This article was originally published on 02/01/17. RPG Grind Time is a bi-weekly column that returns every second Wednesday.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been close to 15 years since the first Kingdom Hearts game released. This actually makes me feel a bit old. Since that game launched, I’ve graduated from high school and college. The amount of time elapsed feels almost surreal. I don’t think I ever could have predicted the bumpy ride I’d be on with the series. My younger self surely never thought I'd be waiting until 2017 for Kingdom Hearts III, but here we are. 

A lot has happened in 15 years. Delays have caused III to miss an entire console generation. More spinoffs have added context to the story. Remastered collections of the older titles are now available, which is great because those who never got into the series or who were too young (some were not even born yet!) can finally see what all the fuss is about. As Square Enix slowly teases III’s progress and more people get curious about Kingdom Hearts, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is what order to play the series in, which titles are essential, and what can be skipped. This was especially apparent when Kingdom Hearts 2.8 launched last week (you can read my review here); many weren’t sure what was in the collection or if it’s a good starting point (short answer: no, but more on that later). I figured a column breaking this down and offering my opinion as a long-time fan can help those looking to dive in.

START AT THE BEGINNING

I’m not going to pull any punches here. It’s common knowledge at this point that the Kingdom Hearts storyline is convoluted. Sometimes I even need to go back and look things up as a refresher. After all, 15 years is a long time to keep track of any narrative. I don’t think you do yourself any favors by skipping the first entry; it is your introduction and sets up what this universe is well. The beginning may be slow, but it’s worth it.  

I also firmly believe that playing the series in order of release is the way to go – that way, every exciting revelation makes sense. Part of the fun of Kingdom Hearts is having those epiphanies when you finally can see the connections and where everything is headed – that “ah ha” moment if you will. Therefore, the best place and deal for newcomers is to wait until March 28 for Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 Remix for PlayStation 4. If you want to dive in sooner, you can purchase 1.5 and 2.5 separately on PS3. The PS4 collection coming in March, however, contains six Kingdom Hearts games:

  • Kingdom Hearts Final Mix
  • Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories
  • Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (HD remastered cinematics)
  • Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix
  • Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep Final Mix
  • Kingdom Hearts Re:coded (HD remastered cinematics)

Here’s what is necessary in this collection: Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II, and Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep. I’d play them in that order as well. Technically, Birth By Sleep is a prequel to Kingdom Hearts and can be played first, but it has relevance in later entries, especially 2.8 having a whole episode dedicated to the events afterward, so I’d stick with tackling it right before that.

What you can skip: I’d watch the cutscenes for Chain of Memories after playing Kingdom Hearts I, as it serves as a segue into Kingdom Hearts II. The card-battle system isn’t for everyone, and you play through quite a few places from the original. Re:Coded is the least worthy of your time in this collection. Re:Coded was originally a mobile title in Japan before it came to DS in North America, and it shows. The plot is thin, without many juicy reveals. The game takes place after Kingdom Hearts II, but a big question that the game poses as to why the journal tells you to thank Namine was already answered in Chain of Memories. It’s a lot of rehash with little reward, even watching it in its three-hour movie form for the collection. 

As for the 358/2 movie, I personally think it’s best watched after completing Kingdom Hearts II. This way you already have a connection to Roxas, but you’re fine to watch it before hopping into Kingdom Hearts II. In fact, it might help you understand II’s somewhat confusing narrative better. The problem is, both 358/2 and Kingdom Hearts II spoil things about the other’s plot depending which you embark on first, so it’s really a toss-up. Technically, you could skip it, but you won’t be as enlightened on some of Kingdom Hearts II’s plot, or about Xion, who is AWESOME and appears in later games. Watching it also depends on how much you want to dive into understanding Organization XIII, which I personally find fascinating. I don’t think it’s essential so much as it’s about how dedicated you are to knowing about every little plot thread. It’s your choice, but I’ll admit it’s not the most exciting thing to watch for three hours. 

After getting through this big collection, I would move on to Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, which contains the following:

  • Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD
  • Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover (movie)
  • Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage 

What’s essential: Everything. If there’s one to skip, maybe Back Cover, but I felt it was beneficial to watch for understanding the larger plot and what’s to come, and in my opinion, the best movie from all the collections. This compilation really preps you for the series' future, providing your last information and hints for Kingdom Hearts III. What’s so special about this collection is how it feels like it’s all finally leading somewhere, something that’s been 15 years in the making. 

As for my recommendations, save A Fragmentary Passage for last and don’t touch it without playing Birth By Sleep first. This is a new episode starring Aqua that not only leads into Kingdom Hearts III, but sheds light on what happened to her after the finale of Birth By Sleep. Play Dream Drop Distance first. It gets you in the mood for where everything is heading, and then A Fragmentary Passage is only icing on the Kingdom Hearts III cake of what's to come. 

And with that, I’ll leave you with a final order that makes the most sense to me, and you can cover all your bases by purchasing the 1.5, 2.5. and 2.8 collections I mentioned above. You can do what you want with Re:Coded (skip it) and Back Cover (watch it at some point, but the order doesn’t matter so much):

  • Kingdom Hearts
  • Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories
  • Kingdom Hearts II
  • Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days
  • Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep
  • Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD
  • Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage 

Of course, people will have different opinions on where you can shuffle the order, and diehards will scoff that I said you could skip any part of this massive story. As a fan, I’m glad I’ve experienced everything and wouldn’t dream of missing things or playing them in any other order than what I did in terms of their original release timing. Hopefully, this helps you make your own decisions and clears up any confusion you’ve had regarding these collections and what’s in them. 

A few last words of wisdom for beginners: Don’t worry if everything doesn’t make sense right away or you feel overwhelmed. It takes time, and all will start to make sense as you play more entries. And if you still feel lost, wonderful fans have pieced together things on internet wikis and message boards.

Good luck! As for me, all I can do for now is wait for Kingdom Hearts III, and hope for the best. After playing through 2.8, I’m more excited and ready than ever. Weird to think this series has been a part of me for close to half of my life, but that makes it special at the same time.