Thanks a hell of a lot to Ecclesiastes for his idea for this rant.
In the past, I resisted the idea of voice acting in RPGs. Well, not really resisted it, persay--more like I opposed the notion that it should be considered a significant factor in their quality. I thought that it was going to always be unimportant in enjoying a game for the reasons that I do find important: its plot and characters, the creativity and skill of the writing behind them. I insisted that a voice actor was unimportant to a character's portrayal and development, and that it would always solely be, as it had in the past, the character's dialog and actions that developed him, her, or it.
Now, I wasn't entirely off--the above two aspects of a character are still the greatest defining parts of that character in an RPG. And, as a plethora of RPGs from the NES, Genesis, SNES, Gameboy/Gameboy Advance, and even PS1, PS2, Game Cube, and PC prove, you can have fantastic characters without any voice acting at all.
Plus, further in my defense, the time period during which I formed this opinion on RPG voice acting was back in the days of Playstation 1 and N64. Back then, RPGs' strides into voice acting were both small (due to, I imagine, budget and space constraints, voiced parts of the game were usually restricted to a few important scenes and FMVs) and, well, just not very good. There were occasions where I liked the voices and the acting okay in the game--Lunar 2 and Grandia 1 come to mind--but "adequate" was about the highest praise you could give to that era's voice actors, and they usually didn't even warrant that much of a compliment. The situation wasn't helped by the fact that the RPG genre was still working out some last but very stubborn and noticeable vestiges of bad translation. The speech between Belmont and Dracula in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night may not be acted well to begin with, for example, but the fact that half of it doesn't really make much sense (even if it's memorable) worsens the problem.
So you clearly don't NEED voice acting to get a great character, and I think I had fair reason to think voice acting wasn't a big deal when it came onto the scene. But I've since had to relent in the face of many modern RPGs, and reform my opinion. Voice acting CAN make a significant difference to a character's quality and appeal. I still stand by the idea that it isn't a factor that can make or break a character, mind--Final Fantasy 10's Yuna sounds like she was voiced by an illiterate who hadn't slept in at least 2 days, but anyone who frequents these rants will know that I think very highly of her character. Conversely, I thought that Fran in Final Fantasy 12 had quite a competent voice actress, who affected an accent that was noticeable and distinguished the character, but did not distract from or become an obstacle to her dialogue...yet that doesn't stop me from seeing Fran as yet another boring automaton lacking any strong personality trait, like most of the other characters in FF12.
But if a voice actor, no matter how good or bad, can't change whether or not someone is actually a decent character or not, they CAN, at least, enhance that character's personality and quality through their performance. Makai Kingdom's Zetta's power-driven egomania is clear from his actions and dialogue, but his voice actor really drives that personality home with loud, commanding tones and challenging, boasting bursts of laughter. Tales of the Abyss makes it clear time and time again through his dialogue just what a snarky bastard Jade Curtiss is, but his voice acting just seals the deal entirely, enhancing every dry, witty line he says. And Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic 2...man, she would be a fascinating character without a single spoken word to match her dialogue, but the actress behind Kreia reaches vocal acting perfection with the role, flawlessly enhancing fantastic lines with an emphasis on Kreia's mix of age, wisdom, cunning, and darkness.
Now, I've gone over the subject, offered up an opinion about its importance, and thrown in a few examples here and there to illustrate my thoughts. It's usually at this point in the rant that I would state how the RPG industry should improve on this matter, and why.
Thing is, I can't really do that. With regards to voice acting, RPG companies have been more or less consistently going in the right direction from the Playstation 2 generation onward. Major RPGs generally include voice acting to a significant degree nowadays, making most or even nearly all their main dialogue voice acted. The voice acting quality is generally improved, too--games are more and more often hiring experienced professionals to do their voice acting, and even those RPG voice actors who don't have a long history of voice work seem to be being encouraged to do a better job, because it's uncommon to hear a character now whose voice actor isn't at the very least competent.* And it helps a good bit that the translations for the acted dialogue are, as a rule, much better than they used to be.
Game companies continue to put an emphasis on voice acting and take it seriously, and the effort shows in the good results it yields. Western RPGs like Mass Effect 1, Fallout 3, and Dragon Age Origins all have the kind of excellent voice acting which betters the characters and story-telling that you would expect--but more and more often, Japanese RPGs with entire casts of talented voice actors are popping up and rivaling the Western RPGs' voice acting quality on their own home turf. Japanese developer Nippon Ichi gets just the right voices to portray its games' characters just as often as Western developer Bioware does, it seems, and the localization team for Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4 might have made their Japanese RPG that actually takes place in Japan seem more accessible and natural in its voice acting to the average American than even Fallout 3 was.
Voice acting may not be critical, but it is important. Luckily, RPG companies, with few exceptions,** have come to recognize this, and continue a trend of improving quality--and I'm pleased to see it happening.
* Uncommon, but not unknown--Suikoden Tierkreis is a recent game that I'm playing through now, and there are several characters who just aren't voiced well, most notably the protagonist. Non-named Suikoden heroes typically have an accepted "canon" name that fans dub them with (Riou in Suikoden 2, Faroush in Suikoden 5 (what a stupid name), etc), but Suikoden Tierkreis seems to have fans split between the names "Sieg" and "MotorMouth," and I throw my lot in with the latter. I swear the actor is racing against the text being printed on the screen as he blurts out his lines, and he's winning that race by a long shot. Still, my point on the general quality of voice acting improving stands; Suikoden Tierkreis is one of the only non-SquareEnix RPGs I've played in the last 5 years or so to have noticeably bad voice acting.
** Unfortunately, one of those exceptions is a rather prominent one: SquareEnix. I'm not sure what the deal is, but SquareEnix just seems to be 2 steps behind everyone else in the field of voice acting. From the very beginning, they were behind the ball--sure, they stuck some voice acting into Xenogears, but look at the Playstation 1 installments of their iconic Final Fantasy series. Of Final Fantasies 7, 8, 9, and Tactics, not a single one had any voice acting whatsoever, not to mention the same being true of Chrono Cross and Parasite Eve 1. They finally got with the program with FF10, and put in a crapload of voice acting there, but all of it ranged from Average to Just Outright Bad. Who DIDN'T want to slap Tidus and Yuna in the face several times after listening to that godforsaken laugh scene? Then came Grandia 3--listening to Alfina in that game is like letting molten candy seep into your ears right to your brain, where it cools into crystals that tear your mind to shreds. And what about Final Fantasy 12? I can see FF10 having a bad time with voice acting when it's the first major venture into spoken lines SquareEnix took, but with the exception of Balthier and somewhat Fran, the only distinguishing characteristic to any of FF12's voice acting is the occasion obnoxious whine of Vaan. And what about the bland and lackluster vocal talents of Valkyrie Profile 2? These are recent games; it's not like they don't have examples of games with consistently excellent voice acting, like Tales of Legendia or Makai Kingdom. SquareEnix just seems shockingly backwards on this matter.***
*** Though, to be fair, they're not ALWAYS a miss--the Kingdom Hearts series's voice acting is good enough, and Star Ocean 3's was decent. But in general SquareEnix seems pretty out of it.