I can only applaud the effort that has been made to give distinctive features and backstories to the cast, no matter how perfunctory (read: very). There has even been a novelisation of the game to elaborate on said backstories, although it’s not available outside of Japan (probably because it’s not very good…). Oddly enough, while every member of the party does have his or her own name, the game still lets you name the four main protagonists yourself at the beginning without indicating their default names. You’ll start the game with three of those four protagonists, the fourth one joining towards the end. In the meantime, his slot will be filled by a variety of temporary companions, for a total of nine characters.
Frioniel/Firion: For all intents and purposes, he’s the hero of the game. I’m not sure why, except that the rest of the team seems to tacitly follow his lead, and that he’s got the most balanced stats. Other than that, he’s not particularly talkative and has a fairly inconspicuous personality. The opening video from the Origins version features him as a blonde boytoy, but his Amano (N.B. Yoshitaka Amano, famous videogame artist) artwork depicts him as a white-haired chap in a bandanna and red clothes. His in-game sprite…is the same as the Warrior from FFI, which means that he has red hair. According to the novelisation (none of this is detailed in the game), he was born in Salamand(o), but his parents died in unspecified circumstances, and he was adopted by Maria and Lionheart/Leon’s family in Phin/Fynn, which is in a completely different region, so I kinda wonder how he got there. There are a couple of vague hints at the end of game that Maria may be interested in him in completely non-sisterly ways, but he doesn’t really show any interest in return (unlike in the novelisation). Anyway, Frioniel/Firion starts out with a sword, and there’s no reason to change that. He has the most well-rounded stats of the party, but since Guy has higher Strength and Maria has higher Intelligence, that kinda leaves him as the default character to teach White Magic to, because giving both spell types to Maria will exponentially increase your level grinding time. So he ends up being a sort of Paladin.
Maria: Despite being the only permanent female party member, Maria fails to make much of an impression other than being a mix of clichés. Her Amano artwork depicts her as a sultry Amazon with long black/purple hair and tight black overalls (both are red on her in-game sprite), but, while her outfit is just as revealing in the Origins introductory cinematic, she comes across as helpless and shy. To her credit, though, she’s actually one of the two party members who display some common sense (the other one being the only other female character, Layla/Leila…interesting!). Anyway, Maria lives in Phin/Fynn with her brother Lionheart/Leon and adopted brothers Frioniel/Firion and Guy, but loses it all in the imperial attack, as her parents are killed and Lionheart/Leon disappears without a trace shortly afterwards. Despite this (or maybe because of it), she decides to join the resistance. And…that’s about it. She’ll pipe up every once in a while, showing some traces of interest in Frioniel/Firion and jealousy towards Layla/Leila, but not much more. Maria starts out with the highest Intelligence and Agility, paired with the lowest Strength and HP, as well as a bow for a weapon. This makes her the most suited character to learn Black Magic in the party. However, while ranged weapons make sense for a squishy mage, bows actually give a penalty to Intelligence, so you might want to give her a different weapon to maximise her potential. You could even put her in the front row to improve her HP and defence. Her high Agility also means good evasion.
Guy: Guy speak beaver. No, this isn’t some obscure dirty joke about his prowess with the ladies. According to the novelisation, Guy was abandoned by his parents at birth and raised by wild animals, therefore learning to communicate with them. Maria’s family also took him in, in unspecified circumstances (they must have been running an orphanage or something), which is why he finds himself fleeing Phin/Fynn with them. Of course, since none of this is expanded upon in the game, you’re left with a large, hulking guy with sandy-brown hair who can inexplicably chat to beavers. In the remakes, he don’t speak so good, because the developers wanted to emphasise his ‘wild boy’ background, but that just makes it even more awkward. Actually, it makes me associate him with Lenny from Of Mice and Men, minus the unfortunate tendency to squeeze things to death. He’s also surprisingly young (15), given that he looks like a seasoned bodybuilder. Guy wields an axe and has the highest Strength and HP of the starting characters, meaning that he’ll thrive on the front lines. His only drawback is his low Agility, meaning that he’s more prone to get hit, but that’s what all his HP is for. You could give him some spells as backup, but that would be a waste of his physical prowess and unnecessary extra levelling. One more thing: I’m very happy that Guy’s Origins render has been given proper clothes. Because both his Amano artwork and in-game sprite sport a blue crop top and briefs.
Minh/Minwu: The first of the numerous temporary party members in this game, he’s the official White Mage of the Royal Family of Phin/Fynn, and therefore, also a member of the resistance. Incidentally, he was also the only male White Mage in the entire series until Hope in Final Fantasy XIII. Dutiful, calm and wise, he looks like some kind of Arabian sage. He’s the one who nurses the party back to health after the initial attack. He later joins them to explore the mines below the Semite/Semitt Falls to obtain some mythril, but also lends a hand in the subsequent attempt to sabotage the Empire’s Warship/Dreadnought. Minh/Minwu comes with a staff, stupidly high Spirit and a plethora of White spells at exorbitant levels for that point in the game, which means that you’ll probably see him as a godsend. However, he doesn’t stay for very long: when the king of Phin/Fynn finally dies from the wounds he received during the imperial attack, he instructs Minh/Minwu to go to Mysidia to look for the legendary spell Ultima. This means that you don’t need to go out of your way to train him, since his spells are fine the way they are, and that’s all he needs. You could make him bonk things with his staff, but that’s just wasted potential.
Josef: This guy steps in to replace Minh/Minwu after he leaves. Originally a Paramekian/Palamecian soldier, he seems to have gotten disillusioned by their expansionist attitudes and escaped to Salamand(o) with his fiancée. Not that you ever actually see her or learn what happened to her after that. When the party arrives in Salamand(o), they learn that Josef’s daughter Nellie/Nelly got captured alongside the local miners and taken to the Semite/Semitt Falls. After the party rescues her, a grateful Josef offers to help them through the Snow Cave to retrieve the Goddess’ Bell, an artefact needed to access the Sun Flame/Sunfire. And the Sun Flame/Sunfire? Why, it’s needed to blow up the Empire’s Warship/Dreadnought. Talk about a convoluted fetch quest. Anyways. Josef is a bald guy with a moustache, and he packs a wallop with his fists (not sure why he has a sword on his back in his official artwork). Pair this with his high Strength and HP, and you get a very competent melee fighter. Conversely, he has less-than-stellar MP, but you don’t need to work on it, since he spends even less time in the party than Minh/Minwu. In fact, he’s probably the lowest maintenance character in the game. To round things off with a little anecdote, Josef makes an indirect appearance in FFIX, as the hero of the story Ramuh tells Garnet to help her reconnect with her eidolons.
Gordon: He’s the younger prince of Kashuon/Kashuan, brother to Scott, Princess Hilda’s fiancé. As Kashuon/Kashuan was an ally of Phin/Fynn, both princes were present during the imperial attack on the town. Scott was fatally wounded, while Gordon hid like a coward. As a consequence, he spends the first part of the game moping around Altea/Altair, since he apparently also has the hots for Hilda, but hates himself for his cowardice. Unfortunately, the royal family of Kashuon/Kashuan is the keeper of the aforementioned Sun Flame/Sunfire, so guess whose help you need to obtain it? Gordon’s Amano artwork depicts him as a blonde chap in a yellow tunic and purple cape, while his in-game sprite has white hair (blue on his menu portrait) and red clothes. He joins the party with a spear and surprisingly balanced stats, meaning that he can both melee and use magic, if you really want to take the trouble of levelling some spells with him. His main problems are his low HP and MP, which you may want to remedy, since Gordon will, alas, join the party twice for a rather significant amount of time. Once he’s done helping with the Sun Flame/Sunfire, he finally mans up and enlists with the rebellion, after the dying king of Phin/Fynn himself gives him his approval. He then helps rescue Hilda when she is kidnapped and spends the rest of the game as her commander-in-chief. Whether that means he also wins her heart is left for the player to decide. Although, if yes, poor Scott.
Layla/Leila: My favourite character in this game, although that’s not saying much. Layla/Leila is a feisty, sharp-tongued pirate captain with long blue-purple hair and purple clothes as per her Amano artwork, even though her menu image has red hair, and her sprite is blonde with blue clothes. The party runs into her in Pal(oo)m while looking for transport to D(e)ist, home of the dragoons, whose help the resistance wants to enlist. She offers them a free ride on her ship. Sounds fishy? Indeed. Once the ship leaves, Layla/Leila promptly orders her crew to attack. However, the party administers them a thorough trouncing, and so Layla/Leila capitulates, accepts to help out, joins the rebellion and later helps Frioniel/Firion out of a very embarrassing situation. Her best stat is her Agility, which makes her less liable to get hit. She’s proficient with daggers, has good Intelligence, a decent amount of MP and a reasonably levelled Thunder spell. Conveniently enough, the party is about to spend time at sea, where the wildlife is vulnerable to Thunder. When Hilda gets kidnapped, Gordon asks Layla/Leila to stand in as the leader of the rebellion (for some reason) and takes her place in the party to go rescue the princess. Once the party returns, Layla/Leila rejoins them again for their trip to Mysidia, but is lost at sea when Leviathan attacks their ship. She is later found alive and well back in Phin/Fynn, although it’s never explained how she survived. Unfortunately, this also marks the limit of her involvement in the story. She will, however, offer Frioniel/Firion to join her crew at the end of the game, a fact which doesn’t appear to sit well with Maria.
Ric(h)ard: Ordered by the king of D(e)ist to go search for Ultima, Ric(h)ard was waylaid by Leviathan during his trip and ended up in the creature’s stomach. In the meantime, D(e)ist was destroyed by the Imperial forces, who poisoned their wyverns, thus leaving the dragoons powerless to resist their assault. The only survivors are the widow of one of Ric(h)ard’s friends, Elina, and her son (who has been named Kain in the GBA version, as a wink to FFIV), as well as a single wyvern egg, which they’re attempting to protect. The party learns of this dire turn of events once they arrive in D(e)ist, helps to hatch the egg, and then leaves, without realising that Ric(h)ard is still alive. They encounter him in Leviathan’s stomach, after also getting swallowed, and if they bring him back to D(e)ist, he chivalrously offers to take care of Elina and her son once the Emperor is defeated. Ric(h)ard is dressed in full-body black/purple armour (yellow on his sprite), which means you never see his face. Unsurprisingly, he has high Strength and is thus a choice melee fighter. However, unlike all his dragoon successors and his Amano artwork, his initial weapon is a sword rather than a spear, which doesn’t prevent you from training him with one anyway. His Spirit is higher than his Intelligence, but there’s no reason to teach him any magic, so it’s not a big deal. There’s not much character development to him (later versions of the game at least try to give him more dialogue), but I love dragoons, so I’m partial to him anyway.
Lionheart/Leon: Maria’s brother and Frioniel’s/Firion’s friend, this taciturn, black-haired fellow (it’s inexplicably white on his menu image) in black armour appears briefly during the introductory battle sequence, then simply vanishes for about 90% of the game. You could almost forget he exists, if it weren’t for the law of economy of characters. He does eventually rejoin the party, but considering that it happens right before the final dungeon, you won’t be able to put him to much use. He comes with high Strength and HP, as well as very decent achievements in nearly all weapon types (axes and swords being the main highlights), meaning that he’ll make a competent front-liner. He also has high Intelligence, but teaching him spells from scratch, especially at that point in the game, is an exercise in punishment, so don’t bother. Apart from that, Lionheart’s/Leon is a puzzle. You get next to no insight into his personality, and considering what he’s been up to for the duration of the game, it’s a glaring omission. Ultimately, you’re left with a lot more questions than answers, and the ending does nothing to remedy that. Definitely the biggest disappointment among the cast. Heck, Gordon may be a wimp, but at least he gets development.