Final Fantasy Tactics is far and away my favorite game. I’ve put hundreds of hours into it at a conservative estimate, and I know its systems and narrative like the back of my proverbial hand. I’m one of the poor fools to have pored over the battle mechanics guide, memorizing formulae, mentally calculating charge times for a Lancer’s “Jump” ability. I once played through the game as a pacifist, patiently inviting each and every enemy to switch sides, never hurting a soul unless explicitly instructed by the game to do so. I had a “boy band” playthrough—see, I got a group of five bards, and… Well. You can probably imagine.
Final Fantasy Tactics is malleable. There are a billion different party permutations, and lovingly crafting a party of warriors is a joy. I keep coming back to Tactics because every time I sit down to mess with the systems, it feels fresh and unique.
The last thing I expected, returning to FFT for my yearly playthrough, was to take away something new from the narrative.
It’s not that the narrative of Tactics isn’t strong—in fact, I think it’s the best the series has to offer—but the game’s story is the one element that hasn’t changed each time I’ve played it over the last seventeen years.
Something about me has changed over the last several months, though, and it’s meant going back to my favorite game with a new set of eyes. I have a better vocabulary now to express why exactly I think Ramza Beoulve is the best, most interesting protagonist in the whole Final Fantasy canon.
Final Fantasy Tactics is a story about a young man being forcibly confronted with his privilege, being humbled by the revelation, and coming to terms with what it means to have been complicit in an unjust system.
Ramza, youngest son of the noble House Beoulve, begins the game as a recent graduate of a prestigious military academy. Aided by his friends and fellow graduates, his first assigned task is to put to the sword a group of brigands fleeing through town. The conflict smacks of class struggle, as the thieves mock Ramza for his highborn heritage and Ramza demands that they “surrender or die in obscurity.” We see in this battle the first instance of a pattern that recurs throughout the narrative: Ramza declares that he’d prefer to avoid a fight, the aggressors decline his diplomacy, and then Ramza and company pummel them into the ground.
In fact, after the fight is concluded, Ramza wonders aloud why his opponents have chosen to be criminals. “You wouldn’t have died this way if you’d led an honest life,” he chides the corpses of his foes. There’s no hint of awareness at the socio-economic struggles that plague the countryside as a result of the Fifty Years’ War. Perhaps Ramza is to be forgiven—after all, in the game’s first chapter, he’s only sixteen years of age.
A simple trip to the tavern is enough to educate the player about Ivalice’s situation—nearly bankrupt because of war reparations, unable to pay its soldiers, dismissing entire orders of knights—we start to see pretty quickly where all of these brigands might be coming from. Do we sympathize with them, a little, for turning to violence when their government has so obviously abandoned them? Well, that depends on the player.
I’d like to emphasize here that at no point in the narrative does Ramza seem like a bad person—far from it. He’s often selfless. But in the early part of the game, he’s ignorant. He’s been raised in privilege and never made to confront the inequality inherent in Ivalice’s society. The fact that his best friend, Delita Hyral, was born a commoner only helps him to ignore the inequities of the world outside the sheltering embrace of the Beoulve name.
Part of the reason that Ramza’s entitlement doesn’t seem so obnoxious in the game’s first act is that he’s directly contrasted with a character who embodies obnoxious entitlement: Algus. Algus, who is a knight-in-training like Ramza, clutches tight to his position in society because his family name has been disgraced by his forebears. He’s bold enough to demand a hundred men from Ramza’s eldest brother so that he might attempt to rescue his lord the Marquis, and later on, we watch him mercilessly beat a captive in order to extract information from him. Within a few story missions, it becomes quite clear that Algus is, in layman’s terms, a dick.
When Ramza is sent by his brothers to clean out a den of thieves after the Marquis has been successfully rescued, we get to see just how much of a jerk Algus really is. Fighting against a woman named Miluda, Ramza gets his first taste of just how much he’s dehumanized his enemies. Here’s the conversation between Miluda and Algus, from the War of the Lions translation:
MILUDA: How can you nobles live as you do and yet hold your heads so high? We are not chattel! We are humans, no less than you! What flaw do you hold there
to be in us? That we were born between a different set of walls? Do you know
what it means to hunger? To sup for months on naught but broth of bean? Why
must we be made to starve that you might grow fat? You call us thieves, but it
is you who steal from us the right to live!
ALGUS: You, no less human than we? Ha! Now there’s a beastly thought. You’ve
been less than we from the moment your baseborn father fell upon your mother in
whatever gutter saw you sired! You’ve been chattel since you came into the
world drenched in common blood!
MILUDA: By whose decree!? Who decides such foul and absurd things?
ALGUS: ‘Tis heaven’s will!
MILUDA: Heaven’s will? You would pin your bigotry on the gods? No god would
fain forgive such sin, much less embrace it! All men are equal in the eyes of
ALGUS: Men, yes. But the gods have no eyes for chattel.
Yikes! This guy’s supposed to be our friend?
Nevertheless, Ramza and company have no choice but to fight Miluda’s party and slaughter them. The game doesn’t allow for diplomacy at this point. After the battle, Miluda defiantly demands that Ramza execute her, if she’s no more than an animal, and Ramza (quite understandably!) balks. In this scene, Delita and Algus act as the angel and devil on Ramza’s shoulders, respectively, with Delita spurning the notion that Miluda is an enemy and Algus calling for her head. In the end, Miluda drags herself away, spitting on Ramza’s pity and declaring herself forever an enemy of the nobility.
“Delita, what have we done?” Ramza asks, as the wool begins to fall from his eyes.
While Ramza has been occupied, however, the Beoulve manse has been ransacked, Ramza’s brother has been stabbed, and Delita’s younger sister Teta has been kidnapped. Ramza returns home to find chaos—class struggle has quite literally hit home.
From his sickbed, Ramza’s brother reveals that the remainder of the insurgents will be slaughtered as soon as their headquarters is discovered. When Ramza asks after Teta, he’s given assurances that the operation won’t be undertaken until Teta’s safe return.
Algus knows that’s a load of hooey, and he says as much as soon as they’re out of earshot. Again, from War of the Lions:
ALGUS: I’d not believe a word of that fairy tale if I were you.
RAMZA: You call my brother a liar?
ALGUS: I do. I would not go out of -my- way to rescue some common maid.
DELITA: What did you say?
ALGUS: I said he would be a fool to hold back an army for fear of spilling a
few drops of your common blood!
At this point, Delita gives him a right hook across the chin, laying him flat, which should elicit a cheer from whoever’s holding the controller. Unfortunately, Algus is correct, even if he’s not in the right. Deplorable though he is, Algus has a better grip on the mindset of those in positions of privilege than our naive protagonist.
Algus is the kind of character that makes us feel better about ourselves because yowzers, at least we’re not as bad as THAT guy, right? In the same way that people with overtly racist views allow us to convince ourselves we’re not complicit in systemic racism, a character like Algus obscures the degree to which Ramza, in his naivete, is complicit in the hierarchical society that creates Miluda, the Corpse Brigade, and even the brigands that Ramza cuts down in the first battle.
After Algus’s altercation with Delita on the doorstep of Ramza’s home, Ramza tells Algus to hit the road (“Begone from my sight! And do not think to return!”). Still, it’s one thing to cut ties with one’s bigoted friends, and quite another to recognize one’s own privilege. On their way toward the fortress where Delita’s sister is being held, Ramza attempts to comfort a doubtful and anxious Delita:
DELITA: Something’s been bothering me, Ramza. For some time now.
RAMZA: Algus’s words trouble you. Am I not right?
DELITA: There are things beyond the power of our changing, Ramza, try though we might.
RAMZA: Do not say that. If a thing can be endeavored, it —
DELITA: Will endeavor grant me an army? I would save Teta with these hands, if aught were in my power to do. But I cannot. ‘Tis my meager lot in this life…
Delita will spend the rest of the game using whatever means are at his disposal to effect change. He will become a powerful warrior, a Machiavellian political manipulator, and eventually, the king of Ivalice. His journey, from common birth to monarch, is quite the opposite of Ramza’s trajectory over the course of the game. Whereas Delita begins as a commoner and ends as a king, Ramza begins as an aristocrat and ends, depending on your interpretation of the game’s epilogue, as either a fugitive and heretic—or dead.
Part of the brilliance of Final Fantasy Tactics, I think, is this contrast between these two character arcs. (This parallel/contrast is strikingly similar to another game frequently cited as among the medium’s best: Suikoden II. While Suiko II is undoubtedly superb, I think that FFT is able to do more with this thematic setup because Ramza isn’t a silent protagonist.)
Ramza and Delita part ways (both literally and in terms of their ideals) at the end of the game’s first act. On their way toward that divergence, however, they have another encounter with Miluda. Here we see Ramza truly cop to his ignorance:
RAMZA: Why this struggle? To what purpose do you fight? Have we wronged you? Have we somehow made you to suffer? I do not understand what fuels your hatred.
MILUDA: It is enough that you can stand there before me in ignorance of the misdeeds done us. You may not see the world beyond your high walls, but that does not mean they mark its boundaries. It may well be you’ve done no wrong. It is your place in the world that drives my hatred on. You bear the name Beoulve, and that name is my enemy.
For anyone who’s grown up in a position of privilege, this is probably a familiar thought process: “I don’t understand this person’s rage at me, because I haven’t personally done anything wrong.” It’s not until we realize that people who’ve experienced oppression are angry at the system, and that we’re all complicit in the system, that we are able to understand how anger can come to be leveled at us. Miluda even acknowledges as much: “It may well be you’ve done no wrong,” she says. “You bear the name Beoulve, and that name is my enemy.”
On his journey to overcome the injustices that he once blindly took part in, the Beoulve name is the first thing that Ramza will give up.
Miluda will not flee, this time, and Ramza and Delita are forced to kill her in order to proceed. It is an outcome that neither of them are comfortable with:
RAMZA: Why? Why must it end like this?
DELITA: What am I doing? What have I become?
Ramza and Delita are confronted in the next battle with Miluda’s brother, Wiegraf, who they’ve already stumbled across earlier in the chapter. I wish I could get into Wiegraf’s story—there’s a whole ‘nother essay there—but briefly, he reveals to Ramza the degree to which the elder Beoulve brothers are complicit in a political conspiracy. Ramza, still reeling from his fight with Miluda, doesn’t want to hear it—but combined with the events to come at Fort Zeakden, it will be enough for Ramza to leave behind the Beoulve name as the act draws to a close.
Finally, after forcing Wiegraf to withdraw, Ramza and Delita arrive at Fort Zeakden—just in time to see Algus, at the order of Zalbag Beoulve, fire a crossbow bolt into the chest of Teta Hyral.
Teta’s murder is a brutal moment. The fact that the fight that follows is the most difficult thus far in the game only twists the knife, as an inexperienced player is liable to watch the scene multiple times as they attempt to take Algus down.
One of the most interesting things about Ramza as a protagonist is that he’s always asking his enemies for their motivations. Partly, this is a narrative trick to allow enemies to monologue so that they might gain some character development before they’re put to the sword, but it has the effect of making Ramza inquisitive, perhaps even empathetic. Incredulous at Teta’s death, he nevertheless demands that Algus explain himself:
RAMZA: Why did you do it, Algus? What moved your hand?
ALGUS: Your lord brother’s orders, Ramza. What else? Would you have had us kneel before them, and offer up the Order’s honor in exchange for the life of some common wench?
RAMZA: She was Delita’s sister!
ALGUS: Is it not time you awoke to the fact that we are different from them? They are of lesser birth, and so meant to play lesser roles in life! Such is the nature of fate, Ramza! That commoner and his sister ought never have been here at all! Had they been mongering flowers on some street corner, she would yet live.
Allowing Algus to spew classist BS also just makes the player want to beat him down even harder, which I suppose is a narrative plus. But central to Algus’s argument is the notion that Ramza needs to embrace his hierarchical role as nobleman:
RAMZA: My birth was not of my choosing!
ALGUS: Spare me the bleating, you are no sheep! You are a Beoulve, self-chosen or not! Yours is a line of champions, of lords among men! To do great deeds is your destiny, and your duty as well. Much is there that cannot be done, save by your hand. It falls to you to see it so — to act where we cannot.
RAMZA: I will not be made a puppet!
ALGUS: You? A puppet? Don’t be absurd! The puppets stand before you, Ramza! Long have we danced for House Beoulve, that it might reign on history’s stage. A dance that serves our ends, to be sure. The Beoulve name is our shield, behind whose aegis we’ve long thrived. It is the way of things! People are used, and use others in turn. How do you think you came to be where you are?
“I didn’t choose to be born into privilege,” Ramza effectively says. How many of us, in recognizing our own privilege, have had to contend with this reflexive bit of rationalization? Here, Ramza deploys it as a counter-argument to someone exhorting him to do vile deeds, but it’s just as valid to read it as a bit of self-defense. Ramza is struggling with the last vestiges of his refusal to admit his complicity. Unlike Algus, who recognizes his own privilege and means to exploit it as much as possible, Ramza is still in denial.
Ultimately, Algus is overcome. After the battle, as Delita stands cradling his sister’s corpse, the powder inside of the fort explodes, and Ramza watches in horror as Delita is caught in the blast. As the fort burns, Ramza flees, having lost his best friend and having made an enemy of his own house.
In the cutscene that follows, Ramza makes a conscious break with his past:
RAMZA: I had lived my life the only way that I had known. But when the pillars of that life came crashing down, I did not stand and watch them fall. I turned and walked away.
And that’s the conclusion of the game’s first chapter, a chapter in which Ramza undergoes more evolution than most Final Fantasy protagonists do in their entire narratives. Though Ramza continues to be a dynamic character throughout the game, the first act is the densest in terms of shaping the trajectory of his arc, and the other three chapters expand to include a much larger cast and a much more complicated conspiracy. When we meet Ramza again at the beginning of chapter two, he has adopted his mother’s maiden name, Ruglia, and cut off all contact with his brothers.
The overarching conflict in Final Fantasy Tactics moves from class conflict to political conflict to magical, eldritch conflict as the narrative progresses, but as Ramza moves through this series of escalating power struggles, his character is always informed by his awakening in the first chapter. When he and his allies attempt to rescue Princess Ovelia at the end of the second chapter, Ramza has a bit of dialogue with mercenary Gafgarion that very much echoes his conversation with Algus at the end of chapter one:
GAFGARION: A man does not eat an omelette without breaking eggs! Blood is the price of progress! It is the ink in which history’s pages are writ! Look around you, boy! Ivalice rots from within! Your brother would carve out the root of its decay, even if it means his hands must needs be soiled!
RAMZA: I will not stand and watch as Lady Ovelia is made to be another Teta!
GAFGARION: Forget Zeakden! There was no avoiding that. You are an heir of House Beoulve, Ramza, and you have a duty as such! It is your fate to see that duty fulfilled!
And Ramza’s reply, here from the original translation, demonstrates his ultimate acknowledgement of his own role in an unjust society:
RAMZA: It’s fate that let Teta die? No, that’s wrong! We killed her out of convenience… Yes, us! I’ve run from the truth long enough… I killed her.
It’s a powerful line, and one I didn’t fully understand when I first played FFT as a young man. Ramza isn’t the one to fire the crossbow bolt that pierces Teta’s heart. He even does his best to try and save her! There isn’t some grave, specific mistake that he makes that results in her death.
What Ramza means is that he was blind to inequality, and because of that blindness, he did not act. In the new translation, he says: “It was my own inaction that killed her.”
Ramza spends the rest of the game attempting to make up for that inaction, and through attempts at diplomacy, violence, and even self-sacrifice, he tries to dismantle the machinations of corrupt authority.
Final Fantasy Tactics is worth playing for about a million reasons, but to that enormous list I’d like to add “timely.” Despite being released sixteen years ago, it deserves to be replayed now, at a time when recognizing our own privilege is so paramount. The new translation, only seven years old, makes its themes even clearer and more potent.
Nate Ewert-Krocker is a writer and a schoolteacher. He has beaten Final Fantasy Tactics approximately ninety-seven (97) times.