In Final Fantasy VI, the villains triumph. It’s one of the most shocking moments in gaming. As devastating at the moment is, the journey the protagonists take to defy the overwhelming odds against them is a message of hope during bleak times and represents what I most love about the series.
Kefka is arguably the greatest villain in JRPGs because he is one of the few baddies who succeeds in his plan to destroy the world while becoming a god in the process. He upsets the establishment by having Emperor Gestahl killed, destroys the precarious balance that had been built up between the Warring Triad, and revels in the chaos he causes, trolling you at every step. He is sociopathic, indifferent to mass murder when he poisons the entire Kingdom of Doma. His followers in the Cult of Kefka follow him blindly, even though it goes against their own self-interest, worshipping their chief in their white robes with a zeal that is impervious to logic.
All along, I thought Terra, as the half-Esper champion, would be the one to defeat Kefka. When she was under the control of the Empire, she annihilated 50 of their best soldiers. She has the background, experience, and poise to take charge. She joins the resistance force, the Returners, and uses her abilities to help them. When the party finally confronts Kefka on the Floating Continent, I was certain Terra and company would destroy him.
I was wrong.
Your ship gets destroyed, the planet is ravaged, and countless lives are lost. Not only does Kefka emerge victorious, but in the aftermath of an apocalypse, Terra is nowhere to be found. Instead, you control Celes, a genetically-enhanced Magitek Knight who was also a general in the Empire. She’s part of a new generation, imbued with great powers and infused by modern technology. Her stepping up is also in line with the developers’ stated intention of none of the characters being the main one.
Celes has been unconscious for the past year. When she wakes from her coma, she can’t believe how much destruction has been caused in the course of a single year. Kefka has transitioned from maniacal cruelty to nihilism, believing existence has no purpose. A once hopeful state has become divided by hate, deception, and violence.
Tending to Celes is her guardian, Cid, who acts as your only tenuous link to hope since everyone else is gone. When he becomes ill, Celes has to feed him. The first time I played through, I had no idea that there were differences between the healthy and poisonous fish you can catch. I fed Cid every fish I caught.
The destruction of the world wasn’t enough—Cid had to pass away too. Celes, consumed by desperation, climbs up a mountain peak. In the Japanese translation of the game, she realizes some of the other survivors who came to the island went mad and killed themselves. She gives up and takes a leap, a suicide that is painful and depressing, intensified by the powerful music.
That moment still haunts me all these years later. The developers gave tragic poignancy to the events of the game’s past year and refused to gloss over it. This wasn’t just a “the world is screwed up, let’s go and kick ass now.” There were emotional repercussions for Celes that took their toll and had to find expression in this act of mourning that almost resulted in an abrupt end to the game. Imagine if FFVI ended with her death.
Fortunately, Celes survives. When she washes up on shore, she finds a bandanna from your companion, Locke. Taking it as a sign that there might be other survivors, she also learns Cid built a raft for her so she could leave the island.
Once she takes to the seas, the skies are an ominous red. The oceans are polluted, reflecting the ashen horizon. The music is sullen and hopeless. Celes has to fight enemy swarms by herself. When you come across the first town, it feels desolate, many of the people having been killed. I wondered what it was all for and why I was continuing.
That’s when citizens tell Celes that someone with a familiar look recently passed through.
That someone is your companion, Sabin, the martial arts specialist. He’s holding up a house that was struck by Kefka’s Light of Judgment (a beam of energy Kefka tersely blasts out whenever he’s bored, causing havoc in the process). There’s a child in the house Celes has to rescue. When Celes rescues the child and emerges, Sabin lets go and the house collapses. The property is gone, but the child is safe.
Celes is both relieved and surprised to find Sabin alive. When his theme song plays and he jokes, “You think a minor thing like the end of the world was gonna do me in?” I felt like crying in joy.
Celes’ arc mirrors the player’s. Like her, we’d lost hope, having no idea what to expect. With every companion who rejoins, a small glimmer of hope breaks through. It’s compelling that the game uses the second part of the journey to give new and deeper insight into how each of the characters reacts to the destruction while vanquishing their own personal demons.
Recruiting Setzer, the airship pilot and consummate gambler, is the real turning point in the World of Ruin. Initially, he’s drinking his life away at Kohlingen and declines to team up. “I don’t know if I have it in me anymore,” he says. “The world is too chaotic for me.”
But Celes (who had once been the subject of the operatic kidnapping attempt by Setzer), tries to convince him, asking the poignant question, “You want to live in this world as it is?”
It takes a little wrangling, but he agrees to join and informs the party he has access to an airship, buried under “Daryl’s Tomb.”
As they go down the steps to the tomb, flashbacks play in the background like mirrors to the past. The melancholy music, “Epitaph,” plays, which is not just a memorable melody, but very cool for the time considering it was composed specifically for this scene (back in the SNES era, most games I recall used either a general “sad” theme or the “player” theme). Setzer recalls discussing a new type of experimental airship, the Falcon, with his girlfriend, Daryl, who built it. They banter and race against each other in their respective airships. But the first flight of the Falcon ends in tragedy. While Setzer waits at their personal hill for her after their race, she never comes back. It’s a full year before they even find the remains. The scene is powerful as he stares at the horizon, a plaintive expression in his gaze conveying his fears. Eventually, Setzer restored the Falcon himself, leaving it buried at her tomb because the sight of it brought him so much pain.
When your party climbs back aboard, the mood shifts. Setzer realizes it’s time to move on and tries to make peace with his past. As the Falcon emerges from the water, even the music changes to something upbeat and full of hope. The world can be fully navigated again. What was once destitute has become feasible. You find the rest of your team and slowly work against the forces of Kefka.
Every new team member stands for a different aspect of the world. Relm stands for the arts, deadly blistering in its impact. Strago has joined the Cult of Kefka, but seeing his adoptive granddaughter wakes him from his stupor and he realizes there’s too much at stake to just be a blind follower. Setzer stands for technology and science with his airship, while Terra stands in some sense for the power of nature through the Espers. Cyan comes from the military, Edgar is a political leader, and Mog is the last of the moogles, standing as a minority voice while using his dancing to rebel. Shadow (if you saved him) represents a specific frame of mind with his stealth and clever tactics. There’s even room for copycats like Gogo who mimic those around them.
For me, defeating Kefka wasn’t as important as coming together with your companions and uniting in a common cause. They have their own flaws and weaknesses, and each comes from diverse backgrounds with very different abilities. But struggling together, their story become intertwined into something more than just a simple fantasy. It’s an inspiration, a call to resist, a struggle against an unimaginable force of destruction.
And the best part is that in the end, they win.