A Rose, By Any Other Voice, Would Smell as Sweet? Bad Voice Acting is the Thorn in the Side of Final Fantasy XIV
Like millions of others, this weekend I became a social hermit at the mercy of Square Enix. The fourth, and last, phase of beta testing of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has come and gone.
I could wax lyrical about the good and the great about the game, and on some of the handy little tweaks and developments since phase three. But one thing that’s gotten players talking (pun intended) is the voice acting. In short, it’s as pleasant as a diseased Tonberry in an open blender.
You have reached Square Enix's answering machine…
The main problem is that all the voices sound so forced and cardboard. Could Square Enix really not find decent voice actors for the roles?
However, if you really think about it, the measure and metre of dialogue is completely unnatural to being with. There are pauses built-in to include movements and actions, breaks to allow players to interact, or move the narrative at their own pace, and bits of dialogue that are outright contrived to make something happen or to jam in some much-needed back story.
Because of this lack of intrinsic flow, it’s no surprise that characters, especially Elder Seedseer Kan-E-Senna, sound like an automated switchboard. Therefore, it seems insincere to goad the actors who have provided their voices, as they’re faced with quite a difficult task, no?
But Square Enix has spent the last three single-player Final Fantasy titles improving its voice acting. Even Final Fantasy X, though often mocked for feeling a little am-dram, was still some of the best seen in video games up until that point. They also had an ace in the hole by getting John DiMaggio, better known for voicing Bender in sci-fi animated sitcom, Futurama, to voice ginger Blitzball captain, Wakka.
By the time we got round to Final Fantasy XIII, we’d seen a great improvement. Furthermore, other video game companies are really upping their game regarding voice acting. For example, Namco and Level-5’s Ni No Kuni: The Wrath of the White Witch notably had Steffan Rhodri lend his dulcet Welsh tones to the character of Drippy, along with a great cast in general. A further example is the brilliant voice acting in Naughty Dog's Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. Therefore, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn just feels like a step backwards by comparison, and makes Square Enix looks like it wants to be left in the wake of its competition.
Thancred sounds, "more granddad than sex god". Screenshot: Courtesy of Square Enix.
What really doesn’t help is that those who played from beta phase three onwards, like me, experienced extended gameplay without any voice acting. Therefore, they will already have a pre-imagined style and timbre of the voices of the characters they've already met. Much like a film adaptation of a much-loved book, trying to define a single manifestation of myriad different imaginations will always mean that many will be left upset with the end product. For example, it's now easier for people to resist swooning over Thancred as they seem to have made him sound more granddad than sex god. So can we really blame Square Enix for not meeting our unique expectations?
But many of the races and character-types aren't unfamiliar to the series. So it’s no surprise that many are disappointed, if not baffled, by how some of the voices don’t match their stature. I like to imagine Lalafells sporting a broad Brooklyn accent, but I think that might just be me. Even so, accepting that Moogles will predictably be a little high pitch, it doesn't excuse them from being irritating and wholly unbelievable - like shrews on acid breathing an atmosphere made exclusively of helium.
Spreken ze deutsch?
Despite trying hard to give Square Enix the benefit of the doubt, I took the opportunity to have a listen to the voice acting for the other languages the game supports; Japanese, French, and German.
It’s no surprise, being a JRPG, that the Japanese voice-acting is superlative. The voices match the faces, and everything sounds far more natural. But, to my disappointment, even the German and French sound less bemusing and stilted as the English.
It feels like us English speakers have gotten a bit of a bum deal, especially, to add insult to injury, there are reports from version 1.0 players that the English voice acting was considerably better before the relaunch.
The thing is, despite my grumblings about the voice acting, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is still a fantastic game. Plus, players had plenty of other things to put up with this weekend aside from some ropy dialogue, like the 3102 error. The advice many players are dishing out is this: change the voice acting to a different language, and just read the subtitles
But it’s just a shame that the English voice acting is a huge let down. God, as always, is in the detail, and Square Enix seem to forget that. It’s often the little things that can really wow, such as the new thunderstorm weather effect in the Black Shroud areas, and these really lift a game up from being a good title to being a great one.
Suspension of disbelief has always been one of Final Fantasy's strong points, and something that is an important aspect of all good video games. The voice acting is so bad that we really don't get that here. Because of this, I’d rather not have voice acting at all. Silence, as they say, is golden.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn launches on 27 August 2013. For more information about the game, including how to pre-order, visit www.finalfantasyxiv.com.