The Final Fantasy franchise is perhaps the definitive JRPG series. That's not to say it's for everyone; claiming any Final Fantasy as your favorite game is a sure way to incite a fanboy war. But whether you're a die hard fan of the series or one of its detractors, you can't deny the facts: with over 130 million units sold, it is second only to Pokémon in terms of RPG sales.
One of the reasons it is so popular is its focus on character-driven storytelling. Final Fantasy has produced some truly iconic characters that have become permanently ingrained in gamer culture. Just try showing up to a gaming convention without spotting five Cloud Strifes and an Auron.
The ladies of Final Fantasy are a particularly diverse bunch, ranging the spectrum from light hearted comic relief to super serious badass. Fans flock to these characters for their depth, for their awesome fighting skills, and for, ahem, aesthetic reasons. Not all characters are created equal, of course, and while I wouldn't describe any of them as being particularly bad characters (I do count myself in the 'fanboy' group) I recognize that some are better than others.
Here's the definitive ranking of the Final Fantasy ladies, from worst to best.
For the purposes of this article, we will be focusing only on party members from the main series titles.
Penelo is Vaan's childhood friend. That's how she's introduced and throughout Final Fantasy XII she does not get much of a chance to break out of that role. This might not have been too bad if Vaan had been a deeper character with a bigger role in the story; as it was, Vaan's role as 'perspective' character did not give Penelo many chances to play off him in an interesting way.
Personality wise, Penelo is kind and optimistic, and during the moments when her character isn't defined by her relationship with Vaan (such as her interactions with Larsa) we see that this attitude can have a profound impact on those around her. Unfortunately, she really doesn't get to do much, and for most of the game her role is simply to be the other half of Vaan.
Vanille is childlike innocence personified. She looks younger than her 19 (supposed) years, ties her hair up in pigtails, and has a constant upbeat attitude no matter what the situation. Of course her l'Cie brand is on her upper thigh, meaning she has to lift her skirt a bit to show it off, an uncomfortable bit of fan-service for a character who appears so young.
The problem isn't with the fan-service, though. The problem is that whole optimistic, kid-like attitude gets grating after a while. And while Vanille is revealed eventually to be more than just a one note character, by that time it must feel too little too late.
Fun fact: Vanille was once considered for the role of 'official main character.' Wonder how that game would have been different than one centered by Lightning.
The female twist on the 'mysterious dude with a 'tude' trope, Paine is the one new character to join the party in FFX-2, taking a similar role as Auron took in the previous game, one of cynicism and an unknown background cloaked in secrets. Basically, they needed a foil to Yuna and Rikku's more positive and talkative attitudes, so they gave us a character who could shut them down with sarcasm and doses of reality.
She performs this role well, but there isn't too much too her outside of that specific role. The developers really went in on the 'quiet, mysterious,' thing, and while that has worked wonders for some of her contemporaries, Paine is left feeling a little one note.
I also wanted to make a comment on her name, but realized in a series with names including 'Strife' and 'Lightning' she's actually par for the course.
21 Rinoa Hertilly
Final Fantasy VIII is something of a divisive game even among fans of the series. Some fans felt it was a letdown after the experience of VII, while others think it is an under-appreciated game that matches or surpasses the other games in the series. This also divides fans on the characters of the game, like Rinoa.
Rinoa is Squall's love interest and serves as the empathetic foil to the party's colder, more calculating characters (particularly the aforementioned Squall). Unlike some other characters on this list, she is not completely defined by these relationships. Unfortunately, what we see of her as an individual is a little bland: kind and compassionate, sure, but not much else. Final Fantasy has a habit of using that trope for main female love interests and so Rinoa doesn't really stand out in the sea of caring faces.
Speaking of which…
Rosa is Cecil's love interest and general caregiver of the party in Final Fantasy IV. Like many primary love interests in the series, her defining traits are 'gentle and kind,' though at least that makes a bit of sense for a White Mage. She's just above Rinoa for this trope because her relationship with Cecil is more believable and feels more natural.
She follows the party (particularly Cecil) into danger, despite Cecil's insistence that she should not, and is important to his character arc of redemption. Like a few other females on this list, her weakness is her reliance on a relationship to be a defining character trait.
19 Serah Farron
In Final Fantasy XIII, Serah serves mostly as a plot device. Her l'Cie destiny is one of the game's central plot points and sets all the main characters into motion. It wasn't until XIII-2 that she became a protagonist of her own, when travels through time to find Lightning… and save the future, I think? XIII-2 never made a lot of sense to me.
Serah is unique among Final Fantasy heroines in that she is engaged to one of the game's protagonists, but her relationship with him is not her defining characteristic (in fact, I'd say Snow is more defined by his relationship with her than the other way around). Instead, she seems more bound to her sister, Lightning, but even that more to move the plot than anything else.
Serah is her own person. I just wish that person (and the plot she was a part of) was more clearly defined so I could put her higher on this list.
18 Aranea Highwind
There were no female main party members in Final Fantasy XV, but I still thought the game deserved a mention on this list and the closest they have is Aranea Highwind. They could do worse: Aranea is a complete and total badass whose appearances are some of the high points of the game.
Aranea is a no-nonsense mercenary and the archetypical Dragoon, wielding a lance and using powerful Jump attacks to skewer enemies. She starts off as a boss battle but later joins the party as a guest character during a few segments. Most awesome, after you make friends with her there is a random chance during daemon fights that she will jump from a dropship to support Noctis's party.
The only thing that prevents me from putting her higher on the list is she is not a main character, nor does she get to do all that much. Still, pure cool factor gets her this far.
The wild-girl seeming Fang has a few screws loose, by her own admission. She's cocky, sarcastic, and kind of a dick to most of the party, except Vanille. As a matter of fact, her entire character arc is driven by her need to protect Vanille, a goal to which she would sacrifice anything (or anyone). In pursuit of this goal, she's proven herself willing to do some pretty awful things (or at the very least, let some awful things happen) and its kind of hard to forgive her, and at no point should you ever feel like you trust her.
Despite this, she probably made it in your party a lot, as her high physical attack power made her a great Commando and helped clear enemies quickly (particularly useful for grinding). Too bad she's so selfish.
Balthier's partner in his life of crime is Fran, the self-exiled Viera who took to a life of sky pirating for mostly unknown reasons. Really, there's a lot about Fran that's left unknown. She often lets Balthier do all the talking, and when she does speak she says little about her past, or even about her goals beyond living a life of freedom. She's often relegated to the role of Balthier's mysterious right hand.
She away with the 'mysterious lady' act a little bit because she's exotic, the only non-human character in the party of Final Fantasy XII. She has dark skin and a distinctive way of speaking that makes her stand out. Oh, and she goes absolutely crazy if exposed to Mist.
The Summoner Rydia has one of the most complete character arcs of any Final Fantasy character. She's introduced as a child driven by the devastation of her mother's death. She matures, both physically and mentally, and later in the game she is a young woman who has put her tragedies behind her to work towards a greater good. She also incredibly powerful, rounding out her summoning magic with some good ol' fashioned Black Magic.
Sometimes the writing for her gets a little heavy-handed, more to do with the age of the game than her as a character, but for the most part Rydia is an unique character and a very useful party member to keep around.
Like many of the other younger ladies on this list, Rikku's role is one of the upbeat and energetic little sister, providing comedy relief and cheerfulness to dour situations. Though unlike other characters in the Final Fantasy franchise who fit that trope, she plays less off the main character (since Tidus isn't exactly an angsty character) and more off the side party members, particularly Lulu (and Paine in X-2).
Despite her age, she's quite intelligent and her sporty outfit and goggles scream 'technophile' .. until X-2, at least, at which point she opts for a permanent “just came back from the beach' look. Her X-2 look is more popular among cosplayers by far (for obvious reasons) though it does feel that some part of what made her character unique was lost in the transition.
13 Selphie Tilmitt
As with Rikku, Selphie fits the 'little sister' archetype, young and energetic with the role of bringing light and humor against the more angsty characters, and Final Fantasy VIII has a number of those. Specifically, she has made it her personal mission to bring Squall out of his shell.
Selphie is all bubbles and catchphrases (Booyaka!) though there's a deeper level to her as well. It is implied that at least part of their cheeriness is forced on her part, as with the heart wrenching scene where she tries to maintain the act while talking to her friends' graves. Her humor can also be quite dark, making her unique among Final Fantasy's upbeat young ladies.
Not technically a main character, but it feels like any list of Final Fantasy women would be done a grave disservice to not include the warrior-general. Final Fantasy IX features many strong female characters (Alexandria has an all female army, after all) and Beatrix is among the world's most badass. She's renowned as the best swordsman in the continent, and the fact that she shows no mercy or hesitations when following her orders makes her truly frightening (unless you are Steiner, then you get to have some fun back-and-forth with her).
Beatrix is great as a temporary party member; you really feel the power of having such a great warrior assisting your cause. She loses a few points for her boss battles, though, because scripted battles that you have to lose are and have always been extremely frustrating.
At first glance, Yuna appears to be another stereotypical 'caregiver' type: kind, gentle, loyal, and with a deep seated need to put the needs of others above her own. But something about Yuna makes her stand out in the crowd. Maybe its because she was the first of her kind rendered by power of the PlayStation 2, allowing us to look right into her mismatched eyes and feel that sense of connection to her. Maybe it was her character arc, where we see her learn that it is okay to have your own wants and not everything has to be done in the service of others. Or maybe its just that he summons are pretty freaking cool.
Whatever the case, more than 15 years since Final Fantasy X first hit the shelves Yuna remains a fan favorite, and for good reason.
10 Yuffie Kisaragi
'The Great Ninja Yuffie' is the OG of the energetic young woman character type that would later be repeated several times throughout the Final Fantasy franchise. While she doesn't quite get the love from the fanbase that her costars from Final Fantasy VII get, her trendsetting ways earn her a spot this high on the list.
Yuffie is a tomboy, proud and brash, and obsessed with acquiring Materia at any costs with absolutely no shame. At some point she steals the party's Materia, which for some players was an unforgivable sin, but for others Yuffie remains the favorite childish ninja.
It's a shame her Limit Breaks weren't particularly special.
9 Celes Chere
Terra might be considered the 'main protagonist' of Final Fantasy VI, but the game was really more of an ensemble cast, and in the second half Celes saw herself taking a lead role. Celes is a strong and independent character, and her magic swordsman style is both cool and effective. Almost makes you wish you were experimented on as a kid to become a super soldier.
But what really makes her stand out are her character arcs. We see her going from aloof and only allied with the party for convenience to slowly forming bonds and learning general companionship. And her slowly building relationship with Locke is one of the best written romances of the series, making you feel for the characters while at the same time not forcing either to be defined by it.
8 Aerith Gainsborough
Is it okay to spoil a game that's 20 years old? Aerith's death in Final Fantasy VII still ranks as one of the most shocking moments in any video game, ever. For those experiencing it for the first time without being spoiled it was a gut wrenching and unbelievable moment.
That's because Aerith was not some throwaway character brought in to get red-shirted off. Aerith was a protagonist, the last of her kind, and a potential love interest for the main character. She was upbeat and joyful, if a bit naive about the way the world works, and always meant well even when her actions caused unexpected problems.
Also, she was the best mage in the party, with some power support Limit Breaks. Both character-wise and mechanically she was sorely missed.
Lightning's detractors will often say she is simply a female Cloud, but that isn't really fair to either of them. Lightning is iconic as far as strong female characters go. She's the first female in a main series Final Fantasy game to be the game's definitive lead (again, Final Fantasy VI is more of an ensemble cast). She's a strong and assertive character, and plays the role of stone cold badass perfectly And she's one of the few female leads in any JRPG to not require a romantic relationship for her character arc.
Lightning is one of the toughest protagonists in the series, never slowing down or crumbling under the weight of the responsibilities she is given. Even as the world starts to quite literally fall apart Lightning remains a focused, unstoppable force.
Also, she wears a cape and somehow pulls it off. That's style.
If Lightning is Final Fantasy's toughest female lead, her way was paved at least in part by Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca (aka Ashe), princess of Dalmasca and leader of the Resistance to reclaim Dalmasca's independence. While Vaan claims the role of Final Fantasy XII's protagonist, the bulk of the plot and the party's actions revolve around Ashe and her quest.
Ashe is a driven warrior who will stop at nothing to restore her family to its rightful place and take vengeance for her fallen husband. She's not the kind of princess to sit around and order others to do her fighting for her, either; she takes a sword in hand and leads the fighting herself. With high magick growth and good strength, Ashe is a force to be reckoned with both up close and front afar.
5 Freya Crescent
Ah, the Dragoon. There are few classes in Final Fantasy more iconic or badass. Freya, the Burmecian (ratfolk) soldier from Final Fantasy IX is one of the few women to get to wear this title. Wielding the class's trademark spear, Freya jumps into battle (quite literally) with powerful attacks and a versatile array of support abilities.
Freya hunts for her lost love, sort of a gender inversion of the trope. Despite her many burden, Freya remains friendly and humble, and often participates in friendly banter with Zidane. Her old fashioned way of speaking really drives the 'knight' theme home, leaving us with one of Final Fantasy IX's most memorable characters.
Look at all those belts. How long does it take to put that on every morning? Poor cosplayers.
Impractical choice of pants aside, Lulu made her mark by breaking away from the traditional black mage getup by picking a look somewhere between 'voodoo priestess' and 'witch.' She wields animated moogle dolls as weapons and blows enemies away with powerful black magic spells (repeatedly, if her Overdrive is used).
Lulu is one of Yuna's guardians, a stern and unsmiling figure who often finds herself in the role of 'strict mother' with the party's less mature members. Logic and objectivity dictate her outlook, though this doesn't stop her from being kind to those she cares about. Her greatest strength comes from her core of knowledge, which she uses to guide the party through its adventures.
3 Terra Branford
Sometimes considered the main protagonist of Final Fantasy VI, Terra's character arc is one of the most complex and compelling in all of gaming. She starts off as a brainwashed slave and makes the journey to active hero, all the while questioning her humanity and worrying if she can feel love and other emotions. Terra's story is tragic but also powerful, as she manages to overcome so much and build her resolve to use her powers to make the world a better place.
Terra is also an incredibly strong party member, with high magic stats and decent physical stats, and the ability to equip all swords, heavy armor, and magic boosting equipment, Terra excels in just about any role. Her special ability, Trance, causes her dish out double damage, meaning that whether by sword or by magic something is going to die.
2 Tifa Lockhart
It is not going to come as a surprise to any of you that Tifa is so high up on this list (though for some of you it may be surprising that Tifa is not in the number 1 spot). Tifa is regularly considered one of the greatest female characters not just in Final Fantasy but in all of gaming, and is regularly compared to the likes of Lara Croft as an example of a strong and attractive character. And that makes sense; Tifa is a badass martial artist and one of the series' strongest fighters.
Doesn't hurt that's she's also quite good looking, with the New York Times even calling her “the pinup girl of the 'cyber generation.' Her simple sleeveless shirt and miniskirt combo has inspired counteless cosplayers. Whether because of her strong personality or her sex appeal, Tifa is beloved by fans worldwide.
1 Garnet / Dagger
Final Fantasy IX doesn't always get the love it deserves. As fan argue over which game between VI and VIII was the greatest of the series, the more cartoonish and light game often gets overlooked. Which is sad because it features such a strong cast of characters, including Garnet Til Alexandros XVII, aka Dagger.
Garnet is the princess of Alexandria, and as such she has a sheltered upbringing and is unfamiliar with the way the world works. She's self-deprecating and blames herself for things far outside her control. But this is all to give her a foundation to build off of. Over the course of the game, Garnet becomes strong and self reliant, takes on her mother and the corruption in her kingdom, and becomes a worthy protector of the kingdom. Her cutting her hair was a symbolic moment of transformation for the character who goes on the become an incredibly powerful summoner.