Square Person 1: “We need some ideas for a new RPG, anything off-the-wall? Good tie-in ideas?”
Square Person 2: “I’ve got one”
Square Person 1: “Alright lets here it”
Square Person 2: “The premise is a series of connected worlds that involve cartoonish versions of Final Fantasy characters. Each of the worlds will revolve around different Disney movies and franchises.”
Square Person 1: ‘Wait, what….”
Square Person 2: “And it will all be told through the journey of young children! The main character will team up with Goofy and Donald and fight with a giant key. We can do it across different systems and platforms, and tell a story so convoluted no one will understand!”
Square Person 1:”…..Brilliant!”
While the genesis of the Kingdom Hearts franchise might have involved slightly different facts, its amazing to think that such a formula found success. Take Final Fantasy and mash it up with Disney characters? It just doesn’t seem like an idea that would be given funding, but I’m sure glad they took a chance on it.
With the slow trickle of info regarding the highly anticipated Kingdom Hearts 3, old and new players alike want to know what all the fuss is about. Both groups might fancy a look at the past titles, to get back up-to-speed. Unfortunately, the litany of games and the nonsensical titles across various platforms can make it very difficult to decide how to get caught up. Luckily, I can try to help people out (sorry Xbox faithful, you are at a loss).
Square-Enix has helped out recently, with the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 and 2.5 collections. The names of these can be confusing, as well as how they’ve re-bundled some of the games. Let’s take a look at whats included, and then assess our options of how to get caught up.
Kingdom Hearts 1.5 ReMix
The first stop in the journey is the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 ReMix for PS3 and PS4 (the PS4 release is incoming soon). The disc contains 3 games in one form or another.
Kingdom Hearts Final Mix
This is the main game in the 1.5 ReMix and is the “Final Mix” version of the PS2 game, Kingdom Hearts. Basically, its the original game with all of the updates and additional story bits included in the formerly Japan-only “Final Mix.” So you get the original game plus the Final Mix bonuses, plus a few updates included in the remaster (like camera and controls).
This is the game to start with – it was first game to release, although its not chronologically the first game. However, playing in order of release sets the right tone and balances spoilers appropriately. This game introduced the now standard ARPG format for the series where enemies spawn in real time and you have real time action battles, not turn-based affairs.
Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories
The second full game in 1.5 is Chain of Memories. The title is awfully confusing but is a product of the fact that this game originally started as a Gameboy Advance game, was remastered onto PS2, and has undergone yet another port to PS3 and PS4. This game picks up, story-wise, right where Kingdom Hearts Final Mix ends, so its a natural progression.
Gameplay-wise, this game is quite different. It uses a card-based system to run fights, which are still in “real-time.”
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
The final inclusion on the 1.5 disc is NOT a game – it is a “cinematic retelling.” Basically, this game has been converted into a roughly 3 hour movie with no interaction or input. This isn’t a visual novel or walking simulator, its simply watching cutscenes. While its quite long, the original game (which was on Nintendo DS) was not to the same level as the original game. This game/movie does include quite a bit of background that is helpful, although not necessary, to understanding the series going forward. Some will argue that you should wait to watch this movie before playing Kingdom Hearts 2, but I disagree, and would watch it right after Chain of Memories.
After completing the 1.5 collection, the next step is to go out and get 2.5
Kingdom Hearts 2.5 ReMix
Kingdom Hearts 2.5 follows the same format as 1.5: the big main title, a spin-off title, and game-to-movie for viewing. Again, this is only available on PS3, with a PS4 release incoming.
Kingdom Heart II Final Mix
The second big mainline game, this version of the game received similar treatment to its PS2 original – the added Final Mix features not originally included outside Japan, along with some quality of life and bug updates. This game goes back to the bread and butter ARPG free flowing combat, and does so with a lot more polish. Personally, this is my favorite game in the entire series.
Story-wise, this game technically occurs right after Chain of Memories. Some will argue you should play KH2 before watching 358/2 Days, but I think watching the movie helps explain some of the background going on in this title.
Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep Final Mix
Birth by Sleep was originally a PSP game, and has been fully remastered for home console. Yet again, the “Final Mix” moniker simply denotes that it includes the added features previously only included in the Japanese release.
This game sticks to the same gameplay and style (for the most part) of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II. It’s up there on many people’s “favorite KH game” lists. Story-wise, this game takes place some ten years before the first Kingdom Hearts title, so it is the first game in the timeline, and a prequel to the main series.
Kingdom Hearts Re:coded
Just like with 358/2 Days, this previously exclusive Nintendo DS title has been reworked into a 3 hour long movie. The movie includes additional content that was not part of the original game. While this is one title I have not actually beaten, the original game did not fare well in its reception. Story-wise, the game takes place after Kingdom Hearts 2.
Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue
At last we have the recently released final compilation before Kingdom Hearts 3. The title only further creates confusion, but just know that these games are intended to be played after 2.5.
I have yet to complete this re-release, so I cannot yet speak to its quality. However, it includes:
(1) Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (originally on 3DS; this is a full remake and a full game)
(2) Kingdom Hearts X Back Cover (a movie that shows details and story not previously revealed)
(3) Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage (an entirely new game that involves the cast of characters from Birth by Sleep, the prequel)
What should I do to catch up for Kingdom Hearts 3?
Here’s the big question: what titles should I play to catch up? There are a couple of options:
First, you could buy 1.5, 2.5, and 2.8 and play them straight through in the order presented to you. This would take quite awhile since the games are pretty lengthy, but playing them in the order I listed them above will give the full picture of the story, and you will have experienced all the KH lore to date.
Second, you could buy 1.5, 2.5, and 2.8 and only play what, in my opinion, are the critical titles for a solid understanding. Given that, I would play Kingdom Heats Final Mix (from 1.5), watch 358/2 Days (from 1.5), play Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix (from 2.5), play Birth by Sleep (from 2.5), watch X Back Cover (from 2.8), and finally play Kingdom Heart 0.2 (from 2.8). That cuts out a bit of content, but also includes the strongest titles (gameplay wise) while balancing the interest of keeping up with the story.
Lastly, you could go super lean. If you want to go this route, get Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II, and Birth by Sleep (either through the ReMixes or on their original platforms). Play them in that order, and then watch a YouTube of X Back Cover. While you will certainly miss some of the nuance of a totally arcane storyline, you will get the grasp of the gameplay while not being totally derailed in side content.
The Kingdom Hearts storyline is incredibly byzantine and difficult to follow, even if you sat down and played through all of these titles back-to-back. However, using my suggestions above, you will get the basic gist of what is going on, along with the major characters, and have a firm grasp of what to expect whenever Kingdom Hearts 3 finally rolls around.