There are nine playable characters in total, although only six of them can really be considered as the ‘main team’. The three others are only playable in dream sequences. Still, they are important enough in the overall scheme of things to deserve mention. As previously stated, I find this cast to be a likeable bunch, even though Squall–and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Laguna–hogs the spotlight in terms of character development. Each character has their own signature weapon and their own Limit Break, just as in FFVII, but, beyond that, their stats are heavily dependent on their equipped Guardian Forces and the spells they carry, due to the specifics of the combat system.
Squall: The hero of the game has light brown hair, blue eyes and a large scar across his brow, which he acquires in the opening cinematic during a brutal sparring session with his rival, Seifer. Squall is an orphan who lives at the BGU and limits his interactions with others to the barest of civilities. Nevertheless, everyone respects him, except Seifer. Their enmity is further reinforced when Squall passes his final exam and Seifer doesn’t. Afterwards, Squall is given leadership of the Timber mission and meets Rinoa, the leader of the Timber Owls and one of the main catalysts of the story. If you’re wondering whether romance is on the menu, the game’s logo is your answer. As the hero, Squall is the best character overall. He has balanced base stats, albeit with a melee slant, and perfect Accuracy. His chosen weapon is a gunblade: a sword with an inbuilt gun. If you press R1 as he strikes an enemy, he’ll fire the gun as well, resulting in a critical hit (and shattering his arms in real life). This is quite easy to achieve, so all his melee attacks can basically become critical hits. His Limit Break, Renzokuken, deals four to eight hits–which also involve timely use of R1– to a single enemy. This is usually followed by one of four single- or multi-target finishing moves, including the devastating, 17-hit Lionheart. Personality-wise, Squall is taciturn, aloof and withdrawn, but sensitive and insecure beneath his tough exterior, due to a profound childhood fear of rejection. He also stands in sharp contrast to his predecessors, in that you are privy to a whole lot of his thoughts in-game, which adds an extra layer of depth to his personality and evolution, as he gradually lowers his defences and learns to let others in. Maybe this is a predictable character arc, but I find that it’s mostly well handled, so Squall ranks among my favourite FF characters to this day.
Quistis: This elegant, sculptural blonde with icy-blue eyes is actually Squall’s teacher, despite being only one year older than him. I think someone in the developing department missed the point of the ‘sexy teacher’ trope. Be that as it may, Quistis accompanies Squall on his final preparatory mission for the exam, and there are hints that she’s interested in him in completely non-professional ways. She’s also in charge of overseeing the exam. However, since that turns into a huge snafu, she gets demoted, despite the fact that Squall’s team passes. She then joins the Timber mission as a regular SeeD, doing her best to keep her doubts and confusion under control for the rest of the game, even though she has some trouble containing her jealousy towards Rinoa. Quistis is the Blue Mage of the group: her Blue Magic Limit Break consists of magic attacks learned from enemies. Her base stats are rather poor, with, notably, the lowest Speed of the main team, and, more worryingly for a mage, the worst Magic (tied with Zell and Irvine). And while some of her spells are very good (Degenerator, White Wind, Shockwave Pulsar), she quickly gets overshadowed by other characters. Her final spell–the aforementioned Shockwave Pulsar–is also pretty annoying to obtain. She uses whips, just to drive home the ‘sexy teacher’ point. However, Quistis is a rather tragic character. Self-possessed and serious to a fault, she acts as the brains of the group, but her ice queen appearance hides some deep insecurities. She desperately wants to bond with someone, but never really manages to, despite the fact that she even has an official fan club among the students. In particular, her attempts to win Squall over, which show him at his most callous, are actually quite painful to witness. So she has my deepest sympathies. Too bad she’s not better in combat.
Selphie: This green-eyed brunette with a very 60s look (and very short skirts, which lend themselves to some awkward camera angles in combat) is the mandatory Perky Girl. To her credit, though, she’s distinctly less annoying than most others of her kind. She’s definitely perky, and even hyper at times, but she’s also friendly, capable, good-natured and smart, and, blessedly, doesn’t nag or whine. You also get the feeling that her cheerfulness sometimes serves as a coping mechanism. Oh, and she has a disturbing taste for blowing things up. Selphie is a transfer student from the Trabia GU, sent to the BGU to pass her exam due to a lack of personnel. Squall first bumps into her (literally) as she tries to find her way around the premises. She passes and is also enrolled in the Timber mission. Selphie has the second highest base Magic and Speed (tied with Squall), but the lowest Strength in the party (tied with Irvine) and the lowest Vitality in the game. However, she starts with higher than average compatibility with Guardian Forces, which gives her an edge over the rest of the team in terms of summoning. She fights with a nunchaku. Her Limit Break is called Slots, but instead of featuring actual slots, it randomly selects a spell from her stock and a number of times to cast it, without actually depleting it. One of her four special abilities may also pop up: Full Cure (self-explanatory, whole party), Wall (physical and magical protection for the whole party), Rapture (enemies may sprout wings and be removed from the battlefield) or the EXTREMELY rare The End, which means instant death to any enemy. If you’re not happy with the game’s choice, you can choose to “Do Over” as many times as you like, but keep in mind that it won’t pause the combat (even if your settings are on “Wait”). I guess Selphie can be fun if you feel lucky, but there are more reliable damage dealers on offer.
Zell: Blonde, blue-eyed and sporting a tattoo on the left side of his face, Zell mostly serves as comic relief. Like Selphie and Squall (and Quistis, and Irvine…), he’s an orphan, but he’s been adopted by a family in Balamb. You could probably tie a dynamo to Zell and use him as an electricity supply: he can never keep still, which deeply irritates Squall at the beginning of the game. Unfortunately for him, Zell looks up to him a lot, and not only do they get paired up for the field exam, he then also ends up on the Timber mission. Zell is the resident Monk: he fights with reinforced gloves, has the second highest base Strength (tied with Squall) and the lowest Magic (tied with Quistis and Irvine) of the team. His Limit Break, Duel, is very similar to Sabin’s Blitz from FFVI. It consists of a variety of single- and multi-target moves (some similar to Tifa’s from FFVII) to be performed within a limited time, each corresponding to a specific button sequence. They show up onscreen in batches of three, and if they are chained in a certain order, a finisher move will appear in flashing script. If performed, it will end the sequence, regardless of remaining time. Duel has the potential to be the most damaging Limit Break in the game, but you need good reflexes and timing, as well as Vit 0 inflicted on the enemy. Personality-wise, Zell is just as enthusiastic as Selphie, but not as bright, as evidenced by his choice of books in the library (one of the librarians has the hots for him, though). He’s also a tad insecure, because no one ever wants to shake his hand, for some reason. The other running joke about him is his oft-frustrated love for the BGU Cafeteria hot dogs (in the Japanese version of the game, it’s just bread). All in all, he’s a good, earnest, steadfast bloke and a loyal friend who packs a serious punch in a fight.
Rinoa: This lovely black-haired and black-eyed girl is the daughter of General Caraway of the Galbadian army, but she resents Galbadia’s expansionism. So she breaks ties with her father, takes her deceased mother’s maiden name and forms the Timber Owls resistance group. She contacts the BGU to ask for help, Headmaster Cid assigns the mission to Squall’s team, and the rest is history. Rinoa has astonishingly high base stats (probably for storyline reasons), including both the highest Strength and Magic in the entire game, which makes her a great addition to the party. She fights with a pinwheel-like weapon attached to a launching mechanism on her arm: she fires it to attack, and it returns like a boomerang. Rinoa also has the peculiarity of having two Limit Breaks. Her first one, Combine, involves her performing a random single- or multi-target ability–including one that grants temporary invincibility to the party–alongside her dog, a (female) Australian Shepherd called Angelo. Angelo can also randomly show up during combat to either counterattack when Rinoa is attacked (much like Interceptor in FFVI), cure/revive a party member or sniff around for items. Rinoa’s second Limit Break, Angel Wing, is obtained as a storyline event on Disc 3. She becomes A.I.-controlled and chain-casts spells randomly selected from her stock without depleting it, her magic damage increasing five-fold (!). The problem is that you can’t control the spell selection, so optimising damage can be a real hassle. Personality-wise, Rinoa is lively, friendly, dedicated and compassionate, but can also be stubborn, naive and petulant. She clashes with Squall at first, perceiving him as cold and callous, but eventually manages to coax him out of his shell, resulting in a sweet, touching romance…which the writers clearly got a little too enthusiastic about towards the end of the game. They also just couldn’t resist making her play damsel in distress on three separate occasions.
Irvine: Technically, Irvine is the last character you meet, but the other three are part of the ‘dream team’ and therefore belong together. Reputedly the best sharpshooter of the Galbadia GU, Irvine has blue eyes, long brown hair in a ponytail and dresses like a cowboy, for some reason. When it becomes obvious that Edea is the mastermind behind President Deling’s shenanigans, the party heads to the Galbadia GU to ask for assistance. Headmaster Martine, who’s not a fan of her schemes either, introduces them to Irvine and gives them his blessing to neutralise the threat. The first thing Irvine does upon joining the team is to hit on both Selphie and Rinoa, which gives you a pretty good idea of his personality. That’s not all there is to him, though, as he knows a lot more about the rest of the team than he lets on. Irvine fights with shotguns and has the highest base Speed of the team, but the lowest Strength (tied with Selphie) and Magic (tied with Zell and Quistis). His Limit Break, unimaginatively named Shot, depends on the ammo the party is carrying: different types allow him to use different attacks, some single- and some multi-target, some with a faster rate of fire, some with a slower one. A timer determines how long he can keep shooting, but if you start seeing 0 damage, it means the enemy is dead. The biggest drawback here is that you need to keep up your ammo supplies, which can be problematic for the higher-grade stuff. Personality-wise, Irvine is a good, reliable guy at heart and harbours his own insecurities, despite his obnoxious flirtatiousness. He values his friends and, despite his wandering attentions, has a preference for Selphie, whom he looks out for.
The remaining three characters are Galbadian soldiers, only controllable during dream sequences that take place during and after the time of Galbadia’s invasion of Timber. They have their own stats, but you can’t change their weapons, they have simpler Limit Breaks than the main team and inherit the latter’s magic junctions. The significance of these sequences becomes clear over time, but I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that they have direct bearing on the storyline.
Laguna: This young soldier with long black hair and green eyes is the de facto leader of the ‘dream team’, despite being forgetful and profoundly inept at organisation. You’ll notably witness him losing keys, bringing the wrong map on a mission or parking a car in the middle of a thoroughfare to go get a drink. Laguna actually dreams of becoming a journalist, as he has a knack for storytelling and a contagious enthusiasm. During an investigation mission in the Centra region, the party gets attacked by Estharian forces, and Laguna is separated from his friends while trying to escape. Badly wounded, he washes up in a little backwater village called Winhill. The local bartender, Raine, nurses him back to health, and he gradually becomes very fond of her and her adoptive daughter, Ellone, whose parents got killed in the war. Then Laguna’s life takes a few sharp turns and leaves him in an unexpected place. In every dream sequence, Laguna inherits Squall’s junctions and magic (for a good reason), and, like him, he has good, balanced stats. He fights with a machine gun, and his Limit Break is called Desperado, unleashing a barrage of gunfire at all enemies. Laguna is a goof: he talks too much, he’s easily distracted and gets leg cramps when he’s nervous (especially around attractive women, like his erstwhile crush, cabaret singer Julia), but he’s also profoundly generous, loyal and caring, which makes his story all the more poignant. In fact, he’s the reason the ending of the game still makes me misty-eyed. If you collect copies of Timber Maniacs, the magazine Laguna temporarily wrote for, Selphie, who thinks he’s really cool and rather handsome, will post information about him on her blog on the BGU network.
Kiros: Laguna’s tall, lean, brown-haired and black-eyed friend has the dubious honour of being the Token Black Man of the game, as there are no other black characters in the entire game. Rather unfortunate, but at least he’s not a walking cliché like Barret from FFVII was, which is at least a move in the right direction. He acts as the voice of reason of Laguna’s group, doing his best to bring some level-headedness to the proceedings and sometimes chiding his over-enthusiastic friend. However, aside from his friendship with Laguna, there’s no background information about him: no indication of his past, interests, occupations or of any other significant ties outside the group. Heck, neither he nor Ward even have a CG portrait. After they get separated in Centra, Kiros spends a long time searching for Laguna and urges him to stop loafing about once he does find him in Winhill. Kiros has the worst Strength in the entire game (including the main party), but the best Speed (even higher than Irvine) and the second-highest Magic after Rinoa. He fights with dual katars–misspelled as “katals”–, which are a sort of push-dagger. His Limit Break is called Blood Pain and involves him carving up a single enemy six times. Kiros inherits Selphie’s junctions in the first two dream sequences, Irvine’s in the third, and you can freely choose whom to associate him to after that.
Ward: This mountain of a man has blue eyes and blonde hair (his head is always covered, but, later in the game, his beard is blonde), as well as large scar down the left side of his face. Despite his massive, intimidating appearance, he’s actually quite good-natured, and gets very susceptible when his weight is mentioned. He doesn’t hesitate to criticise Laguna for his legendary cockups, but, ultimately, still defers to him. He gets injured during the Centra incident and loses his voice as a result, although Kiros is apparently still able to understand him afterwards, simply by looking at his eyes. While Kiros searches for Laguna, Ward gets a temporary job as a warden at the D-District Prison, but the team eventually reunites some time later. Just like with Kiros, however, there’s no information about his background or interests. As you can probably guess from his appearance, Ward’s best stat is his Strength, which is the highest in Laguna’s party and the second-highest in the game (after Rinoa…). He also has the highest Vitality, but the lowest Speed and Magic. He fights with a huge harpoon and serves as a dragoon of sorts, as his Limit Break, Massive Anchor, involves him jumping high in the air and riding the harpoon back down to the ground to smash a group of enemies. In the first and third dream sequences, Ward inherits Zell’s junctions (although you don’t actually play as him in the third one), and Quistis’ in the second one. After that, you can freely choose whom to associate him with, just like Kiros.