So here I am at the end of Final Fantasy VIII after 44 hours and two previous attempts to finish the game.  After all that, was this game worth almost two whole days of my life?  Here’s my review.  The Presentation and Gameplay sections should be safe to read if you haven’t finished FF8 while the Story section spoils the whole dang thing.  Beware!

Presentation

After the well-received Final Fantasy 7, all eyes were on Squaresoft as they were preparing to release their follow-up.  What would it be like?  And could it top the visual feast that was FF7?  I remember watching the television ads for Final Fantasy 8 and being wowed by the characters I was seeing.  Of course I knew it was a computer animated movie that I was watching but it was still impressive.  I think a lot of people bought Final Fantasy VIII because they wanted to see something spectacular coming out of their little grey Sony box.

And they weren’t disappointed – Final Fantasy 8 is a gorgeous game.  Blah, blah, pixellated characters, blah, blah, prerendered cutscenes, blah, blah, doesn’t age gracefully and so on.  Well bite me because Final Fantasy 8 was and still remains a visually stunning game.

I have to admire the developers for taking a risk (I will be coming back to this idea frequently).  Final Fantasy 7 featured very stylized, anime-inspired characters.  They gave the game a certain look, a visual consistency even with the big heads and the low-polygon bodies and the lack of noses.  That became the look of Final Fantasy for most people.  FF8 chucked all that and gave us realistic looking characters with (well almost) normal clothes, believable movements and a much more “mature” look.  When I first saw Squall laying on the bed in the infirmary I thought “He looks real.  How’d they do that?”

Now the truth is I much prefer unique, stylized characters.  I didn’t mind Cloud’s spiky hair and Zidane’s tail was alright by me.  Looking back, I think the PS1 did a better job representing those sorts of characters than the realistic chaps populating Final Fantasy 8.  While it lost some of the traditional fantasy trappings, the technical skill involved in creating FF8’s characters is undeniable.

The backgrounds are also, once again, simply gorgeous.  Obviously they are low-rez by today’s standards but I remember what it was like when these games were released and they were beautiful.  I’m impressed at the amount of work that went into creating each screen in the game.

Final Fantasy 7 set the bar high with its CG cutscenes and everyone expected amazing things on FF8’s four CD’s.  The opening cutscene as Squall and Seifer face each other with swords and feathers and grass and Rinoa and the beach was marvelous.  Another high point is the dance between Squall and Rinoa which was lovely, overflowing with warmth and perfectly set up the contrasting lead characters.  Now I have to say that the ending cutscenes were jarring and unpleasant to watch.  Maybe they weren’t explained well by the story, but they seemed to drag on and on and had definitely lost the “wow” factor by that point.

My main criticism of the visuals in Final Fantasy 8 is that Square has created a gorgeous world that seems somewhat generic and bland.  The steampunk-meets-fantasy worlds of FF6 and FF7 were immediately appealing and made me want to learn more.  FF8 presents a standard sci-fi world that was uninspiring to me.

However, I really can’t criticize Nobuo Uematsu’s musical score.  Maybe FF8 didn’t have quite the same number of memorable songs as its predecessors but they also didn’t have Liberi Fatali – a stunning song, made more so by the fact that it sounded nothing like other Final Fantasy music.  As always, I grew tired of some of the repetitiousness of the music and Balamb Garden’s theme song was a particular culprit.  I actually liked Laguna’s battle theme more than Squall’s and Eyes on Me was okay the first time I heard it but once was enough.  But on the whole this is another superior production from Uematsu-san.

Final Fantasy VIII gets an 8 out of 10 for presentation.

Story

Most good stories have both a compelling protagonist and antagonist, someone to identify with as he or she struggles against obstacles.  Like most console RPG’s, you don’t get to choose your protagonist, you’re stuck with Squall for better or worse.  A lot of people didn’t like Squall’s whiny “dark” nature and were quickly turned off from the game.  I sympathize with them as he is a big butthead for most of the game but I really didn’t mind him.  I knew he’d redeem himself and eventually he did.  Along the way Square took an interesting approach with Squall by showing us his thoughts.  Most of the time in console RPG’s we don’t get an insight into what characters are thinking.  Instead we get the infamous “…” response.  I can’t say that knowing Squall’s whiny “dark” thoughts made a huge difference in the game but it was an interesting change for Square.

His progression in the game came mostly from his growing romance with Rinoa.  While Squall is brooding and dark, Rinoa is all smiles and lightness.  it was amusing to watch them interact and to see her gradually work her way into his heart.  They don’t really answer the question of why she would find this asshole so attractive so we’ll have to leave that question for her therapist to answer.

The supporting cast is good but doesn’t really stand out.  Selphie is the typically cute but silly female with the short dress.  Zell pumps his fists in the air and acts brash.  Irvine mostly disappeared into the woodwork and Quistis seemed like she might have had a lot of depth to her character but they never really took her there.  I wish she’d had a more clearly defined love triangle with Squall and Rinoa.  It would have been nice had there been a stronger focus on an ensemble cast as Squall just wasn’t charismatic enough to carry the game.  Cloud wasn’t either but Barett, Tifa and Aeris more than made up for it.

What about an evil villain?  There was definitely no Kefka in the background of most scenes cackling maniacally.  Edea made a respectable baddie for the first part of the game and the scene where they tried to assassinate her was a lot of fun.  But eventually we realize she’s just a tool of the evil Ultimecia who is mostly faceless and nonthreatening until the end of the game.  Seifer had the potential to be an excellent counterpart to Squall but he disappeared quickly and when he did return he was relegated to The Big Bad’s Sidekick.  Instead of being held together by a nefarious villain, FF8 emphasizes a more personal story involving Squall, Rinoa and their friends.

And the backstory with Laguna?  It was an interesting diversion but ultimately felt distracting from the main plot.  Without any clear connection between the two until much later, Squall & co.’s story completely lost momentum whenever Laguna made an appearance.  While all the loose threads with Laguna’s group eventually came together, the whole side-story felt unnecessary and should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Ultimately, Final Fantasy VIII had a merely average story that lacked the depth and breadth of other games in the series.  I appreciate what the developers were trying to do and a change from the norm is always welcome but it just didn’t work very well.  The game suffered from trying to make the story both big and small at the same time.  A good game could be made from a focus on Squall’s story, his background, his inner demons and his relationship with Rinoa and his companions.  Another good game could be made from the story of a group of students fighting the evil plans of a time-travelling sorceress.  Trying to do both, the game succeeded at neither.

Final Fantasy VIII’s story gets a 5 out of 10.

Gameplay

The gameplay in FF8 is an odd mixture of awesome and frustrating.  Once again, the developers decided to break from the traditional and do something different.  And they definitely did something very different.

Honestly, at first blush (and second… ) the Guardian Force system was practically impenetrable.  Part of that were the tutorials which threw out a massive amount of text and stats without really showing how to use them.  But the biggest part was the nature of the beast – the GF system is completely different from what came before.  The closest to it was FF5’s job system but it was nowhere near this complex.  I think another reason why I was so bewildered by it was that I typically hadn’t paid attention to character statistics in Final Fantasy games either before or after FF8.  I could complete the game and never really needed to know what Edgar’s strength statistic was.  Not so in FF8 where stats become very important and junctioning GFs are the way to increase them.

And now that I understand the system, it all seems very easy and sensible but I think a lot of gamers spent an hour with the game, got confused and gave up like I did.  I’m glad I stuck with it though as building my GF army and my characters became quite addictive for me.  I’d spend a lot of time avoiding battles and changing enemies into cards to avoid obtaining experience points.  Why?  Because the levels of monsters and bosses scale with you.  If you are low-level then pretty much all the monsters are as well.  And if you grind for experience and spend a lot of time levelling your characters you can easily find yourself facing nearly-impossible bosses later in the game, particularly if you haven’t mastered junctioning and improved your stats.  So, much like Oblivion, I tried to keep my levels as low as possible.  I made it through 80-90% of the game under level 25 and only got up to level 32 shortly before the last dungeon.  It’s an strange gameplay mechanic and I really wish the developer’s decision to level enemies along with you was made very clear from the start of the game so you could plan accordingly.  I wouldn’t have known until later in the game if I hadn’t read about it elsewhere.

Another odd design decision is that your stats are increased by junctioning magic to them.  Magic spells become a commodity in this game which is completely different from any other game I’ve played.  If you want a high HP statistic, you’ll need to junction Cure magic (or Cura, or Curaga… ) to your HP.  The more you junction the higher your HP gets.  But what if you need to cure yourself after a battle?  Then you’re taking away from your junctioned pool of magic and your stat decreases accordingly.  The end result is the system punishes you for using magic and encourages you to hoard spells like precious gold.  I grew so used to not relying on magic that even in the last couple of battles I had a difficult time forcing myself to cast those Ultima spells I’d squirreled away.

Instead I used GF attacks a lot, particularly the awesome Cactaur once I figured out where he was hiding.  The problem with GF attacks is that there’s no way to skip or shorten the summoning animations.  Some of them take the better part of a minute while others (like Cactaur) were blessedly short which meant I used them a lot.

What all this means is that if you don’t really understand the game’s mechanics you can easily paint yourself into a corner where you are high level but have poor stats and the monsters and bosses are wiping the floor with you.  Or you can deliberately keep your levels low, maximize your stats and the game becomes a cakewalk.  At the end of the game Squall was routinely doing 2,000 to 3,000 damage with basic physical attacks.  One Renzokuken limit break was enough to wipe out some bosses.  It seems odd that you are basically encouraged to “break” the game and punished for playing it traditionally.

I liked that FF7’s minigame-happy trend didn’t carry over to FF8 but the minigames that we did have were irritating.  I never want to go through Squall’s mid-air fighting game again.  And, as I mentioned before, the last dungeon sucked.  It was unnecessarily punishing and filled with somewhat obscure puzzles and boss battle after boss battle.  I can’t think of another dungeon I hated more. 

Final Fantasy’s gameplay truly had a split personality, alternating between fantastic and irritating.  I’d love to see the GF/Junctioning system make another appearance in a more polished game but I’m not sure we’ll see that happen.

Final Fantasy VIII’s gameplay gets a 6 out of 10.

Conclusion

FF8 is known as the black sheep of the franchise but there are also very zealous fans out there.  Now that I’m finished with the game I can certainly see why.  There’s a lot to like in this game but there are equally frustrating and questionable design decisions.  Kudos to Squaresoft for not resting on their FF7-colored laurels and trying to break the mold.  While they succeeded in creating a unique game, it’s difficult to overlook its shortcomings.

Final score: 6.3 out of 10.

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