After 14 years, it's hard to keep track of where each Kingdom Hearts game fits into its expanding storyline. Even developer Square Enix has trouble, it turns out.
As December's Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue nears release, the series' sometimes confounding, often entertaining timeline has been at the forefront of our minds. We met with Tai Yasue, co-director of both that upcoming title and Kingdom Hearts 3, during E3 2016, and we asked him a basic question: How would you explain to someone who's never played it in which order you need to play the series' 14 games?
"You start with Kingdom Hearts χ, [that's] what happened at the beginning," Yasue told Polygon as he began to chart the series. "Then you have 1, 2, a series of spinoffs, 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue ..."
"A series of spinoffs?" we interjected. That was cheating. Where does each spinoff fit in? Answering that takes a good deal of thought.
Where does each spinoff fit in?
Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, out on PlayStation 4, collects three games that each take place during different parts of the overarching story. There's Dream Drop Distance, originally released for Nintendo 3DS; that one comes right before the still-unscheduled Kingdom Hearts 3. Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover is a series of cutscenes culled from the eponymous mobile game, set far before the first Kingdom Hearts. Finally, the compilation's unique new inclusion, 0.2: Birth By Sleep — A Fragmentary Passage, also takes place before Kingdom Hearts 3, although Yasue didn't specify whether that meant after Dream Drop Distance or parallel to it. (It's after.)
Eventually, Yasue and three other members of Square Enix were able to put together the full timeline for us — although one of them had to pull up a cheat sheet on a phone for guidance.
Based on its complicated narrative and games with names like, well, "2.8 Final Chapter Prologue," a complete newcomer to the Kingdom Hearts franchise would be forgiven for being intimidated by its latest game. But Yasue, despite his own difficulty with explaining it all, doesn't think the storyline makes Kingdom Hearts inaccessible to those not already in the know.
"I think when you buy Kingdom Hearts 2.8, you can enjoy it in a way where you don't have to know everything," he told Polygon during E3 2016. "If you really want to analyze everything before, I think Kingdom Hearts 1.5, 2.5, is a great step.
"It's just fun, I think," he said of the games' primary appeal.
Yasue is in charge of designing the series' battle systems, and said that the role-playing games' emphasis on action, as well as the use of Disney characters, are major reasons fans cite for getting into the series. Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue will mark the return of the combat and character crossovers that's both familiar to diehards and entertaining for entry-level players.
Dream Drop Distance in particular will also feature some major tweaks to make it play more like a standard Kingdom Hearts game. The team acknowledged some of players' biggest complaints about the game on 3DS when developing the console version, like making enemies a bit less offensive than they originally were. The touchscreen-based commands have been switched out for a more traditional control scheme, too, and Yasue said that the game as a whole feels like a better fit for a larger screen.
"The game is a good way to start [the series]"
As the series' first PS4 entry, 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue will serve as a taste of what's to come whenever Kingdom Hearts 3 does arrive. 0.2: Birth By Sleep and the cinematic compilation are both rendered in Unreal Engine 4, the same tech that Kingdom Hearts 3 is making use of.
"This game is a good way to start, I think," he said, based on how Dream Drop Distance and the new Birth By Sleep episode lead directly into the next mainline game.
But for the people whose eyes glaze over when trying to remember where, say, Nintendo DS' Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days fits in, the end of this twisting, turning saga is nigh.
"Kingdom Hearts 3 has everything," Yasue said. "It comes to a conclusion."
Once the story does reach its end — whenever that may be — we may finally be able to piece it all together, game-by-game. Don't expect Square Enix to stop there, though. Kingdom Hearts 3 will just finish up the current Dark Seeker saga, although Yasue didn't reveal any further plans for new games or spinoffs just yet.