Who is Ultimecia?
Final Fantasy VIII’s main villain frustratingly leaves players with many unanswered questions
Final Fantasy VIII was recently re-released in physical form for the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. It is one of the three games from the franchise’s “golden era” (spanning between Final Fantasy VII and IX). A whole new generation of players now have the opportunity to play this legendary game. People who have already played the game also have the chance to re-examine various aspects of the experience, including notable characters and plot elements.
I’m particularly interested in re-visiting Ultimecia, the game’s final villain and a character who was never really given a clear motive for her highly questionable actions.
If you’ve never played the game (but are comfortable with spoilers), the experience revolves around Squall Leonhart (which actually isn’t his real name) who is a mercenary-in-training at the Balamb Garden academy. Squall and his comrades take on paid missions to earn a living. He has a hard time expressing himself and making connections with other people due to a traumatising experience he went through as a child. Squall’s walls begin to come down when he meets Rinoa Heartilly, a member of the resistance group called Timber Owls, who are attempting to liberate their town from the oppressive Galbadian military.
As you play through the game, you’ll learn more about what happened to Squall, causing him to shut down and how Rinoa and his other classmates and friends help him to become a more trusting person. You’ll also come to understand his antagonist (and fellow classmate) Seifer Almasy’s motives for apparently seeking to end humanity. Like many Final Fantasy games, we are introduced to an enemy early on who ultimately isn’t the one pulling the strings — Seifer isn’t your primary target. Rather, a mysterious and powerful figure known as Ultimecia is driving events by quite literally possessing other characters (throughout much of the game you are led to believe that Edea — yes, another sorceress — is the chief antagonist, when she’s actually a somewhat tragic figure who is being manipulated by Ultimecia).
What’s shocking here is that the game does such a great job of exploring the backstories and motives for all the characters — except for Ultimecia. The game’s final boss and ultimate villain barely gets 10 lines of dialogue across the entire play through.
It’s understandable to want to keep a shroud of mystery over the game’s main threat — only hinting at the real danger and building up to a momentous reveal. Final Fantasy VII handled this well with Sephiroth. It’s a difficult line to walk, admittedly. The idea, I think, is to make characters (and of course, players themselves) feel uneasy even through the mere mention of the antagonist’s name. It’s a great way to build tension.
But Ultimecia is handled very differently. She suddenly appears out of nowhere near the halfway point of the story after you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security that you’ve already dealt with the main threat. Only now, the situation becomes far more messy as multiple timelines converge into one.
After a series of events, a plan is made to infiltrate her lair and take her out. The funny part is that she lives all the way in the future where she’s apparently the only person left in the world. Whether she killed everyone herself or was just the only one capable of surviving is one of the many questions left unanswered. Upon arriving at her castle, you’ll see a bunch of dead SeeD soldiers lying on her doorstep (SeeD being the militia organisation that Squall and his friends belong to). Apparently they attempted to take her out and failed.
When the battle begins, Ultimecia summons a beast that is based on the jewellery worn by Squall. It’s a lion called Griever. Does this imply there’s some connection between the two? Again, no answer.
Finally, after surviving a gruesome battle that sees the sorceress go through a series of transformations (Frieza, is that you?), she begins to utter the following words as her life gets closer and closer to zero: “Reflect on your childhood… your sensation… your words… your emotions… Time… it will not wait… no matter… how hard you hold on… it escapes you… and…”
The thing is, she’s about to finish these words — they are words that indicate she’s something more than a generic final boss. She might just be an empathetic villain with some kind of genuinely interesting backstory. But she gets part of the way through the dialogue and is then killed. These breadcrumbs we received just moments before her death suggest she’s been through something highly traumatic and lost something irreplaceable — the awakening of her powers prompted her to do everything she could to get it back.
What we’re left with is a vast mystery with no clear answer. Fans have speculated for years about Ultimecia. One of the more interesting ideas is that she’s actually Rinoa from the future (which kind of makes sense given that Rinoa awakens her own sorceress powers during the game), and that she lost the love of her life (Squall) and attempted to go back to the moment in time where she was with him in order to spend eternity there. This theory is solidified by the fact that Ultimecia owns Griever, a beast that Rinoa knew about after asking Squall if she could borrow his ring (on which the monster was engraved).
As fascinating as the fan speculation is, it isn’t a replacement for the gulf of nothingness we are left with at the end of Final Fantasy VIII, at least when it comes to Ultimecia. Shining just a little more light on this character through the game might have given her a better connection to the plot in a way that could interest and drive players forward. Instead, confronting Ultimecia tends to leave you with a sense of indifference. There’s a sense that you don’t really know who you’re fighting — only that you have to beat them in order to finish the game and view the credits.
It’s a shame.