Final Fantasy XII Espers as Villains: Zeromus, Exodus, Cuchulainn, Zalera, and Shemhazai

For some reason this post, specifically, gets more views wandering in off of Google than the actual first post of the series, so now there’s a link to that post right up here at the top. Have one for the third and final post, too, while we’re at it.

As established in the first post of this series, we’re looking at the espers from Final Fantasy XII and attempting to match them with the major villains of previous games in the series. This isn’t the first time this has been done, because someone already made this chart:

Esper Master

My premise, however, is that this chart is wrong about several of them, and in any case even for the ones about which the match is good (in some cases, even obvious), an explanation of why may be interesting to people who haven’t played every game in the series up to XII, as the original chart just offers physical comparisons, which don’t always match up well at all (compare Hashmal to Jecht, Adrammelech to Kuja, Kefka to Cuchulainn – some of these match-ups aren’t even close).

Today we’re examining the espers Zeromus, Exodus, Cuchulainn, Zalera, and Shemhazai, and we’re going to see a few disagreements with the chart in the process as well as discuss why some of these espers just don’t really match up to any of the main villains of the series at all, which won’t stop me from trying anyway.

Esper IV

The villain of Final Fantasy IV is a Lunarian named Zemus. A refugee from the destroyed world of Lunaria hiding out in an artificial moon orbiting the neighbor planet, just called Blue Planet, Zemus seeks to wipe out Blue Planet’s native population of humans so that the Lunarians can use it to repopulate. Upon his initial defeat, he revives as Zeromus. So, Zeromus is Zeromus. Unlike Chaos, that is a weirdass name and it is very difficult to make the argument that it’s not an intentional reference.

The actual lore here doesn’t really match (in fairness, I have not actually played Final Fantasy IV, so I am relying on the word of people who have, and not necessarily recently). Zemus has no conflict with the gods and never condemns anyone to anything. He is motivated purely out of a desire to help his people at the expense of humanity (and against the will of the Lunarian government in exile). The name is a perfect match, and while this Zeromus seems like some bizarre cross between the form of Zeromus EG from the Gameboy Advance rerelease and Zeromus from Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, he does have a fair amount of physical similarity between the two. The After Years post-dates Final Fantasy XII, so this seems more like later devs bringing Zeromus the villain in line with Zeromus the esper than vice-versa, but that doesn’t change the fact that physical similarities do exist. We’re not even leaning into death of the author here, it’s just that the authors later provided more evidence that esper Zeromus is in fact supposed to be a reference to villain Zeromus. In the Final Fantasy XII version of events, Zeromus was evidently motivated as much by hatred of humanity as love for his people, and also at some point picked a fight with the gods (presumably as a result of trying to wipe out humanity). The esper Zeromus is the villain Zeromus from Final Fantasy IV.

Esper V

The villain Exdeath of Final Fantasy V has had his name mistranslated as Exodus. In the Japanese release of FFXII, this esper’s name is Exdeath. So the intent here is clear, even if Exodus is, like Chaos, kind of an ambiguous name (though not nearly so much), the fact that his name is Exodus only in the English translation makes it obvious that this is a Final Fantasy V reference. The humanoid bits of the esper even vaguely resemble Exdeath (in the same way that Chaos and Mateus only vaguely resemble their villainous counterparts).

This bugs the Hell out of me, because there’s a Final Fantasy XII esper that perfectly well matches Exdeath, and it’s not Exodus. Exodus observed the world from afar, got bored with it, and decided to destroy it. This could plausibly describe any of the Cloud of Darkness, Zemus, Kefka, Ultimecia, or about four different bosses from various Final Fantasy XI expansions, and all of them fit better than Exdeath (which isn’t really saying much). It could also describe Necron, the last boss of Final Fantasy IX, pretty well, in that Necron sees Kuja, the villain of FFIX up to that point, completely broken by his defeat at the hands of the heroes, and decides that this kind of suffering can only be averted by total annihilation of the world. He had never at any point appeared in the game before. He shows up at the end to be the last boss, planning to destroy the world because it’s full of sadness. Exodus “watched [the world], unseen, unknown[,]” which strikes me as similar. The intent of the creators is clearly that Exodus is Exdeath, as made clear by their sharing a name in the original Japanese. Exdeath was called Exdeath ever since Final Fantasy V was released, so there’s no mistaking it. So the chart is right on this one according to creator intent, but I still think that the esper Exodus should be the villain Necron from Final Fantasy IX, dammit.

Esper VI

Speaking of Exdeath! In Final Fantasy V, the souls of all the most evil people were imprisoned in a tree to prevent them from ever coming back to menace the world. The tree was warped and twisted by this evil and eventually generated a humanoid form, Exdeath, who made a couple of different attempts to take over and/or destroy the world. The final and most dramatic of these is the one around which the plot of Final Fantasy V revolves (spoiler alert: he loses). Cuchulainn was created to “rid the world of its impurities by swallowing them within himself,” but “the world…was filled with more impurity and corruption than even the gods dared imagine, and having swallowed it all, the once beautiful Cuchulainn was transformed into a hideous thing…and so he did turn against his creators.” Taking on all the worlds impurities and being subsequently corrupted is a near perfect match for Exdeath.

Cuchulainn is matched to Kefka from Final Fantasy VI in the original chart. There’s not really any fit at all, except that Cuchulainn and Kefka both have a characteristic grin. Kefka’s a murderous clown who starts as henchman to an evil emperor, knocks the emperor off, and eventually absorbs the power of all the espers (FFVI is the only other Final Fantasy game to use the name “espers” for its summonable allies) to become a dark god and destroy the entire goddamn world. I don’t mean that’s his plan, I mean he actually does it. The last act of FFVI is basically just about getting revenge for the world’s destruction. This is kind of related to Cuchulainn destroying everything his feet land upon, but nearly every Final Fantasy villain intends to destroy the world and wreaks havoc everywhere they go personally, and nothing about Cuchulainn’s description aludes to the level of destruction Kefka actually achieved. I very much suspect the original chart sorted Kefka into Cuchulainn for lack of anywhere better to put him (as we’ll see later on, I’m going to have similar difficulties assigning Kefka to an esper). The esper Cuchulainn should be the villain Exdeath from Final Fantasy V.

Esper VII

In Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth is a genetic experiment born from the DNA of a monster called JENOVA. Upon realizing his origins, Sephiroth goes insane and becomes convinced that JENOVA was a Cetra, a member of an ancient, magical race, and that he is therefore the last of the Cetra, the rightful inheritors of the world from the humans who are polluting it to slake their incessant greed (it was the 90s). Seeking to ascend to godlike power, he plots to summon the darkest of all magics, Meteor, to wound the world, and when the world’s magical Lifestream flows to the wound to heal it, he will absorb the power and be omnipotent. Sephiroth’s plan is thwarted at first by Aeris, the actual last of the Cetra people, wielding the power of Meteor’s equal and opposite power, Holy. Sephiroth kills Aeris and makes another attempt, but is thwarted when the heroes stab him in the face. The esper Zalera is very similar to Sephiroth’s final form physically (in fairness, the esper Ultima is too), and is described as having “seiz[ed] a servant of the gods, a shamaness, as a hostage” and as “seeking to take the souls of all living things unto himself.” This is slightly different from Final Fantasy VII, as Aeris was killed, not taken hostage, however Aeris’ death is one of the most iconic moments of the most iconic Final Fantasy game, and the FFXII devs probably wanted to reference that moment in Zalera’s design. Likewise, taking the souls of all living things isn’t quite the same as absorbing the Lifestream, but it’s similar.

Incidentally, I’m not sure why Aeris’ death is considered so shocking. Final Fantasy II killed so many party members that the Gameboy Advance remake had an epilogue story that was entirely about all the dead party members meeting up in Hell to stop the Emperor from rising from it again. Anyways, the esper Zalera is the villain Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII.

Esper VIII

In Final Fantasy VIII, Ultimecia is a sorceress who can project her consciousness through time and space to possess other sorceresses. Using these hosts, she navigates through the timestream in order to achieve time compression, a sort of temporal big bang in which all time is compressed into one moment. At the epicenter of the compression, Ultimecia will become all-powerful and recreate reality in her own image. So her goal is to wipe out time. Entirely, forward and backward. The esper Shemhazai, the whisperer, is said to have “taught men of destruction and evil.” This is a huge stretch, but Shemhazai’s “whispering” and Ultimecia’s being a disembodied possessive spirit are perhaps a connection? The main connection here is that both Ultimecia and Shemhazai are the sole female representatives of their respective groups, Final Fantasy villains and Final Fantasy XII espers (this has actually changed as more expansions to Final Fantasy XI were released, but at the time it was true).

The means of influencing people without necessarily controlling them directly is most closely related to the Cloud of Darkness, who also manifested as a woman (possibly counting as another female villain if we completely ignore the fact that the Cloud of Darkness has been explicitly stated to be capable of taking whatever form it damn well pleases), and in fact Shemhazai is physically about as close to the Cloud of Darkness’ Final Fantasy III manifestation as to Ultimecia. It has Ultimecia’s horns, which the Cloud lacks, but every other detail that matches Ultimecia matches the Cloud just as well. More importantly, although the front-facing image doesn’t show it very well, Shemhazai is a centaur and Ultimecia is not. Neither is the Cloud of Darkness, but the Cloud has that whole shapeshifting thing going for it. Ultimecia does at one point turn into a freaky lion monster, but she does this by drawing on the power of a specific guardian force (the name for summons in FFVIII) and the subsequent lion form doesn’t look much like Shemhazai. Also, lions are not horses.

The problem here is, if the Cloud of Darkness is Shemhazai, what does that make Ultimecia and Famfrit? Famfrit has as little in common with Ultimecia as with the Cloud, except that Famfrit’s title is “the Darkening Cloud,” not “the Ultimate Garcia.” I’d like to say that Shemhazai is the Darkening Cloud, but that orphans both Famfrit and Ultimecia, and there’s just no grounds to match those two up to each other. I can wiggle out by saying that Ultimecia lives in the future and we only visit her home time for a very brief period in Final Fantasy VIII, just long enough to storm her castle and kill her, so everything attributed to Shemhazai could plausibly have happened and we just never heard about it because it all happened a hundred years in the future. The whole concept is showing its flaws with this one, but I’ll still say that the esper Shemhazai is the villain Ultimecia from Final Fantasy VIII.

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