Kingdom Hearts is known to be a confusing series, not for the faint of heart. With three main numbered entries, four (soon-to-be five) unnumbered main entries on console and three mobile games, two remakes and three Final Mix versions, it’s one of the most convoluted chronologies in video games. Stretching back to a decade ago, on Sept. 7, 2010, the sixth entry in the series made its debut on PSP: Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep.
Taking place a decade before the first Kingdom Hearts, it tells the story of Keyblade wielders Aqua, Terra, and Ventus (aka Ven), three friends who battle for light against the darkness and ultimately clash with Master Xehanort, revealing him as a true villain and setting in motion the events of the rest of the series. Other characters include their Master Eraqus, a younger King Mickey, Zack Fair, and the younger versions of the core members of Organization XIII before they were turned into Nobodies.
Instead of keeping the story focused on one protagonist as previous games have, you play through Aqua, Ven, and Terra’s routes separately, only getting the complete story by piecing together the events of each route. In true Kingdom Hearts fashion, it’s a tale of courage and destiny, resilience and light, temptation and darkness, and absolute faith. Needless to say, it also features a completely useless Goofy and Donald, friends across the worlds, and more obnoxious villains than you can shake a Keyblade at.
Each of the three protagonists serves as a counterpart to one of the “modern day” trio of Sora, Riku, and Kairi, complete with theme naming to match. Sky/Wind, Earth/Ground, and Sea/Water, just in case there was still any doubt that the weird doofy guy matched up with Sora, the overly serious one was Riku, and of course, the girl is Kairi. What Birth by Sleep excels at, however, is fleshing these characters out and examining the same story themes through a different lens. With just about every plot point connecting back to explain something from the present-day continuity, it would’ve been easy to simply give the trio paper-thin personalities to serve the plot and move on from there.
Terra and Riku: Playing With Darkness
Terra and Riku are the most similar. They both are protective of the ones they love and are willing to sacrifice anything for their happiness and well-being, even if it means turning to the darkness for the power to keep them safe. However, while Riku was coaxed by Maleficent down the path of darkness and aided by his egotism and recklessness, Terra was instead lured by Master Xehanort, who was purporting to be his mentor in fighting the darkness.
For Terra, he didn’t so much walk along the path of darkness as he tripped on a crack and fell down it, while staring at the crack before, during, and after he tripped on it. While he trusted Eraqus’ judgment of Master Xehanort, that does not account for him also not being able to immediately identify the Evil Queen Maleficent, Captain Hook, and Hades as obviously terrible people. You meet someone who looks like Maleficent, you tear off the other way, you don’t stop to ask her about missing persons. He could take a page out of Riku’s book on being less trusting of other people when you first meet them.
Much like Riku, Terra also gets his redemption arc, though with a far more tragic ending. While they each realize that they are being led down the path of darkness, Terra does not realize until it is too late and thus falls victim to Master Xehanort’s trap with Aqua’s and Ven’s lives on the line. Riku, while he is trapped in the realm of darkness, is aided by an older and wiser King Mickey in escaping. Terra, unfortunately, kills his mentor and then falls victim to bodysnatching.
Ventus and Sora: Windswept Destinies
Ven and Sora are both the easygoing, fun members of their trios. At first an amnesiac who finds friends and mentors in Aqua and Terra, Ven’s defining personality traits are the same as Sora’s. They’re both upbeat, hopeful, and trust in their friends completely. They’re willing to fight for what they believe in and are willing to better themselves in order to do it.
Similar to Sora, Ven makes friends in every new world that he goes to. He learns and grows from all of his experiences, shedding his naiveté from his sheltered (post-amnesia) upbringing on one world, just like Sora. Compared to the more mature views of Aqua and Terra, Ven is a bouncy ball of light that refuses to give up, no matter what.
His biggest difference from Sora is the dark and light dichotomy that he shares with Vanitas, his heart’s darkness given human form. Agonizing over how to deal with Vanitas and coming to terms with his own past gives Ven a kind of depth that Sora just doesn’t have, and it illustrates the conflict between light and darkness in a much less abstract manner than previous games in the series. On the flip side, it’s Sora’s loving and accepting heart that saves Ven, even when he falls into doubt and darkness.
Kairi and Aqua: Enduring Light
Kairi and Aqua are the two most different analogues of their trios. While Kairi is not particularly helpful and her powers come primarily from her Princess of Heart status, Aqua is determined and courageous, fighting for the light the entire way through the game as the only one of the group to be a Keyblade Master. Still, these two aren’t as different as you might first think.
By contrast, Kairi is the least skilled of her friends and, for most of the plot, has things happen to her. Aqua instead initiates events and is constantly fighting to turn the outcome in her favor. But they share an unwillingness to give up, an unshakeable faith in their friends, and ultimately, belief in themselves and in the light, which is what allows Aqua to resist fading away into the darkness for 10 years.
Eraqus and Yen Sid: The Failure of Mentors
Besides holding up a lens to the main storyline, Birth by Sleep also looks at themes of mentorship. Eraqus and Yen Sid, both know Xehanort is lured to the darkness, and in Eraqus’ case is even told his entire plan to restart the Keyblade War, but neither of them actually act on this information. This leads to the death of Eraqus and to Yen Sid being a more wise mentor in future installments.
The real contrast to Eraqus is arguably Mickey. While Eraqus continues to implicitly trust Master Xehanort and even takes care of Ven when he shows up on his doorstep, he also distrusts the darkness in Terra and distances himself because of it. Mickey, on the other hand, while not a mentor to Sora and Riku in the same way, never stops loving and supporting both of them. He even entrusts Sora into Donald and Goofy’s care (which is not a questionable call in-universe) and becomes close friends with Riku in order to help him stay on the path of light.
Whatever Mickey can do to fight Xehanort and the darkness, he does without a second thought, as opposed to Eraqus’ allegedly careful and sage approach of waiting and seeing, which ultimately leads to his and his pupils’ downfalls. Ironically, due to the backwards names, this fits with the fact that, as co-creators, Square and Disney are the ones who unleashed Xehanort on the Kingdom Hearts universe and created all the trouble in the first place.
In 2010, Birth by Sleep expanded the Kingdom Hearts universe, adding dimensions and explanations while making the plot even more convoluted than ever before. While it would be nine years before we’d see even some sort of resolution in Kingdom Hearts III, the story of Aqua, Terra, and Ven was just as captivating then as it is now.