2018 is going to be an exciting year for fans of the Kingdom Hearts franchise because we're finally approaching the release of the grand finale to the current story arc, Kingdom Hearts III. For those both inside and outside the series' community, there is an undeniable sense of hype surrounding this game. That much excitement is bound to draw in some newcomers, and that's awesome! Now is arguably the best time to introduce yourself to the series. However, there are some things you need to know before diving in.
Regardless of the hype, Kingdom Hearts never has been and never will be a perfect franchise. It has a ton of flaws you should know about before getting into it. This is coming from somebody who has been a loyal fan since the original game's release 16 years ago. So if you're thinking about catching up on the Kingdom Hearts series, take all of these things into consideration first.
You've probably heard of this by now. The storyline of the Kingdom Hearts series is a convoluted mess. However, there is a misconception as to why the plot is like this. Many assume the story itself is confusing, but that's not really the case if you play the games in order of release.
Kingdom Hearts is filled to the brim with plot twists, retcons, visual storytelling, and many other elements that are important to pay attention too. If you play the games in the proper order, things will make sense and the particular plot points will have their intended effect on you.
For instance, you wouldn't want to tell somebody what happens in the seventh season of a television show without the first six seasons for context. You would sound insane. Kingdom Hearts works in a similar way.
With that being said, how are people so confused when it comes to the story? Kingdom Hearts used to span multiple consoles before the dawn of the HD collections. As it was before 2013, you had to own a PlayStation 2, Game Boy Advance (unless you picked up the PS2 remake of Chain of Memories), Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable, and a Nintendo 3DS (which could play the DS games, but it wouldn't matter if you were picking them up on release day).
This caused a lot of confusion. At this point, there were seven games in the Kingdom Hearts series. Kingdom Hearts and its sequel landed on the PlayStation 2, while numerous interquels, prequels, and even two sequels made their way to various handheld systems. With this confusing release pattern, many fans were playing the games out of order. Thankfully, this is easily avoided with the recent HD collections.
The HD Collections
This is by far the best way to experience Kingdom Hearts. These versions of the games have additional content, higher quality graphics, and even improved framerates on the PS4 versions.
With Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5+2.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, Square Enix has put the entire series on one platform. To get the best experience, you should play the entirety of 1.5+2.5 first in the following order:
- Kingdom Hearts
- Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories
- Kingdom Hearts II
- Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
- Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep
- Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded
If you don't like the gameplay of Chain of Memories, feel free to watch the cutscenes online. A lot of people learn the story this way. However, it is a really fun deck building game, so I recommend playing it. After you finish that collection, move on to 2.8 and play the games in this order:
- Kingdom Hearts HD: Dream Drop Distance
- Kingdom Hearts χ: Back Cover
- Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage
Wow, that's a lot of games! Thankfully, 358/2 Days, Re: Coded, and Back Cover are all simply cutscenes stitched together like a movie. A Fragmentary Passage is also relatively short, since it was originally supposed to be the prologue for Kingdom Hearts III.
So Dream Drop Distance is a remaster of a 3DS game. A Fragmentary Passage is sort of like the Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zero of Kingdom Hearts III. But what is this mysterious χ: Back Cover? It's a lot different from the other games and it doesn't even feature any of the familiar characters we know and love.
If you've stayed with me so far, awesome! I'm so sorry if I lose you after this next part, because things get very complicated when talking about this game.
Kingdom Hearts χ
After the release of Dream Drop Distance, Square Enix released a web browser game called Kingdom Hearts χ. The game is a prequel that predates any of the current games by hundreds of years. Many people shrugged off the cutesy style of the game, thinking that Square finally released a spinoff game that wasn't important to the story.
But Tetsuya Nomura can't be satisfied unless he makes you play a different Kingdom Hearts game on every platform known to man. Kingdom Hearts χ, unfortunately, is presumably important to the story. Thankfully, the game finished a long time ago and all the cutscenes are available online.
Things are never this easy for Kingdom Hearts though. In 2015, a mobile port of the game called Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ was released. This was originally thought to be a port of the mobile browser game. But like I said, it can never be that simple. The story of Unchained χ deviates from the original about halfway through the game. New elements start to pop up, and it starts to become clear why the games have two separate names.
About a year ago, the main plot of the game severely strayed from the original. Along with some additional story and game mechanics, Square renamed the game to Kingdom Hearts Union χ (Cross).
Originally, it was believed Kingdom Hearts χ: Back Cover would streamline the events of the mobile and browser games so fans wouldn't have to play them. But Back Cover contains information you won't find in the mobile game. Unfortunately, the same thing can be said the other way around. The three titles coexist, and you have to understand them all to fully grasp the story.
The worst part about Kingdom Hearts χ is the fact that Union χ is still going. The story isn't even finished and is unlikely to be finished by the time III comes out later this year. On top of that, the Japanese version of the game is way ahead compared to the English version.
Now this might not be a big deal. Nobody has a clear answer as to how impactful χ will be in the future of the series. But if the past has any answers to give, the games will probably be important.
If you're still with me after all of that, there's one more thing you have to know about Kingdom Hearts before you start your journey. It's a far less serious topic, but one that I'm sure will affect your enjoyment of the series.
Kingdom Hearts is Incredibly Goofy, Stupid, and Sometimes Cringey
When I played Kingdom Hearts for the first time, I didn't question a lot of things about the game. The premise of Disney and Final Fantasy characters existing in the same universe wasn't that crazy for a young child to grasp. Now, the idea seems quite ridiculous.
Every time I replay a game in the series, it's hard to swallow some of the dialogue. The writing in general is incredibly cheesy. There are moments where I actually let out heavy sighs because a line of dialogue didn't land appropriately at all. Lines like "that was undeniable proof that we totally owned you lamers" are sometimes incredibly difficult to get past. So if you're wanting to like Kingdom Hearts, you're going to have to get over some bad writing.
While the story is gripping by nature, the sudden whiplash you'll experience can be a bit much. One moment you'll be jumping on a trampoline with Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. Next thing you know, there's a serious sword fight going on between two dudes with spiky anime hair. Simply put, the tone is inconsistent throughout. Seeing Final Fantasy characters do goofy Disney things is strange. Seeing Disney characters go through super serious JRPG story arcs is even weirder. If you want to play Kingdom Hearts, just be fully prepared to go through some of the dumbest moments you'll ever experience in a video game.
So if you've made it all the way to this point and you're still interested in trying Kingdom Hearts, that's great! The series has a lot more great things going for it. The story is incredibly engaging, the combat is fluid and improves with each entry, the presentation is absolutely gorgeous, and the worlds all have unique features from their respective Disney films.
Kingdom Hearts has a lot to love, but you have to accept its quirks. If you can't accept a game for both its perfections and its flaws, it's really hard to enjoy it. Right now is the best time to become a fan of this franchise. So if you made it this far, do yourself a favor. Pick up a copy of Kingdom Hearts 1.5+2.5 and 2.8. Once you play through those, you can join the rest of us and patiently wait for Kingdom Hearts III.