Review by Terence

"An impressive game, marred only by the gameplay system"

Introduction

Final Fantasy VIII is the first Final Fantasy game I've ever played. Despite being a staunch FF fan, I have never owned a Playstation and only recently bought the PC version of FF8 to truly experience what playing one of such a distinguished series of games as the Final Fantasy feels like. And the game did not disappoint.

FF8 was released in 1999 by Squaresoft (now Square-Enix). It boasts of an innovative ‘Junction System', state-of-the-art 3D graphics, and, most notably, a seamless transition from a gameplay state to a movie cutscene, among other advances.

Plot (9/10)

The plot is intricate, appealing and packed with sporadic bursts of enjoyable, unlikable, and occasionally sad surprises. It is unique in the sense that it structures the game in such a way that you play the role of not one, but rather two characters in main protagonist Squall Leonhart (you can give him whatever name you wish), an introverted military cadet from Balamb Garden known as a SeeD (A Garden is a site where SeeDs are trained) and soldier-turned-journalist Laguna Loire.

After suffering somewhat grievous wounds from his SeeD combat practice with his rival and game antagonist Seifer Almasy – who from the starting FMV appeared to have intentionally wounded him –, Squall ends up in the Garden infirmary; this is where the game starts. Squall is then sent on various assignments that take him across the continent, and the true essence of the plot is revealed on one of these missions. Over the course of the game there are intervals where you mysteriously take the role of the soldier Laguna and his comrades and embark on a new, separate adventure. The two heroes will then actually cross paths later in the game, adding a savoury touch to the storyline.

Also, the playable characters have their own distinct personality, from the reclusive Squall to the goofy and amusing Laguna to the free-spirited Rinoa Heartilly, Squall's love interest. This trait only adds to the diversity and novelty of the plot.

Graphics (7/10)

Compared with the games of today, the gameplay graphics of FF8 is obviously below-par, which is quite expected since the maximum resolution is a meager 640x480 pixels. Character models are blurry and somewhat blocky (although it is still substantial enough for you to distinguish between different characters!), while the environment is similarly portrayed in mediocre fashion. This might be a problem when you are required to seek out specific objects in the surroundings, where the poor graphics sometimes make items camouflage with its background. However, with a good eye you should generally have no problems distinguishing interactive objects from the environment.

The sole redeeming factor that grants this game aspect a seven out of ten is FF8's gorgeous and realistic FMV graphics. It has the capacity to rival CGI movies of today, and is noticeably way ahead of its rivals in its time. Character models are meticulously rendered down to the creases in their outfits, while the various facets of the environment are painstakingly polished and displayed where appropriate –a feat accomplished exceedingly well.

Music (7/10)

Like most games, FF8 has different music for each scenario. There are city tunes, forest melodies, desert soundscapes and the desolate hymns of a locale in ruins. The music also switches appropriately to mirror the mood of the current in-game situation, from one of serenity and stagnation when exploring a new village or city, to another of suspense and adrenaline when exploring unknown caverns or identified enemy territories, where hostiles may lie in wait behind every corner. Battle themes, boss battle themes and major-boss battle themes are naturally in, as are victory and defeat tunes. The most notable of the music, in my opinion, is the one played while the credits are rolling, at the end of the game.

Also, FF8 features an excellent vocal theme song, Eyes on Me, sung by Asian artist Faye Wong. The song is played twice in the entire game, though its music is featured several times more.
However, there is still room for improvement in terms of music quality and sophistication.

Gameplay (5/10)

On battles: Standard battle commands include Attack, Item, Draw, and Guardian Force (GF) – where you summon a spirit (or whatever it is) that, after its initial summoning animation, unleashes a potent attack against the enemy. You start off with two GFs and acquire more along the way. Each GF has its own attack animation. You have to junction a GF to a character for the latter to use any other ability besides Attack. Additional abilities can be gained as the GF learns new skills from Ability Points gained after a victorious battle.

On saving: The game can be saved either at the many save points placed strategically around the world when you are inside a game area, or anywhere in the game world when you are not inside any city or structure, and are not in a vehicle.

Of all the battle commands, the Draw system is probably the most unique. You have to use Draw to obtain magic and some GFs in the game. Basically, you gain magic by drawing them either from fixed ‘Draw points' scattered throughout the game world, or from enemies. This can be irritating at times where you desperately need a particular magic to exploit the weakness of a certain enemy, but do not either know from which foe, or the location of that particular foe if its identity is known, to draw the magic from. But this, in my view, only adds to the difficulty of the game itself, rather than an infuriating oversight on the part of the game developers. The more frequent you play, the more well-informed about the game world and its monsters you become.

FF8 also features a card mini-game known as Triple Triad. Most NPCs in the game can be challenged to a card duel, and you have a chance to win rare cards from ‘prominent' NPCs if you beat them. You receive additional cards mostly by defeating monsters, although some NPCs themselves can also give them to you.

There are also ‘Chocobo forests' scattered across the world. If you solve the puzzles presented there, you will win one or more prizes that consist of mostly rare or semi-rare items. These activities add to the overall enjoyment of the game.

Lastly and perhaps less significantly, is the abolishment of tutorials that have, shall we say, plagued some RPGs of late. Instead of enduring lecture upon lecture on game basics before you even get a chance to actually experience the ‘feel' of the game, FF8 immerses you directly into the gameplay itself in Disc 1. You will be instructed on the various aspects of FF8 as you progress through the game.

Why, then, did the gameplay factor receive only a 50% rating?

The first issue concerns weapon-upgrading. In order to upgrade characters' weapons, you first need to possess the required materials. And these materials, whether directly or indirectly (as in you craft several less useful materials into a single, more valuable one), are either dropped by or must be stolen from enemies. Players without a material guide will most definitely be stumped: with numerous different types of enemies roaming the land, how do I know who drops what items? And even if you do happen to know the creature's identity, the location factor is another major barrier: where in this whole wide world have I seen that monster before? And the deathblow: you need to have read one of the several weapon magazines scattered across the world to even begin to know the materials needed for an upgrade. Hence the concept of weapon upgrading becomes one of luck and opportunity more than anything else. Here's a tip: don't sell anything. You never know when you are going to need any particular item.

The notion of magic is my second point. From my gameplay experience, offensive magic is all but useless. Why bother summoning a peal of lightning to strike an enemy when you can instead call upon the almighty Guardian Forces to rain doom upon foes or utilize Limit Breaks (if possible) to cast them into oblivion?

My next rant is with regards to the Junction system in conjunction with the different ‘tiers' of magic in the game, with top tier magic being the most devastating (to the enemy) or beneficial (to your party). The game boasts of the above system as providing an “unprecedented level of control in character customizability, allowing the player to modify character abilities, commands and even their attributes”. However, as the game progresses I find that all players (with the exception of those seeking a no-junction challenge game) will naturally want to junction the most powerful magic to their stats, thus eliminating any semblance of character customizability; each character will probably have more or less similar, potent spells junctioned to them. The process of acquiring those high-tier magic can also be rather time-consuming.

My final point is with regards to the game world. I have read reviews that commend on the sheer size of the in-game world, something which I utterly cannot comprehend: I feel that the game world is rather small and that there are not enough contents in them; most of the in-world locales are part of the storyline, with only a handful of others being intended as destinations for side-quests.

Challenge (5/10)

Depending on whether or not you as a player can play ‘smart', I would not think of this game as being tough. In fact I feel the difficulty is only a few notches higher from a complete breeze.

The first reason: Guardian Forces. During the early parts of the game using GFs in battles make the match a total joke, due to the high amount of damage inflicted with every GF summon as compared to a regular attack or spell. And don't forget that damage meted out on you during the summoning process is soaked up by the GF. A fair bit of patience on the part of the player is needed, though, as GF attack animations are somewhat lengthy.

The second: Limit Breaks and spell accumulation. Reliance on the former is all but compulsory in the late game, due to the gargantuan amount of health late-game bosses possess. As the game progresses you find that GFs do lesser and lesser damage on enemies, due to the latter's superior spirit stat. But by that stage you should have access to some of the best magic in the game to junction to your characters' offensive attributes (strength or magic), thus boosting the power of their limit breaks. If you take the time to amass a hundred (maximum) of those spells for the party members, their limit break damage can reach astronomical figures, often sufficient to topple mighty bosses with several assaults, and usually before the latter can unleash the most devastating attacks of their own.

And lastly: Exploit of the game's ‘parallel level' system. The system basically matches the enemy's level with the average level of your party. However, during the course of my gameplay I have discovered that an increase in character prowess and hit points is not proportionate to their level increase. With excellent junctions and an average party level of fifty four I was able to trounce each of the final bosses with a couple of strikes from Squall's limit break alone, but under the same circumstances at level hundred it takes a comparatively much longer period of time to do so – even though I noticed that the damage output from both my characters and that of the enemy did not really alter much despite the fact that their levels have almost doubled.

However, notice that the various above-mentioned lack-of-challenge factors are associated with game warfare. Like all respectable RPGs, FF8 also has its fair share of non-combative challenge elements like mazes, mysteries and brainteasers, most of which I feel are rather tricky indeed (especially the one near the end of the game.) In addition, most of those challenges take place in ‘hostile' territory, meaning there is a chance of encountering a random enemy with every taken step. Unless you have a way to halt these confrontations – and maybe even if you can do so – be prepared to invest in as much as an hour or more to solve those devious puzzles.

Controls (10/10)

By default, the keys Q, W, E, A, S, D, F, Z, X and C (basically those on the left side of the keyboard) are used, as are the four directional keys for movement. The controls are by no means inconvenient, and I have never encountered any controls-related problems before. All it takes is a little familiarity. The in-game menu is also rather straightforward, although some may be baffled by the seemingly complex layout of the junction menu. Again, some practice should do the trick.

Fun Factor (8/10)

If by ‘Fun' you mean spending numerous sleepless nights lying in bed replaying scenes of your party thrashing the living hell out of a rather pathetic boss, then no, FF8 is not that addictive (for me at least).

But I feel most gamers should still get hooked by the sheer promise of how the game plot is going to unfold, and that at least is saying something about the excitement power of this game. In fact, it is that promise that made me rate this game's fun factor with a remarkable 80%, with respect to its brilliant storyline composition.

Replay Value (4/10)

In my opinion the only incentives for you to replay this game are if
-you did not obtain all the GFs and wish to witness their summoned animations and attack effects.
-you did not complete all the side-quests or have not yet discovered and conquered all the secrets that this game has to offer
-you want to tackle this game at a handicap (like not using any items, magic, or just doing away with the junction system altogether)
-you want to finish the game with a party that has a higher/lower average level than your previous one, to investigate the changes a higher/lower party level has on game difficulty brought about by the game's ‘parallel level' system.
-you want to write an FAQ on the game

In conclusion, I wouldn't see the point of anyone playing through the game more than thrice. For an average gamer like me, beating the game once should garner you the vast majority of the satisfaction this game deserves.

Best Part of Game

The best part has to go to the ending FMV. True satisfaction from playing RPG games can only be gained when you know its ending. Besides, the FMV is gorgeous (See the ‘Graphics' section for more details) and quite touching too.

Conclusion

This game is definitely worth buying for any FF fan, if only for the purpose of character familiarization and witnessing the storyline development. This game might also appeal to graphical junkies who just want to view the stunning FMVs.

However, general enthusiasts of the RPG might be put off by this game's poor gameplay structure, while hardcores might feel the same about FF8's lack of challenge.

But, all in all, this is an impressive game, a worthy effort by Squaresoft (or rather Square-Enix).


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 01/18/06


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