The five best Final Fantasy heroes

What's an epic without a hero? We trim the list down to these essential RPG champions

After dealing with a long stretch of uptight anti-heroes (namely Cloud and Squall), the refreshingly hyperactive Zidane was a welcome change of pace. Instead of silently brooding, he always seems to be up for a fight or eager to flirt his way through a party. Sure, his strange design (complete with monkey tail) is childish when compared to the no-nonsense protagonists of earlier games, but it's this forest-fantasy appearance that makes Zidane, and all of IX’s colorful world, so exciting to see.

It does turn out that he’s a doppelganger to the game's villain, Kuja (and meant to replace him in an otherworldly invasion), but Zidane's soul-searching after learning his true nature proves he has a heart and isn't bound to repeat the same evil mistakes his "brother" has. If you can embrace his bouncy, playful attitude, it's easy to view Zidane not as a step backwards, but rather as a breath of fresh air and a fitting tribute to cheerful, non-pissy leads.

Somehow both universally adored and panned, Cloud has been Square’s most popular anything for more than a decade. He’s starred in games, had cameos in others, headlined a CG movie and fronted a massive merchandizing blitz that’s still going strong. He’s easily the most iconic, instantly recognizable hero in all of Final Fantasy (and pretty high up the list for gaming in general), but how did he earn all this attention? Why the 50-50 mix of fandom and revulsion?

Above: Cloud’s sad because his friend died, and then he took his sword and then tried to get on his dead friend’s chick

The reasons for love are easy to spot – he looks distinct, has a badass motorcycle and comes off as a hardened, plays-by-his-own-rules warrior. Soon this harsh exterior chips away to reveal a conflicted, confused genetic experiment who’s loaded with memories that may not be his own. As Cloud realizes who and what he is, his original personality starts to climb to the surface and suddenly we have a cool, trustworthy leader who overcomes his guilt and uncertainty. It’s a convoluted metamorphosis, yes, but it works to great effect.

Above: Cloud’s main goal is the reclamation of his identity, as well as stopping the manipulative Sephiroth

So, why the hate? Because he’s popular. That’s about it, honestly. Cloud’s meteoric rise led to all the aforementioned products and spin-offs trying to squeeze some extra cash out of FFVII fans. Too much Cloud, too many side stories, too much attention to one character. We get that, for sure. But objectively we also have to acknowledge that he’s one of the most well-rounded and thought-out characters in the series.

Few heroes have made a journey as personal and stricken with loss as Cecil Harvey. Starting the game as the leader of the Baron Imperial Armada, Cecil had led a life of honorable fealty. When we join him high above the world in his military airship, he’s troubled by kingly orders to attack innocent townspeople and steal their magical crystals. Wracked with guilt at this inhuman order, Cecil rejects his role as a crown-sanctioned marauder and embarks on a journey of personal discovery, spending much of the game setting right what he and his superiors put wrong.

Above: Baffled by his king’s ruthless behavior, Cecil defects, starting a chain reaction that changes the entire planet

From there, he makes an incredible transformation from Dark Knight (badass, but tainted by evil) into a Paladin, pure of heart and imbued with even more deadly skill, thanks to being at one with the power of light. Cecil is one of the most unquestionably good-hearted characters in the history of Final Fantasy, but he's also one of the most mature, taking on his role as a bringer of peace with relish, eager to atone for his unforgivable sins. As he struggles to release the world from the tendrils of evil, he suffers plenty of setbacks and betrayals, but soldiers on.

Above: Cecil changes from tortured Dark Knight to righteous Paladin, all in the name of redemption

Finally, Cecil’s relationships to several main characters make the central plot more personable than other Final Fantasy games. He has something at stake with Rosa and Kain, earns the respect and trust of Yang, Edward and Tellah, and finds out a truly surprising twist regarding the game’s villain. Best of all, this is all accomplished in a 20-hour RPG, not another 50-hour epic that requires days and weeks of your time.

Think we got it all wrong? Agree that Cecil is the man? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Mar 2, 2010

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