Warning: Contains spoilers for many Final Fantasy games, and I talk about sappy Valentine’s Day love stuff.
There is no more iconic love story in video game history than Cloud and Aerith (unless you were shipping for Cloud and Tifa) from Final Fantasy VII. Fans were so enthralled by this couple that they wanted to see their story progress despite Aerith dying early in the game. Since then, most FF games have focused on a couple and their love story.
But I will argue that one love story in the series was more well-crafted and meaningful than all the rest. It was the man who won Aerith’s heart years before Cloud fell from the sky and into her life. His name was Zack, and his romance with Aerith in Crisis Core – Final Fantasy VII (PSP) was both epic and tragic.
We only got a few fragmented pieces of his tale in FFVII, so we didn’t know much more than the fact that he dated Aerith, he died, and now Cloud kind of reminds her of Zack. But things got a lot more interesting with this game. This gave us Zack’s full story leading up to the events to FFVII, and it beats all others in sincerity, tension, and I dare say tragedy as well.
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Love stories thrive on characters having limited access to one another. But in most other games, the love interest joins your party fairly early on. This allows the couple to battle side-by-side to their heart’s content over the course of long stretch of time. In some games, you can even go on a few leisurely date scenes.
In contrast, Zack is constantly teased by seeing Aerith for short bits of time that he must constantly fight for. And it’s due to a most relatable problem: his job gets in the way. Being a full-time employee of Shin-Ra Corp. constantly takes Zack away from Aerith and into mortal danger, often alone. Imagine how the two must have felt, not knowing if every date would be their last; Aerith helpless to heal her lover from back in Midgar, as he fights Behemoths and his fellow super soldiers.
Anything but a Silent Protagonist
While FF games in general are full of cool and far-out characters, the main protagonists usually get the short end of the personality stick. Half the time, they come off as stoic, introverted jerks like Squall or Cloud. The other half are too cocky or goofy to take seriously in a love story.
For a love story to work, the relationship has to be believable, and that’s tricky in a game full of mechanical dragons and magic power plants. But Zack brings us back to reality by being so damn likable; I think I fell in love with him myself! He’s confident, but still capable of being wounded emotionally; powerful, but still relateable. The ability to even portray such a character was somewhat new with this game, as most FF titles before it didn’t even have voice acting, let alone animated models that could show body language and facial expressions. So watching a scene like this, where Zack and Aerith have their first real conversation, you can clearly see the attraction and emotion building between the two.
Better to Have Loved and Lost
Personally, nothing makes a love story more memorable than tragedy. The closest runner up in this department is FFX’s Yuna and Tidus. Early on, the two must face the fact that if even if they succeed in Yuna’s mission to defeat Sin, Yuna must be sacrificed to buy the world’s peace. Things get switched later on, as they develop a new plan that could spare Yuna’s life, but it’s Tidus who will cease to exist should they succeed. It adds a sorrowful vibe to the entire journey, and makes every success bitter sweet. This ending might have topped the tragedy list were it not for FFX-2 making the whole sacrifice moot by bringing Tidus back to life in one of the endings (though Tidus being alive is its own tragedy if you ask me).
The grand finale of Crisis Core is all about Zack sacrificing everything for Aerith. In the final hours of the game, Zack tries to reach Aerith, even though an army will gun him down for showing his face. In his final moments, as you fight off an endless stream of enemies, limping and barely able to swing your sword, the game did something that broke my heart: It broke my slot machine.
Crisis Core utilized a strange mechanic on the upper part of the screen where a slot machine spun around faces of friends you met. When you landed on three of the same face, your memory of that person unlocked a special attack. One by one, the slot machine rolled up the faces of these characters, giving Zack a little more power to stagger on, but now their faces were being erased from the machine. Finally, there was only one picture left: Aerith. Though unlike the other faces, it would not go away, and Zack would not stop fighting. Aerith’s memory was the only thing keeping Zack alive.
After the fight, Zack does give out and die, but not before passing the torch to Cloud, giving the rookie his Buster Sword that Zack’s mentor once gave him. With Cloud went all of Zack’s hopes to protect Aerith, and even some of Zack’s identity.