Thanks to Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, I've been merrily floating through 25 years of classic music from Square Enix' epic franchise, each song wrenching buried memories out of the darkest recesses of my mind. Listening to Aeris' Theme forced me to relive her passing. Final Fantasy II's The Rebel Army brought me back to one of the darkest, most mature RPG plots of all time. Beloved characters who were once close friends and pivotal events that rocked my world became relevant again, causing a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions to smash my summer apathy.
And then I remembered Final Fantasy IX: a game that I literally haven't thought about in years, but absolutely rated at the time. Though the main protagonist Zidane was a bit limp, FFIX was full of classic adventuring, excellent mechanics and support characters that are serially underrated when it comes to top tens and nostalgia sessions. I was therefore determined to write about one of these overshadowed heroes... but who?
No, not Vivi. The little Black Mage is definitely one of our favourite ever franchise characters, but he gets his dues on a fairly regular basis. Freya, perhaps, deserves some attention; her tale of lost love and heartbreaking rejection was incredibly raw. As I continued to play through Final Fantasy IX's soundtrack, however, I realised that one character unquestionably deserves his time in the sun: a stalwart warrior, fierce friend and zealous defender who touches the entire cast and provides some of the game's standout moments. This, dear reader, is why we love Adelbert Steiner.
Throughout the storyline, Steiner undergoes one of the most interesting character arcs we've seen since Cecil in Final Fantasy IV. As the leader of the Knights Of Pluto, defenders of the royal family, Steiner comes across as a bit of an underdog: constantly overshadowed by rival captain Beatrix and made to look the fool by his clanking, poorly-oiled armour. Po-faced, self-important and stiff-lipped - and incredibly clumsy - he cuts a comical figure. Still, as a glorified watchdog, he's happy enough in his role of ensuring that no harm comes to princess Garnet. It's easy to relate to someone who's just trying to do his job and never receives enough recognition, so we quickly warmed to the burly bodyguard.
To say that his relationship with Zidane and the player starts out as antagonistic is an understatement, since the erstwhile kidnappers come face to face with the zealous defender no less than three times. Steiner throws himself into harm's way (and superior numbers) with no regard for his own safety, continually putting his honour and duty above all else. Once stranded in the middle of nowhere with Zidane, his criminal crew and Garnet, you might expect him to become a one-note character or humorous recurring mid-boss in the vein of Ultros. "Having sworn fealty, must I spend my life in servitude?"
Instead, however, Steiner finds his own voice and decides to take his destiny into his own hands. Discovering that Garnet can look after herself, he learns to fight for his own sense of justice and for the sake of the world rather than blind obligation. Realising Queen Brahne's corruption, he casts his former allegiances aside, rebelling against his former ruler despite a massive crisis of conscience. The clumsy galoot proves himself a fiercely loyal friend to Zidane, a saviour of the kingdom, a superior soldier to his peers and infinitely more than just comic relief.
This being an article about FFIX, there's no getting away from Vivi. Steiner plays a key role in the young mage's development, teaching him to believe in himself and join the party on his own terms. Vivi looked up to Steiner as almost a father figure, while the veteran soldier discovers a new reason to fight in protecting his "young master." The duo form a firm friendship based on trust and mutual respect, and become a fearsome power couple in combat with their potent magic-enhanced sword combos.
And, thanks to a misplaced love letter, we got to enjoy one of the most memorable romances in the entire series. Steiner and Beatrix' 'will they, won't they?' relationship keeps players invested throughout the campaign, culminating in a scene ripped straight out of a Shakespearean comedy as the two unwitting rivals discover their mutual feelings. The subsequent pain of Beatrix potentially dying, followed her decision to leave Alexandria for good, transforms into fist-pumping happiness as Steiner finally finds the nerve to admit that he couldn't bear to lose her again. All accompanied by Protecting My Devotion and Rose Of May, a truly iconic piano track, alongside Steiner's own bumbling theme.
Most of all, we love an underdog who comes good. Since Steiner is arguably the least-appreciated character in an under-appreciated Final Fantasy title, we couldn't help but feel for him.
I may revisit some other lesser-known Final Fantasy games, themes and characters in later articles, but for now, what did you make of Final Fantasy IX - and its valiant defender?