My Review: Final Fantasy VIII (PS1)
You’ve really got to respect Square for being so experimental with their key franchise. Even when following up an enormous hit, they always end up reinventing the wheel with each of their games, when so many other companies would simply release more of the same. When the game you’re trying to succeed is the world-famous Final Fantasy VII, though, you’re going to have a hard time no matter what you do. Square stuck to their guns with Final Fantasy VIII, implementing numerous stylistic and gameplay changes. The important question, however, is not if Final Fantasy VIII can live up to its predecessor- rather, is it a great game on its own?
Final Fantasy VIII stars Squall Leonhart (an RPG protagonist’s name if there ever was one), a brooding and introverted individual. Squall is a member of a paramilitary organization known as SeeD, and has a rivalry with fellow SeeD member Seifer. Trained at various Hogwarts-like Gardens, SeeD is a group of mercenary soldiers who are hired around the world to participate in battles. When they are hired by a group of resistance fighters led by a woman named Rinoa, Squall and his fellow SeeDs are caught in a worldwide conflict with the Galbadian Republic, now led by a sinister Sorceress. Squall develops a deep relationship with Rinoa, and the two of them attempt to stop the Sorceress from destroying all existence, as well as unravel the mystery of the woman Ellone and the strange man they see in their dreams…
Final Fantasy VIII’s setting is probably my favorite part of the game. The pseudo-modern setting isn’t as dark and grimy as VII’s, but also isn’t as clean and futuristic as XIII’s, falling nicely into the middle. Galbadia and the other warring countries are nicely fleshed out over the course of the game, as is the nature of SeeD. It’s one of the better blends of science fiction and fantasy in the series, coming across at times as a more fantastic version of 20th century Earth. What is rather disappointing about the story is the characters, who don’t receive enough development. Squall and Rinoa’s romance received the majority of the attention, and while this does make their characters grow (Squall’s character arc is definitely the focus of the story), the other characters feel somewhat left out. The ultimate adversary of the game, Ultimecia, is also lacking when compared to series greats such as Sephiroth and Kefka. Characters like Zell and Selphie are more annoying the anything else, Seifer is just a pompous prick you’ll end up battling too many times, and Irvine and Quistis have a few small character moments that don’t add up to much. The characters do have a shared backstory near the middle of the game, culminating in one of the most forced plot twists in the series’ history. However, despite these criticisms, the overall story is enjoyable and doesn’t resort to any stupid tricks in order to continue. A weaker cast and villain are balanced by a great setting and overall interesting plot.
Now for the strange part. Final Fantasy VIII features seemingly more changes to the series’ classic formula than any other Final Fantasy game. Some minor examples include; characters level up with every 1000 experience points, spells don’t cost MP but are instead stocked like items, limit breaks become available when a character’s health is low enough, and enemies level up with you.
Yes, Final Fantasy VIII features level scaling, one of the worst possible ways to raise difficulty in an RPG. However, it doesn’t really matter, thanks to FF8’s character growth system: the Junction System. The Junction System is essentially a more complicated version of VI’s Esper System. By ‘Junctioning’ a ‘Guardian Force’ (FF8’s form of summons) to a character, they gain whatever abilities that GF has learned, including the ability to raise certain stats. By junctioning magic spells to these stats, they increase- the more magic a character has Junctioned to a stat, the higher that stat increases. Characters can have up to 100 of any spell, and while only one type can be Junctioned to each stat, certain spells are more potent than others. In order to circumvent the level scaling, leveling up becomes the last thing you want to do- instead, ‘draw’ magic from enemies (a long and tedious process), stock up on magic, and Junction it to a character.
While the system works, it’s often needlessly complicated- with so much that can be Junctioned, and the constant need to fiddle with your characters, you’ll spend a lot of time in menus. It’s also one of the most broken character growth systems I’ve seen in an RPG- you can completely screw the game over as early as Disc 1 with the proper GF abilities. As a result, the game suffers from an uneven difficulty curve- by keeping your level low and Junctioning the proper magic, you’ll slaughter anything in your path, but incorrect Junctioning or high level characters will screw you over. This is the first game I’ve played where leveling up was something I wanted to avoid, and it was rather frustrating.
Still, despite my complaining, Final Fantasy VIII can still be a fun game. The Junction System might be absolutely broken at times, but the game itself is a perfectly functional Final Fantasy, which alone provides a strong enough framework for the game to be, at least, above average. The traditional elements present are enough to redeem the game, but the Junction System and the level scaling really hurt the experience. I still loved the game as I was playing it, but overall it could’ve been a lot more fun.
Squaresoft made some of the best looking PS1 games in existence, and Final Fantasy VIII is no exception. The game has an enormous graphical update over its predecessor. The pre-rendered backgrounds look great, and many of the FMV sequences are still jaw-dropping (the ‘time compression’ scene in particular is great). One step back, though, is that it’s sometimes easy to get lost in the areas. While FF7 had an option to switch on an icon to show what areas could be entered and exited, Final Fantasy VIII has no such option, and at times it’s easy to go into the wrong place or not see where you’re supposed to go. The character models are much improved from VII, with more realistic proportions.
Nobuo Uematsu once again composed the musical score Final Fantasy VIII, and the result is beautiful. Final Fantasy VIII has possibly the best soundtrack in the entire series, and that’s saying something. From the epic opening ‘Liberi Fatali’, the fist-pumping ‘Force Your Way’, the tranquil ‘Eyes on Me’, to the haunting final battle theme ‘The Extreme’, the music in Final Fantasy VIII is top-notch.
The Final Fantasy series has an understandably high bar of quality. Final Fantasy VIII reaches that, but just barely. The game is still a classic RPG, but several of the new mechanics just don’t work very well. The intriguing story and great presentation do a lot to make up for this fact, but Final Fantasy VIII is definitely one of the weaker games in the series, more on the level of XIII or X than VI or VII. Still, a weak Final Fantasy is still a great game. Like I said, after making one of the most critically and commercially successful games of all time, you’ve got to hand it to Square for trying something new with Final Fantasy VIII, and be surprised at how well they managed it, regardless.