What The Hell Is Kingdom Hearts? A Beginner’s Guide To Square Enix’s RPG Series

What The Hell Is Kingdom Hearts? A Beginner’s Guide To Square Enix’s RPG Series

There’s a new Kingdom Hearts game out tomorrow. It’s called Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance and it’s the seventh game in a series that now has 250 per cent more spinoffs than main instalments.

To some of you a new Kingdom Hearts might be reason to celebrate. To others it might just be confusing. What is Kingdom Hearts? Why should you care? Why does Mickey look like he’s about to steal your car?

We’re here to explain.

So what the hell is “Kingdom Hearts”? It sounds like gibberish.
It is gibberish. The name, at least. It’s also the title of a series of action-RPGs by Square Enix that blends Final Fantasy‘s narrative style with Disney’s cartoon worlds, drip-feeding you a steady dose of hack-and-slash combat along the way. You’ll get to visit the settings from movies like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Pirates of the Caribbean and you’ll get to enlist the help of Simba, Beast, Jack Sparrow, and many other Disney creations.

Sounds lame.
It’s not. In fact, visiting Disney worlds is actually a blast. Haven’t you always wanted to explore worlds like Agrabah and Halloween Town, hunting down treasure and fighting bosses like Jafar and Oogie Boogie? Even better: you’re often accompanied by Donald Duck and Goofy, who are hilarious partners and surprisingly great at helping you kill things. Even if they don’t get keyblades.

What’s a keyblade?
It’s sort of like a sword except it’s also a giant key. Just roll with it.

Right. So you’re a guy with a giant key.
To be specific, you’re a guy named Sora with a giant key. Sometimes you’re also a guy named Riku — Sora’s childhood best friend — and sometimes you play as one of various other characters throughout the series. As might be expected from a Square Enix game, all of these characters are linked in twisty and unexpected ways.

Who’s the coolest one?

Mickey? As in, Mickey Mouse?
That’s King Mickey Mouse to you, peasant. In Kingdom Hearts he’s less bashful rodent and more glorious warrior, the type of fighter who could even take Sephiroth one-on-one in man-on-mouse combat. Your job in the first game is to hunt him down. He makes some clutch appearances later. You even get to (briefly) play as him.

Ooookay. This must be some story.
You don’t want to know.

What do you mean?
Look. To dig into the story of Kingdom Hearts is to wander into a tangled jungle of plot twists, body swaps, betrayals, memory loss, clones, hearts, kingdoms, and general convoluted bullshit. It’s just not worth your time. If you’ve played every game in the series multiple times and you’ve read enough Wikipedia to understand exactly what’s happening, you might get some sort of emotional resonance out of Sora and Riku’s journey, but for most of us life is just too short to bother.

Can you sum it up in one sentence?
Sora and Riku set off to rescue Mickey Mouse but are instead caught in an epic struggle in which they must save a whole bunch of worlds from an evil force of heartless creatures (called Heartless) while battling a black-cloaked organisation (called the organisation) with ambiguous motivations, all whilst learning the truth about keyblades and the wars surrounding them (called the Keyblade Wars) so they can destroy evil and all that jazz before they succumb to shadow and allow the nasty Xehanort to claim victory.

Sounds confusing.
You don’t know the half of it.

So why do the characters have such glorious hair?
The Kingdom Hearts series is the brainchild of Tetsuya Nomura, the man who designed many of the characters in Square Enix’s more modern games, like Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy X. He has a thing for hair. Also goggles.

Is there a dumber name for a video game than Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance?
Yes. Yes there is.

Touche. Well is Dream Drop Distance any good?
Well… yes and no. I’ll have a full review up on Kotaku tomorrow. Stay tuned.

If I’ve never played a game in the series before, is Dream Drop Distance a good place to start?
Again: yes and no. If you don’t care about the story and you just want to go hacking and slashing, you’ll have a tough time finding combat more sublime on the 3DS. But if you enjoy understanding what’s going on in the video games you play, you’ll want to start with one of the first two Kingdom Hearts games on PlayStation 2.

Just how many games are there?
Seven. Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, both for PlayStation 2, are your main series entries. But then there are five spinoffs: Chain of Memories (GBA), 358/2 Days (DS), Birth by Sleep (PSP), coded (Mobile phones, but later released on DS as RE:coded), and now Dream Drop Distance (3DS).

Why are these names so silly?
Because Square Enix.

So what’s next?
Nomura has hinted that Kingdom Hearts III will be announced for consoles in the near future. Hopefully it will have worlds from Pixar movies like Toy Story and Wall-E. And hopefully it will be awesome.

Will it be confusing and mawkish and often ridiculous but endearing nonetheless?


  • People still call the five non-numbered games spinoffs? Don’t spinoffs usually take no part in the main story in any way? Or am I misinformed?

    • I think calling them side quests might have been a little more accurate than spin-offs. If it were a spin-off it might be something like “Goofy’s great crusade against the inundation of first person shooters in today’s gaming industry” (working title) where you go 1 on 1 street fighter style with the protagonists of all the currently popular shooters without their guns and get to slap them around with your shield.

      The games are more sidequests as they fill in gaps of unexplained story in the main titles such as “why was sora where he was at the start of KH2” (chain of memories) and “who the hell is roxas and why should I care” (358/2 days which runs approximately parallel to chain of memories). Birth by sleep is effectively a prequel dealing with different characters but setting up nicely for KH1

  • To be fair, Ar Tonelico III’s title was some weird shit that they made up when localizing it, the actual Japanese title was just Ar Tonelico III and then some enormous long subtitle about a song that triggers the end of the world.

    Also Squenix has the market covered on daft names. 358/2 Days is pretty terrible, and then there’s Bravely Default, the game apparently about the EU debt crisis.

    • The thing is, 358/2 Days actually makes sense once you’ve knocked
      off most of the game. But regardless, I’ll agree that it certainly
      is out there in the way of naming. Much better than ‘Dissidia 012:
      Duodecim Final Fantasy’ though.

  • y’kno, i inever initally played any Kingdom Hearts games because i was a Gamecube and then a Xbox teenager instead of a PS2 one, but now that i’ve acquired a PS2 (i know 10+ years late to the party, you try building an awesome game collection on an allowance) but its definetly a game that i am very intrested to play, they are also real cheap as with most PS2 games out there now.

    Thanks for the heads up that the plot is a mindscrew.

  • Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel is not a dumb name, it’s a
    mouthful and kind of awkward but there’s good logic behind the
    name. The localisation team felt ‘III’ would alienate new people
    (dumb since a great deal of ATIII’s plot references the previous
    two games) so they used Qoga, the word in the ingame language for
    ‘end’ or ‘finale’. Knell is the sound of a bell used at funerals
    and Ar Ciel is the planet the game takes place on. All combine to
    say “this is the last Ar Tonelico, the planet is dying” I think it
    would have been better had they just left out the ‘Qoga’ gone with
    ‘III’ but it’s still better than a full literal translation of
    ATIII’s subtitle “Ar tonelico III: The Girl’s Song that Pulls the
    Trigger of World’s Demise” which also makes sense and sounds good
    in Japanese but is wonderfully awkward in english. I’m something of
    a hardcore fan of both Kingdom Hearts and Ar Tonelico and the
    fundamental difference between ATIII’s title and say 358/2 days is
    that I look back on AT3’s title and it makes me think of the themes
    of the games and the series and I actually sort of like it for all
    its awkwardness, I look back on 358/2 days after having played it
    and think that there were dozens of better and less obtuse names it
    could have been given. Quite a few Square game names are like that
    these days.

  • I love Kingdom Hearts. Been following the series since the beginning, and have found each game quite enjoyable, each having interesting new aspects. With the exception of a couple games, (358/2 Days and Re:Coded) of course, but even then, they were enjoyable to me. They’re not “spin-offs”, either. More “side-stories” to tie the plot together.

    Let me tell you, if you can get your head around the plot (which shouldn’t actually be as hard as people make it out to be. Just read Wikis if you don’t want to experience the games?), it’s such an enjoyable series.

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