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1. Lightning ('XIII') vs. 11. Rinoa Heartilly ('VIII')
It’s not unfair to say Lightning’s had one of the more manageable paths to tournament greatness over the course of the past month. It wasn’t the toughest road on the bracket. Being a top overall seed earns you that much. None of her matches have been in much doubt, and I’m not convinced that changes here. Rinoa’s unlikely stampede through March and, now, early April rests on her ability to overwhelm opponents with a magical barrage. Her durability and physical attacks, unnecessary as they often are, leave holes in her overall game. Lightning is no stranger to powerful magic, and her gunblade prowess creates a glaring mismatch. Rinoa’s time here was admirable but Lightning wins, again, without question.
1. Noctis Lucis Caelum ('XV') vs. 2. Zidane Tribal ('IX')
I’m sure I’ve said this before, but this matchup takes my new and final “I’d like to just hang out with this pair” award. They’re two of the most relatable protagonists in the franchise. But we’re here to fight, and these two bring a pair of lethal get-out-of-jail-free powers to the fray. Everything’s in play, from Trance to Armiger and everything in between. The two share similar strengths based around agility and exponential increases in damage output. In short, good luck catching either and be careful what happens once you do. Zidane, despite the great implications of his hidden power, remains the scrappy underdog. Noctis ascends to a near-divine state. Both heroes see their powers dissipate after some time, so the victor is the one who can lay on more damage with their respective heights. And that heavier hitter is most certainly Noctis. As far as temporary greatness goes, the king of light conjures the single most powerful force in this tournament. And with that, Noctis wins to defeat a kindred spirit.
4. Sabin Figaro ('VI') vs. 2. Cecil Harvey ('IV')
Final Fantasy goes well out of its collective way to establish just how awesome these two characters are in the field of battle. And because this tournament looks into lore-based power, they’ve done quite well for themselves. It’s of course tempting to favor suits of armor against someone who looks fit for a 90s workout video, yoga pants and all. Cecil’s overall presentation is that of a tournament winner. But Sabin’s durability is also among Final Fantasy’s best, attire aside. He boasts tank qualities alongside his devastating array of offensive options. The biggest difference between these two comes down to the fact that, in the grand scheme of protagonists, Cecil falls into a more support-friendly role. He protects his teammates, a skill that lacks some degree of significance in this tournament. Sabin is more of a one-man team, fully capable of handling a VI party’s responsibilities by himself. I imagine the fight would take ages with the pair’s capable healing and defense, but the battle of wills and endurance eventually goes to the bulky brawler. Sabin wins the titanic matchup, advancing to our Final Four.
1. Cloud Strife ('VII') vs. 7. Celes Chere ('VI')
Military backgrounds, artificial enhancements, and a balance of physical and magical attacks apply to both fighters. Their respective parties and heroic efforts are among the most touted in Final Fantasy history. With two deadly and balanced offenses on display, we’ll be taking both as far as they can go. We can of course spam the series’ top tier spells back and forth, which are available to most playable characters in any game at some point or another. But traits specific to these characters do eventually reveal a winner. Cloud’s personal perks culminate in an Omnislash that just about eviscerates a party member from any of the franchise’s many installments. Even if Celes’ Runic can inhale Cloud’s meteors, which is uncertain, her chances are as not-great as anyone’s against that finale. She also lacks that same offensive limit break or super move. Cloud takes Celes’ many strengths and pushes them into the realm of crazy. He wins again, completing our Final Four.
No time to stop! It’s already April. Let’s dive right into this Final Four and ensuing championship…OK, one moment. Fair warning! The bracket may not have allowed this pair in a championship, but I’d bet at least one person only tuned into Final Fantasy March Madness to watch the Lightning-Cloud matchup play out. I apologize if I’m very wrong but, as always, a borderline deranged amount of research went into prying these two off of each other. There’s no right answer when settling what is arguably the most used and abused debate of a fictional Final Fantasy fight. So forgive this lengthy explanation! I’d say the matchup deserves it.
1. Lightning ('XIII') vs. 1. Cloud Strife ('VII')
Lightning alternates between superhuman roles to launch a versatile assault at her opponents, all under the looming presence of a desperation Odin. Cloud kills by any means via materia, one of Final Fantasy’s most versatile progression systems, through the vessel of the franchise’s most genetically superior warrior. So very many powers cancel each other out as the two climb to more and more ridiculous levels of overpowered. And it’s important to note that the upcoming verdict tips our proverbial cap in both directions. This tournament specifically operates within the context of the characters’ original games and main installments. This was to prevent any competitive disadvantages against a hero like Bartz, who never reaps the rewards of a sequel and additional development while someone like Yuna evolves into a jack-of-all-trades in her extra content. Again, both semifinalists here are astounding, but XIII’s sequels completely redefined Lightning’s character. Those improvements established the reputation she has today, one that laughs at the idea of her losing to another Final Fantasy character. As far as just XIII is concerned, Lightning is no god before her sequel-based ascension. She’s a super soldier, just like her opponent here. Advent Children doesn’t count towards this tournament either (except in the fan art we've used for Cloud; that irony is not lost on me), but the film only added some flare to Cloud’s established power while mentioning that he continued to train. He improved, but the character’s nucleus had been intact since 1997. As a successful Sephiroth clone, Cloud is already on that next level before any extra content. In fact, Crisis Core portrays a weaker Cloud and the guy still shrugs off a full impaling like it’s a mild inconvenience. Lightning of course has answers for Cloud’s tricks at every turn, and vice versa, but Cloud’s hilariously stubborn durability would eventually make him the last one standing in this phenomenally epic matchup. Important disclaimer! Lightning not only wins this fight, but also wins the entire tournament with relative ease if Final Fantasy March Madness utilized all sequels and threw content fairness out the window. So there’s a handsome consolation prize for anyone who’s particularly furious with this result. Lightning is, make no mistake, eventually the most powerful party member in Final Fantasy history. But on the foundation of base games, the face of silver-age Final Fantasy outshines his modern counterpart. Cloud Strife defeats Lightning and advances to our championship.
1. Noctis Lucis Caelum ('XV') vs. 4. Sabin Figaro ('VI')
Here’s some insight into our seeding process: after the series' protagonists were ceremoniously given the top thirteen spots, the first position dedicated to supporting characters went to Sabin by internet consensus. So this isn’t as much of a Cinderella story or mismatch as you may think at first glance. In fact, Noctis has some intriguing problems on his hands here. Sabin is agile for a big guy, but the mobility advantage is very obviously with the king on this one. Noctis is probably the most frustratingly elusive character in the entire tournament. But he’s very easily worn down in the grand scheme of things. Every dodge chips away at the magic he barely has. Every step into ancestral annihilation drains the kid’s vitality. Most opponents simply fail to last long enough, and this never really factored in until now. But Sabin could absolutely hang with the relatively untrained Swordnado (copyright for that bad nickname belonging to a previous article in this series). Noctis is the novice of this Final Four, relying completely on his ability to start slinging apocalyptic fury at a moment’s notice. Sabin’s punches may slip right through, but his unlimited blitz techniques launch area-of-effect spells that would be much more effective. Against top tier opponents, Noctis is exposed as a glass canon that gets away with quite a bit because Final Fantasy XV has more elixirs than blades of grass. With all items being equal, Sabin has a significant advantage in durability. And durability is the last hurdle once this tournament narrows everyone down to the exceptionally powerful. Sabin wins, sending a supporting character to our bracket’s finale.
So it all comes down to this. I decided against including a third place match but, for what it’s worth, Lightning is the vastly superior swordsman against Noctis. XV’s hero has the ultimate trump cards, but he’s a surprisingly inconsistent source of power. Lightning doesn’t lose to inconsistent, and I think she’d take that win. I’d like to thank anyone crazy enough to share my passion for fiction-based brackets. I’m a proudly rabid member of this rabid fan base, and I appreciate you joining me on this wacky journey. The characters are the definitive lifeblood of Final Fantasy as a series, and it’s been an honor comparing them for the ultimate hypothetical prize.
1. Cloud Strife ('VII') vs. 4. Sabin Figaro ('VI')
Time for a final showdown! I hope your brackets are all flawless. It’s safe to say Sabin’s taken the brawler role about as far as it can possibly go. And after that marathon against Lightning, we know all we need to about Cloud. Previous tournament rounds have thoroughly dissected what these two can do, so this championship will simply separate one from the other. Because we’ve factored Sabin’s blitzes into his more standard moveset, there isn’t much to say for his available limits or additional threats. His constant is remarkably high, but there’s no next level. Cloud’s constant also speaks for itself, but hides a series of life-enders in case he ever runs into trouble. Sabin also has a slight résumé problem. VI’s story doesn’t directly place him on par with a major villain. Cloud standing up to Sephiroth as a physical equal is an integral part of the story. Sabin needs that extra oomph to solidify his spot atop the Final Fantasy world. Terra and Celes are the ones with a Kefka parallel and, while Sabin may actually be more effective than either, that diversity in VI’s attention hurts his case. This is the third year of our March Madness fiction. And in every year, a semifinal matchup has been what I call a pseudo championship. Either semifinalist from one side would’ve beaten either semifinalist from the other. And that is, perhaps anticlimactically, again the case here. Cloud-Lightning was our pseudo championship, and Cloud Strife has the proper story backing for his physical attributes to defeat Sabin in this championship round. Call it conventional, but Cloud wins!
Well, OK, you never made SOLDIER, but you won March Madness.
So…Cloud? We hold an in depth tournament examining 64 Final Fantasy characters, so many of whom are underappreciated, and we give the win to Cloud? Say what you want about overexposure and popularity, but Cloud is who he is for a reason. The game’s reputation of course helps, but Cloud was also written to be supremely capable. It contrasts his inner conflict nicely. At the end of the month, there were characters that could hit as hard. There were characters that could match his magic and materia. There were characters that could rival his reputation and skill in combat. There were even occasionally characters that could match his durability. But no character could match all four. Cloud is at least among the best of the best in every major category, making him the best of the best overall. Believe me, I spent countless hours looking for a way to kill the guy and forge an upset. Because how fun can a Disney character tournament be if the winner is Mickey Mouse? But in the interest of fairness, that way didn’t exist. Cloud’s an incredible force and, despite what FFVII’s 21st century content would have you believe, he’s actually a pretty fun guy. So at the end of it all, Cloud Strife is your Final Fantasy March Madness champion.