The typical fan answer to this often heard question is usually “All of them” but that’s not actually true. While the Kingdom Hearts franchise is sprawling and wide, to follow the core story of what has been dubbed “The Dark Seeker Saga” – namely every game between the first Kingdom Hearts and the wrap up of the mobile game Dark Roads which is set to come out in the near-ish future – you really only need to play five of the games. The rest of the series is mostly there to flesh out the characters or additional backstory/worldbuilding.
So which games are the ones you have to play to follow Kingdom Hearts thus far? Well, I’m glad you asked. I’ll happily tell you. Here is my list of the five Kingdom Hearts games you have to play to follow the plot, with justifications of course (and trying my best to avoid spoilers):
#1 KINGDOM HEARTS
While not the first game chronologically in this series, it’s always best to start with this one. It establishes the primary characters and their personalities as well as the basic rules by which this fantastical universe operates under. It is the most basic starting point, because it is the starting point for the series. So every concept is treated like you are a newcomer. I do not recommend playing through the series in “chronological order” for this very reason. Each game builds on the previous one and this is the base that everything that comes after sprouts from.
#2 KINGDOM HEARTS II
The sequel starts with our protagonist Sora completely losing his memories of everything that happened since the first game. Hence why Chain of Memories is easily skip-able. If you really end up enjoying the villains of this game – Organization XIII – I would recommend Chain of Memories & 358/2 Days to get more of the Organization’s story but it’s not super critical to the core plot.
Kingdom Hearts II mostly builds off of the first game by expanding the universe and introducing new concepts to the lore – the idea of ‘Nobodies’ as the counterpart to ‘Heartless’, expanding on the villain in the first game that begins to set up the true villain of the saga, and the continuing growth of our main protagonist trio.
#3 KINGDOM HEARTS: BIRTH BY SLEEP
The first “side game” or “unnumbered game” in this list, Birth By Sleep stands as a game-long flashback to 10 years before the first game and helps establish the “how did we get here” part of the story. This game also formally introduces the ‘true’ villain of the saga and begins to explore his motivations and methodologies. If you’ve ever heard a Kingdom Hearts fan use the term “Norted” – yeah, this is where that whole thing started.
Birth By Sleep always introduces another trio of characters who become more important in the fourth and fifth games on the list, but were only hinted at in the special edition ‘Final Mix’ version of Kingdom Hearts II. They serve to help expand and establish the role of Keyblade Masters and Wielders in the games’ universe.
If you enjoy this look back at the backstory, I’m afraid the only other recommendations are to dig into the now offline mobile games which fill in the role of legends and myths about how this world came about. Which might not be a terrible idea to explore for reasons I’ll get into below. There’s also the Birth By Sleep ~A Fragmentary Passage~ which is something of a mini-episode tech demo that takes place following Birth By Sleep’s Final Episode ending.
#4 KINGDOM HEARTS: DREAM DROP DISTANCE
This unumbered game was originally released on the 3DS hence the 3 D’s in the title. It’s now been remade as part of the re-release collections with a much easier to use control scheme. Dream Drop Distance is the immediate prequel to Kingdom Hearts III and introduces a number of concepts that will become important in that game. It also fills in the gaps between Kingdom Hearts II and III as well as ties Birth By Sleep into the current events of the saga.
In short, Dream Drop Distance is the pin that connects all the various pieces of the franchise to get it ready for the big finale. It’s also nice because it includes codex style entries that give a brief run down of the events of the other games in the series that are left off this list. So if you want to fill in some of the gaps, Dream Drop Distance offers a refresher course.
Dream Drop Distance also introduces what is probably the most controversial concept in the franchise, which is saying a lot. Quite a few people have stated that this game was the one that lost them because of it. That concept being ‘Time Travel’. I won’t lie, it can take a bit to chew through the very different rules of Kingdom Hearts Time Travel, but its also a crucial concept that comes up in the final game.
#5 KINGDOM HEARTS III
I don’t think this one needs explaining. It’s the finale of the story. It takes all the elements in the previous games on this list and brings them to their conclusion while also beginning to set up the next saga in the Kingdom Hearts franchise which will kick off… someday. No clue. We’re about to launch into a big anniversary year for the series, so maybe we’ll hear something then.
The one thing to note is that there is a DLC for the game titled “Re:Mind” and I do recommend playing it to get the full experience even though it can be very disorientating at times (There’s more of that Time Travel stuff involved as well as fallout from fundamentally breaking the laws of nature… you’ll see.) Re:Mind serves as kind of a more complete ending that takes a lot of what is implied in the original and then expands it to make it explicit.
Why Isn’t X on this List?
The title of this section is a lore pun for the series as much as it is an honest question. If you assume X means ‘fill in the blank’ then I can only say that most of the other games in the series tended to fall into one or more other categories: A) Expanded on elements of the story, but did not add significant new ones, B) Is explained or recapped in the games on the list or C) Literally not applicable. Chain of Memories is actually all three, since it’s canonical that Sora has no memory of those events even happening until much later. Skipping it is tantamount to experiencing what Sora is experiencing in Kingdom Hearts II.
Ultimately, Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days flesh out the Organization, Re:Coded honestly ties more into the mobile games than the main series, Dark Road is the villain origin story and Back Cover is just a tie in movie to the mobile games. Speaking of…
The other part of the joke is that the original mobile game was titled CHI as in the Greek Letter represented as X. It becomes a reoccurring thing starting in Birth By Sleep since CHI can be pronounced KEY. Anyway, the mobile game series which consists of X, it’s reboot sequel Unchained X and the final installment Union Cross, all take place an unknown amount of time before the Dark Seeker Saga. They are regarded at the time of Sora’s adventure as fairy tales. However, everything thus far has indicated that they are directly tied to the next saga of the series. We see several prominent characters from it reappear in Kingdom Hearts III and the rhythm game Melody of Memory which serves as something as a prequel to the next saga.
So why isn’t on this list? Well, for one, it’s not possible to play through. The game went offline earlier this year. There’s a theater mode update to watch all the cutscenes coming, but you might as well just watch a youtube video that recaps the plot of them. The other reason is that it mostly is stuff that sets up a saga that hasn’t really begun yet. Just teased. This list is about understanding the Dark Seeker Saga, and really the X stuff just doesn’t play a significant role in it other than filling in a single plot hole about a Disney villain that no one was even asking about because ‘it’s magic, you don’t have to explain it.’
Okay, But The Games Still Don’t Make Sense
Sigh… Okay, I see this one all the time. The games don’t make sense. The story is silly and can’t be followed. The rules of the world are inconsistent. Look, all I can tell you is that this isn’t hard sci-fi. The universe and the stories are dominated by emotional storytelling, not hard and fast logic. To paraphrase Jean Cocteau, the world is built on the logic of a dream and you need to interpret with childlike fancy and the whims of a fairy tale. Why does Rumpelstiltskin want a first born child? Why does a kiss wake up a girl poisoned by an apple? It’s that kind of thing. Very Disney. The games try to provide some rules they try to follow, but in the end emotion rules the plot. A rule can be broken by determination and true love.
My recommendation is to start from that point and then follow the story and rules from there. I never found the story hard to follow like that. But then again, maybe this isn’t the story for you? Some stories are like that. But hey, then maybe the games are fun to play. Don’t need to enjoy the story to enjoy the mechanics of a fun game.