It bears repeating: almost half of the cast (four out of nine) is made up of characters I really dislike for various reasons, and two more I have very strong reservations about, which, in total, makes up most of the team. Mind you, that’s not necessarily a flaw, if you go by the principle that good characterisation should spark strong emotions. Cloud does rather hog the screentime, but they’re still a memorable bunch, most of them with some serious emotional and psychological baggage. I just get the impression that the developers didn’t really think through all of the implications of their creative choices. Every character has their own weapon selection and their own Limit Breaks, which create an individual visual style for each of them and will become a staple of the series from here on out. Two of the characters are optional: you could very well finish the game without ever meeting either one. However, they do have relevance to the plot, as well as their own sidequests and are thus as much a part of the team as the others.
Cloud: This blonde, spiky-haired and unnaturally blue-eyed chap with an improbable name is the hero of the game. The eye colour serves as proof of his SOLDIER First Class heritage, as a result of the Mako infusion members of said First Class receive. Packing a sword the size of which makes you wonder if he’s compensating for something, Cloud is taciturn, disdainful and aloof, and provides a strong contrast to Barret’s angry outbursts. But, from the outset, you can tell that something’s not right with the guy: he keeps hearing voices in his head and inexplicably blacks out every once in a while. However, he’s very knowledgeable about Shinra and also seems to hold a personal grudge against Sephiroth, which is why AVALANCHE hires him in the first place, and why he eventually comes to lead the party. Cloud is a balanced character, strong in both melee and magic. As mentioned, he uses swords, although he also gets a nail bat at one point. His Limit Breaks are among the most powerful, culminating with the infamous, 15-hit Omnislash. That said, Cloud has some serious psychological issues to sort through, which, admittedly, is an original trait for a hero. It’s certainly not been used in the series before or since, which, much as I hate to say it, does make Cloud unique. Be that as it may, you should take him with a pinch of salt or ten for about half the game. After that, he’ll feel a little more natural. Or a lot more emo. Either way, he’ll never be very personable, and all the sequels basically feature him moping and wallowing in misery just for the heck of it. He annoys me a whole lot, but considering the size of his fanbase, I’m in the minority.
Barret: As the very first playable black character in the FF series, Barret is, unfortunately, a walking cliché. This very large, very angry black-haired and black-eyed man is the leader of AVALANCHE. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr T (good thing his later incarnations changed his hairstyle, at least), has biceps the size of Cloud’s torso and a goddamn machine gun grafted to his right arm (the bizarre result of an accident), just to emphasise how little you want to mess with him. Living in the Midgar slums with his adoptive daughter Marlene, he’s a firsthand witness of Shinra’s oppression. AVALANCHE is his brainchild, and he is understandably resentful of Cloud for taking over the leadership of the party. He eventually comes to accept it though and proceeds to blend into the background as the game progresses. Barret is a powerhouse: high HP, very high strength and laughable magic skills. So just let his gun do the talking. You could put him in the back row, but a) he doesn’t really need it, b) he also has some wrench-type weapons, which require him to be in the front row, and c) he’ll get more mileage out of his Limit Breaks in the front row. They’re mostly good, and his second one, Mindblow, is notably one of the few that targets enemy MP. Personality-wise, Barret invariably shoots first and thinks later, and even that doesn’t amount to much, since he’s not really the brightest bulb in the box. His cluelessness can be chuckle-worthy, but he has a pretty depressing backstory, and there are real issues with his chosen occupation as an eco-warrior, which the game, admirably, doesn’t sweep under the rug. I just wish the developers had let up on the relentless stereotyping at least a little bit. They never do though, so I tend to use other characters to minimise the cringe.
Tifa: This brown-eyed brunette is pretty much every straight teenage boy’s fantasy made pixel: very short black skirt, eentsy white t-shirt…and some extremely convincing gender-based assets *gets distracted* Ahem. Tifa is a member of AVALANCHE and owns a small bar in the Midgar slums called Seventh Heaven, which doubles up as an ops base, although she usually just takes care of Marlene while Barret is away blowing stuff up (two separate issues at work here). She and Cloud also happen to be childhood friends, and it’s quite clear that on her side, there’s more than friendship involved. However, she would never admit it, and something about Cloud worries her deeply (the schizophrenia, perhaps), thus adding to her motivation to see things through. Tifa, as you probably wouldn’t expect, is a monk-type character: she fights with gloves and is all about punching things in the face. Although you really have to wonder how she pulls it off in that outfit of hers. I mean, her skirt should end up around her neck after every battle. Anyway, her strength and her speed are both good, while her magic is mediocre, which means that she’s best used in the front row, although her lacklustre HP might sometimes be an issue. Her Limit Break allows her to perform several attacks in succession, but each attack is determined by a spinning slot, which can result in normal damage, double damage or a miss. Tifa is also remarkable for the fact that her personality is diametrically opposed to her physical appearance. She’s brave, plucky and resilient, but also caring, kind and attentive. What’s more, she has a hard time expressing her emotions and, when she does, has trouble coping with them. I find her to be a strong, endearing character, and she gets mad props for being the first–and, for a long time, only–female monk in the series (job-based games don’t count). Of course, I have to overlook the fact that everything about her looks screams “fanservice”, and that the developers couldn’t help but saddle her with an “I dream of a prince charming” fantasy.
Aeris/Aerith: Let’s be blunt: I can’t stand Aeris/Aerith. I could turn this into a praise of negative characterisation, but the developers clearly intended her to be straight-up likeable, which just isn’t happening for me, no matter how much (or maybe because) the game belabours this point. Cloud meets this brown-haired, green-eyed girl after being separated from the rest of AVALANCHE during the second Mako reactor fiasco. Aeris/Aerith lives in the Midgar slums with her adoptive mother in a surprisingly large and lavish house, and makes ends meet by selling flowers (although, considering the size of said house, “making ends meet” may not be the right term). She used to have a SOLDIER First Class boyfriend called Zack, who vanished without a trace. Since Cloud also used to be SOLDIER First Class, she latches onto him, deciding that they’re somehow meant to be. However, there’s more to Aeris/Aerith than meets the eye: she’s being hounded by the Shinra and claims to be able to hear the “voice of the planet”. This is definitely intriguing and fits in with the party’s goals. Aeris/Aerith is a traditional female character: she uses staves, needs rescuing and wears pink. Her name is based on “earth”, her best weapon is called Princess Guard, her magic is awesome, and her physical stats are poor. All her Limit Breaks are enhancing/curative, making her the token healer, and her final one, Great Gospel, is ridiculously overpowered, considering how early you can obtain it. Because, you see, despite being important to the plot, she will permanently leave the party after the first disc (and I refer people who claim how shocking and unique this is to Galuf from FFV). Aeris/Aerith is presented as the sweet, somewhat mischievous, but ultimately angelic and motherly stereotype, whom everybody loves and looks up to. I already find that annoying, but, in stark contrast, there are also at least two instances where she blatantly disregards basic human decency in dealing with other characters. In short: she gets the boot as soon as I’m able to freely choose my party, and good riddance.
Red XIII/Nanaki: This fiery red creature with orange eyes is physically reminiscent of a panther, although you also see him howl on several occasions, so it’s never really clear whether he’s a feline or a canine. He has a flame at the tip of his tail and tribal-looking decorations. Captured by Professor Hojo, Shinra’s very own mad scientist, he has been experimented on at Shinra’s HQ. The procedures left him without a right eye and a nasty “XIII” brand on one of his forelegs, hence his moniker. His real name is Nanaki, but you only find that out later on in the game. Although I’d much rather call him that than the horrible label Hojo decided on, even if it causes unintentional hilarity once you do learn his name. The team encounters Nanaki while trying to rescue Aeris/Aerith from Shinra as part of a disturbing display of Hojo’s demented plans. Much to their surprise, the beast addresses them in perfectly intelligible human language and requests to tag along so he can get back home. Nanaki can equip hairpins in his mane and is a strong addition to the team, striking a happy balance between almost all stats. He has high HP and strength, very good magic, and to cap it all, he’s the fastest character in the party. The catch lies in his Limit Breaks, which are rather lacklustre by comparison with other characters and are a strong incentive to sideline him as the game progresses. Still, he’ll serve you well for a while, especially if you need to steal stuff. Nanaki is calm, level-headed, well-spoken and sensible, and the party is surprised when they discover that he’s only the equivalent of a 16-year old in human years. He also has some personal issues that are resolved in a moving episode once he reaches home.
Yuffie: This young ninja with short black hair and black eyes is the first optional character you can acquire. After leaving Midgar, the party decides to track Sephiroth down to demand some answers. After traversing a mine, they end up in a region with several forests. Fighting in these forests may trigger a random encounter with Yuffie. After the party smacks some sense into her, some dialogue choices will show up and determine whether she joins or not. If you fail, she’ll steal some of the party’s money and run away, but you can try to recruit her again. Although she’s far from being a catch. Rude, bratty, selfish and greedy, she never misses an opportunity to yap and/or complain. And, to cap it all, she suffers from motion sickness, which makes her doubly aggravating whenever transportation is involved. About her only real quality is her patriotism. In combat, Yuffie uses various ranged weapons (shuriken, origami, fans), meaning that you can safely put her in the back row. She’s the second fastest character in the game, but her strength and magic are only decent at best. She does have a couple of perks though: her Limit Breaks are quite good, with a few multi-hitting attacks and an early healing move. Another outstanding feature is her ultimate weapon: its damage is proportional to the enemy’s level, making it hit harder against powerful foes, but it’s also the only weapon in the game to deal full damage with the Morph command (which usually deals 1/8th of normal damage). Finally, she also has a solo sidequest to obtain her final Limit Break, All Creation, but that’s the only reason I ever put her to use.
Cait Sith: Oh man. It’s, uh…a toy tuxedo cat in a crown and cape riding a giant, rotund toy moogle. Yeah. And no one else in the game finds anything remotely weird about that. While tracking Sephiroth down, the party ends up in a huge amusement park called the Gold Saucer, which is directly connected to the pile of rubble that used to be Barret’s hometown. Don’t ask me why Sephiroth would want to visit an amusement park, but there you go. In any case, that’s where they run into Cait Sith (‘fairy cat’ in Gaelic, actually pronounced “kaht shee”), who works there as a fortune telling machine. As you do. After making the only correct prediction of its miserable existence, it forces its way onto the team without asking anybody’s opinion, supposedly out of curiosity. Wahey. Cait Sith has a monstrous amount of HP and a magic stat second only to Aeris/Aerith, but those are its only saving graces. Its strength is low, its speed is low, and its Limit Breaks are lacklustre. It only has two, albeit with varied outcomes: dice and a slot machine, much like Setzer from FFVI. The slots can notably trigger a move that kills all onscreen enemies or one that kills the party. I’ve yet to see either, however. Although that’s probably because I kick Cait Sith off the team ASAP and never look back. It uses megaphones as weapons (to shout commands to its moogle). Personality-wise, there’s only so much you can expect from a stuffed toy. It’s unlikable, obnoxious and feels thoroughly out of place. And if those were its only problems, it would already be bad enough. But no, there’s much worse in store.
Vincent: My personal favourite, despite looking (and often sounding) like a walking goth cliché, Vincent is the second optional character in the game: a tall, vampiric-looking man with long black hair, red eyes and what looks like a robotic claw instead of his left arm (although it’s been retconned as a glove). The Shinra used to own a mansion in Nibelheim, Cloud and Tifa’s hometown, which is where Sephiroth’s trail leads the team. Among other things, the mansion houses one of Hojo’s labs, where they discover a locked room. There is a boss fight to obtain the key, but Vincent is the reward, sleeping inside a coffin (…) in said room. Much to the party’s surprise, he declares being an ex-Turk. He also has a long-standing grudge against Hojo, who ruined his life and ran some ghastly experiments on him, which, among other things, have prevented him from ageing, leaving him permanently looking 27. Much as I hate to admit it, Vincent’s stats are unimpressive. His HP, strength and speed are all mediocre, and his magic is decent at best. However, Hojo’s tampering has also given him an advantage: his Limit Breaks allow him to transform into four different horror archetypes: a werewolf, Frankenstein’s monster, a mix between Jason Voorhees and Leatherface, and a demon. Each form has two different attacks and gives his stats a dramatic boost. The only downside is that they’re A.I.-controlled, so make sure you don’t need to micromanage him before triggering them. He uses guns, which means that you can safely put him in the back row. Personality-wise, Vincent is understandably gloomy and taciturn, but also–and perhaps surprisingly–sensible, thoughtful and self-possessed, in a party where most members sorely lack those qualities. Despite being an optional character, he has garnered a significant fan base, which eventually led him to star in his very own FFVII spinoff, Dirge of Cerberus. Alas, it sucks. Poor Vince.
Cid: This blonde, blue-eyed, chainsmoking pilot lives in Rocket Town, which, as its name implies, is an old Shinra rocket base. He was scheduled to be the first man in space, but, due to a technical failure during the launch, the project was scrapped, and he now wastes his days away at the base, bitter and angry at life. The brunt of his wrath falls on Shera, the scientist who detected the anomaly and whom he blames for the cancellation of the project. She now “works” as his housekeeper to make it up to him (although I’m pretty sure he doesn’t pay her), since she also thinks she was at fault, and willingly bears his copious verbal abuse. And yes, the entire situation is extremely uncomfortable. The party drops by the base while looking for Sephiroth and runs into the Shinra trying to commandeer Cid’s plane. After they’ve been routed, Cid offers both the (now broken) plane and his services, as he figures that this is a perfect opportunity to get payback. Cid is the resident dragoon: he fights with spears, and his Limit Breaks include four different jump attacks. Apart from that, he has high HP, decent vitality and magic, but his strength could be better. He’s also the slowest member of the team (all those cigarettes probably don’t help). However, his Limit Breaks are great, especially his final one, Highwind, which can deal truly ridiculous amounts of damage. Personality-wise, Cid is a foul-mouthed badass who don’t take no shit from anyone, but tends to fall asleep during strategic meetings. The game builds him up as a good guy beneath his crusty, cantankerous veneer, and while he does eventually apologise and reconcile with Shera (and even marries her in the sequels), I’m really not sure it’s a) healthy or b) enough to compensate for his atrocious earlier treatment of her. Yes, she thinks she deserves it, but that in itself is a big part of the problem. I really want to like him–heck, I genuinely used to when I was younger–, but this issue just got more and more glaring the older I became, to the point that I can’t overlook it anymore.