Chances are high that even if someone loved the first two Kingdom Hearts games with reckless abandon, they might’ve been utterly confused by the new story trailers that came out of E3 2018 last month. How are some members of Organization XIII still alive? Why are the villains of the first two games now members? What’s an “Unversed”? Who’s that girl with blue hair?
Somewhat unfairly, it isn’t enough to focus just on the main Kingdom Hearts entries in the franchise. The universe of Kingdom Hearts is barely comprehensible as it is, and even though several games are totally skippable, there are two that’ll be required when it comes to the third adventure in 2019.
So what two games — other than the original two — do fans need to play before the third game releases? Birth By Sleep and Dream Drop Distance. The latter bridges the gap between Kingdom Hearts II and III and the former serves as the foundation for much deeper lore a decade before the original game.
But, if you want to quickly get up to speed and guzzle a bunch of necessary spoilers, here’s what you need to know in chronological order:
Birth By Sleep Focuses on Three Different Keyblade Wielders
Featured above are three keyblade wielders called Aqua, Terra, and Ventus that serve as playable characters in Birth By Sleep, originally released for the PSP in 2010. They’re pals a decade before Kingdom Hearts, when Sora is only 4 years old.
Birth By Sleep has players pick one character and play through the entire game before replaying it with the other two. But because each character fights in different ways and goes on their own journey through the same worlds, the gaming experience avoids being repetitive and is instead totally refreshing.
They all aspire to become keyblade masters. Aqua, a magic-focused combatant, passes her Mark of Mastery exam at the start of the game and becomes a master. Terra, who relies on brute force like a shogun, fails the test because he has a growing darkness. Ventus, a nimbler and flourishing fighter, is too young to take the exam, but he’s also more than meets the eye.
Xehanort Is the REAL Villain of Kingdom Hearts
Kingdom Hearts gave us Ansem and Kingdom Hearts II gave us Xemnas, but Birth By Sleep gave us the OG Xehanort, an uber-powerful and cranky old man. Both Ansem and Xemnas are Xehanort’s Heartless and Nobody, and their collective goal is to balance light and darkness equally to unlock the heart of all worlds, Kingdom Hearts.
Years before Birth By Sleep, Xehanort trained Ventus to use a keyblade, but urged him to grow his darkness. When Ventus refused, Xehanort forcibly unlocked the darkness in the boy’s heart, creating a badass being called Vanitas.
Here’s where it gets tricky: Ventus almost died from the process, but his broken heart bonded with the newborn Sora. This is why Ventus and Roxas (Sora’s Nobody from KHII) look nigh identical. This weird heart connection is also why without that helmet, Vanitas looks exactly like Sora. This separation is also what creates the Unversed, a new species of enemies that players fight throughout Birth By Sleep that also return in Kingdom Hearts III.
Xehanort figures out a way to reunite the two of them to create a superpowered keyblade called the χ-blade, which is basically the Platonic Form of a keyblade that can unlock the door to Kingdom Hearts. Thankfully, Ventus sacrifices himself and blows the thing up, ultimately falling into a coma in the process.
If Terra also looks familiar, there’s a good reason for that:
Xehanort Took Terra As His Vessel
The “big twist” at the end of Birth By Sleep has Xehanort basically kill himself so he can possess Terra and become what’s commonly referred to as “Terra-Xehanort.” Ansem and Xemnas’s physical forms are based off this version of the character because Terra-Xehanort gave his own heart over to darkness sometime after Birth By Sleep, which created his Heartless and Nobody (Ansem and Xemnas) that look like a slightly older, silver-haired Terra.
All this comes after a bout of amnesia and he becomes apprentice to Ansem the Wise (who’s the “real” Ansem, by the way)
Aqua Is Probably the Greatest Keyblade Master to Ever Live
I’ve mentioned before that Aqua became a keyblade master at the beginning of Birth By Sleep, and she spent that entire game only getting more skilled. After Ventus falls into a coma, she transforms an entire world into Castle Oblivion to keep him safe. She also singlehandedly defeats Xehanort and when Terra-Xehanort plunges into the realm of darkness, she sacrifices herself to send him back into the realm of light. She’s trapped there for 12 long years until Yen Sid sends Riku and Mickey there to save her.
In a KHIII trailer released at E3 2018, Aqua tells Mickey that he’s “too late,” and it’s revealed that her eyes have turned Xehanort’s evil shade of golden yellow.
In Dream Drop Distance, Riku and Sora Learn All of This and Then Some
Sometime after the events of Kingdom Hearts II, Sora and Riku take their own mark of mastery exam with keyblade master Yen Sid, who informs them that the REAL Xehanort is returning after they destroyed both Ansem and Xemnas.
Sora and Riku travel through dreams and time itself to worlds already consumed by Heartless as part of this training, and they ultimately learned that Xehanort used time travel to incept himself into gathering a dozen different incarnations of himself into the new, ultimate Organization XIII. (Yes, this insanity is what really happens.) For some reason, he tries to get Sora as the final, 13th member but Riku saves him. As a result …
Riku Became a Keyblade Master, But Sora Didn’t
Sora might be the protagonist and main hero of the core games, but out in the many other Kingdom Hearts spin-offs, prequels, sidequels, and interquels, he’s a bit player. He was on roughly equal footing with Riku throughout Dream Drop Distance before he was kidnapped by Xehanort. The process of almost turning him into a vessel for darkness also could’ve stripped Sora of all his power. (It’s a potential but somewhat BS explanation for why he starts Kingdom Hearts III as a total weakling again.)
As such, Yen Sid approves Riku’s mark of mastery exam and the purple-haired bro is officially anointed as a keyblade master. But Sora goes off with Donald and Goofy to meet up with Hercules to train up. Supposedly, he might’ve regained his power by the time Kingdom Hearts III happens, but that remains to be seen.
Axel’s “Somebody” Was Resurrected, and Is Training With Kairi
Remember that Nobody named Axel that was best friends with Roxas and sacrificed himself towards the end of Kingdom Hearts II? The same guy that kidnapped Kairi? During Dream Drop Distance, he’s resurrected into his “Somebody” named Lea (the same process happening to Xehanort after Ansem and Xemnas died) and fully becomes one of the good guys. Both he and Kairi are currently training to be new keyblade wielders.
To combat the 13 beings of darkness, the good guys need to protect the seven princesses of heart with seven guardians of light because 14 > 13 = Victory in this ridiculous universe.
Previous games involved other princesses of heart, but Kingdom Hearts III could present some new ones with Elsa from Frozen and Rapunzel from Tangled. For all we know, there are perhaps a dozen of these people and they only need the seven.
Even with the guardians of light, there are more than enough in existence. Mickey, Sora, and Riku are the current active guardians. In Dream Drop Distance, Mickey also namedrops Aqua, Terra, and Ventus as candidates, but the three of them are in varying states of incapacitation. Adding Lea and Kairi means that they only have five, which means that they need two more.
Hence why Riku and Mickey have to rescue Aqua, and then Sora will probably have to figure out how to revive Ventus.
How Do You Play Birth By Sleep and Dream Drop Distance Now?
Kingdom Hearts III will be released on January 25, 2019.