Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters reveal the secret of the series' best villains
Keep it simple.
Final Fantasy is home to some of the most iconic villains in all of gaming. (Who doesn’t know the one-winged angel Sephiroth?) One of the series’ biggest strengths has always been its knack for developing complex and sympathetic villains.
However, after several hours of playing through the Pixel Remaster of Final Fantasy V one thing really struck me — maybe what Final Fantasy needs in 2023 is just a villain who’s a real bad dude, nothing more. There’s something to be said about the simplicity of a villain simply being “evil.” Exdeath from Final Fantasy V is the perfect example of this.
Final Fantasy V occupies an odd space in the franchise, stuck between the series-defining Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI, both widely considered among of the best JRPGs of all time. For decades, FFV has gone underappreciated as it focused more on mechanics and gameplay than story. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an engaging narrative. It’s just a lot more straightforward than its counterparts.
FFV is unabashedly goofy at every turn. For instance, after defeating a sea creature boss, a character says, “That lobster got served!” Another responds, “With cheese biscuits and mashed potatoes!”
The narrative of FFV does this weird flip-flopping between slapstick and heavy emotion, but it actually works. A huge part of this is the game’s villain, Exdeath, an all-powerful ancient wizard who — wait for it — is actually a sentient tree given life by countless souls trapped within it.
That’s pretty much all there is to Exdeath’s backstory, but his actions throughout the game show quite clearly that he simply craves chaos and destruction. Exdeath simply wants to send everything back to the Void, and he absolutely revels in messing with the main party, watching their emotions as he literally erases parts of the world. There’s no deeper meaning to Exdeath, he’s just delightfully evil. That cocksure confidence makes him the perfect foil to the inexperienced Warriors of Light.
While angsty villains will always have their place in Final Fantasy, there’s something to be said for simplicity. Think of Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or The Joker in The Dark Knight. They just want to see the world burn, and the fun is in seeing the depths the villains sink to in order to do that.
Kefka from Final Fantasy VI is another shining example of this, a madman who simply wants to attain godhood. That lack of moral ambiguity immediately creates a clear challenge to overcome, which is a fundamental aspect of what makes playing a video game so satisfying.
This doesn’t mean Final Fantasy needs to stop having sympathetic villains altogether. Ardyn from FFXV and Emet-Selch from FFXIV are some of the series’ most memorable characters in recent memory. But the longer the series uses relatable baddies, the easier it’ll be for things to start feeling too similar. It’d be great to see a mainline Final Fantasy go back to basics with a villain that’s just a real jerk, and nothing else.