Review by Exodist
"A much more mature and mysterious entry into the series with mixed results."
After the runaway success of Final Fantasy VII, all the worlds eyes were on the next game in the big franchise, finally winning over mass audiences in the west. The result was Final Fantasy VIII, known by some as a bit of a black sheep in the series and a game which has divided fans over and over.
After the success of the fantastic setting of VII, VIII takes things further by creating an overall much more realistic setting with plenty more sci-fi elements, with the fantasy elements lurking below. The story is primarily a romantic story between main character Squall and Rinoa, a pretty young girl with whom he gets mixed up with. Squall is a SeeD, an elite military force for hire from the garden of Balamb, a sort of big school for a range of young people. The game begins fairly low key. Everything is realistic and normal, we meet our cast of characters, and then finally we learn about Edea, a sorceress who is controlling Galbadia, an army terrorising the world. In typical fashion, the story changes in leaps and bounds over the course of the game. There are plenty of twists and turns, but honestly, they're pretty lame. There are quite a few big twists here and some of them are just plain dumb or just don't really make sense, too coincidental, and it kind of hurts the story. The story is definitely mature and complex, its very interesting and has a lot of depth to it. It requires thinking and is the source of plenty of theories, something I really admire in a storyline, it lets the player think during and after playing the game. It just features some really bad moments that hurt the overall story.
The cast of characters involved are generally not great. Beyond our main hero and heroine we have Quistis, the teacher of Squall who has basically zero personality, little bit bossy and thats it. Zell is the punching guy who gets angry easily. Selphie is the cute girl who gets over excited at everything. Irvine is just some guy who is a ladies man but actually fails to pick up any ladies, and does basically nothing else. Its just not a very good cast. They're barely characterised and barely even have stereotypes attached to them. They're just there for the ride. The source of this problem? Squall and Rinoa. This is their story. The main theme of the game is their romance (its on the logo) and although these two characters are done well, it hurts the rest. But putting that behind us, Squall is perhaps one of the most hated characters. He's just an annoying emo kid whose most used line is probably "Whatever." However there is depth here, at least compared to other characters. He has an interesting history and motives behind how he acts and feels that we learn as the game goes on, and his romance with Rinoa, if somewhat rather sudden, has something behind it. Rinoa isn't perhaps characterised as much as our hero, however she exists in order to change Squall and her purpose in the game goes beyond being a character to fight with.
The game play also proves the same, interesting and original but very complex and a bit annoying a lot of the time. As with other Final Fantasy games, the idea is that the main system behind it changes each time, and it works. The battle system takes on from the last few games with ATB, however the junction system - the new character development system - completely changes how everything works. VII was a bit more basic, materia was simple and easy to use but also had some hidden depth and strategy behind it, but it gave you customisation to do what you wanted with your characters. VIII goes for a similar system, literally unparalleled character customisation. It just isn't that simple.
Here's the basics: each character can equip any amount of Guardian Forces, or GFs, the equivalent of any other Final Fantasy games summons. Each GF can then learn their own abilities and level up separately from the character, also the GFs can freely be reassigned to other characters. Whilst assigned to a character, you can then set up your command menu. Normally only attack is available, however you can choose from other options: Draw, Magic, Item, and GF. Using a GF in battle gives a timer until it is cast, the GF will then do a generic summon attack. Magic and Item are self explanatory, however, Draw is a new system. There is no MP in VIII, just HP. Instead, you stock spells on your character and use them in battle this way. When in battle, you can use the draw spells from enemies and stock them. You can draw 7 of Cure, and you can then cast cure 7 times, stocking up to a total of 100 a spell. There's more to it, however. The whole idea of the junction system, is to junction spells your character has onto your character stats. You can junction one spell to your HP, Strength, Speed, Vitality, Magic, Hit Rate etc, and depending on how good the spell is, how relevant it is to the stat, and how many you have stocked, your stat improves. Curaga for example is great to have on HP, whilst spells such as Flare and Ultima provide the best stats on everything.
Its actually a really clever and original system. It goes beyond this and even allows you to junction spells onto other things such as elemental attack. This means junctioning thunder to this makes all of your attacks based on thunder. You can also set up elemental defences and so on. There is a lot of depth here. However, its also confusing as hell. The tutorial actually does a great job of explaining the system. It just isn't very user friendly. You can go ages in the game without actually having very good spells or having a good idea of what to junction. For most of the game, my characters were all extremely weak. I did absolutely no damage to anything ever, and even spells were really weak. Your stats seem too low for all the game until you get all the uber spells, it just doesn't seem balanced very well. I personally resorted to abusing GFs to win boss fights, not very fun considering the animation times. It just didn't make any sense. I had the strongest spells available to me at the time in high stock on my stats, why was I doing so little? And ultimately I have no real idea why. By the end of the game providing you have the spells, you get really powerful. 5000 damage hits, 9999HP and awesome spells such as triple (lets you triple cast). You can auto junction to attack, magic or HP, which is really helpful, but not helpful enough.
Meanwhile there are two other main areas to this system. First I'll explain the GF abilities. GFs learn abilities, most of them being passive. These benefit whoever is using the GF at the time, or the GF itself. You gain AP by winning fights, which goes towards learning abilities, of which you can choose what to learn at any time. For example, you can learn HP boosts for your GF or boosted magic damage on your GFs. You can also learn passive abilities to assign to your character, two by default and more through extra abilities. These range from +40% HP to +40% strength and the like, giving you boosts to stats. Meanwhile you can also learn over abilities altogether to replace actions such as item, with things like Recover, which fully restores a characters HP. For free. Completely spammable. The other system in place is the basic levelling system. Win fights and earn EXP and your characters gain levels, 1000 EXP required to level each time. It may be more beneficial however, to not level up. You see, the enemies also level up with you and get stronger. So why is this bad? You earn literally nothing for levelling up.
In hindsight, this is actually genius play on the developers part. The entire game is about junctioning. You make your characters stronger by junctioning spells to stats and doing it right, giving you the right elemental defences and attacks for bosses, and boosting the stats your characters need. As said, when you level up, you get pretty much nothing for it. Important stats such as strength can stay the same for 3 levels on a character. never improving, before going up 1. Reach level 100 and your stats are disgustingly low. It makes a change though, a game not about the grind right? Absolutely not. In fact, VIII has worse grind than others. There are now three, yes, three types of grind for you to do: AP grinding, Draw grinding, and to a much lesser extent, level grinding. As meagre as they are, the small stat boosts from levelling are still beneficial, and as you only need 1000 EXP to level up, its not actually too difficult to grind the levels away. Late game, your GFs also learn abilities that can actually make your characters earn bonuses to stats permanently as they level up, providing more incentive. The problem is, you need magic. And this means grinding. And this is extremely bad. It seems that any spell junctioned to a stat does pretty much nothing unless you have 100 of this spell stocked. This is extremely boring to do. You have to draw for every single character every single good spell from every single enemy. Drawing, I dunno, 1-10 from each draw, 10 being quite optimistic? It takes ages, and you have to do this whilst fighting. Some spells are simply too hard to stock up on, especially from bosses. This gives you the joy of grinding for magic. Curaga just been introduced? Gotta get that on all your characters. Its no fun and goes beyond simply mashing X to win fights quick for AP, since you actually have to navigate menus to draw. Horrible.
The system is utter genius and yet just fails almost completely. Whilst there is a good tutorial, the concept behind junctioning works. Oh, I see, I put offensive spells on strength, and I get stronger? Oh, I still do nothing. Okay, I'll grind magic for a bit. Oh, I still do nothing. The system just barely makes sense, why am I so weak? It feels like you're being penalised because you're not already an expert at the system. There are plenty of guides and theory behind all this, people know how to make everything great early, but who says you do? The game is very challenging, but not because the boss fights are legitimately hard. Its because grinding is so boring you don't, then you have no spells and your characters are just weak. Even worse, the game features 6 main playable characters, 3 in a party at once. The game constantly forces you swap characters. You don't know how much of a pain swapping GFs, and rejunctioning spells is. The system is there, you can swap setups and exchange magic between characters, but it all gets very tedious towards the end. GF abilities also play an important part, naturally, you want to get more AP to learn better abilities, but then you keep levelling too and then your characters earn nothing for levelling, and then everything gets stronger. It punishes the player for grinding levels, instead forcing you to junction. To be honest, its all a bit of a beautiful disaster (no, I can't come up with something more poetic).
The graphics in the game are superb. The art direction envisions a modern and realistic world, a setting I really enjoyed. The gardens are modern and exciting, the towns small but real, the technology reminiscent of today. The fantasy is done right and it creates a great blend of fantasy, sci-fi and realism. Gone are the weird as hell character models from VII (in the field at least), the characters here are fairly normal (well, Square claim the characters are meant to be normal, if you count big scares and some weird spike thing on Zell's face as normal) and very realistic looking. The CGI is also pretty great for its time and providing some great cut-scenes, considering its used plenty, along with a great ending CGI scene. Nobuo Uematsu does the music, do you really need to know more? Its absolutely brilliant. There is a pretty annoying vocal song that plays a few times through the game, but the rest of the sound track is superb, proving many great and classic themes, there isn't much to be said really.
The story dares to be complex, mature and deep, and although I can't commend this enough, it just doesn't work. Some plot points are just pretty ridiculous and not very good, the twists make no real sense and the characters are on a whole a bit rubbish. The gameplay also dares to be complex. It rewards players who think smart and experiment with different magic. Its just not very fun. Grinding for magic to improve your stats is extremely boring and tedious no matter what. The system should in theory be great, however earning the magic is not and overall the game just proves difficult for the wrong reasons. This may sound like I sucked at the game. Maybe I did. I managed to finish it in about 35 hours with plenty of magic grinding and some higher levels (around 50), however the game never felt challenging, just annoying. I couldn't be bothered to grind. The constant changes in party, the constant junctioning and messing around annoyed me. The story annoyed me sometimes. The game is very fun, very beautiful and wonderful to listen with when it gets it right. There are some exciting set pieces and sometimes you just go with the flow, keep fighting and face some challenging bosses. At other times you come to a halt due to the unnecessarily complex systems. Its a game full of great original ideas with hugely mixed results.
Score: 6/10 - Good
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 08/02/12
Game Release: Final Fantasy VIII (EU, 10/27/99)
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