An oppressive regime is attempting to unlock magic that nearly destroyed the world a thousand years earlier. In the process of re-discovering these forbidden mystic arts, the empire creates magic-infused soldiers that harness destructive abilities not seen in ages, one of whom is finally driven insane and seeks to not only overthrow the empire, but also reshape the world in his twisted image. He eventually succeeds after finally discovering the source of all magic - three statues that house actual gods - and plunges the planet into ruin. Your party, having failed to stop the nutcase in the first place, is scattered across the globe and has to try all over again to stop a man that seemingly has all of creation under his sociopathic control.
You can condense it further to "crazy guy becomes all-powerful, wrecks the planet, then is killed by heroes" and it loses all semblance of depth. But pry just a hair's breadth deeper and you'll find a cast of characters that rivals anything else on the market, past, present and most likely far into the future.
Why it's the best:
Final Fantasy VI is all about personality. Each lead in this 14-strong ensemble cast has a distinct past, a reason to fight and a load of emotional baggage that'd make the staunchest of psychologists weep. Terra, after being used as a puppet of the empire, finds she's the product of a union between a human and an Esper, who are all that remain of magic in the world. She's an unholy mix that frightens the heroes and excites the villains, all alone in her quest for identity. Cyan has to watch his entire castle, wife and child included, poisoned and killed. After the world is destroyed, Celes believes all of her friends are dead and attempts suicide in one of the most heart-tearing moments we've ever witnessed in gaming. The soul-shearing barbs keep coming throughout the story, making FFVI much more personal than any before it, and arguably any since.
See, this was the last Final Fantasy that had to focus on story and characters because the graphics were too primitive to showcase anything but blinking eyes and sagging heads. Even FFVII, widely hailed as the best thing that mankind has ever created, resorted to stereotypes and flashy cinemas instead of nailing down an unrivaled narrative. FFVI stands as the last line of defense against modern-day, style-over-substance RPGs. You spend so much time appreciating the technology that you forget how silly and trite some of the interactions really are.
Then there's Kefka. We named him one of the series' best villains before and aren't about to step down from that opinion. By the time you run into him, he's already lost his mind and is well on his way to overthrowing the empire and claiming ultimate power. Like literally, ultimate power. Once imbued with said abilities, Kefka takes a scalpel to the planet, ripping up continents and murdering vast numbers of people just to see if he can. Then, with what's left, he creates a towering pile of refuse and junk to act as his massive throne. His reaction? Laughter. Constant laughter.
Plenty of villains aspire to ruin the world - Kefka actually did, and his unwavering devotion to destruction makes the story's impact that much stronger.
James Sunderland receives a letter from his wife asking him to come to their "special place." Trouble is, his wife Mary has been dead for three years. He's drawn to Silent Hill, a quiet town that they had visited in the past, before the sickness finally took her. Upon arriving, James runs into meaty skin-walls, gruesome monsters and precious few humans at all. And the people he does meet all seem to have their own problems, like a dimwitted man who's killed someone, a teenager searching for her mother and a little girl who doesn't even notice all the awful things happening around her. Then there's Maria, who's a spitting image of Mary, albeit sexed up far beyond his wife's more subdued behavior.
After countless close calls with Pyramid Head, a masked killer brandishing a sword so large he has to drag it, James finds more and more clues about his wife, her letter and what's happening in Silent Hill. The more he understands, the less fearsome the town becomes, and it turns out that everything you've seen is a reflection of James' inner torment over killing his wife. Yes, it turns out you murdered her and have hid from that fact all along, creating the constant purgatory known as Silent Hill.
Why it's the best:
Holy Christ, is this game intense. The premise alone - find out how your dead wife sent you a letter - is terrifying, and when coupled with the horrific setting and creepy denizens of Silent Hill, it becomes a near-unbearable level of dread. Every hallway, every door could contain another awful monster or suggestive conversation about James's past, but it usually doesn't. You're constantly on edge, wondering if the worst is about to come... or just another empty room. It's a slower burn than Resident Evil by far.
Silent Hill speaks in metaphors, not bats in the hair or dogs crashing through windows. Plunging deeper into the town symbolizes his inner conflict, and as you hack away monsters, you're also hacking away his mental blocks that hide the truth. The further you dig, the more you question him - is he really an innocent man who unjustly lost his wife or not? The other characters have just as much to add to the story too - Angela, the teen searching for her mother, apparently killed her abusive father and fled to Silent Hill. She tries to kill herself, but James intervenes, setting into motion her final moment near the end.
She can't forgive herself for the murder, but can't go on either. The flames are her own prison, James doesn't even notice them. For a brief moment, you actually get to see Silent Hill through someone else's eyes, opening your mind to the fact that James must confront his past as Angela just did or suffer a similar fate. Laura, the little girl with no knowledge of any monsters or Pyramid Head, freely roams the town because she's innocent, and was also a friend of Mary before she died. Maria, it turns out, is another manifestation of James's repressed guilt - she's a promiscuous double of his sickly wife, neither human nor hallucination.
Maria and the other monsters, like the busty no-faced nurses and the mannequin legs tied to other mannequin legs, aren't there just for shock value; they're representations of James's repressed sexuality due to Mary's long sickness. He took care of her at first, but eventually came to hate his life and smothered her, supposedly freeing him from a tortured life. Instead it forever trapped him in a no-place hell, where the only way out is to confront your worst personal demons and even that might not be enough. It's a punishing tale not easily matched, daring to tell a story that touches on murder, suicide, personal hell, child molestation, redemption, acceptance and trying not to lose yourself to something outside your control. There are several endings, but the best has to be "In Water," a fitting end to a story leaps and bounds above other games, horror or otherwise.
There you have it, folks - 15 of the very best in videogame stories. Some were fun and some were upsetting, but every single one stuck with us in one way or another throughout the years. So, what sticks for you? Tell us in our Forums.
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