The Kingdom Hearts series is infamous for having a long and confusing storyline. That reputation is amplified by the series’ bizarre naming scheme, which misleads many players into assuming they can play Kingdom Hearts, then Kingdom Hearts II, then Kingdom Hearts III, never realizing that they’ve skipped half a dozen important games in the middle. Now, though, all the games have received remixes, Kingdom Hearts III is so close we can taste it, and I’m here to try and explain the plot of the series up until this point.
My goal isn’t to go into every single nitty gritty detail, but to provide an overview that will help new players—or those who haven’t touched the series since Kingdom Hearts II—get a good idea of what’s actually going on. As such, parts of this write-up are intentionally simplified.
When we last left off, our villain, Xehanort, had been divided into two: His Heartless, Ansem, attempting to gather the seven lights, and his Nobody, Xemnas, attempting to create the 13 darknesses needed to reforge the χ-Blade, unlock Kingdom Hearts, and remake the world. Sora and his friends took down Ansem, leaving Xemnas as the chief player on the stage for now.
Before Sora even arrives on the scene, though, Xemnas’s operation is going into a tailspin. He’d gathered together 14 Nobodies (the original six apprentices, two kids from Radiant Garden, four other randoms, and Sora and Kairi’s very own Nobodies, Roxas and Naminé) with the intent of infusing parts of himself into them and making them all extensions of himself. Most of the Nobodies, however, aren’t down for this, and retain far too much individuality and personality to be used as Xemnas’s puppets.
When Roxas and Naminé appear, it’s the inciting incident for a schism within the Organization. Half stick with Xemnas, who plans to manipulate a memory-less, zombie-like Roxas into using his keyblade to create an artificial Kingdom Hearts. The other half follow Marluxia, one of the random Nobodies, who plots to use Naminé to manipulate Sora’s memories and gain control of Sora himself.
Naminé and the rebel faction of Nobodies take up living in Castle Oblivion, the maze that still holds Ventus’s body somewhere deep within. As Sora, Donald, and Goofy approach after their battle with Ansem, Marluxia forces Naminé to begin manipulating Sora’s memories. Naminé begins to replace Sora’s memories of Kairi with memories of herself, making him feel more attached to her and, therefore, to the cause of the Nobodies.
Meanwhile, Riku and Mickey Mouse begin fighting their way out of the realm of darkness, appearing in the basement of the castle and fighting their way up. Some of the other Organization members capture Riku and make a clone of him, the Riku Replica, who wears the same dumb-looking purple skin tight suit and hula skirt as Ansem-corrupted Riku, and who they also use to manipulate Sora. (To be quite honest, Riku Replica isn’t important at all in the grand scheme of things, but trailers show he’s apparently coming back in Kingdom Hearts III in full HD hula skirt glory, so I had to make a note of him.) Riku, still harboring his darkness powers from Xehanort’s Heartless, Ansem, is tempted several times to turn back to the darkness. It’s eventually revealed that some of these temptations aren’t traps, but true tests, set for him by Ansem the Wise—the original Ansem, who was thrown in the realm of darkness during Xehanort’s betrayal, and who is now helping Riku regain control.
Sora’s memories get increasingly jumbled by Naminé the further he advances in Castle Oblivion. The situation is confused further by Axel, another Nobody who Xemnas sends to spy and disrupt operations within the schism group. Between Sora working his way through the top of Castle Oblivion and Riku working his way up from the basement, most of the Organization’s schism group is slain (but don’t forget about them: we know from trailers again that they’ll be back!). That does no good for Sora, however, whose memories are still a mess. Now no longer controlled by the Organization, Naminé offers to fix him. With Sora’s heart and memories so divided, however, it will take her a full year to set things right, and he’ll have to give up the memories of everything that happened in the castle, including his knowledge of Naminé and of the Organization. Sora agrees, and goes into a sort of stasis, resting and recovering inside a memory pod for a full year. Riku chooses to guard him, embracing neither the darkness nor the light, but taking the middle path.
Sora takes a gap year
The most confusingly-named game in the Kingdom Hearts series, 358/2 Days, gets its name from the gap year that follows, or rather, 358 days of that year, split over two perspectives. While Sora is recovering, his Nobody, Roxas, is just beginning to wake up. As Roxas completes missions for Xemnas, using his keyblade to defeat Heartless and fuel the artificial Kingdom Hearts, he begins to wake up from his zombie-like, memory-less state. While he still has no memory of where he came from, he begins to develop his own personality. What’s more, he begins to develop friendships with two of the other Organization members in particular: Axel and another new face, Xion.
Xion isn’t a normal Nobody. Like the Riku Replica, she’s a kind of clone or puppet. Instead of being built off a full person, however, she’s based off of Roxas, and off of Sora’s memories of Kairi. Everyone who sees her perceives her differently, but she has one trait that’s valuable to the Organization: She can also wield a keyblade and kill Heartless for the artificial Kingdom Hearts.
Axel, Roxas, and Xion become close friends, to the point that they begin to wonder if maybe they have hearts after all. Tragically, though, none of them are real or complete people, and they all slowly come to distrust the Organization. Xion learns from Riku that she’s a product of Sora’s memories, and that her existence is halting Naminé’s work. There’s no way for Xion, Roxas, and Sora to all exist at the same time. Confused and trying to become a real person, she has a falling out with the others. On orders from Xemnas, she tries to absorb Roxas, and they fight. Roxas wins, however, and the memories that make up Xion stream away, going back to Sora. As she fades away in Roxas’s arms, she asks him to try and stop Xemnas and prevent the new Kingdom Hearts from being built. Everyone’s memories of Xion fade away as she dies, leaving her friends tragically unable to remember her or their friendship at all. The only reminder of her existence is in Roxas’s new ability to dual-wield two keyblades at once, and a lingering memory of sharing eating ice cream with her.
Clinging to the last memories of his friend, Roxas stumbles towards the headquarters of the Organization, determined to take revenge. Axel intercepts him and begs him not to leave the Organization, knowing it’ll be a suicide mission. Roxas persists on pressing forward.
Riku, still acting to guard Sora, intercepts him next. Sora can’t awaken as a full person until his Nobody and his memories are returned to him, and Roxas now holds the rest of these. They clash dramatically in the rainy neon World That Never Was. Roxas is incredibly powerful now, with both keyblades, and Riku is forced to tap into every bit of strength he has. That means calling on the darkness left in his heart by Ansem, Xehanort’s Heartless. Riku subdues Roxas, but at a great cost. He’s now stuck looking exactly like Ansem, the guy who just destroyed a bunch of worlds, and channeling a bunch of darkness powers, though he’s still in control in his mind.
The part where absolutely everybody got confused
Riku brings Roxas back to where the real Ansem the Wise, the scientist, is waiting. Sora’s memories are almost complete inside his memory pod. Showing Roxas some mercy while the two merge back together, Ansem creates a fake, virtual reality version of a place called Twilight Town. He sets Roxas inside of it, letting him live out the final seven days of the year inside a fake paradise where he’s a real person, enjoying the last days of his summer vacation with some friends.
Axel, in a last-ditch attempt to bring Roxas back and stop him from merging into Sora, breaks into the simulation, which begins to glitch and dissolve in strange ways as Roxas’s memories bleed into Sora. These final seven days of simulated summer vacation, played from Roxas’s perspective—as the simulation glitches, Axel (who he has no memory of) breaks in with a horde of Nobodies, and Naminé, Ansem-shaped Riku, and a disguised Ansem the Wise manipulate the scenario—form the opening sequence of Kingdom Hearts II, hopelessly confusing everyone who skipped straight to this point from the end of Kingdom Hearts I. (Now you knooooow.)
Despite being all virtual, a few important points happen in this fake Twilight Town. Roxas’s friendship with a group of local kids in the virtual Twilight Town echoes into reality, as the real versions of those local kids find Sora familiar later (and this seems to be a plot point in Kingdom Hearts III). Second, Axel tries desperately to get Roxas to remember their friendship, but can’t succeed before the two fight and Roxas defeats him. Roxas smashes his way out of the virtual paradise-turned-hell and finally comes face to face with Sora’s memory pod. He accepts that his summer vacation is over, and gives up his existence in order for Sora to awaken as a full person at last.
Stay tuned for the fourth and final part, when we’ll finish up the story so far with the remainder of Kingdom Hearts II, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, and Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance.