The 14 Most Sympathetic JRPG Villains, Ranked

Highlights

  • JRPG villains with sympathetic motivations add depth to the narrative and make for compelling storytelling.
  • Characters like Dhaos, Kuja, and Malos have realistic reasons behind their actions, even if their methods are questionable.
  • Understanding the tragic backstories and personal struggles of JRPG villains can make their defeat a bittersweet moment.

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Japanese role-playing games have been tugging at our heartstrings for decades. Whether you’ve played a few of them or a hundred, there’s a good chance you have encountered at least one antagonist whose rationale for their bad behavior is at least partly understandable.

That doesn’t mean these actions are justifiable, per se, but it can be the mark of a compelling villain to sport similarly compelling motivations. There’s fun in the love-to-hate, utterly-deplorable variety of foil, but there’s thoughtfulness packed into foils whose punches are backed by realistic resentment.

We’ve narrowed down our list of the most sympathetic JRPG villains of all time to a mere fourteen – in truth, we could probably have kept going for 50 more.

14 Dhaos (Tales Of Phantasia)

Tales of Phantasia Villain Tales Dhaos Demon King close up pose with both hands together

The first Tales of game in what has proven to be a (very) long-running series, Tales of Phantasia sets the tone for several of its sequels in containing at least one notably sympathetic villain. The original, Dhaos, is Phantasia’ full-fledged big bad, and for most of the game, he seems like a straightforwardly terrible fellow.

Quite a revelation then ensues: Dhaos is here to save another planet, his own homeworld, after it’s been ravaged by war. He isn’t even particularly fond of the ways in which he’s forced to go about conducting himself upon his arrival, but his hand is forced. Well, not ‘forced’ – there’s always a choice – but we completely get where he’s coming from here. In the end, the protagonists must slay Dhaos to restore peace to their own world, but even they recognize how tragic it all is, and in a neat twist, Dhaos’ world is saved despite his defeat.

13 Kuja (Final Fantasy 9)

final fantasy 9 final battle

In some ways, Final Fantasy 9’s Kuja is cut from the same cloth as Dhaos. Except, in Kuja’s case, his instigation of a massive war on the game’s main planet, Gaia, is tethered to the machinations of his creator, Garland. Kuja, lacking the emotions necessary to achieve the power of ‘Trance’ Garland desires in his bid to resurrect the people of his own planet, hits young Kuja with an artificially limited lifespan, passing the mantle of ‘Angel of Death’ on to a new creation – Zidane.

Kuja’s real goal is to defeat Garland, and it’s hard to blame him. Garland had treated him as utterly disposable. Kuja isn’t even made aware of his short lifespan until Final Fantasy 9’s climactic hours, and sickened by it all, he resolves to destroy Gaia – he’s already taken out his own homeworld of Terra. It’s an act of full-blown nihilism, and ordinarily, full-blown nihilists aren’t especially sympathetic. But Kuja has been dealt such a raw hand in life that we totally get why Zidane feels compelled to (attempt to) save his ‘brother’ early into FF9’s terrific ending.

12 Malos (Xenoblade Chronicles 2)

Xenoblade 2: Malos Challenges Mythra

Xenoblade Chronicles, the second spiritual successor series to the cult classic Square RPG Xenogears (and by far the more successful of the two), is chock-full of the sort of intricate attention to worldbuilding detail and sturdy characterization that Xeno’s creator, Tetsuya Takahashi, has always aimed to achieve. The three mainline Xenoblade titles each have their share of sympathetic villains, but it’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s Malos and Jin who take the crown for best-written of the bunch.

Takahashi has always had a thing for science fiction themes, and he’s used them in tandem with more conventional fantasy-JRPG tropes. Malos is a prime example; like Kuja, he’s as much a pawn as he is a king. His deteriorating view of humanity’s right to live is imbued with greater exposition, explanation, and execution. (We just kind of happened to get alliterative there.) Malos goes no-holds-barred against the heroes in Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s endgame, but his demise is treated with the somber dignity he deserves.

11 Wiegraf Folles (Final Fantasy Tactics)

Our second FF representative is Wiegraf Folles. Final Fantasy Tactics is a game with a veritable ton of villains, several of whom develop meaningful ties to hero Ramza Beoulve. None of these ties bind so deeply from the player’s perspective as Wiegraf Folles’, a man who seeks an end to the deep-rooted corruption of his realm, who rises up as a champion of the poor, the downtrodden, the abused – and eventually, with his ambitions crushed by far worse people, a man who accepts a dreadful power at the cost of his humanity.

In doing so, he turns against young Ramza, who has clashed with Wiegraf in the past, but with the hope that they can set aside their differences for the greater good. Wiegraf, battered by a life plagued with injustices, including the tragic death of his sister Milleuda, stands against Ramza even as Ramza rightly points out that Milleuda would never have wanted her brother to become so wicked. In the ensuing duel, Wiegraf erupts into the very demon he’s willfully embraced, and when Ramza cuts him down, it’s an intensely bittersweet victory.

10 Veldrei (Tactics Ogre)

Pirate Fight Tactics Ogre Veldrei

Veldrei has quite possibly the least screen time of anyone on this list, but Yasumi Matsuno, creator of both Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre before it, successfully imbues her with enough tragic undertones to work despite the brevity of her appearance. Veldrei is the wife of the pirate Darza, who perishes at the hands of protagonist Denam no matter which narrative route the player chooses. Veldrei vows vengeance, and shares her husband’s fate for it.

What makes Veldrei’s death so depressing is the fact that her and Darza’s unborn child dwells within her. This woman, so driven by a need to avenge the father of that child, is killed even before she can give birth to the kid. In Denam’s defense, he didn’t know, and Veldrei doesn’t mention it until she’s nearly defeated – and refuses to back down at any cost. But still… damn. Just… damn, right?

9 Psaro (Dragon Quest 4 And Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince)

Psaro and a monster talking in Terrestria from Dragon Quest Monsters The Dark Prince

Well, Psaro already struck a pretty tragic figure in the excellent Dragon Quest 4. Now, we have a spinoff game, Dragon Quest Monsters: The Dark Prince, that gives Psaro the role of main character many years prior to the events of that mainline title. As such, we have a richer view of Psaro’s feelings toward a woman named Rose (and her more candid feelings in return) – and thus, it’s all the more heartbreaking just knowing that Rose will be kidnapped, inadvertently beaten to death, and Psaro’s ill will toward humanity would manifest into outright villainy.

Psaro is the principal antagonist of Dragon Quest 4, a game with the fascinating approach of offering its first quartet of chapters to the introduction of major supporting characters, and then dedicating its much larger fifth chapter to the hero recruiting them all and setting out to defeat ‘Psaro the Manslayer’. The DS remakes, now available on mobile devices, include a sixth chapter in which Rose can be revived, which even leads to Psaro joining the team to destroy the character who nurtured Psaro’s animosity.

8 Ardyn Izunia (Final Fantasy 15)

ardyn in final fantasy xv smiling at the camera

At its core, the story of Final Fantasy 15 is fascinating stuff. In its execution, it’s a beautiful disaster. FF15 was doomed from the start; what ought to have been the game’s dramatic opening act is relegated to a middling CG movie. You’ve got to watch a short anime series in order to appreciate how the main characters came to care for each other so thoroughly, and it took five DLCs and multiple patches to put enough of a bandaid on things for one to describe the story as ‘messy and underbaked’ rather than ‘outright badly told’.

Somehow, Final Fantasy 15 manages to stick the landing. The final battle and ending are probably the strongest moments in this poor, haphazard story, and a lot of that success is owed to the game’s main villain, Ardyn. The guy’s been given a ridiculously bad hand in life, and the bitter anger he holds against the royal family that Noctis Lucis Caelum belongs to is entirely justified. FF15’s final DLC (a few more were cancelled) paints a far more vivid picture of what went down centuries in the past, and geez, this guy needed a hug.

7 Renne (Trails/Kiseki series)

Trails from Zero Renne Screams

Renne, like many characters in the Trails series which began with 2004’s Trails in the Sky: First Chapter, and has continued the same overarching story for over a dozen games and counting (!), appears in quite a few installments. Having been abused by a nefarious cult, the girl has come to view the world with sharpest disdain. She thrives on death and destruction, earning the moniker ‘Angel of Slaughter’, and her keen ability to come across as an innocent young girl – spurred in large part, no doubt, by the fact that she is a young girl – serves Renne’s playful schemes.

But the more you learn about why Renne has become this Angel of Slaughter, the harder it is to loath her. The things she was forced to endure, that no one should ever endure, let alone a child, have warped her in ways that virtually anyone would succumb to in her position. Unlike many of our other entries in this article, Renne actually survives and turns away from her dark past. Seeing her successfully overcome the pain of her trauma, with the considerable aid of one Estelle Bright, is a top-tier Trails moment if ever there were one.

6 Kahran Ramsus

Xenogears Kahran Ramsus scolding Marguerite

Throughout the epic-length Xenogears, Kahran Ramsus holds enough of a vendetta against protagonist Fei Fong Wong that even his penultimate mech is called Vendetta. Xenogears has an outstanding rogues’ gallery, a veritable who’s-who of compelling villains (with a handful of downright-scumbags to keep things interesting), and narrowing it down to the most sympathetic among them is a tough call.

Ramsus claims that very specific victory because the poor guy spent over a decade as a fetus artificially-constructed for a specific task only to be disregarded as complete trash when one of the game’s foremost antagonistic characters realizes he is no longer needed. Through sheer grit, Ramsus manages to climb the military ranks in his nation despite enduring such a horrible situation, and as it happens, the child who usurped his intended destiny is none other than Fei. Pour one out for this failed clone.

5 Jowy Atreides (Suikoden 2)

Suikoden 1 and 2 will cost a fortune on eBay

Jowy, dearest childhood friend to Suikoden 2 lead Riou, is kind of like Final Fantasy Tactics’ Delita Heiral… if Delita used an army in his machinations, rather than very timely rhetoric and some choice companions. Much of Suikoden 2 keeps Riou and Jowy side-by-side, yet despite the friendship between them never truly fading, fate conspires to set them against each other in the finale.

Riou fights the evils of the land in earnest rebellious heroism, but Jowy has ample reason to believe change must occur from within the very heart of the darkness they seek to destroy. In carrying out his chosen path, Jowy never loses sight of his humanity – vile deeds are met with distaste. But he doesn’t stop them from happening – not really. He maintains his own brand of hope, and as is the case with many of our picks, we can appreciate his POV here.

4 Emet-Selch (Final Fantasy 14)

Emet-Selch being cool and attempting to destroy the Warrior Of Light

As pompous as he is stylish, as suave as he is cruel, and as intriguing as he is manipulative, Emet-Selch is arguably the greatest villain in his franchise. Final Fantasy 14 takes its sweet time before introducing him, and when his introductory sequence at last occurs, he chews the scenery so well, you’d think his middle name was Kefka. But there’s so much more to Emet-Selch than meets the eye. He does some twisted, twisted things in the long, cold, millennia following the near-complete end of his race, including establishing the brutal Garlean Empire.

Here’s the thing. Nearly everyone you’ll ever meet in Final Fantasy 14 – every Hyur, every Elezen, every darned Lalafell, and all the rest of them – are all but fragments of souls of that race. To one of the last surviving members of this long-gone species, Emet-Selch can’t help but view us all as abominations, foul obscurities, in his bid to make things right again.

And, like layers of an onion, so much more is revealed about the man whose true name is Hades even after this string of revelations. In time, he graduates into someone almost… congenial, and certainly helpful to have around… in a manner of speaking. It’s complicated, OK?

3 Edelgard Von Hraesvelg (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

Edelgard stands at the ready with soldiers behind her

Three Houses’ cast is one of the best in the genre, and we haven’t stopped arguing over whether Edelgard von Hraesvelg’s actions are justified since the game’s 2019 debut. Edelgard is seemingly a straightforward heroine throughout Three Houses’ first half, and indeed, if you chose her faction, the Black Eagles, at the start of the game, you can continue to side with Edelgard when her carefully-laid hostile plans are revealed. The young woman has donned the disguise of Flame Emperor, even as she prepares to take the Adresetian throne as its empress.

As the Flame Emperor, Edelgard spins a web of deceit and multiple armed conflicts in a bid to wrest control of the realm from a religious authority she deems despicable. It’s relatively easy to see where Edelgard is coming from, and many players will agree with her analysis. Some among them will believe she goes too far, and won’t be able to follow Edelgard into her war five years later even if they had the chance to do so. Others believe Empress von Hraesvelg has well and truly lost sight of right from wrong.

The flames of… fandom continue to burn red-hot. No matter where you stand, it’s impossible to deny that Edelgard herself believes her cause is righteous.

2 Takuto Maruki (Persona 5 Royal)

persona 5 royal takuto maruki as a driver with hat and gloves

Persona 5 is pretty great, and its enhanced version, Persona 5 Royal, is downright wonderful. The biggest threats our heroes, the Phantom Thieves, bring down in the game’s most climactic events range from shady as heck to evil, and it works. What few could anticipate is that Persona 5 Royal’s new follow-up arc would give us a final boss in the form of someone so endearing, and so well-integrated into the entire school year in his Royal-exclusive role, as Counselor Takuto Maruki.

In fact, the theories you’ve helped Maruki with through voluntary research aid come to a head when he enacts a plan to create an idealized reality that erases all the terrible events of the past. Maruki’s goal is a noble one, borne out of a failure to overcome past traumas. Surely, then, we’d all be better off without those traumas? He wants to entirely reconfigure reality into a blissful and idyllic place, but he loses sight of the human need to learn, grow, and accept life’s ups and downs. Yet for all this, Maruki never ceases to be a good person; just a misguided one.

1 Fou-Lu (Breath Of Fire 4)

Fou-Lu charging up in Breath of Fire 4

Capcom’s long-dormant Breath of Fire series gave us plenty of good times, and the magnetically charismatic main antagonist in Breath of Fire 4, Fou-Lu, might be the best time of them all. Awakened to rule an empire filled with hypocrites who have broken the vow to grant him his rule, he has a clear goal in mind. Fou-Lu’s story isn’t so cookie-cutter, however, and as he endures unexpected setbacks in this future so alien to him, he must rely upon the kindness of others, especially a warmhearted person who is horribly killed in a bid to defeat him.

Such cruelty, man can wreak; the Dragon Emperor leans increasingly harshly into a desire to eradicate humanity for our blatant sinful ways. What makes this all work so well is the brilliant decision to allow us to play as Fou-Lu numerous times. We don’t need flashbacks or meanwhiles to comprehend why Fou-Lu is the man he is. We experience it firsthand.

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