Review by nintendosega
"A nice adventure, although a steep learning curve and weak characters do it no favors"
Final Fantasy VIII easily ended up being one of the more polarizing entries in the main series, due to a number of factors. A brand new leveling up system, a more realistic story and setting, and heavy amounts of romance had many fans divided at the time of its release. As a person who started the series with Final Fantasy 10 and then worked backwards, it had a similar effect on me as it obviously did to people playing this after Final Fantasy VII. It's certainly an extremely flawed entry in the series, but once you get past some of these issues, the game manages to draw you into its world and does at times feel very much like a Final Fantasy game.
But it feels different right off the bat. First and foremost.... all the main characters are humans, the first half of the game's centered on a war-related plot, and military academies play a large role in the storyline. Although summons remain, certain series trademarks such as chocobos and moogles remain out of the main story entirely, and even when things like sorceresses get introduced into the plot, the game remains fairly grounded in some sort of reality.
Dealing with an all-human cast, while I much prefer a more eclectic group, at least gives the game something that stands out. You don't find yourself doing military exercises and attending military dances in other Final Fantasy games, and it gives Final Fantasy VIII a fresh feeling. Plus, in this more realistic setting, it makes the fantasy elements, when they do occur, feel even more "magical." The flying military gardens, for example, are some of the most memorable elements of the 3-D Final Fantasy games to date, especially when they do battle. Things like controllable flashbacks and realistic battles keep the plot intriguing.
The big problem with Final Fantasy VIII's narrative is that, aside from some excellent moments, the plot overall fails to reach the high points of other games in the series. It's not bad, don't get me wrong, but it suffers greatly from a dull character cast. We have the basic stereotypes: the moody Squall, the self proclaimed- ''princess'' Rinoa, we have the athletic and dumb Zell, the ''lady's man,'' Irvine, the uptight Quistis, and the energetic Selphie. You've seen these characters all before, and they offer no surprises, showing completely non-existent character development. Instead, Final Fantasy VIII seems to devote most of its character development to main characters Squall and Rinoa, who slowly begin to fall in love. As the first Final Fantasy game to feature a love story as its centerpiece, it's yet again another notable effort in that it tried to do something different, but unfortunately, this love story is entirely unbelievable. Why Squall, a moody, shy, angry, ambitious student and Rinoa, a whiny, ditzy girl would fall for each other is beyond me. You see them fall in love over the course of the game but it seems to only be happening because the script's agenda was for it to happen. Never for one second do these characters have any chemistry and never does it feel like they would have fallen in love had the contrived script not been straining to put them together. In a game whose plot attempts to be realistic, this phony romance really sinks it.
Other than the romance, the storyline here's actually pretty solid, especially when it ventures into the past: during certain periods of the game, the characters experience strange flashbacks to a different time, following the adventure of three soldiers named Laguna, Kiros, and Ward. In these playable flashbacks, which take place throughout the main storyline and cover many years of these three characters' lives, we get to watch a group of friends grow up together through good times and bad. There's a romance at the center of this storyline as well, and this one contains all the heart and emotional pull that's missing from the romance of the game's two lead characters. I liked these characters' adventure so much that I at times just wished the whole game featured them instead. They ultimately elevate the plot (which starts strongly but eventually dissolves into a standard hunt for the game's dull villain,) to something really special at the end of the game. Final Fantasy VIII's ending is one of the more memorable in the series.
To clarify, the main storyline isn't bad just flawed. Squall does "think" to himself over the course of the game, and we really get to see what's going on in his head. This leads to some strong moments, and even though the other characters don't do much but act annoyingly, they all pretty much have their moments to shine. The plot takes some questionable twists and turns, but the ending (as long as you stay through the entire credits) pretty much wraps up everything and makes it all worthwhile. Still, it could have been even better, apparently: an optional conversation with an NPC in an airship near the end of the game features some dialogue that GREATLY hints that there's even more to these two stories than the game ever reveals to us, and it ends up seeming like a big missed opportunity to further link the stories together. I'm not sure what happened there. On another note, I have to praise the FMV's. Particularly in battle scenes, they never cease to amaze. The battles between different countries/military bases are actually some of the cooler elements of the plot.
And now we move on to gameplay, yet another fan-dividing segment in the game. In battle, this time, you're powered by what's known as the Junction System, a unique idea, but botched in execution. Here's how it works. You have practically no power without a Guardian Force (GF) equipped. When you equip one, you can then take advantage of its powers, including abilities, bonuses, as well as using them to attack enemies. But that's not all. Leveling up in this game is completely pointless. That's right. Enemies level up with you. (This is actually never made clear to you during the game, by the way.) So, how do you overpower the enemy? Junctioning. What you do is find good magic, then you "junction" it to a stat, to make your character more powerful in it. Let's say your HP was 700. If you junctioned CURAGA to your HP, it would boost your max HP to...let's just say 1,500. And the more CURAGA spells you collect, (you draw them from enemies. There's no MP in the game,) the more your max HP increases. It sounds like a pretty bad idea on paper and it's unfortunately as annoying as it sounds. Drawing spells from enemies is a chore, as you must draw a full stock (about 100 of each magic) if you want it to be at its most effective, so you could be in a battle for up to 40 minutes just drawing magic, continually getting the ''draw failed'' error that occurs for no reason at all other than to piss you off. (Apparently, increasing your magic stats increases your draw success rate, but it never seemed to make much of a difference for me.) There's also a limit on the amount of different magic each character can hold, which puts a limit on the amount of experimenting you can really do.
You can also use your ridiculously powerful Guardian Forces to attack and although you must sit through their un-skipple summon cutscenes to use them, they end up doing significant damage.
Hence, the game's first main problem: the junction system reveals itself to be a pain in the ass to use, (once you finally figure it out; it's explained in a very complicated manner and I don't think any non-FF fans will be able to understand it at all,) and it's a pain mainly because you must rely on spending countless hours in battles stealing magic from enemies to build up your stock. With it being such an irritating system to use, most gamers will feel tempted to instead just rely on their Guardian Forces to attack, and that's what I ended up doing. The game, though, never discourages this, and I was literally able to get all the way to the last boss on disc 3 with minimal junctioning and just attacking with my GF's...finally, at the end of disc 3, the game moves to prevent this. But that's a problem, because if a game introduces a new battle system element and yet doesn't require you to even use it for 95% of the game...then suddenly at the end throws bosses at you that don't allow you to use Guardian Force summons, you're pretty much stuck. It turns out that I had to go back and replay the game again to get it right, this time making use of the Junction System, and it took me almost an additional 10 or so hours to reach the same point the 2nd time; it's really much slower to use the Junction System than it would be just to use GF's....yet, you have to. Again, just not very well thought out. Don't give gamers a system that's complicated and annoying, first of all. Second of all, if you do, don't provide an easier alternative only to then suddenly screw gamers over at the end by removing it. One other flaw I have to point out is that Final Fantasy VIII features an unnecessarily tedious final dungeon and a ridiculously drawn out final boss that make finishing this game a huge pain.
Other than the Junction System, the game plays a lot like other Final Fantasy games, which is a good thing. The storyline's action-packed and exploring your home base, Balamb Garden, and the game's several towns, is a lot of fun. Though the Junction System turns out to have been a pretty bad idea overall, it at least means that you can avoid random battles whenever you want, since you're no longer punished for being at a low level. I also appreciate the fact that the developers have added an "auto-junction" feature, which will junction your stats for you, making managing your characters and picking the best magic for each stat a lot easier. But then, earning money is annoying, as you're paid a salary instead of receiving it from battles...there are a series of quizzes to take in the menu (again, this is never told to you) and doing these correctly will net you a pay raise, which is recommended, because otherwise you'll likely have extremely little money.
The music's strong, as is expected for this series. The vocal song, "Eyes On Me," (and its variations throughout the game,) is a big success, especially during the excellent ending. The boss battle theme and the battle theme when in those flashbacks are also some of the better ones in the series.
Final Fantasy VIII's a good game that would have been great if Square had not made it with the Junction System, and if they had spent a little more time developing the game's world and characters. A very unbelievable love story doesn't help matters much, either. If you're not a fan of the Final Fantasy series you'll likely be impressed with the storyline, although again, it's a bit lacking compared to the rest of the games in the series. Still, I don't recommend this to non-FF fans because I really don't think you'll be able to understand the Junction System without understanding the fundamentals of the FF magic system. To Final Fantasy fans, it's definitely worth a purchase, as there's some of the best action scenes of the series in here, as well as the great Laguna, Kiros, and Ward flashbacks that add so much to the storyline. And the ending....great stuff. It's unfortunate that some mistakes in the game's design and storyline took away from this one, because it does a lot right, too. Final Fantasy VIII's a very good RPG but its inaccessibility makes it very hard to recommend to people who aren't fans of the series, and fans of the series will find its characters to be a bit lacking. It may have been a game bound to disappoint, but go in with the right expectations and you'll likely get a lot out of it.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 03/13/04, Updated 03/09/10
Game Release: Final Fantasy VIII (US, 09/07/99)
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