Gameplay, Story and Value:
Final Fantasy VIII has you taking control of Squall Leonhart as you and your fellow classmates and companions seek to save the world from an evil immortal sorceress from the future! It sounds a little crazy, even by Final Fantasy standards, but FF8 manages to be a surprisingly grounded RPG. The game itself is highly divisive, with even the interpretation of its main story still being up for debate. Even still, it manages to be a fun and mostly cohesive ride from start to finish.
Final Fantasy VIII’s story is ultimately your typical Good vs Evil shtick with a love story focusing on main character Squall and bubbly (perhaps manic) freedom fighter Rinoa. All things considered, it’s a fairly generic story and mostly plays it safe, though the characters are all likable enough and the scenarios are all interesting enough that it’s easy to keep yourself invested, despite a few obligatory dull moments in the progression. The villains are also well done here, as the game does a very good job of building up who the real big bad is, and allows you to empathize with the lesser ones along the way. Aside from a little too much deus ex orphanage along the way, the story and the characters all come together is a pretty great package.
The unfortunate exception to the above is Squall himself, who takes brooding to a tiresome extreme. His character development does eventually pay off, but you’ll be spending at least 95% of the game just wishing he’d lighten the $%^& up! Sure, Cloud was pretty moody in his game, but at least he had a personality. Squall is generally insufferable. It’s not enough to ruin the game, just… almost.
The game handles really well in general, and I ran into far few collision or navigation issues than I did in Chrono Cross. Interacting with NPCs and environments was rarely an issue and menu navigation was fast and intuitive. This is good, since you’ll be spending a lot of time in your menus managing Final Fantasy 8’s various systems.
It’s those systems that, in my opinion, really define Final Fantasy 8, making up both its greatest strengths and weaknesses. There’s a lot of mechanics at play in this game, almost too many, and while they’re all very fun and interesting on their own, it’s actually how they interact with each other that really caused headaches for me. Specifically, I’m referring to the Magic and Junction systems. FF8’s ability system revolves around obtaining Guardian Forces (GF’s, summons, Ifrit and Shiva and the like) and Junctioning them to a character. Once Junctioned, GF’s are able to level up and learn new abilities which they can then pass on to whomever they’re equipped to, and the characters are able to increase the stats unlocked by the GF by Junctioning Magic to those stats.
For example, Ifrit unlocks the Strength Junction while equipped, meaning I can Junction, say, 100 copies of Fire magic to my Strength stat and increase it proportionately. More copies of more powerful Magics yields higher gains. You’ll notice I said “copies” of Fire, and that leads me to the crux of the issue. See, in FF8 characters don’t have an MP resource, and instead the amount of any given spell you have is the governing resource. Spells can be Drawn from enemies via a battle command, and stored up to 100 copies. The act of drawing Magic is often very tedious, but the real problem is that, as mentioned, the amount of stats you gain from a spell are tied to the quantity of that spell you have.
This means, every time I use a spell, my characters stats will decrease until I Draw more of that spell. This is the single biggest design flaw in the game. As a result, the most powerful spells in the game (which are very difficult to acquire and yield the highest stat gains) will be virtually unusable due to the impact it would have on the character it’s Junctioned to! Additionally, it means enemies that can destroy spells you’ve collected can effectively disable one of your character permanently.
This wouldn’t be such a huge deal, except that this IS how the game handles equipment. There are no armors or accessories, and weapon upgrades via Junk Shops are almost negligible. It’s really too bad, because if it weren’t for this major flaw, the entire Junction system is actually a ton of fun to use and build up.
Final Fantasy 8’s primary side activity, the Triple Triad card game, is another example of a great concept held back buy questionable design. The game itself is pretty fun and very addicting, and taking the time to invest in it and stick with it until the end pays off in some amazing ways. Unfortunately, the whole special rules and specifically the spreading of those rules is confusing and cumbersome, ultimately costing me the ability to really move forward with the card game at all at one point. If they had just left well enough alone this could have been a much more enjoyable, and natural, distraction.
These major issues aside, I found playing this game to be very enjoyable from start to finish, and the mechanical follies were never enough to make me want to quit. The story pays off well enough, and the combat is a lot of fun.
Presentation, Music and Sound:
From a technical standpoint, Final Fantasy 8 is leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor. Pre-rendered cutscenes are beautiful, even if they’re starting to show their age a little, and the way the game can seamlessly transition in and out of them is simply fantastic. Make no mistake, you’ll never forget you’re playing a late 90’s PS1 game. Textures warp and models become muddled as the distance themselves from the camera, but it never looks downright “bad”.
Sound effects are, as usual, perfectly serviceable for the game. The music, however, isn’t quite what I’d hope for when I play a Final Fantasy game. It’s not bad, for sure, but more than anything it sounds too much like an iteration of Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack and never really establishes its own personality. Of course there’s exceptions, Ultemecia’s theme is chilling and Eyes on Me is on most of my video game playlists, but everything else is a bit too subdued to really stand out.
The first time I played this game it must have been about 15 or 16 years ago. I rented it from Hollywood Video and, wouldn’t you know it, Disc 4 was too scratched for my console to read it. I never bothered to pick it up since then, but over the last few years I’ve really been wanted to pick it up again. I didn’t really know what to expect going in, but what I got was a much better game than I was hoping for. I think there’s a few too many flaws in both the mechanics and the story to really make this entry a classic in vein of other Final Fantasy games, but it certainly doesn’t deserve to be written off, either.
In fact, I had so much fun playing this game (or I’ve become addicted to farming and grinding to the point it’s masochistic) that my playtime clocked in at just under 60 hours, a record for this project!
I wanted to close with my opinion on the “Squall is dead” theory, because it’s fun. It’s a well established theory that at the end of the first disc, Squall dies. You spend the remainder of the game playing through what is effectively his life flashing before his eyes, only instead of memories he’s seeing possibilities. I like this theory, it’s really cool and has good evidence supporting it. That said, I don’t buy it.
For starters, the tone of the game doesn’t shift as much as some people might like to think. Everything that happens feels natural within the context of the world established with Squall was certainly alive. If there really was a change in the story that would imply Squall’s reality had shifted, it was far too subtle to notice or matter. Everyone else continued to go on with their lives even after the story concluded and, again, everything that happened after Disc 1 had a sensible reason for happening. As for the “What? There’s no wound?” moment after Squall gets impaled and allegedly dies at the hands of the Sorceress, I’m willing to accept that there was just enough of Edea’s conscience at play to prevent Ultemecia from murdering one of her orphans. And that’s my 2 gil!