The past remains the same.
Regardless of the medium in which they exist, siblings tend to be competitive by nature. In its family of games, Suikoden IV could hardly keep pace with its elder siblings. Inversely, Final Fantasy VII arguably out shined Final Fantasy VI (USA’s III). In the fabled family of the Final Fantasy series, how can an heir of Final Fantasy VII hold up? History would suggest that Final Fantasy VIII would falter in the enormous shadow of its big brother. But Final Fantasy VIII may just be my favorite RPG of all time. I will detail why in my following review. There will be some spoilers below.
Final Fantasy VIII is the story of Squall Leonhart, a student at Balamb Garden. This university trains students to become soldiers. Students that attend have the goal of being initiated into the ranks of SeeD, an elite mercenary force with unparalleled power that travels the world. Unfortunately, this process leads Squall and his associates into a deep and tangled tale of assassination and war. He is too much of a loner to depend on others or call them friends.
The Final Fantasy series has always contributed valuable entries into the gaming industry because of its central themes, strong plot lines, and growing characters. All of these virtues endure in Final Fantasy VIII. Integral to its plot are the themes of love and trust, what it means to take a life, and the brutality of war and politics. To me, the most important concept that Final Fantasy VIII explores is that there is nothing one can do to change the past, and that history should never be altered.
I have generally stood by the statement that Final Fantasy VIII has perhaps the best character development in the history of gaming. Each character is complex with layers and flaws. The game is long enough to devote more than enough time to explore the growth of each character. All of these themes and characters could not have blossomed like they have without an epic story that accommodates their growth. The story of Final Fantasy VIII is an intricate web of plot lines. There is the central mission to assassinate the sorceress. A multitude of additional plot points are spun throughout the game that all reconnect at the center of the story’s web. Ellone’s important story arch centers itself around the theme of trying to change the past. Periodically in the game, the characters believe they are dreaming about a soldier named Laguna and his two war buddies, Kiros and Ward. Laguna’s past is key to the story in the present. The group’s collective past, Garden’s origins, and motivations of the villains go far in advancing the plot. And there is much more. There are four discs, after all.
The gameplay in Final Fantasy VIII holds up well, even by today’s standards. Control of your character is standard, but the party follows Squall around. Unlike the previous entry, the party doesn’t pile into Cloud’s trousers. Combat in Final Fantasy VIII is pretty standard, too. It’s a classic turn-based system with a couple twists. When controlling Squall, if the player hits the R1 button on impact, Squall fires his gunblade during his attack, increasing damage. Players can ‘draw’ magic from enemies to stock up on abilities or cast them during battle.
Speaking of magic, the whole system for casting is unique. Magic is gathered from draw points around the world or from enemies in battle. Depending on how you load out your character, he or she may be able to cast in battle or simply draw from enemies. Magic gained, however, can be used in a multitude of ways. Depending on the Guardian Force (GF) you have equipped, you can junction magic to stats on your character associated to the GF. Guardian Forces are magical creatures you can summon in Final Fantasy VIII. As an example, if Ifrit is equipped to Squall, he can junction magic to increase Squall’s strength. In addition to enhancing core statistics, magic can also be junctioned to your offense or defense. In other words, if you junction sleep to Rinoa with a 50% boost, it becomes that much more likely to put enemies to sleep in battle. Likewise, if you junction 100 Level 4 Death to your characters, instant death for multiples of 4 will be completely negated. This is invaluable when attempting to defeat Omega weapon.
Unlike FF VII, instead of hitting a button to call a summon, the characters call on the Guardian Forces to attack in a different manner. When you’ve selected Shiva, for example, she will have an action bar to fill first before she attacks. The more a character uses a Guardian Force, the quicker the summoning occurs. The good news is that a character cannot be harmed during a summon; each GF has an HP bar that appears whilst in the process of summoning, and any damage the character takes is actually channeled to the GF. It’s a pretty neat system, though the player can easily rely on GFs for the majority of the game.
Characters do not only reap money, known as gil, and experience after battles, but they also earn AP. AP levels up Guardian Forces and helps them learn abilities. For example, Quetzalcoatl can learn a card ability, which, if equipped, has a chance to turn an enemy into an infamous Triple Triad card. More useful abilities include skills like Restore and Revive. While these aren’t necessary to play the game, they make it a lot easier to complete.
Final Fantasy VIII boasts my favorite mini-game: Triple Triad. In fact, the mini-game is so popular that Final Fantasy XIV recently incorporated it into the Manderville Gold Saucer for players to enjoy. It’s an extremely simple mini-game at its core, but requires thought and, to some extent, skill once new rules are introduced based on region.
Another interesting addition to the game involves your SeeD rank and pay. Based on the actions you take immediately prior to becoming and while venturing as a SeeD operative, Squall’s SeeD ranking and pay may increase or decrease. Squall receives a paycheck every time he travels a certain distance. This is useful for renting vehicles for those distant road trips.
Weapons are created based purely on the Weapons Monthly magazines. Each month includes a different recipe to create a more powerful weapon for each character. It is then up to Squall and company to hunt for the materials needed to create the next tier of weaponry. For the majority of the game, this isn’t too difficult. The biggest pain arrives when looking for the mats for each character’s ultimate weapon. Even then, however, it isn’t too time consuming.
As a final note about playing this game, Squaresoft never allowed the player to over level. The enemies, regardless of where they are located, level up with Squall. To the frustration of some, it meant that over leveling was impossible. As a result, this provided spikes in difficulty. This can be overcome by strategizing to defeat foes. The only enemy I was never able to topple was the loathsome Omega Weapon. He and Final Fantasy VII’s Ruby Weapon should go bowling some time.
For its time, Final Fantasy VIII was a very pretty game. Squaresoft ditched the polygonal bodies of Cloud and his friends in favor of a more realistic humanoid figure for Squall and his acquaintances. Squaresoft’s signature cut scenes were beautiful, particularly when considering they graced the original PlayStation.
Now that we’ve explored the game’s play mechanics, one might ask if there is anything else to do outside of the main storyline and Triple Triad. The answer to that question is a wholehearted “YES”. Final Fantasy VIII offers many hours of extra content in the form of side quests. Not only that, but there are hidden locations that serve as fantastic experience farming grounds (the islands closest to heaven and hell, for example). Searching for Bahamut, the Jumbo Cactaur, or the Tonberry King are also entertaining ways to pass the time (and gain some pretty cool GFs). Battling Ultima Weapon is a challenge, but dealing with Omega Weapon is a seemingly impossible task. Whatever you fancy to do, it is most likely that you be able to conquer it in Final Fantasy VIII.
Lastly, Final Fantasy VIII is brought alive by a beautiful soundtrack from legendary composer Nobuo Uemtasu. The PlayStation, in my opinion, housed Uematsu’s finest work. Spanning an additional four discs, the OST contains some of my favorite songs in gaming history. Much like Nier’s soundtrack, I believe the music in Final Fantasy VIII breathed life into the game that otherwise could not have existed. Not only did the music convey the technological steampunk-esque world of Final Fantasy VIII, but it captures the emotion of the game. The music is often dark and brooding, complicated, disorienting, and technical. Each track adds power to the mood and tone of the game as a whole.
Final Fantasy VIII boasts a cast of complicated characters involved in an intricate plot that is inhabited by a healthily legged collection of themes. Much more time is necessary to discuss these features to give them the proper attention they need. But for now, this review will have to do. If you have yet to play Final Fantasy VIII, I beg of you–do so now. It is an RPG experience that is worth the time, money, and effort you will commit to it.