BE FOREWARNED, HERE BE SPOILERS.
So recently, my friend asked me what RPGs I thought had the best stories. When I heard this, I really had to think about it. It's not as clear cut as I thought it'd be, because there are so many good stories being told through these games. So I had to think about which of these games had the most lasting impact on me. Which one of these games can I look at 15 years after playing it and still tell myself that this game had an incredible storyline.
It also got me thinking about the characters. As we know, characters and storytelling go hand-in-hand, because why would you care about the story if you didn't like the characters? As I thought about these things and started writing what I felt, I realized these games were epic beyond belief and nothing short of spectacular will ever top them.
You know when I really thought about it, RPGs have a power not a lot of other media outlets have. Because you're the one advancing the story and you're the one playing the role of the character, the game has a chance to endear to you in such a way that you'll feel liberated from the earth. That is a power I have felt with no other, and it's truly remarkable how these interactive stories appeal to us.
Note when I decided to make this list I am putting into consideration only the story and the character development the game brings to the table. Basically this means ALL other aspects aside.
Also I had a lot more to say about the first two on the list because they weren't as clear cut as I just liked the story.
1) Chrono Cross
Chrono Cross is my favorite RPG of all time. I thought it had all of the pieces of the puzzle. Brilliant and involving gameplay, unique and memorable characters, beautiful score, intense graphics and visuals, and one of the most carefully orchestrated and well delivered plotlines I've ever seen in any kind of media.
The brilliance of Chrono Cross' story comes from it's delivery. And to many, this might actually be a weakness. Chrono Cross effectively takes what seems like an innocent, peaceful situation and completely turn it upside down in a hailstorm of complex narratives and events. You start out as a 16-year old boy living in a fishing village, minding his own business and living his normal life.
What ends up happening is you find out Serge is the Chrono Trigger and the whole goal of the game is to defeat the Time Devourer, a giant monster who you have to beat with a tricky element puzzle. The thing is the game is absolutely littered with lore. There's stuff in the game you'll probably miss because you're too busy trying to keep up with the main storyline.
The complexity of the storyline is what makes me feel so attached to this game. I thought it was so simple at first, but as things unraveled I realized how epic everything that was happening to Serge was. From Harle actually being the lunar dragon to Kid actually being a Schala's daughter-clone (see Chrono Trigger), there are twists and turns in the story that left me speechless. The intricate plot is a turn off for a lot of people, and that's a shame. Because they're really missing out. I also find some people feel the story is too simplistic, in which case, they more than likely didn't finish the game.
Albeit, Serge is not the most interesting character in the world as he's supposed to be a reflection of you, the player. But the colorful cast of 50 different characters ends up fixing that. Each of those characters is well developed (apart from a few uninteresting, bad eggs) and I found myself with a different party every time I played the game. The connection to the characters is still there, because they somehow managed to develop each characters backstory within the confines of Serge's own story. It's truly beautiful storytelling that any RPG lover should partake in.
2) Final Fantasy VII
It'll get a lot of hate because it's popular but Final Fantasy VII really did have one of the finest plotlines in RPG history.
The intense rivalry between Cloud of Sephiroth is not one anyone will forget. It just hits you on so many levels. Cloud is a guy, who should be dead. He was a lowly grunt who basically stole the identity of his best friend (albeit unintentionally) and fought with the greatest warrior on the planet, Sephiroth. The way that Cloud's story unravels before your eyes is just fantastic storytelling.
The relationships the character develops with the other characters is what really astonished me. I've really never seen other characters this involved in developing the main character. Where would Cloud be without Tifa? Probably still in a wheelchair.
We definitely have a different kind of development in Cloud as a whole as well. It's not that he's learning and growing, it's that he's finding out who he is. You think he's a badass first ****soldier who plays by his own rules. But the truth is he's a weak little grunt, who got a lucky shot on Sephiroth and has probably one the most pathetic, emo backstories I've ever seen. And yet somehow, he still perseveres against Sephiroth.
There's just something about Cloud. He won't let Sephiroth beat him and it's this power of the spirit that truely endears him to the player.
(That man looks like the devil himself)
Aeris and Zack are two characters who's relationships with Cloud really got to me. Zack's story felt a little bit untold (which is why Crisis Core was nice) but you could see the friendship and the bond these two characters had. It was, in essence, Cloud's responsibility to defeat Sephiroth for his friend. And what better way to do it than holding up his mantle. Aeris, on the other hand, was that genuine, sweet innocence personified in such a way that her death left a void, not only in Cloud, but in the player as well.
To top it off, you have one of the greatest villains ever conceived. Sephiroth's greatest power could be felt by the player: instigating fear. When I first played this game, I was legitimately afraid of Sephiroth. The creepy music and atmosphere he drew was terrifying. The blood stains smeared on the wall and floors made you want to go in the other direction. In fact, that's what I was thinking the whole time. "I should just run back to Midgar and forget chasing this freakin' psycho." That especially reigned true when I saw the giant snake impaled on a giant wooden stake.
Sephiroth is the personification of fear itself and all of these characters deliver a story that if told through the eyes of any other characters, might be a lot less epic and lot more cheesy. These characters are what brought this game to life and that's why FFVII has my number 2 spot.
3) Shadow Hearts / Shadow Hearts: Covenant
This one...is a little hard for me to put up here so high. However, the original Shadow Hearts coupled with this one makes me think a little differently.
The reason I truly loved both these games and the story they presented is because they presented them with humor. Actually it was the blending of humor and epicness that really caught my eye. For starters, the main character, Yuri, is equal parts hilarious and badass.
In the first game he's basically doing what a mysterious voice in his head is telling him to do throughout the entire game. It's funny because everyone in his party thinks he's nuts.
The quest that is set forth become crazy epic in the last few hours of the game. The escalation is awesome and the ending of the game is truly moving. That's something I thought Shadow Hearts did very well. And it's sequel continued that trend.
Covenant had the same humor aspect and Yuri was still pretty badass. But the ending of this game freaked me out a little bit. I did NOT see the twist at the end of the game coming and I was completely taken aback. They hid a rather obvious twist so well that I never saw it coming. Skillfully done and the combination of both endings often makes me group these two together. It's still a game I go back to thinking about because of it.
4) Final Fantasy VIII
I did NOT want to put this on my list. But my friend convinced me on this one. This game gets on here because if the often perceived twist of the game is true, then is probably the greatest fast ones ever pulled by game developers.
Note, I don't believe that the twist is true because I felt like if it was, a developer would've confirmed it by now. But the provocation of thought is enough to appeal to me.
(It's just club sauce, don't worry)
For those of you that don't know what I'm talking about, many people believe Rinoa is the sorceress Ultimecia you fight at the end of the game. I haven't played it in awhile, but I've been told there are "clues" littered throughout the game. The idea is, Rinoa and Squall live a happy life together for the rest of his life. Meaning he dies because he's not a sorceress and Rinoa goes crazy because she has to live forever without Squall.
Essentially she wants to go back in time to stop time at a certain point (believed to be the part where Squall and Rinoa are wandering aimlessly through space, and the sappy music is playing and you want to kill yourself; Rinoa says something along the lines of "I wish time would stop right now" and that's where that theory comes from). Somewhere between the attempts to come back through time, Rinoa loses all of her memories of her past because she makes a GF and junctioning it causes memory loss. She only knows she wants to stop time to stop her pain.
But her going back in time causes a time rift in which there are two worlds. And even more fiddling with time causes a third world. These parallel worlds conflict with each other and when Squall and his crew wind up fighting Ultimecia, the get to the end of time. Hence the white room with nothing in it. Then the story reverts back to when Rinoa and Squall can live happily ever after again (the first world). Where Rinoa will inevitably go crazy again and destroy everything because she's a moron.
(It's Rinoa, but slightly less annoying!)
That was my really half assed explanation of it, and I'm sorry. But there are more detailed explanations on the web. Might I recommend the one on GameFaqs? (You have to scroll down to the contents and find it).
While this has not been confirmed and it's seems a little outlandish, if that was indeed the intent of the story writers, then I am absolutely blown away at the intricacies of it. The thing is, I can not dispute the claim in any way. There are disputes to certain elements such as the GF Griever being a reflection of what Squall fears and not Ultimecia actual GF, but as a whole, it actually seems plausible. Plausible but not probable I think is the general consensus. Even so, it's heavily through provoking and might actually force people to play the game again.
Xenogears gets the last spot after much contemplation because it takes themes and concepts that, while they're not overly original, meld in such way, with a intricate plotline and fascinating characters, that after you're done, you feel like you've witnessed a masterpiece. The complex religious themes and philosophies introduced in the game are also very interesting, particularly when you're replaying the game and paying attention to them.
On paper, a protagonist with a split personality complex and a mysterious past coupled with piloting mechs around seems like something out of Gundam Wing. But the story really is so much deeper than that. While the characters are decently interesting and theirbackgrounds are extraordinarily detailed, the strength of the story lies within the characters struggle to find deeper meaning.The story tackles different issues such as man's dependancy on these machines and the lines between men and gods.
Xenogears plot is confusing to say the least, as many great plotlines are. It's one of those games I had to play a few times to really understand and a lot of the things happening to the characters are entailed in a deeper issue. While it manages to attack all these issues, the astounding thing is the character development is still phenomenal. Most of these characters are all very interesting and bring something new to the table.
While you can make the argument that they fill out an specific archetype, I honestly think these characters branch out past that distinction and manage to endear themselves to you without filling an archetype. It's rather impressive considering the level of detail in the plot itself.
These are games that I feel like if you played them once and came back to them 10 years later, you'd still have a ton of food for thought. It's not a coincidence that most of these games are from Squaresoft and the one that isn't from Squaresoft came from old devs who worked for Squaresoft. That's because Squaresoft used to be THE RPG factory. Not only did they revolutionize the ATB system, they had some of the most gripping and beautiful storylines every devised. It's a bit of a shame considering the current state of Square-Enix (1 notable RPG released on a next-gen system, and an utter disappointment at that).
Not to say that games not made by Squaresoft weren't good. Here are some honorable mentions: Breath of Fire III, Breath of Fire IV, Vagrant Story, Suikoden II, Suikoden III, Dragon Warrior VII, Final Fantasy X, Chrono Trigger. If you're in for some hard hitting storylines and immersive worlds look no further than these wonderous games.
Overall, I'm quite satisfied with the list, though I would've liked to have Breath of Fire IV or Vagrant Story up there as well. But if you were to go out and buy all 5 of these games, I guarantee, if nothing else, these stories will captivate you.