Review by Fraghappy
"Another legend in a long legacy of greatness."
With the arrival of Final Fantasy VIII comes what is a surprisingly revolutionary idea: a game that can be just as artistic as it is entertaining. In the past, video games have been hampered by both technological limitations and lack of creative minds in the medium, leading to the perceived stereotype of it being a medium incapable of harnessing art, only filled with unmelodic, repetitive music, poorly-designed graphics, and non-engrossing and cliché storylines. Square (now SquareEnix) sought out to change that.
Final Fantasy VII was their first noble attempt, a game that captivated audiences by a deep, touching storyline, coupled with some breathtaking CG scenes and Uematsu's gorgeous soundtrackthings that had previously been impossible due to hardware restrictions of the older, less advanced video game systems. However, it was their first game in a 3D environment, and their inexperience in the new realm of graphical rendering ultimately led to a blocky, unrealistic looking environment. Regardless, the game succeeded in being one of the most impressive and innovative games of its genre, but it's artistic potential was severely limited.
That's not to say VIII has beautiful graphics, but it better represents the potential of Sony's freshman console, the Playstation. People look more like people, and less like random groupings of polygons, as in the previous game. Right off the bat, the game throws you into Balamb Garden, a prestigious military academy completely worth of the title Garden, nurturing not only its SeeD elite, but also plants life of many forms, all of which do a wonderful job of completing the natural feeling of the complex.
The game is filled with terms relating to growth, going far beyond the Gardens and the SeeDs. While VII focused on death and the eventual rebirth, VIII tends to deal more with the growth over the passage of life. On the surface, it appears to the token equation-like guy meets girl story, mixed in with a little bit of magic and to create the base story of almost all the fairy tales. Though the cities and Gardens all incorporate modern technology, to call this a modernization of the classic love story also doesn't do it justice.
It's epic in nature at times, but it isn't fair to call it an epic itself. It's just as much a story of destiny and politics as it is a story of love. But even as an all-out war starts between nations, the game doesn't stray from focusing on the people that matter, which, oddly enough, isn't always Squall and company. Around twenty years before, a series of events, which we're forced to relive, occurred involving a man named Laguna, who seemingly has no connection with Squall. But as the main story progresses, things begin to fall in place, as the past, present, and future all come together (in more ways than one) in such a way to offer a glimpse at what it means to love and what it means to be alone.
To fully understand the uniqueness of the story either requires playing the game all the way through or me revealing certain spoilers. I'll hold out on the latter and let you play the game yourself. Needless to say, you shouldn't be disappointed from this facet of the game. Square partially gained their fame from being one of the first in the business to craft deep, meaningful stories for their games, and their work here lives up to that reputation.
Musically, this game is Uematsu's best so far. Beyond the simple improvement of engineering and recording (VII's scores were nearly as great, but sounded too computer-generated and not enough like real instruments), Uematsu has definitely continued to improve and better define his style. In addition to this, it is his first collaborative effort, working with the Chinese diva Faye Wong for the honeyed love tune, Eyes on Me, first played in perhaps the most heart-felt scene in the game. The Latin-lyriced Liberi Fatali, the song of sorceresses (who play a pivotal role in the story), is not far behind, acting as the game's anthem for destiny as Eyes is its anthem for love.
In terms of sound effects, this game is also a definite step in the right direction. While VII managed to do a decent job of capturing the sounds of hack-and-slash combat, sometimes interactions with objects and people would produce less-than-realistic sound. Once again, as with the graphic environment, this is probably more a product of experience than anything, as previous consoles had not had near the sound capabilities of the Playstation to work with.
Gameplay has been a highly disputed issue with the game, merely because of Square's decision to stray away from one thing it has always featured in its games: MP as the means of limiting magic use. VIII brings in a completely original system into the mix: junctioning. Instead of having a limited but replenishable pool of magic power to draw from, you must draw and stock magic from other sources. Enemies and draw points contain magical energies that are used to cast specific spells (as in you draw energy for a Fire spell, not generic magical energy). This can be cast on the spot, or your character can stock up this energy for later use.
However, in order to use abilities, your characters must harness the power of Guardian Forces (in-game, almost always referred to GFs for short), mystical creatures that are the game's equivalent of summons/espers/__insert name from other FF game here__. Not only do they act as summons, but while your character is charging the GF spell, they will absorb any hits that your characters take (but can also be killed themselves, they have their own HP).
Also, instead of your characters learning abilities, GFs discover new skills from Ability Points (AP) received at the end of battle. Some of these affect the GF directly (such as giving them more HP or summoning power), but the majority are transferred over to the character they are junctioned to. A character without any GFs junctioned can only do a regular attackthey can't cast magic, summon a GF, or even draw magic power without a GF junctioned.
In addition to junctioning GFs, it is also possible to junction magic to your characters' stats, depending on what abilities their equipped GFs have learned. For instance, Ifrit (the fire beast featured in many previous Final Fantasy games) can learn an ability called HP-J. Then, the character with Ifrit can now junction the magic energy from any of the spells they have stocked to their HP stat. The effect is an instant and sometimes very large bonus to maximum HP. So what's the catch? The size of the bonus is determined by the amount of casts, ergo, if you cast the junctioned spell, the stat goes down.
Limit Breaks are also back, though not exactly in the same form. Instead of each character having a bar that fills as his or her rage towards the enemy builds, they merely appear at random times, though much, much, much more often when your characters' HP is critical (denoted by the change of text color to yellow).
While Square always tries to come up with new and innovative battle systems, junctioning has been criticized by many fans for straying too far from the norm. Perhaps some of the criticism stemmed from the fact that it doesn't match the Materia system from the previous game, and maybe some of it is merely personal preference. However, if you approach it with an open mind, even if you don't think it compares to the quality of previous Final Fantasy games, you should find it quite enjoyable.
Chocobos are back, but not nearly to the extent that they were in VII. There are Chocobo Forests spread across the map, all of which have puzzles which you can solve to get items and catch chocobos. You even get a chicobo (baby chocobo) of your own that, if you have the Japanese-only Pocketstation or the PC version, you can play games with. This is one of the only ways to obtain some of the rare items, and it lets you level up your chicobo, who, after obtaining him, you can call into battle as a Guardian Force with the Gyshal Greens item.
The major sidequest this time is something totally different, though: a card game. Shortly after beginning the game, you'll run into a person who will give you a beginner's Triple Triad deck, after which point you can play the card game with nearly all of the denizens of the Final Fantasy VIII. Though it may sound pointless, there are rewards in itit is possible to learn an ability that can refine the cards into items, one of the easiest ways to get some of the rarer items. Or you may just play in a Pokémon-esque (I don't like the game either) attempt to collect them all, as the only way to get the rarest cards is playing with other people. So, waste some time. Walk around the game and press square around people and see if they play.
Some of the optional things added into the game aren't as creative, though. Instead of being rewarded gil after battle, you are paid a salary as a SeeD that is given each time you walk a certain number of steps. The only way to raise your SeeD level (the variable that determines your salary) is to take SeeD proficiency tests. A passing grade on one of those usually equates to about a 1,000 gil per paycheck salary boost. The only problem? The tests are absolutely boring, and usually just ask meaningless trivia questions, like What negative status effect does this symbolize?
Like most of the Final Fantasy games, though, this game doesn't rely on the sidequests, they just merely enhance the experience. Dabbling in the card game is usually a given, and you may find that you will want to take a SeeD test or two to bump up your income, but all in all, if the sidequests disappoint you (which I don't think they will), you won't be forced into them.
Replay value isn't great, but you may find yourself playing it a second time to relive the story. Playing time makes this a sure purchase, though, as you probably won't be able to plow through all four CDs in one rental period. But now that is has received Greatest Hits status, it shouldn't be hard to find the game for under $20.
While Final Fantasy VII tried to stay hard and fast to many of the Final Fantasy traditions, VIII represents Square playing around and trying something new. That's not to say that fans of the former Final Fantasy games will be displeasedthis game most certainly lives up to the Final Fantasy name. You will find some bad reviews around, more than anything just because the game isn't what some people expected. It's a definite step up from VII in terms of graphics and sound, and though some might prefer VII's story and battle system, you'll find that they are comparable in VIII. Square knows how to make RPGs, and this game is one of their best yet, and, despite some minor downfalls, it is a definite must-play.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 12/10/04
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