Square Enix has unveiled the first of three planned trailers before Kingdom Hearts III’s launch next month. The video showcased an exhilarating and action-packed, though exceedingly brief, overview of the major characters and their journeys in the series so far. The trailer was more of a stylish refresher than a useful lore guide, and the montage didn’t illuminate the characters’ stories for those not already in the know – which is why we decided to help.
At its core, Kingdom Hearts is a series of games about the champions of light fighting the forces of darkness with magical key-shaped weapons, and how that clash tests even the strongest bonds of friendship. Though its story has an intimidating reputation for being complicated – aided by the fact that several vital games in the series were released on various consoles – newcomers, or those who didn’t play all the games, shouldn’t worry about jumping into Kingdom Heart III. To catch everyone up, we created a guide to help untangle the intricate web of lore surrounding the heroes and their journeys.
Ventus, Terra, and Aqua
Who They Are
Ventus, Terra, and Aqua debuted in Birth by Sleep, a prequel to the events of the first Kingdom Hearts. The story centers on the three keyblade masters-in-training whose friendship is tested when Xehanort – the main antagonist in the Kingdom Hearts universe – sets a plan in motion to gain power.
Terra is the oldest of the bunch. He is driven, self-sufficient, and has single-mindedly worked towards becoming Keyblade Master his entire life. Aqua, though a compassionate and devoted friend, can best either of her fellow keyblade hopefuls in battle and has unwavering faith in her path. Both characters are quickly approaching their Mark of Mastery exam to see if they are worthy to be Keyblade Masters. Ventus – rash, passionate, and loyal – is younger than the other two, and so is not partaking in this rite of passage, but its outcome changes the course of his future too.
During their Mark of Mastery exam, Xehanort – a visiting Keyblade Master who secretly believes in the power of darkness – corrupts the proceedings. This causes Terra to fail, shattering his lifelong dream; his mood only worsens when Aqua passes successfully. Her newfound duty, however, is what causes a rift between Aqua and her closest friends. As a Keyblade Master, Aqua must uphold the light, which now means keeping an eye on Terra, who shows disturbing signs of turning to the darkness, and trying to ensure Ventus stays hidden and safe. Thinking that Terra is in eminent danger, Ventus recklessly follows him, but soon struggles with evidence of Terra’s descent
Where Are They Now
In the final showdown between dark and light, Xehanort reveals he wants to cast the world in darkness, and the trio realize they have to come together to defend against the threat. Though evil doesn’t triumph, it isn’t exactly defeated either; Xehanort forcibly takes controls of Terra’s body, Aqua falls into the realm of darkness attempting to save Terra, and by sacrificing himself to spoil Xehanort’s plan, Ventus falls into a comatose state.
Sora, Riku, and Kairi
Who Are They
Starring in the first Kingdom Hearts game Sora, Kari, and Riku are childhood friends who know in their hearts there is more out there and feel trapped on their tiny island. Convinced they are being kept from something greater and determined to find it, the three friends build a raft to escape. The night before they planned on making their journey, a monstrous storm filled with dark creatures tears them and their homeland apart. Unlike their Birth By Sleep counterparts, they stumble into the struggle between light and dark completely unprepared.
Sora and Riku are both stubborn and aspire to be better than the other, which pits them against each other a lot. This isn’t such a big deal when it’s only playing around with wooden swords to gain the attention of Kairi, but it becomes a world-threatening issue when they gain the power of the keyblade. Sora is a little goofier and more naïve than his cool and serious rival, but they both care deeply about their friends. Kairi is much wiser than her male cohorts and treats both with understanding and kindness.
Riku, always having been curious about the other worlds, embraces the darkness as his ticket out of his small-town life. Sora doesn’t yet understand what is happening and tries desperately to reach Riku, but his heart is too full of Light to follow. They get separated and Sora emerges from the dark cloud holding a keyblade. With little time wonder why the magical blade appeared, Sora goes looking for Kairi but when he thinks he has found her, Kairi is blasted toward him by a force of dark energy and disappears after passing through him like a ghost. As it turns out, Kairi, knowing she was the key to opening a door to darkness, gifts her heart to Sora in that moment for safekeeping. Because of this, she remains lifeless when the characters discover her later. Riku blames Sora for Kairi’s unresponsive state and believes that Sora – because he refuses to use darkness – is not doing everything in his power to help her. Sora, on the other hand, has seen the devastation Riku caused when thoughtlessly using the darkness and hates seeing the villain his friend has become.
The difficulties between the two protagonists continue even after Kairi is revived and safely returned to their now restored island. Sora’s enemies plague him with a Riku look-alike that tries to convince Sora he didn’t truly care about Riku. The real Riku, is haunted by his own inner demons realizing the pain he has caused. Kairi, now revealed as a Princess of Heart who is also able to wield a keyblade, recognizes Riku despite a disguise and reunites him with Sora. Together, they temporarily defeat the forces of darkness and all three briefly return to their home island before the two boys are summoned to undergo the Mark of Mastery exam. If there was a situation that could test their new-found unity and bring back out their childish rivalry, this would be it. However, when Riku is the only one to pass, Sora sincerely congratulates his friend without envy, though he is still set on becoming a Keyblade Master.
Where Are They Now
Riku is now tasked with rescuing Aqua from the Dark realm, while Sora will be seeking out other fellow Keyblade wielders for the final showdown. One of the keyblade wielders will be Kairi.
Mickey, Donald, and Goofy
Who Are They
Mickey rules over Disney Castle in the Kingdom Hearts universe, with Donald and Goofy as his faithful knights. Mickey became a Keyblade Master under the tutelage of Yen Sid, a powerful wizard renowned for his wisdom. Mickey originally believes that the darkness should be destroyed but grows to realize that light and dark maintain an important balance. He is often gallivanting off to help the guardians of light when they need it most. In Birth By Sleep, he arrives in the nick of time to help Aqua protect a very young Kairi from the forces of darkness. Luckily, Aqua returns the favor and saves Mickey when he is later kidnapped and left stranded in space. Mickey has been a saving grace throughout the series. Once again he saves the day when he charges in at the last minute to help Sora, Riku, and Kairi face down the darkness. Mickey, along with Riku, sacrifices himself to close the door to the darkness. Throughout the series, Donald and Goofy are searching for him in order to help in his quest.
Mickey is brave, powerful, and a crucial ally to anyone who wants to defend the light. Donald and Goofy are lovable, but bumbling, companions that nonetheless want to help. Though Donald and Goofy are mainly concerned with finding their King, when they bump into Sora in the first Kingdom Hearts, the trio quickly team up, building a strong bond.
Though these three often get separated, Donald and Goofy never waver in their loyalty to Mickey, and Mickey never doubts their devotion. So, unlike the other heroes in Kingdom Hearts, their journeys don’t throw them into serious conflict with each other, even if Donald delights in grumpily nagging the slow-witted Goofy.
Where Are They Now
Mickey, safely reunited with Donald and Goofy, helped to oversee Riku and Sora’s Mark of Mastery exam alongside his master Yen Sid. The group has concluded that Xehanort will return and they need to collect other keyblade wielders to face him. Mickey is accompanying Riku on his quest to save Aqua, while Donald and Goofy will support Sora in finding other keyblade wielders.
Roxas, Axel/Lea, and Xion
Who Are They
This is the odd trio out because they begin their story aligned with the darkness in 358/2 Days which takes place between Kingdom Hearts and its sequel. The friends are a group of Nobodies, which are created when someone strong loses their heart. They were recruited by Organization XIII with the promise that they would become real humans again. Roxas is the Nobody that Sora created when he sacrificed himself to give Kairi her heart back in the first Kingdom Hearts.
Roxas is good-spirited, but questions his place in the world when he falls in with Organization XIII. He soon becomes friends with his quick-witted, caviler superior Axel and the shy new-girl on the block Xion. The three companions gather together after their Organization missions to relax and they become strongly attached to each other despite being Nobodies who aren’t supposed to have feelings.
Unfortunately for the black-clad three musketeers, their days of eating sea-salt ice-cream together comes to an end when Roxas and Xion start asking questions about who they are and what the Organization really wants. As a higher-ranking member of the Organization, Axel is forced to move against his friends. Xion soon finds that she is not a Nobody, but an imperfect copy of Roxas, meant to replace him if he doesn’t help the Organization. Roxas and Xion battle each other when they realize only one of them can survive. Xion is content to lose the fight to allow Roxas to take down the Organization. Axel and Roxas come to blows after the Organization tells Axel to either capture Roxas or be killed himself. Axel can’t bring himself to harm his friend and is upset when Roxas chooses to remerge with Sora. Distraught, Axel attempts to kidnap Kairi to force Sora to recreate Roxas, but ends up sorry for what he has done. Despite their history, Axel saves Sora from danger with an attack so powerful that he obliterates himself. However, that sacrifice allows Axel to regain his true human form – Lea.
Where Are They Now
Xion and Roxas have both willingly disappeared from existence to join with the other keyblade wielders. Axel now in his real human form, saves Sora from Organization XIII and joins in the fight against darkness.
While you can fall further down the rabbit hole with Kingdom Hearts, this should set you in a good place to begin Kingdom Hearts III. If you are interested in learning more about the story, our overview of the series’ plot is a good place to start. We also have trailers, hands-on impressions, and a deep-dive with game director Tetsuya Nomura. Kingdom Hearts III is launching on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on January 29.