If the kids are the foundation of Final Fantasy XII, and the nobles are the driving force behind its plot, I think it’s certainly fair to say that the sky pirates are its heart and soul. Balthier and Fran are, unquestioningly, the most memorable PCs in the game.
Fantasy writing — and JRPGs in particular — tend to always want to give you the full tour. The author went to all this trouble world-building, after all, so before the story’s over you’re going to have sampled a bite of everything, even if you have to choke it down. The heroes are going to visit every dot on the map, and absolutely every facet of every character’s backstory is going to be resolved somewhere along the way. Every clue is relevant, and every villain is defeated or redeemed. The only reason you’d put a mystery in your fantasy story is to see it solved. That’s kind of the whole point, isn’t it?
But that’s not the point of Balthier and Fran. The things you learn about these characters open more mysteries than they solve. There is no hidden subquest delving into their origin story, and there are no loose ends they want you to tie up. You can’t get their ultimate weapon by playing the correct keys on the piano. They play a tangential role in Ashe’s story — indeed, you might even say Ashe’s plays a tangential role in theirs. That certainly seems to be Balthier’s take on it; he’s always quick to remind us that he is the leading man.
Let’s get that backstory out of the way, then. Balthier is a former Imperial Judge, the son of the renowned Dr. Cid, who became disenchanted with his homeland and took off in a prototype airship to find his own fortune. Fran is of the viera, a mystical all-female race of forest-dwelling immortals, who has turned her back on her clan to live among humes instead.
That’s it. That’s all you get. How these two unlikely allies found each other, why they work together, and who is really in charge are all topics that are never discussed. The specifics of their relationship are none of Ashe’s business, see. Or Vaan’s. Or yours.
We can’t discuss Fran in any detail without first discussing the viera, so let’s do that. The viera made their debut in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, where they were little more than your typical magical girl race. I can’t recall whether FFTA and the viera predate Final Fantasy XI and the mithra, but it really doesn’t matter; catgirls and bunnygirls are both kind of lame as far as fantasy races go. Their job is to equip a bow and a thong and cast sultry glances at the pubescent manchildren perusing video game boxes.
That’s why I was very surprised when I first saw Fran in the Japanese FF12 ads. She certainly was a scantily-clad bunnygirl, but I wasn’t prepared for how creepy she would look alongside the rest of the cast. I mean, there was always going to be a little bit of dissonance there; FFTA was a cartoony sprite game on the GBA, while FF12 was a realistic-looking game with actual humans. The girl with bunny ears is going to stand out. But something about Fran was very… unsettling. And not in an uncanny valley way. I wasn’t sure I was going to like her.
A few years later, upon actually getting the game, I felt like my fears had been confirmed. Fran was very unsettling. Very otherworldly, when compared to Vaan and Balthier, and not in the cutesy elfish sense I was used to in JRPGS. She was alien.
Her place in the game world didn’t really click for me until 30-ish hours in, when my heroes called upon Eruyt Village. Upon arriving, and meeting the rest of the viera, you get the complete picture: their world is a very different place from the rest of Ivalice. Going into Eruyt is like traveling through the looking glass, and here’s the fascinating thing: Fran doesn’t fit in there either. Without laying her backstory on the table for me, without a flashback scene or a heartfelt ream of exposition, her place at Balthier’s side finally made sense. Whatever the reason, she can’t exist with her people any longer. All we know for certain is that she apparently parted on her own terms, and that her sisters couldn’t take her back if they wanted her. And yet, she’s still viera, and therefore cannot integrate properly with normal hume society.
One thing lead to another, and she ended up on Balthier’s ship. FF12 never defines “one thing” or “another” for us, but doing so would be missing the point. It would break the mystique without adding anything in return.
Balthier is the same way, really. He is ruthless and cunning, and while the game continuously hints at the possibility that he’s more strongly connected to the plot than he lets on, he always manages to be a pirate first and foremost. Balthier is a burglar and a manipulator who waltzes through danger nonchalantly, as though the world cannot touch him. While Vaan is raging against Basch’s cell, carrying on about traitor-this and kingslayer-that, Balthier coolly springs Basch free because he appreciates his use as a sword arm. When the princess desperately needs his aid in an excursion to a faraway tomb, Balthier doesn’t actually agree until the subject of treasure comes up. When that particular treasure turns out to be of no value to him, he makes sure to get collateral before taking on the next job.
The look of hurt on Ashe’s face when Balthier asks for her wedding ring — as though it were a mere trinket, worth no more than the value of the metal — is very sobering. Where the princess is concerned, Balthier is quite aware of the cards he’s holding, and he makes sure she never forgets it.
The question you have to ask yourself is this: how much of Balthier is for real? The FF series is no stranger to the outwardly amoral character who hides his strong moral fiber in order to maintain his reputation for cruelty or indifference. (See also: Faris. See also: Setzer. See also: Cid Highwind.) In Balthier’s case, though, it really might be genuine. There’s no doubt the man has scruples, and there’s no question he’s got strong personal motives to stick his nose into this nethicite business. But let’s face it: he’s got his own airship. He’s got means and opportunity to persue those endevours however he wishes. He sticks with Ashe because there is profit there.
Nothing wrong with sticking it to the Empire, no sir. But Balthier gets to do it while keeping the princess of Dalmasca in his pocket. That’s real piracy. That’s an opportunist at work.
Finally, we can consider the two pirates together, as a single entity. That’s easy enough to do, as FF12 always presents the two of them as being two sides of a coin. Balthier and Fran are respectful and loyal to each other, and stand back-to-back in every situation they face. I cannot recall a single time in the game where one questions the actions or motivations of the other. Whether it’s trust, or love, or something else, I can’t say. The bond between them is as strong as it is unexplainable. It’s easy to imagine Balthier and Fran keeping a unified front where the others are concerned, but being quite at odds behind closed doors. Or just shagging each other silly. It’s as likely that Fran met Balthier when he was a young child as it is that they arrived at a mutually beneficial financial agreement a month before the game’s events kick off. What’s certain is this: their business is their business.
Is Balthier the leading man, in truth? Sure he is. FF12 isn’t his story, but that’s okay by him. He treats FF12 as the footnote in his own story. With Fran at his side and the sky at his back, who are we to begrudge him that?