While the list of things that Final Fantasy has gifted the gaming world is much longer than the one we’re bringing you today, one of the most consistently incredible aspects of this legendary RPG franchise is the quality of its casts of characters.
Even if you’ve only played one or two Final Fantasy games in your lifetime (or perhaps even just absorbed elements of the series through its prominent place in gaming culture) you likely know at least one Final Fantasy character. No matter how fantastical these games get, their heart will always be found in the heroes, villains, and even NPCs that drive some of the greatest adventures in RPG history.
Which Final Fantasy character is the best of them all, though? That’s a question fans will never find a universally approved answer to, but I’m willing to bet most personal shortlists include at least a few of these incredible characters that have become icons of this franchise, the genre, and gaming.
15. Bartz Klauser (Final Fantasy 5)
Many Final Fantasy protagonists are tortured souls burdened by destiny and circumstances. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that type of character (we’re actually going to honor a few of those tortured souls later in this list), but too much of that kind of personality can really wear you down.
That’s what makes Bartz Klauser such a breath of fresh air. As a young man just trying to honor his father’s dying wish to go out and explore the world, Bartz didn’t ask to get caught up in an epic battle or grand adventure. Yet, he handles the incredible events that befall him with positivity, humor, and constant support for his friends and allies.
14. Squall Leonhart (Final Fantasy 8)
There was a time when it felt like Squall’s place somewhere at the bottom of any list of Final Fantasy protagonists was all but reserved. There are still more than a few Final Fantasy fans who passionately hate him, and it’s easy to understand why. He’s angsty, he’s sometimes derivative of other characters, and he’s even sometimes cruel to people who should be his closest allies.
Yet, there’s just something about Squall. His looks and Gunblade certainly make him memorable from a design perspective, but there’s also something to be said for how we get to watch Squall grow throughout Final Fantasy 8 in a way that few franchise protagonists get to grow across the course of their own adventures. Squall is the surprisingly grounded heart of a Final Fantasy game that reaches all-time high levels of weirdness.
13. Zidane Tribal (Final Fantasy 9)
I’ll always have a soft spot for Final Fantasy 7 and 8’s more somber protagonists, but like many fans at the time, I was more than ready to embrace Final Fantasy 9’s return to medieval fantasy as well as its returns to slightly more upbeat lead characters.
Zidane is a fantastic example of a more lighthearted Final Fantasy protagonist, but he is no mere throwback to a simpler time. There’s plenty of darkness in Zidane’s surprisingly deep backstory, which makes his attempts to become a better person and a better leader (as well as his insistence on enjoying life whenever possible) that much more interesting.
12. Cidolfus Orlandeau (Final Fantasy Tactics)
Some version of Cid pretty much had to be on this list, but which Cid is the best of them all? Well, there’s certainly an argument to be made for Final Fantasy 7’s Cid, Final Fantasy 14’s Cid, and Final Fantasy 9’s Cid, but my vote for the best Cid goes to a somewhat outside the box version of this recurring character.
It’s interesting enough that Final Fantasy Tactics’ Cidolfus Orlandeau is a warrior when so many other versions of Cid are engineers, mentors, or even political leaders, but what makes Orlandeau really stand apart is how powerful he is. This is one of the most overpowered characters in Final Fantasy Tactics in terms of both lore and in-game abilities. Actually, his incredible power kind of feels like a strange kind of tribute to the entire Cid “lineage.”
11. Zack Fair (Final Fantasy 7)
It may seem like Zack Fair’s popularity only started to grow in recent years, but the truth of the matter is that many Final Fantasy 7 fans have always loved Zack and just weren’t able to properly share their love for this previously minor character prior to the modern internet age.
Before Zack Fair finally got to star in his own game (the largely underrated PSP title, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII), he won the hearts of millions with his optimism, friendly nature, and unwavering belief that he can fight to make the world a better place. He is, in many ways, what we think of when we think of heroes.
10. Celes Chere (Final Fantasy 6)
Final Fantasy 6 certainly isn’t lacking in memorable protagonists (or villains), which really makes it that much more impressive that Celes Chere has arguably become the game’s unofficial lead all these years later.
Celes initially comes across as a standoffish enemy general who is only helping the player’s party because they’re temporarily united against a common threat. By the time we reach this game’s legendary opera scene, though, we understand who Celes really is and even start to sympathize with what we previously believed were her greatest flaws. Celes was one of the first Final Fantasy characters that properly showcased the storytelling potential of this franchise and gaming.
9. Lightning (Final Fantasy 13)
Final Fantasy 13 honestly deserves a lot of the criticism it regularly receives, but it’s always been a shame that the game’s divisive (often negative) legacy means Lightning is sometimes denied the status she so rightfully deserves.
Lightning’s backstory isn’t the most complicated in Final Fantasy history, but that actually proves to be one of the character’s strongest qualities. Lightning is mostly interested in protecting her sister, which turns out to be all the motivation she needs to embark upon an epic journey as well as all the motivation we need to sympathize with the incredible things she does along the way. Lightning is fearless, strong, determined, and the kind of person many of us like to think we would become in her situation.
8. Balthier (Final Fantasy 12)
It’s certainly easy to understand why so many Final Fantasy fans have compared Balthier to Han Solo over the years. Balthier is, after all, a sarcastic yet suave sky pirate who gets caught up in a war. You don’t have to break your brain to see the similarities.
However, that doesn’t make Balthier any less of a compelling character. Balthier believes he’s the real protagonist of Final Fantasy 12’s all-time great story, which is honestly hard to argue against when you consider that he’s the most consistently compelling character in the game and one of the most consistently entertaining characters in the history of this franchise.
7. Tifa Lockhart (Final Fantasy 7)
What is it about Tifa that’s makes her one of the most popular characters in Final Fantasy history? Is it her warmth? Is it her combat abilities? Is it the ways that she’s able to so easily pivot between leader and supporter based on what the situation calls for?
The answer is “yes.” Tifa is capable in ways that the best playable video game characters sometimes need to be, but she’s still vulnerable, conflicted, and sometimes scared in the ways that any of us would be if we were in her situation. She’s a truly well-rounded character who is more than worthy of her fan-favorite status.
6. Auron (Final Fantasy 10)
On the surface, Auron is everything that you’d expect to see in a “cool” Final Fantasy character. With his giant sword, samurai-like philosophies, and mysterious vibes, you could even argue that Auron represents some of the “tropes” we sometimes associate with this franchise’s most notable warriors.
Yet, Auron is so much more than the (admittedly badass) warrior he first seems to be. As we learn Auron’s backstory, we also learn more about the Final Fantasy X universe and this game’s wonderfully weird and surprisingly complicated storyline. Auron is undoubtedly cool, but it’s the sweet and sorrowful details of his backstory that elevate him above some notable competition.
5. Cloud Strife (Final Fantasy 7)
It’s sometimes hard to look at Cloud and not see a collection of what we now think of as cliches for both Final Fantasy protagonists and JRPG characters. Even if you want to push aside the fact that Cloud helped introduce (or at least arguably perfected) some of those cliches, you can still make a compelling argument for the character’s all-time great status on the basis of some of his qualities that aren’t talked about quite as often as they should be.
Cloud is a much deeper and more mysterious character than he often gets credit for. Given that we learn more about him as we learn more about Final Fantasy 7’s plot, world, and emotional stakes, he’s also one of the best (if initially less obvious) player surrogates in the history of RPGs.
4. Sephiroth (Final Fantasy 7)
Like so many of Final Fantasy’s other great characters, you could make an argument for Sephiroth’s “best” credentials on the basis of his design alone. Any character that looks this cool and has a theme song as incredible as “One-Winged Angel” is destined to steal some hearts.
What’s most impressive about Sephiroth, though, are the ways that the Final Fantasy team has revisited this character and grown him over the years. Sephiroth is a tragic character in many ways, but you won’t find many who are willing to shed a tear for him or the ways he’s used his personal tragedies to internally justify unforgivable acts.
3. Yuna (Final Fantasy 10)
While I don’t hate Tidus as much as some people do, I have to admit that I’ve always seen Yuna as the real protagonist of Final Fantasy 10 as well as one of the series’ best characters ever.
Yuna’s incredible empathy and compassion are appropriate character traits for a summoner who is so willing to complete what is generally considered to be a suicide mission. Yuna believes in the role she plays in this world, but she’s not so committed to her duties that she becomes this one-track protagonist that doesn’t get to develop a personality. Indeed, it’s Yuna’s likability that inspires so many Final Fantasy 10 players to see her complete her quest, whatever the cost may be.
2. Kefka Palazzo (Final Fantasy 6)
When people are praising Kefka as a villain (which is obviously something that happens quite often), the line you’re almost always guaranteed to hear is that Kefka is one of the few villains in any medium who achieves their seemingly absurd plans for world domination. His almost unrivaled success as a villain has rightfully become the defining part of his legacy.
As a character, though, Kefka stands apart through the almost horror movie-like nature of his design (he’s somewhere between Pennywise and the Joker) as well as for the way he goes from court jester to world-destroying diety so convincingly. He is, at the very least, the best Final Fantasy villain ever.
1. Vivi Ornitier (Final Fantasy 9)
Vivi’s short lifespan and the fact he was ignored and dismissed for so many of the few days he had to live should make him one of the most tragic characters in Final Fantasy history. Indeed, many aspects of Vivi’s life are a tragedy and a pretty compelling tragedy at that.
Yet, there’s a reason that simply hearing the name “Vivi” puts a smile on so many Final Fantasy players’ faces. Vivi may discover the sorrowful truth of his existence in Final Fantasy 9, but he also learns the joys of friendship, confidence, and adventure. In many ways, the character’s final words represent how we all feel whenever we have to leave our favorite Final Fantasy characters:
“I’m so happy I met everyone… I wish we could’ve gone on more adventures. But I guess we all have to say goodbye someday.”