and Aqua separately run into a young boy from Destiny Islands, Riku, and a young girl from Radiant Garden, Kairi. Terra bequeaths his Keyblade to Riku, sensing that the boy will grow up to be a worthy Keyblade wielder. As a result, Riku will be able to access a Keyblade of his own when he’s older. Aqua, however, accidentally bequeaths her Keyblade to Kairi when Kairi touches it, meaning she’ll also receive a blade when she grows. (One year after this, Kairi is sent to live on Destiny Island after her world is all but destroyed by darkness, and she meets her fellow future Keyblade master Riku, along with his best friend, a boy named Sora.)
All of that will matter much later, but for now, we have to get back to Eraqus and Xehanort.
Eraqus figures out pretty quickly after this that Xehanort hasn’t changed his ways at all. In an attempt to save everyone, Eraqus tries to kill Ventus to stop Xehanort’s plan, since Ventus has now grown strong enough to pose a threat. But Terra rescues his friend Ventus. While he’s distracted, Xehanort kills Eraqus.
Terra, Aqua, and Ventus attempt to avenge their master, but Xehanort takes over Terra, who becomes Terra-Xehanort. Ventus and Vanitas finally square off and are evenly matched. They forge the X-blade briefly and combine to become one being. But the two have another fight inside their newly combined heart, and Ventus wins the battle, splitting them again. He destroys the X-blade and loses his heart in the process, which puts him into a coma. But even in his sleep, Ventus’ heart remembers the connection it made with Sora’s, and his spirit travels to live within Sora’s heart. (This will allow Sora to use the Keyblade later on, by the way!)
All the while, Aqua is fighting Terra-Xehanort. Before she loses, King Mickey — a Keyblade master who trained under the highly respected sorcerer Yen Sid — jumps in to help her. (King Mickey, by the way, is Mickey Mouse. He’s the first Disney character to appear in this Disney character-heavy franchise, and no, it’s never explained why he or any of the other Disney folks are involved. They just ... are.)
Meanwhile, Aqua takes up Eraqus’ keyblade and fights Terra-Xehanort some more. The X-blade is shattered again, and its destruction sends Terra-Xehanort and Aqua hurtling across worlds. Aqua ends up trapped in the world of darkness, while Xehanort gets transported to a world called Radiant Garden, where Kairi is from.
Birth of the Nobodies
In Radiant Garden, Terra-Xehanort meets Ansem the Wise, a scientist who studies Hearts. Terra-Xehanort becomes Ansem’s apprentice, joining a large existing crew. Ansem is blissfully unaware of how evil his new trainee is. This ends badly for Ansem. Terra-Xehanort and the other apprentices lead a coup against Ansem the Wise — who barely escapes, hiding his face and renaming himself Diz.
Terra-Xehanort and his new cronies decide to use Ansem’s research to create what are the most prevalent monsters in the world of the Kingdom Hearts franchise: Heartless and Nobodies. A Heartless is created by cultivating the darkness inside the hearts of living things, which leaves behind a husk. For most beings, this husk disappears, leaving the Heartless to shamble on. But when a heart is removed entirely from a body, that husk becomes a sentient being of its own, called a Nobody.
Nobodies are even more powerful than Heartless, so Terra-Xehanort wants to become one. When Terra-Xehanort splits his body to become a Nobody, he creates an exceptionally powerful Heartless at the same time. This being steals the name of Xehanort’s previous master, referring to himself as Ansem. This Heartless will eventually be the final boss of Kingdom Hearts, while Xehanort’s Nobody, Xemnas, will be the final boss for Kingdom Hearts 2.
And now, the first Kingdom Hearts
Around this time, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty discovers the ability to control the Heartless. She uses this newfound power to destroy Radiant Garden. Its inhabitants, which include characters from Final Fantasy — for also unexplained reasons, there are Final Fantasy characters in these games — are transported to Traverse Town, a home for wayward souls. Maleficent takes over Radiant Garden as her own realm, which she calls Hollow Bastion.
The infestation of Heartless in the universe leads King Mickey to leave his palace in an effort to solve the problem. He fails to tell anyone that he’s leaving, however, and his mage, Donald, and captain of the guard, Goofy, are shocked to discover that he has disappeared. Thankfully, Mickey wrote them a note before he took off, asking them to track down someone who wields an unspecified “key to their survival.” All they know is that they have to head to a place called Traverse Town.
Back on Destiny Island, Riku, Sora, and Kairi agree to explore the world together. Riku finds a way to make their dream a reality: He accesses a door to another world, which will allow them to leave their home for places unknown. But it turns out the door leads them directly into a realm of darkness — so,not exactly the world-hopping journey Sora and Kairi were looking for.
Riku, however, is undeterred, and beckons his friends to go through the door with him. Sora and Kairi refuse, leaving Riku to pass through the door alone. He’s immediately absorbed by the darkness lurking behind it; it’s the same energy that produced the Heartless that are breeding across the entire universe. A brewing storm grows fiercer, and Kairi soon vanishes. Riku’s bequeathed Keyblade remains hidden, however, and, realizing that Sora’s heart is stronger, it choses Sora to wield it instead of Riku. Sora is now alone on Destiny Island, but not for long: The darkness blows Sora clean out of his world and into Traverse Town.
Here, Sora runs into Donald and Goofy — who claim that Sora is the one they’re looking for. They form a trio, promising to help each other on their missions. Sora is looking for Riku and Kairi, while Donald and Goofy are hunting down Mickey. They decide to travel through Disney worlds together — like Neverland, Halloween Town, and Wonderland — in search of their friends. This leads them to Maleficent’s Hollow Bastion, where Riku and Kairi reunite with Sora.
But the darkness that absorbed Riku also changed him, allowing Ansem the Heartless to possess his heart. Ansem reveals that he’s been creating an artificial Kingdom Hearts using a group of women known as the seven Princesses of Heart (Kairi, Snow White, Belle, Jasmine, Aurora, Alice, and Cinderella). Each one carries one of the the seven light pieces of the X-blade that broke off years before, when the legendary weapon shattered.
At Hollow Bastion, Sora finds out that a piece of Kairi’s heart is buried within him. Realizing that he’s been the key to finding Kairi all along, Sora stabs himself, releasing his heart, Ventus’ heart, and Kairi’s heart into the world. Sora becomes a Heartless, but Kairi uses her Princess of Heart powers to revert him to normal.
Sora, Donald, and Goofy chase Ansem the Heartless to a level called End of the World. Here, they all face off against the big-bad in a series of boss fights, with help from Riku and Mickey. In a last-ditch effort, Ansem the Heartless opens up his own creation of Kingdom Hearts, expecting the nature of all things to be evil and grant him unlimited darkness powers. But it’s actually filled with light, and Ansem the Heartless disintegrates.
Defeating Ansem relieves the world of darkness — with one big exception. In order to help Sora defeat the powerful Heartless, Riku and Mickey shove him through the door of light. But they get stuck on the wrong side of the door, trapping them within the darkness that remains. They must find their way out, while Sora, Donald, and Goofy go off on other adventures and continue to look for Kairi.
Sora loses his memory, and Roxas is reborn
This takes us to Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. When Sora opened his heart to free Kairi, something unexpected happened: Two Nobodies were created. Roxas is the combined Nobody of Sora and Ventus, while Naminé is the Nobody of Kairi. But as a Princess of Heart, Kairi isn’t supposed to be capable of producing a Nobody or a Heartless. Since Naminé was created out of a workaround with Sora, she has some memory powers.
Meanwhile, the Nobody apprentices of Ansem the Wise form a group of powerful Nobodies called Organization XIII, named for the 13 dark fragments of the X-blade. The goal of the Organization is to return all these Nobodies to their human bodies, which involves collecting as many hearts as possible.
The Organization has two members who lead a separate team to stop Sora, Donald, and Goofy: Marluxia and Larxene. They lure the team to a location called Castle Oblivion. Here, they’ve captured Naminé in an effort to use her powers to alter Sora’s memories. Naminé is able to warn Sora, Donald, and Goofy, helping them avoid Marluxia and Larxene’s plot. But their memories are still all messed up, so Naminé puts all three of them in stasis in order to fix their brains.
In the meantime, Diz (formerly Ansem the Wise) helps Mickey and Riku escape. Aqua sacrifices herself in the process to save Riku, which locks her in the realm of darkness. But a still-recovering Riku wears a blindfold and barely speaks, because he’s still trying rid himself of the remaining darkness within him.
Before Kingdom Hearts 2 ...
We’re now at Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. While all this is going on with Mickey, Sora, and the gang, Roxas gets recruited into Organization XIII. Roxas and a member of the Organization named Xion become good buddies with another member, Axel.
Xion is eventually revealed to be a program, created from the memories and data of Sora. With Roxas’ help, Xion can help bring Sora back to life and help him remember his task. But she must sacrifice herself to do so. While apprehensive at first, she eventually agrees and makes Roxas kill her, returning her memories to Sora. Bummed about the whole situation, Roxas leaves the Organization to seek revenge against it for Xion’s death, which happened because of the group’s plot.
When Roxas goes to attack Xemnas, who concocted the plan, Riku suddenly appears and stops him, saying Roxas isn’t powerful enough yet. Roxas and Riku fight, with Roxas wielding the Keyblades of both Ventus and Sora. In order to win, Riku unleashes the darkness inside of himself — transforming himself to look like Ansem the Heartless, although he still maintains control.
The Digital Twilight Town
Riku takes Roxas to Diz. In order to stop Roxas from messing with the Organization’s plans to have Naminé fix Sora, Diz traps him inside a digital world called Twilight Town. Roxas hangs out with friends here, and is eventually attacked by Axel, whom the Organization has sent to find Sora. But Roxas gets out alive, and eventually finds his way to Sora. On the way, Naminé tells him that he’s actually a Nobody, and the only way that Sora can become whole is if they fuse together. Roxas allows this to happen — essentially also sacrificing himself — and Sora wakes up.
And thus, Kingdom Hearts 2 really begins. Our heroes continue doing what they did in the first game: clearing worlds of Heartless. Axel realizes he misses his good friend Roxas, so he hatches a plan to retrieve him from his new form as the other half of Sora, whom he has now declared war on. He eventually kidnaps Kairi in order to lure Sora to him, but ends up sacrificing himself for Sora and crew, realizing that Sora and Roxas aren’t that different after all.
Sora, Donald, and Goofy make it to a place consumed by darkness called the World that Never Was, where the Organization maintains its headquarters. There, they finally meet up with Diz, Kairi, Naminé, and Riku, who still looks like Ansem the Heartless. Diz reveals himself to be Ansem the Wise and uses a machine to extract hearts from the second artificial Kingdom Hearts run by the Organization. The machine is overwhelmed by the power of the Kingdom Hearts, causing it to explode. But this explosion cleanses Riku — returning him to normal — while seemingly killing Diz.
Riku and Sora work together to defeat the Organization and Xehanort’s Nobody, Xemnas. But there’s a problem. Turns out, when someone’s Nobody and Heartless are destroyed, there is a chance that the original being is created anew. Many of the Organization XIII members re-form as the apprentices of Ansem the Wise, including Xehanort and Axel.
Time for time travel
And guess what, y’all? To make matters worse, Xehanort can time-travel. That’s right: As long as a version of Xehanort exists in the timeline he travels to, he can go all over the place. Xehanort then starts rebuilding Organization XIII with different versions of himself, all with the intention of fighting Sora & co. to re-create the Keyblade War.
With Xehanort back in the picture, Yen Sid and Mickey work together to find Keyblade-wielding champions to be the Guardians of Light. They decide to find Aqua, Ventus, and Terra. They know Aqua is in the darkness world, and Ventus is assumed comatose somewhere, so locating Terra is their big focus. After Naminé instructs Sora to participate in finding the legendary trio (in Kingdom Hearts: Coded), he brings Riku and Kairi along for the next step on their quest.
The mark of mastery
This takes us to Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance. Before they can truly stand a chance against the ultra-powerful Xehanort, Sora and Riku have some serious training to do. They both wish to become true Keyblade masters before the fight, so Yen Sid sends them on a mission to dive into what are known as dream versions of worlds they’ve traveled to before.
After Sora emerges in the real world from what is essentially training while he’s asleep, he runs into an old member of the Organization: Xigbar, also known as Braig, who has been partially possessed by Xehanort. Xigbar is one of the members Xehanort has already managed to recruit as he rebuilds the crew, along with Ansem the Heartless and Xemnas. A young, time-traveled version of Xehanort puts Sora back to sleep, and then he and what remains of the Organization thus far attempt to make Sora another host for Xehanort.
Thankfully, Axel, Donald, and Goofy arrive to save Sora, who falls into a coma from his struggle against Xehanort. Ventus’ heart, which you hopefully recall had found a home within Sora’s body, finally emerges to also help protect Sora. Riku is engaged in his own fight at the same time, and is able to conquer his inner darkness once and for all by fighting Ansem. Riku is then granted the honor of being a Keyblade master, after he manages to be the only person who can wake Sora up. Because Sora didn’t complete his mission — he fell asleep! — he doesn’t get the same title.
And now we are here, at Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth By Sleep -A fragmentary passage-. (Yes, that’s its name. Yes, it’s dumb.) Sora has lost a great deal of power because of his battle to prevent Xehanort from taking over his body, but he remains committed to helping in the search for Aqua, Ventus, and Terra. Riku and Mickey are sent into the darkness to find Aqua on their own, and Sora is given a new task: to essentially find himself and activate his latent abilities to reawaken lost hearts. Kairi, who is also around and looking for something to do, is given a Keyblade alongside Axel, and the two enter training separately.
Sora also has some training to do. So he does what he’s always done: He travels to a Disney world to get some fighting practice in. He makes the most appropriate choice, heading to Olympus, where his old friend Hercules will certainly help him find his strength again.
And that’s it. That’s the whole thing. Kingdom Hearts 3 picks up with Sora, Donald, and Goofy headed to see Herc and Hades for the third time.
For lovers of the deepest kinds of lore, Kingdom Hearts may be one of the most satisfying stories in games. But after going through this entire synopsis of everything leading up to the saga’s conclusion, we feel comfortable saying that Kingdom Hearts. Is. A. Lot. And maybe too much sometimes.
Loving Kingdom Hearts goes hand in hand with loving its complexities and the confusion inherent within them. If you’re still confused, we’ll leave you with this final summary for what is, in essence, the story of Kingdom Hearts:
Disney heroes team up against evil wizard Xehanort as he attempts to re-create an ancient battle and gain access to Kingdom Hearts’ power and knowledge combined.
For an even deeper, more visual dive, we recommend a shorter, funnier video from Frustrated Jacob and a longer, more serious video from Suggestive Gaming. Along with the Kingdom Hearts Wiki, they were instrumental in helping us remember the events of the Kingdom Hearts story so far.
Also, most importantly, Polygon video producer Brian David Gilbert went ahead and unraveled the series with a lore analysis of his own. Please check that out below.