Anyone who’s played even one Kingdom Hearts game knows that the story can be quite a huge pill to swallow. Square Enix mixes Disney, Final Fantasy, and The World Ends With You to place players in the center of a tale about hearts, worlds, light, darkness, and an impending war. Traversing all of those beloved universes isn’t a small feat, so it’s understandable that things become difficult to keep up with.
Unfortunately, that does make choosing what games to play, and in what order, a bit of a task for fans trying to get a hold of the story before the release of Kingdom Hearts III. There are currently ten Kingdom Hearts games (some of which have received upgraded re-releases that add more story) to go through, but luckily, you don’t have to play all of them to catch up.
Kingdom Hearts I and II are a given. You can’t play the third numbered entry without going through its predecessors. Sora’s quest to free his world and the hearts of his friends from the bonds of darkness is at the very core of the series, and missing even one part of that adventure will leave you scratching your head when stepping into the upcoming adventure. The plot of these two titles follows Sora along with his close friends Donald and Mickey as they traverse the scattered worlds based on popular Disney properties and filled with nods to Square Enix titles. The Keyblade is his guiding star, and he must use it to protect Kingdom Hearts (which, it turns out, is an actual place). But there’s way more to the story than that, which leaves us with three other must-play titles.
After Kingdom Hearts II, set your sights on Birth by Sleep, a title that is set before the first game in the series and puts you in control of three Keyblade masters – Aqua, Ventus, and Terra. These three happen to be integral to the plot of the series as a whole, as much so as Sora himself. Playing Birth by Sleep also gives insight into the dynamic between Riku and Sora, as well as sets the stage for all the games that follow. You’ll gain knowledge of the enemy’s master plan, gain deeper insight into the lore, and see what’s truly possible when a person evolves from a mere Keyblade user into a true Keyblade master.
The next game on your playlist should be Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance. Originally this was just a Nintendo 3DS exclusive, meaning if you didn’t happen to have the handheld, you were out of luck. But on Jan. 24, Square Enix released the 2.8 compilation which includes an HD remaster of Dream Drop Distance for the PS4. It’s considered by many to be among the best of the spin-offs as well as one of the best entries in the series period. Players once again take control of Sora, but this time Riku is playable as well.
Dream Drop Distance takes place after Kingdom Hearts II, with Sora and Riku looking to hone their skills. While much of the story is a continued effort from the enemy that plagued Birth by Sleep as well as Kingdom Hearts I & II, it’s the second half of the game that is truly vital to preparing for part III. Here, you’ll be introduced to more of the good guys, as the struggle between light and dark becomes more fevered. The ending is directly linked to the upcoming sequel more so than the ending of II, seeing an older Sora equipped with proper training. Yet, there is still a bit of a gap in the narrative at this point, and that’s where the final piece of the puzzle comes in.
The same 2.8 compilation that brought PlayStation users Dream Drop Distance also brought a brand new experience in the form of Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage. This latest entry begins at the moment Birth by Sleep ends, and extends just past the ending of Dream Drop Distance, bringing fans right up to the beginning of Kingdom Hearts III. It even provides the premise for the upcoming sequel, leaving you ready to go once Kingdom Hearts III releases.
After playing these five games, you may feel like you’re missing out on something, because you would be skipping five other games in the franchise — but don’t worry. Each of the games mentioned here contain cutscenes and/or files that fill you in on any outside story that you may need, while still keeping the focus on the central thread of the main narrative. But, if you find you have some time to play more of Kingdom Hearts, go for it. You can never have too much Disney & Final Fantasy goodness in your life.
To play just the five central games, though, you’re looking at a few hundred hours of play time. Kingdom Hearts 0.2 is by far the shortest as it’s not a full game and lasts about the length of a single world in one of the other games. The rest will run you between 20 and 50 hours each, depending on how much of a completionist you are, so you may want to start diving in now.
Kingdom Hearts is a gripping series that will tug at your heartstrings while showing just how versatile Square Enix is as a developer and Disney’s properties are at being entertaining experiences. The presentation can be a bit much, but if you follow this road map, you’ll be able to get yourself up to speed without playing nearly a dozen different games across multiple platforms. Before you know it, you’ll be ready for what comes next.