When Final Fantasy XV was first revealed at E3 2013, feelings were understandably mixed. Initial excitement and curiosity were mired by apprehension following the wake of Square Enix's second botched attempt at making an online game. Upon its release just three years later, however, all doubt was quickly extinguished, as FFXV quickly captured the hearts of gamers and online culture buffs worldwide. Among the many strengths of FFXV were the popularity of its main cast of characters: Noctis, Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus, better known across the Internet as "The Chocobros." They were relatable, entertaining, and spoke to our modern-day sense of aesthetics and culture. And of course, who could forget their meaningful contributions to our love of dank memes?
The Chocobros are the latest example of what makes the Final Fantasy series of games successful: interesting and diverse characters whose unique flavor and perspectives help shape and evolve a dynamic and engaging story. We have explored the colorful cast of Final Fantasy titles before, from the best to the worst to the stupidly overpowered. Today, we will rank the best and worst main characters throughout Final Fantasy's cherished legacy from crystals to Cup-o-Noodles, and see who is Ultima Weapon status and who should have stayed on the Start Screen. Every game from the main series will be covered here, so spin-offs and standalone titles such as Brave Exvius and Crystal Chronicles won't appear here. And as always, potential spoilers await you, so read with caution!
Do you agree with our rankings? Did your favorites make the cut? Let us know in the comments section below!
15 Vaan (Final Fantasy XII)
On paper, Vaan's character concept seems innocent enough. Amidst a backdrop of political intrigue, Vaan serves as the rambunctious "Aladdin-type" street urchin who injects lightness in an otherwise heavy-handed plot. It is worth noting that Vaan was purposefully designed to be younger and more inexperienced compared to typical FF protagonists, in an attempt to appeal to both Western and Eastern gamer demographics.
Unfortunately, this shake-up of the norm seemed to work a little too well, as many felt that Vaan was overly bland and uninspiring. In fact, it is noted by several critics that following Vaan along for the game's length is so tiresome that it made other characters such as Basch and Balthier much more rewarding to observe. And the key word here is "observe"; part of the aforementioned design decisions also intentionally made him disconnected from the main story, acting as a mere vehicle through which the player can see the story unfold without being an actual driving force in it. At that point, Square Enix might as well have given the title to Telltale Games so they could at least turn it into a decent interactive graphic adventure.
14 “The Poster Boy” (Final Fantasy XIV)
I know what you're thinking: "Who the heck is The Poster Boy?" Community sources have coined this name for the generic male character that appears on all of the promotional media for FFXIV, and even appears in pre-rendered cutscenes where the player's actual character can't be used. In other words, this nameless stranger is intended to be you. To anyone who poured countless hours and brain cells into this tedious MMO trying to make their character awesome, this was adding insult to injury. Imagine persevering through the game's agonizingly slow pace, convoluted interface, and numerous bugs and performance issues, only to be represented as some cookie-cutter Beta version NPC.
Consider this: FFXIV was such a critical flop that Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada actually issued a public apology for the damage it caused to the FF brand. The worst thing they could have done was give their failure a face for people to recognize and despise. Yet somehow, they found a way to kick it up a notch by implying that you are the face of the MMO from Hell.
13 Warriors Of Light (Final Fantasy I)
You know the best way to avoid creating a main character that your players will grow to hate? Make your protagonist completely devoid of personality, emotion, and even a name. Your players may not like him necessarily, but they won't hate him either. Want to up the ante? Make the entire main cast empty husks as well. More is better, right?
To be fair, the developers of Final Fantasy drew upon tabletop roleplaying game tradition to conceive the character-less main characters, in order to allow players to customize their party to their individual liking as one would in Dungeons & Dragons. This was also intended to be the final project that Square would develop and if the last 30 years of console gaming are any indication, it worked out to greater things in the end. So in a sense, it is kind of forgivable to have your first series title feature emotionless Play-Doh characters with no personality. Kind of.
12 Cid (Final Fantasy XI)
For those unacquainted with the Final Fantasy universe, it is important to know that every title in the franchise has a "Cid" character. His role, relevance, and appearance varied from game to game, but among the quintessential elements of FF games, Cid ranks up there among chocobos, moogles, and pint-sized knife-wielding serial killers.
Unfortunately for this iteration of Cid, he is featured in the almost-there attempt that is lamented as Square's first crack at porting their franchise to the online realm. With how unrewarding it was to play through the game, Cid offered a sense of reliability and stability in an otherwise mercurial game title. While it is assumed that your created avatar is the "protagonist" of this MMO title, Cid makes a strong case for himself as a main character due to his relevance in the Republic of Bastok quest area and later in the Chains of Promathia expansion pack. I would go so far as to wager that being able to play as Cid in FFXI would have greatly improved the game's reception.
11 Luneth (Final Fantasy III)
Considered a strict improvement over the original Final Fantasy, FFIII takes the concept of customizable main characters from the first game but gives the base avatars actual names and personalities. Enter Luneth, the "true" protagonist of FFIII. Luneth represents the cheerful courage and reckless heroism that is becoming of a great hero in any fantasy series. The game's innovations of the job class system and rewarding play that mixed exploration and grinding only furthers the story and sets the foundations for a classic FF title.
What stops Luneth from placing higher on this list, however, is how FF games and protagonists evolved in the following years. The 2006 Nintendo 3DS remake of FFIII felt like a classic, but failed to hold up when compared to then-current titles such as FFXII. As a result, Luneth and the gang would be pushed to the wayside in the wake of more appealing FF characters such as Cloud and Squall. The Light Warriors v2.0 were even left out from Dissidia Final Fantasy, eschewed in favor of the Onion Knight to represent FFIII. Truly a harsh way to end a legacy.
10 Lightning (Final Fantasy XIII)
This pink-haired protagonist is an interesting subject. On one hand, she is praised for being a standalone warrior who, unlike previous female characters, did not share the spotlight with a man who outshone her. She also forgoes the typical "feminine traits" of being over-the-top or subdued, instead displaying strong leadership and combat skills, as well as a cold and dismissive demeanor that is atypical of female characters.
On the other hand, remember that she followed in the steps of other cold and stoic characters such as Cloud, and her coldness offers more or less the same "dark and brooding" disconnection that we've hashed over already in previous games. Some even argue that Lightning is just a Cloud clone with less personality, and offers nothing new other than aesthetic appeal. Perhaps there's some weight to this, given that Lightning was given an entire trilogy of games to develop whereas Cloud only had one game, so in terms of potential and development, Lightning is interesting but ultimately falls short as a protagonist in general.
9 Noctis Lucis Caelum (Final Fantasy XV)
The new edgelord on the block finds a welcome spot on our list, though his low placement may surprise some of you. Before you raise your plastic forks and empty Cup-o-Noodles containers in protest, let me start by saying that Noctis is actually a really well-written character. He brings a brooding and forlorn attitude that FF fans can connect with while showing growth through acceptance of his duties as a royal heir and the last hope of his kingdom. He's also a capable fighter, especially in conjunction with the rest of the Chocobros, and combat always feels epic and fun when you're zipping across the battlefield with an entire armada of magical weapons at your beck and call. And I must admit, very few people can make black pants, black button-ups, and a terrible haircut look as awesome as Noctis can.
Unfortunately, despite how hip, modern and meme-worthy Noctis is, he is not a new recipe for a main character. He doesn't reinvent the formula for FF heroes and instead comes off as more of a tribute to past FF protagonists packaged in a angsty shell. While he makes for a great introduction into the world of Final Fantasy, especially for new players who have no knowledge of the franchise's history, he lacks his own unique flair and interest, and his entire character draws upon the tired traditions that are typical of most FF heroes.
8 Zidane Tribal (Final Fantasy IX)
Created as a rebuttal to the previous stoic protagonists of Cloud and Squall, Zidane brought the FF series back to its roots of compelling fantasy stories revolving around courageous lighthearted heroes. Capturing the elements of relatable characters who exhibit growth throughout the game, Zidane didn't stray too far from the darkness either, boasting a complex and grim backstory that is revealed as the player progresses.
What's especially notable about Zidane is that he not only breaks the mold of his predecessors, but he is also supported by party members that are in of themselves very diverse and interesting. Zidane's "Robin Hood-esque" charm and flair is a refreshing change of pace from the "reluctant heroes" from previous titles and injects a much-needed sense of purpose and determination. Add in effective and memorable character foils such as the not-so-helpless damsel Garnet, the goodhearted oaf Steiner, and the enigmatic yet hilarious Vivi, and you've got a cast that can carry this title through the lingering hype of FFVII and FFVIII.
7 Squall Leonhart (Final Fantasy VIII)
The original edgelord, Squall, is beloved by the FF community for picking up Cloud's mantle and setting a new standard for brooding characters in the franchise. Just about everything about Squall is memorable, from his anime-esque scar to his ridiculous choice of weapon. If you thought Cloud was disconnected and distant, Squall takes it up to the next level, exhibiting a standoffish nature that makes you wonder if he's even human.
In fact, his excessive coldness and grounding sense of cynicism have resulted in many polarizing opinions concerning Squall's character, with some calling him "the ultimate antihero" and others berating him as "a pouty jerk." Regardless of how you feel about him, Squall's impact and relevance in the FF universe is undeniable. If nothing else, Squall is singlehandedly responsible for popularizing and permanently injecting the gunblade into popular gaming culture, resulting in some awesomely ridiculous endeavors to recreate it.
6 Tidus (Final Fantasy X)
Whereas Zidane was meant to rebuff the moodiness of Squall, Tidus finds himself in a happy medium between the two. Cheery and optimistic, yet haunted by his past, Tidus offers a genuine human connection into a world that curveballs from the normal into the surreal. While character development was present in other FF games, the story of Tidus is the most prominent and apparent of the first ten protagonists. We watch him laugh, we watch him cry, and we watch him grow into the hero that he is called to be.
The only real drawback to Tidus' character actually lies the final resolution to his story in the spin-off sequel, FFX-2. The revelation of Tidus' true nature towards the end of FFX is a highly emotional plot point that was one of the top shocking moments in gaming. However, as memorable as that moment was, it was that much more disappointing when the whole arc was seemingly invalidated by Tidus' apparent "resurrection" in X-2. Rather than stick to its guns and leave us with a sad yet satisfying sense of catharsis, FFX-2 leaves us stuck with a unearned and cliche "happily ever after" ending. In short, Tidus would have been a perfect character if he stayed dead.
5 Bartz Klauser (Final Fantasy V)
In contrast to the nuanced character arc and singular focus in FFIV, FFV went back to basics, focusing on a small number of developed characters and bringing back the classic themes of elemental crystals and a more condensed job class system. Enter Bartz, who served as one of four centerpieces for the story alongside Lenna, Faris, and Galuf/Krile. While everyone in the main cast carried a significant amount of the story in their own ways, Bartz stands out as the most developed of the bunch, showing a depth of character and progression from beginning to end.
In many ways, Bartz was the template and forefather of future FF protagonists. Much like Tidus and Zidane, Bartz brought an easygoing attitude, a sense of morals, and a level head in the face of personal and external adversity. Whether it was preventing the cataclysmic machinations of X-Death or reconciling with the death of parents, Bartz consistently displays a solid character foundation that grows throughout the game and helps to temper the more extreme personalities of the party, like Lenna and Faris.
4 Cloud Strife (Final Fantasy VII)
Much like the game he is from, Cloud is the most iconic and, at times, overrated representative of the FF universe. Maybe it's the haircut that reaches to the heavens, an indication of his hidden power. Maybe it's the ridiculously huge sword that has since then become typical of main characters in popular media. Maybe it's the fact that FFVII was the first successful forays into 3D movement and graphics in console gaming, and Cloud was the pilot through which the player experienced this strange new world. Whatever the case, Cloud is an undeniably popular character in FF lore.
Perhaps it's Cloud's intentional appeal that makes him so popular. His hair is flawless. He's athletic and fit. His weapon is shamelessly huge and powerful. He even rides a damn motorcyle. Everything about him is memorable and cool, and renders every character after him a mere copycat. And rounding out his character is an engaging backstory: he's an amnesiac ex-SOLDIER who turns out to be an unwitting part of a silver-haired pretty boy's self-serving machinations and seeks a sense of identity and purpose, ultimately finding it in acceptance of his past and present. Also, he moonlighted as an escort to rescue Tifa. No, really, he did.
3 Cecil Harvey (Final Fantasy IV)
Unlike the early FF games, which played more to the conventions of traditional RPGs, Cecil did away with sharing the story among a generic cast of characters and embraced the role of the centerpiece for the game's plot. He notably went further by avoiding the tropes of the Light Warriors and the hero of destiny, presented instead as a complex and flawed protagonist who rose to the top through talent and effort. Even in the initial scenarios of FFVI, it is made clear that Cecil does not start out as the hero and has to evolve into the role of the hero through many trials and tribulations.
The most intriguing part of Cecil's character, however, is his class change from Dark Knight to Paladin, which not only marks a dramatic change in his abilities, but importantly, a huge turning point in his personal growth. His shift into Paladin acts as a culmination of his bonding with others and realization of his identity and self-worth; his former Dark Knight persona acts as a symbol for his hatred, which he overcomes. While both incarnations of Cecil are badass in their own right, it is rare that for a character to display such a literal character shift in visual appearance and ability and have it effectively tie into the story.
2 Terra Branford (Final Fantasy VI)
Fifteen years before Lightning descended upon our consoles, another woman took up the mantle of the main heroine and shook up the conceptions of fantasy gaming. The mysterious magic user Terra was Final Fantasy's first female protagonist and, despite sharing the spotlight with other strong characters such as Locke, her presentation and progression in FFVI easily eclipsed every other character in depth and magnitude.
Terra's journey represented many different forms of rising up and defying the odds. Her break away from the normal role of the female in video games was represented figuratively in embracing of her Esper heritage and powers, while it emerged literally in breaking the Empire's mind control over her early in the game. Her personal struggles with identity and eventual acceptance of her duties as an Esper propelled her above the typical background role of women in games, and introduced a trend of growth and rounded development for future female characters such as Yuna and Lightning.
1 Firion (Final Fantasy II)
With an ever-growing universe of exciting and diverse characters, it was difficult to settle on one that topped them all. In the end, it came down to looking at the classic titles that set the stage for the future titles to come. Without these forefathers of the Final Fantasy world, we would not have the heroes and heroines that we celebrate now. For this reason, Firion tops our list as the best protagonist in Final Fantasy history.
Firion is the classic vision of a main character who, like Cecil, would rise to prominence through talent and determination. His duty to his people and country are reflected in his willingness to overcome all obstacles and take on difficult challenges despite being a hero of circumstance, not destiny. Compared to protagonists that came before and after him, Firion represents a "pure" incarnation of the FF hero. He is marked by courage that is not mired by a dark past and portrays the "everyday" man who lacks special qualities initially but grows into a legend. While certainly not as appealing nor edgy as his successors, Firion harkens to the high fantasy roots of Final Fantasy while establishing himself as a definitive character in the FF mythos, even getting the nod in Dissidia Final Fantasy with his inclusion and visual reimagining. Even the monsters he seeks to slay can't help but love him.