It is not often that a video game will have the same villain for multiple games. The better the villain, the better the story in the clash between the protagonist and antagonist. Many stories have become a big part of us because the villain was so powerful, so well realised and portrayed, forcing the heroes to dig deep, to find every scrap of strength and technique to win. Master Xehanort is one such foe, a mastermind always lurking in the shadows, hiding his true goals behind a facade of weakness and theatrics.
Kingdom Hearts III marks the end of the Xehanort saga, but who is he? To better understand the villain, we have to look at how he fits into the story and his various manipulations and schemes. Of course, this will end up in spoiler territory for the previous games, so if you haven’t played Kingdom Hearts 1 through Dream Drop Distance, now might be a good time to turn away. Otherwise, if you want to go into Kingdom Hearts III knowing the stakes and who you are up against, read on.
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Kingdom Hearts isn’t in chronological order
Just like how Star Wars told the story of Darth Vader first before showing how he reached that point from a youth that wants to do good, Kingdom Hearts isn’t in chronological order. The main numbered games follow the story of Sora, but that is not where the story truly begins. As a result of this, players don’t even get to meet Xehanort in the first game, though his influence is strongly felt thanks to his many agents. It is only much later that Sora (and the player) realise that they are like pieces on a chess board, and they aren’t aware of all the pieces or the stakes just yet. Sora and Riku encounter a powerful foe named Ansem in Kingdom Hearts 1, a villain who is trying to open Kingdom Hearts. He inspired Disney’s Maleficent to gather the Seven Princesses of Heart. Maleficent appears to be the main villain for most of the game, but Ansem is moving strings the whole time. While Ansem is defeated, he isn’t gone for good.
Xehanort the liar
Later on, we learn the first big lie that players, and Sora and co, have been told. The enemy they faced – Ansem – wasn’t the real Ansem, but an imposter who stole his master’s name to sow confusion and move around easily. Ansem the Wise was a masterful scientist learning about the power of the heart and he took on an apprentice (more on this apprentice later) who stole his name, carrying out barbaric experiments in secret. We eventually learn that this Ansem is Xehanort’s Heartless and that there are much bigger things afoot. Many refer to the two as Ansem the Wise and Ansem, Seeker of Darkness to stop things from getting confusing.
This isn’t the only time that Xehanort uses deceit to his advantage. He often stands stooped over in an attempt to look old and frail. Meanwhile, he is superhumanly strong and one of the most talented Keyblade wielders. Xehanort and those under his influence use lies and half-truths to manipulate many people through the games, sowing misinformation and thriving in the confusion, all while people unwittingly help them to their true goal.
Xehanort the schemer
Xehanort’s story starts well before Kingdom Hearts 1, and the first true dealings with him come about in Birth By Sleep, which is set ten years before KH1. Here we learn that Xehanort is a Keyblade Master, but his desire for answers about the fundamentals of Light and Dark lead him on a dangerous path. He becomes obsessed with knowing what happened in the Keyblade War and what started it, and what resides in Kingdom Hearts.
“They say ruin brings about creation. So, what then would another Keyblade War bring? When the darkness falls, will we be found worthy of the precious light the legend speaks of? I must have these answers. The X-Blade needs to be forged and with it, the door to the Keyblade War unlocked.”
To this end, he starts to manipulate those around him, looking for the true strength of a Heart and the uses of Darkness. He sees Darkness as a tool that should be used instead of feared and reviled. Where Xehanort differs from many villains is that he has a backup plan in case someone interferes, and sometimes he has multiple backups in place. His dedication to his ultimate goal results in a callous man who uses people to his own ends. Whether Xehanort was always like this or it is a result of giving into the Darkness is unknown, but it results in anguish for many of the people who find themselves under his gaze.
Xehanort’s apprentice, Ventus, gets pushed really hard, as Xehanort wants him to use the Darkness to be stronger. When he sees that Ventus refuses to do so even when it might cost him his life, Xehanort unlocks Ventus’ heart and splits him into two entities, one with all the Light and another made of all the Dark. He hopes that he can force a fight between the two, evenly matched to artificially create the stimulus required to form the X-blade (the X is said key, just to confuse matters further), the ultimate Keyblade. When this is nearly achieved but fails, Xehanort’s long game gets set in motion. He wants more time for all his plans to ripen and a stronger body. He unlocks his heart and goes into Terra, who he has been teaching to use Darkness to be stronger. This Terra-Xehanort is the apprentice of Ansem who later steals his name, pursuing dark research. But that is only the beginning of what Xehanort is up to.
Xehanort isn’t alone
While everyone gets used to fighting the Heartless, this isn’t the only thing that happens when someone falls to Darkness. Players learn that when a heart falls to Darkness, their body and soul stick around, creating a Nobody. Ansem’s Nobody, Xemnas, forms a group called Organisation XIII, which is made up of strong-willed Nobodies who want to regain their hearts, and they are told that they can do so if they find Kingdom Hearts (This is another lie of Xehanort as a Nobody can regain a heart over time). The organisation actually serves a much more sinister purpose, which is kept hidden right until the closing moments of Dream Drop Distance. When both a Nobody and a Heartless are defeated, the original person reforms. So after Xemnas and Ansem are defeated, Master Xehanort returns to take the main seat of Organisation XIII. Xehanort’s first plan was to use the various Nobodies as shells and to plant a part of his Heart in each one, effectively cloning himself.
When this doesn’t work, Xehanort reveals his fail-safe: His Heartless was sent to find his younger self and give him powers to survey time and space, collecting versions of Xehanort from across the timelines. This Real Organisation XIII is made up of various incarnations of Xehanort and a few that follow him in the hopes of being rewarded with power. It is this threat that players must face in Kingdom Hearts III, as Xehanort sets the stage for 13 darknesses to clash with seven lights to create the X-blade and reach Kingdom Hearts.
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