Way back in 2002, Square-Enix and Disney came together in one the best combinations since peanut butter and jelly and created Kingdom Hearts. Since those early days, however, the Kingdom Hearts franchise has grown and the story has expanded across several consoles and nearly two decades. Somewhere along the way, the storyline has gotten so jumbled that even the biggest of Kingdom Hearts fans have had to scratch their heads once or twice. This is one of the most complex stories in gaming. So, if you missed a beat somewhere between 2002 and today, or you are simply a Kingdom Hearts noob and experiencing it for the very first time, go ahead and relax, Keyblade Wielders. We’ve got the last fifteen years covered for you, with several spoilers of course.
In the beginning, Square Enix created a small island named Destiny Islands. And it was good. The Islands had white sand, a luscious beach, and kids who were wise beyond their years, lounging about without any form of parental supervision. Who would want to leave?
Sora is fourteen. He has unusually large feet, two best friends, Riku and Kairi, and a thirst for adventure. Sora also wants to get off his boring island to “see other worlds”, despite a hooded figure implying that the kid has no idea what lies ahead.
One night a storm destroys the happiness that is Destiny Islands, and shadow creatures literally emerge from the ground. Sora is separated from his friends and his childhood home. He ends up in a new world called Traverse Town where he is told by some iconic Final Fantasy characters that he is the “Chosen One” (aren’t they all?). Sora learns that he was selected to wield an ancient weapon known as the Keyblade and save those “other worlds” he’s been harping about from plunging into total darkness. By “other worlds” (I promise I won’t put that phrase in quotations anymore), I mean highly recognizable locations from popular Disney classics, i.e. Agrabah from Aladdin and Wonderland from Alice in Wonderland. Those places are in danger of being consumed by darkness, and it is up to Sora and his new friends, Donald and Goofy, to go forth and set things right.
Still with me? Great. Let’s rewind.
Thousands of years before all of this fluff, there was one world instead of dozens of them. Everyone lived in peace and there existed a wholesome entity known as Kingdom Hearts. This entity was full of light and wisdom, and all of that goodness was protected by what’s known as the X-blade.
Unfortunately, though, we can’t have nice things.
People fought ruthlessly to harness the power within Kingdom Hearts, and they began creating knockoff X-blades called Keyblades in an attempt to fight each other in a battle so gruesome it makes you wonder how Disney could ever be a part of this story.
Unlike those fairytale endings to which we are so accustomed, the darkness won this battle and left us with what became known as the Keyblade War. The X-blade was shattered, and the real Kingdom Hearts was lost, doomed to become the stuff of legend. That one, peaceful world we once had was suddenly divided into many.
Years after all this, we are slowly entering into Kingdom Hearts territory that looks somewhat familiar, but which is still before big-footed Sora’s time. There are Disney worlds now with some Square Enix elements sprinkled in for good luck. There’s also a guy named Xehanort, who honestly just needed a few more hugs when he was younger.
Xehanort was a Keyblade Master. If it weren’t for him we wouldn’t have a story.
Xehanort believed there should be a fine balance between light and darkness, and that the world during his time had way too much of the happy stuff. Therefore, his goal was to reclaim the lost entity of Kingdom Hearts by recreating the X-blade so that he could control all of the worlds to his liking.
He went a little overboard.
Through his research, Xehanort learned that an X-blade is created when a heart of pure light collides with one of pure darkness. He then (don’t try this at home, kids) ripped his apprentice in half in order to create these two opposing hearts.
This whole ‘ripping off a young boy in half’ thing led to the creation of Ventus (Ven) and Vanitas, who received a pure heart of lightness and a pure darkness, respectively.
Ven and Vanitas were then separated so as not to influence each other with the lightness and darkness within their hearts. Ven was sent to train under another legendary Keyblade master named Eraqus. During his training, he met two other of Eraqus’s apprentices, Terra and Aqua. The three of them became best friends, so don’t let anyone tell you that Sora, Riku, and Kairi were the OG trio of this franchise.
Ventus may have been gaining friends and frolicking through happy fields of knowledge, but back at the funny farm, Vanitas struggled with the darkness and negative feelings inside of him. The Unversed were born out of Vanitas’s overwhelming negative emotions. Because of this, Vanitas became the original Unversed, and the rest of these enemies became extensions of his dark heart.
While all this was happening, Ven, Aqua, and Terra were training to become Keyblade Masters by studying for the Mark of Mastery test. In a series of sad events, all of which are due to Xehanort (because, of course) Aqua becomes a master and Terra fails his test under the notion that the darkness within his heart is too strong and he lacks control over it. This Golden Trio is split up, and Ventus and Aqua are left to deal with the repercussions of Vanitas’s Unversed. They clean up the mess temporarily and start searching the various worlds for Terra.
Of course things don’t go smoothly, we wouldn’t have a franchise.
Terra quickly finds himself under the guidance of Xehanort. I know, what could go wrong there? Soon enough the three friends are reunited and major confrontations ensue, mostly about how ridiculous Terra is acting. Then in true drama queen fashion, Terra blows his pals off and leaves.
Meanwhile, Xehanort confesses his evil genius plan of trying to recreate the X-blade. He sends Ven to The Land of Departure, a world between light and darkness. By this point, Keybalde Master Eraqus has had about enough of everyone’s shenanigans and a battle breaks out.
Terra comes back long enough to help out in the fight, but really he just makes things worse. Xehanort uses that opportunity to kill Eraqus. After the battle, Ven, Terra, and Aqua are instructed to go to the Keyblade Graveyard for a major showdown ahead. Poor Terra loses his heart during battle, and Xehanort rudely claims Terra’s body for his own.
In the midst of all this madness, Ven and Vanitas have no choice but to come together and re-create the X-blade, which is bad news for basically everyone in a hundred-mile radius. They end up fighting, because that seems to be the theme now, and the fight destroys the X-blade. However, it also (literally) shatters Ven’s heart and leaves him in a comatose state.
Thankfully King Mickey shows up (wait, where did he come from?) just in time to save Aqua from all this chaos. Aqua then steals Eraqus’s keyblade, takes Ven’s comatose body to the Land of Departure, and she transforms the world into Castle Oblivion so that he will be safe. Friendship goals.
Around this point, though super far across the universe on Destiny Islands, a young Sora feels a connection to Ven’s damaged heart. Sora decides to put the heart inside his own chest for safe keeping- something that is so physically impossible that now would be a great time to suspend your disbelief if you haven’t done so already.
Aqua goes back to face off against Xehanort, who is still in control of Terra’s body. It doesn’t go well, like most things in this series, and Aqua becomes trapped in a world between light and darkness known as the Realm of Darkness.
Xehanort meanwhile has found himself in Radiant Garden, a world that is ruled by Ansem the Wise. Xehanort has amnesia and becomes Ansem’s apprentice as he studies more about the darkness within people’s hearts. Xehanort’s obsession with Kingdom Hearts is still driving this whole story, though, and soon he starts pushing Ansem’s experiments and research to go even further.
Ansem the Wise’s apprentices eventually overthrow him, and the inhabitants of Radiant Garden are either turned into Heartless or wind up in different worlds across the universe. This is what happened to Kairi, who found herself on Destiny Islands with Sora and Riku, with absolutely no memory of her past. See? I promise this is all coming together.
Now that Radiant Garden is ruler-less, Xehanort can conduct dangerous experiments to his heart’s content. No pun intended. He splits himself into two beings: a Nobody named Xemnas and a Heartless named Ansem because obviously we weren’t confused enough already.
In the midst of Xehanort’s foolishness, Ansem the Wise’s apprentices transform into Nobodies and start following Xemnas’s extreme ideology. This pleasant group of people soon form what’s known as Organization XIII, and their Nobody-hub becomes The World that Never Was, which is one of the last worlds you visit in Kingdom Hearts 2.
Xehanort’s Nobody and Heartless is still wreaking havoc.
Ansem develops an interest in collecting the seven Princesses of Hearts, namely Disney princess like Belle and Jasmine, because of the pure light that exists within their hearts. Xemnas, on the other hand, just wants to kill as many people as possible.
Fast forward about ten years.
Now the events of the very first Kingdom Hearts game are coming into motion. The Heartless are running ramped and destroying any world they can get their hands (er, claws?) on by unlocking the “heart” of various worlds. King Mickey won’t stand for that, though, and he tells Donald and Goofy to go off and find another Keyblade Master who can help set things right. Mickey leaves the safety of the Disney Castle to find out exactly what’s been happening to these worlds.
Unfortunately, the Heartless get their claws on Destiny Islands, and it’s destroyed. The story is slowly coming back around to the events of the first game, as this is when Sora, Riku, and Kairi are separated from their home and each other. Everyone makes it off the island just fine, but in the midst of the destruction, Kairi’s heart latches onto Sora’s and she falls into a comatose state. Mind you, Sora is still carrying his own heart as well as Ven’s. What’s one more? Remember what I said about suspending disbelief?
After the Heartless destroy Destiny Islands, Sora ends up in Traverse Town with Pluto licking his face. Donald and Goofy find Sora and recognize him as the “savior of worlds” that King Mickey was going on about a couple of paragraphs ago. They convince Sora to come along with him and soon discover that the Keyblade Sora wields can lock the keyholes of the worlds and ultimately keep them safe.
They eventually bump into Riku, who has teamed up with Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty in the hopes of restoring Kairi’s heart.
“But wait,” you ask. “I thought people without hearts become Nobodies.”
You would be right! Kairi, however, is special. Unbeknownst to her, or anyone for that matter, Kairi is (plot twist!) one of the seven Princesses of Heart that Ansem has been desperate to find.
After roaming about the universe for some time, Sora finally ends up at Hollow Bastion, a world which used to be…wait for it. Radiant Garden. Sora and Riku duke it out, and Riku ends up stealing Sora’s Keyblade. Sora obviously can’t let that slide (we worked hard for that Keyblade!) so he chases Riku into the castle for an ultimate fight.
Another plot twist: Riku is possessed by Xehanort’s Nobdy, Ansem.
Ansem knows that Kairi’s Heart is inside Sora’s, despite no one actually telling him this. Disbelief, folks. To show us that he really means business, Ansem uses his Keyblade to take Kairi’s heart out of Sora’s chest because Kingdom Hearts can’t be created if she’s asleep.
Like 95% of the other things happening in the series, that doesn’t go well either.
Ansem is defeated, but Kairi is still unconscious. Not knowing what else to do, Sora stabs himself in the chest (this game is rated E for everyone, by the way) and releases both his heart and Kairi’s from his body. Kairi’s heart returns to her, but Sora becomes a Heartless. Sora’s new, er, shadowy state doesn’t sit too well with Kairi, though, and she uses her newfound princess powers to restore Sora to his old self. Even I’m confused about where these powers came from, but keep rolling with me.
In taking a sharp Keyblade to his chest, Sora created two Nobodies- one for himself and one for Kairi. These Nobodies became Roxas and Namine, respectively. Remember this for later.
After all this drama, Sora follows Riku to the final world of Kingdom Hearts called “The End of the World”, where essentially all the souls of worlds go after they have been destroyed. These destroyed worlds have created a door to Kingdom Hearts, and Ansem (what, you didn’t think he was dead, did you?) goes into a long-winded explanation about how everything is inherently filled with darkness. You can imagine his shock when the door opens and he’s killed by blinding light.
You may be feeling pretty good about yourself after that big, heroic moment, but not so fast. The door to Kingdom Hearts won’t close and there are Heartless trying to pour out now. King Mickey shows up (seriously, where does he keep coming from?) and he and Riku sacrifice themselves by sealing up the door from the inside.
The job still isn’t over and to make matters worse, Kairi appears just as The End of the World starts falling apart. In a dramatic moment that can make you weep if you’re not careful, Sora tells Kairi he is always with her and promises to come back to her one day. The worlds are starting to right themselves after that big showdown, including the home of our heroes. Kairi returns to Destiny Islands alone.
Alright. Remember those two Nobodies that were created when Sora stabbed himself? Well, the one created from Kairi’s heart is a Nobody named Namine. The one from Sora’s is a Nobody named Roxas, who becomes the last member of that neurotic group, Organization XIII.
Namine can manipulate Sora’s memories and often shows signs of empathy despite being a Nobody who’s not supposed to feel anything. Roxas looks exactly like Ventus, because Ven’s heart was inside of Sora’s at the time that Sora stabbed himself in an attempt to save Kairi from Ansem, who was technically Xehanort, and yes, I know, I know. My head hurts, too.
Meanwhile, most of the members of Organization XIII are not down with the fact that they’re Nobodies. They are working to regain their hearts, while a newer member of the group named Marluxia is stirring up nonsense and attempting to overthrow the leadership within the Organization.
Marluxia realizes he can get Sora to help with this, so he forces Namine to manipulate Sora’s memories, as well as those of Donald and Goofy. Namine is a little iffy about this, so she warns Sora about what’s happening. Sora takes on Marluxia and wins. After the battle, Namine offers to restore his memories. The only catch is that she has to put him in stasis for two years. By stasis, I mean a giant egg.
Way on the other side of things, Riku and Mickey have escaped from the Realm of Darkness with the help of a man named Diz…who may or may not be Ansem the Wise in disguise. To make a long story short, Riku finds out what happened to his best pal Sora and makes it his business to go find Roxas.
Ansem the Wise Diz load up Roxas with fake memories- fake town, fake friends. It’s all really sad when you think about it. Namine finally breaks it to Roxas that the two of them are actually Nobodies and so begins the story of Kingdom Hearts 2 as we know it. Roxas is bummed but is overall pretty accepting of his Nobody status, and he disappears as his memories are transferred to Sora.
Finally free from the egg-chamber, Donald, Goofy, and Sora (along with Sora’s now too-short shorts) continue their hunt around the universe in search of Riku and Mickey. The members of Organization XIII are officially the bad boys of the story, but luckily Marluxia got half of them killed off with his horrible plan for total Organization XIII domination.
To make an even longer story shorter, everyone of importance who is still alive makes it to The End of the World, including Diz. He has an interesting plan that will supposedly set everything in order. He has a machine that will digitally encode Kingdom Hearts- a machine that Xemnas has been feeding human hearts to in order to use its power and become unstoppable. Don’t ask.
The machine destroys Kingdom Hearts (seriously, why didn’t we think of this years ago?), and Sora and Riku team up to take down Xemnas in an epically fast-paced battle that wears the heck out of the triangle button. While victorious in the end, the pair get stuck in that world between light and darkness that I kept harping about earlier.
Even if your eyes glossed over parts of this article, you have to leave here knowing the power of friendship is strong between Sora, Riku, and Kairi. The power of friendship is what ultimately saves Sora and Riku from this in-between world-ness and gets Sora and Riku back home to Destiny Islands.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Sorry, not quite.
I promise we’re almost done, though.
Life on Destiny Islands slowly returned to normal, but a message in a bottle washed up on the island’s shores and interrupted that. The letter was from King Mickey and explains how everything on Sora’s journey was connected. But now, Sora and co. must go on one more adventure to save those that are still connected (both literally and metaphorically) to Sora’s heart.
Sora, Riku, and Kairi have quite literally been to the end of the world and back, and if you didn’t shed some kind of tear (even just out of sheer exhaustion), you just may be a Nobody.
There is so much story left to explore in the Kingdom Hearts universe, and it will be interesting to see where the game goes in Kingdom Hearts 3. With any luck, this article set you in the right direction for whatever will come of the series. Let us know if it was comprehensive for you.
Keep checking The Nerd Stash for more news about Kingdom Hearts.
Tori is a writer and gamer originally from Vault 111, but now she resides in Chicago. She has an MFA in creative writing-fiction, runs primarily on coffee, and is an expert on AMC’s The Walking Dead. Follow her on Twitter @torithatnerd.