Review by MSuskie

"What exactly is a gunblade, anyway?"

For a developer that has contributed so much to the RPG genre over the years, Square makes a lot of seemingly amateurish mistakes with Final Fantasy VIII. Departure isn't a bad thing unless the new direction itself is a mistake. In this case, Square took the Final Fantasy series (which, to me, wasn't exactly on the right track after FF7, though I know more than a few people who would love to disagree with me on that) and tried to make it new again, with a realistic visual style and gameplay so filled with various quirks and innovations that there's an obvious lack of true thought here. The results are, in some cases, disastrous. Never would I have thought that a series so known for its theatricality and involvement of the player would produce such a dull, emotionless blunder of an adventure. With the success of FF7, Square seemed to have lost interest in making FF8 good – they apparently wanted to pump out a sequel quickly and effectively enough to simulate effort and rake in some good cold cash. It is, to put it bluntly, a bad game – certainly the worst numbered Final Fantasy yet, and hopefully for many years to come.

Story is an important part of any RPG. I have no idea why, but nevertheless, we have been trained to expect story to receive a lot of attention in RPG's, and especially in Final Fantasy, the franchise that basically made the genre popular in North America in the first place. And while I had many problems with the plot of FF7 (boring characters, confusing twists, horrible dialog, etc.), it was nevertheless one of the most distinctly cinematic games I've ever played, and it had a huge influence on the industry (not to mention a large impact on the players who played through the game). Square knew this. They knew theatricality brewed success in their last game, and that they should repeat this strategy for continued popularity. And FF8 is cinematic as well, make no mistake about it – as soon as you start up a new game, you'll be greeted with perhaps the greatest CG movie ever to appear in a videogame (that two-minute video almost had be convinced that I was playing a masterpiece, and the game hadn't even started yet). Everything should have been fine.

Problem is, the story sucks.

The plot takes plenty of perplexing directions and there is never one single objective for the main characters. There's always some new villain to fight or some new power to overthrow, and rather than having one single, focused agenda, the story can never stay on one thing for too long before it changes gears. In short, it narrows down to this. You're Squall, part of an elite military force called SeeD. (How did they come up with the name “SeeD,” anyway? It's not too menacing. “Hey, a bunch of SeeDs are coming to kick my ass!”) You have been given the task of rescuing and protecting Princess Rinoa and taking down the evil Sorceress Edea, who can… I don't know… use powerful magic? The first several hours of the game take place in the SeeD training grounds, Balamb Garden. (Get it? SeeDs in a Garden?) You'll quickly be taken through one of FF8's most exhilarating moments, when a group of SeeD trainees, yourself included, must storm a beach city Normandy-style and take control of a communications tower. From there, your objectives as a SeeD are laid out one by one and you've got to complete them as a loyal soldier would. Or something. Oh, and you've also got a rival named Seifer. Have fun.

The story's lack of a cohesive structure hurts it, but the characters that inhabit this story only act to pour gasoline on the wound. I wasn't too fond of FF7's cast, as I thought most of the characters were less than compelling (Barret was perhaps the only exception, and even that's pushing it). FF8 is, surprisingly, much worse off. Every single person that joins your party is completely disposable. Zell and Selphie were screechy and annoying. Quistis was an absolute bore of a character, never having a single interesting thing to say. Neither Edea nor Seifer come off as menacing or hateful enough to make them competent villains, so I never really fought them because I wanted to, but rather because the game made you (any game makes you fight the villain, but you have to want to kick the villain's ass). Squall himself is a carbon copy of Cloud, a cold, emotionless, lifeless headache of a lead. He doesn't seem to care about anyone or anything. (To add a little bit of fun to FF8, keep a tally of every time Squall says “Whatever” or “Not interested.” They're his two favorite phrases.) I couldn't relate to or identify with these characters, and I sure as hell couldn't root for them. I was only playing because I wanted to win, not because I wanted Squall to win.

Had Squall been a more compelling protagonist, perhaps I would have taken Square's emphasis on the whole “love story” thing more seriously. The developer's decision to downplay all other story elements in light of the relationship between Squall and Rinoa wasn't necessarily a bad thing – in fact, to me, no plot device is as endearing as watching two people fall in love. But here, it's entirely one-sided. Rinoa is energetic and one of the few likeable characters in FF8. But, as I said before, Squall has no personality whatsoever. Rinoa begins to become more and more attracted to him, but why? Is it love at first sight? That philosophy shouldn't work, because you'd think Rinoa would eventually figure out what an antisocial jerk Squall is. But no. She keeps tugging at his heartstrings relentlessly. Eventually, Squall's attitude is explained – you know, he had problems when he was younger, and he doesn't want to get into a relationship because he doesn't want anyone to get hurt, that kind of thing. And around the third disk or so, he finally starts to lighten up to her, and they do fall in love with each other. But by the time that's happened, you'll probably have lost interest, like I did.

Ah, Square, you are so cruel, for just as the story becomes interesting, the dullness of the gameplay starts to sink in! Jolly good work you've done here, my friends. Yeah, the game is dull, but I was somehow able to bear with that for the first two-thirds of the game until I absolutely couldn't take it anymore. And then I still kept playing. Why? I have no idea. I guess it's because it's a Final Fantasy game. I believe that if FF8 had been given any other title, I never would have seen the end. But, I wanted to finish this game, and what a pain that was. Allow me to elaborate on what exactly fueled my anger.

Okay, for one thing, if you get one thing right, it's got to be the battle system. You'll have engaged thousands of enemies by the conclusion of FF8, so the battles had damn well better be fun enough to carry a game for that long, but alas, they are not. The battle system is overly simplified and far too much of a departure from standard Final Fantasy fare. All battle actions are determined through these things called GF's, or Guardian Forces. GF's are creatures that are to be “junctioned” to your characters. They provide all of your battle commands, such as magic or item. As they level up, they increase in power and provide more ways to slaughter opponents. This is not very difficult to understand.

The draw system is where Square tried to be all creative. Party members have no magic meters. Instead, all magical spells (which range from basic, well known spells to far more unusual ones) come in supply and held in an inventory, much like items. The only way to obtain magic is to “draw” it, either from an enemy or one of many draw points throughout the game. This is also where a lot of character building comes in, as you can increase your characters' stats by junctioning magic to them. This is not as deep as it sounds, as it's usually just a matter or scrolling through all available magic and finding the spell that has the greatest impact on your character's performance and defense. Spells are held by number, and once you run out, you've got to go out and find more. While it's intriguing at first to hunt for rare spells, it quickly becomes a tiring method of handling the tried-and-true magic system.

What I hated about FF7's materia system was that materia itself was too interchangeable. Any materia could be equipped to any character, making characters too similar. FF8 repeats this mistake and makes it even worse. There is no materia in FF8, but since any GF can be junctioned to any character, and any character can draw any magical spell, what's the difference? All of your battle commands, as I said, come from the GF you have equipped, so once again, characters are just placeholders for completely interchangeable actions. It's worse, though, because, in one of the dumbest mistakes I've ever seen Square make in an RPG, you can only select three battle actions for each character in addition to your basic attack function. What the hell? Is this supposed to introduce some layer of strategy to FF8? “Draw” and “magic” are essentials to any character, which leaves me to only one more action, and there are plenty to choose from. I found this to be more annoying than anything else.

Of course, all is for naught when you figure out that just about any situation can be taken care of with a good GF summoning. It's common practice for an RPG to feature summon spells. You know, when you use a lot of magic to summon an enormous creature to obliterate all on-screen enemies? FF8 has them too, but handles them differently. See, in most RPG's, summons can be incredibly powerful, but since they drain magic like nothing else, you use them sparingly. But there are no magic meters in FF8. So, whenever you want to summon your GF to inflict a heavy beating, you simply have to give it a moment to charge up. That's all there is to it. There's no real cost for summoning a GF, and since GF summons do much more damage than other attacks and target all enemies, most battles are pathetically easy. I could get through most battles with a single summon. Hell, entire bosses could usually be beaten with a few summon attacks, and as a result, FF8 is much easier than it should have been.

Leveling up is rather easy if you can suffer through the many uninspired battles required. Leveling up is always done on a one hundred-point basis, and so characters simply receive less experience as they go along. Somehow, though, you'll level up rather quickly, and as long as you occasionally take breaks from the main game to build up your experience – and RPG gamers should be used to this – you'll have no trouble staying ahead of the game. One annoyance I came across, though, was that the characters in the game black out every once in a while in light of story-related flashbacks concerning some guy named Laguna. During these moments, you're controlling characters that are different from the ones in your own party. So while the story is being fleshed out, you won't receive any progress in the way of experience, making these breaks from the story a bit useless. In fact, this is something FF8 does quite often, even without flashbacks. There are moments when the story is so much a focus that you won't run into any battles for long periods of time, and any playable portions are usually limited to advance the story. And since the story isn't very interesting anyway… well, you get the idea.

And then there's the lack of direction. FF8 often tells you what your next objective is without telling you how to do it or where you're supposed to go to get it done, resulting in a lot of helpless wandering. At one point in the game, you're told to find a ship that's hiding somewhere in the Centra continent. Well, which continent is the Centra continent? Where the hell am I supposed to start looking? The ship itself is well hidden already, but since the game never tells me where the Centra continent is (which, by the way, is not in the center of the overworld, as you'd guess), I was stuck searching the planet for a whole ****ing hour before I found it. And since the boat/airship vehicle you're given is slow, bulky and hard to control, it's made all the more frustrating. Keep it up, Square.

If FF8 does do one thing better than FF7, it's graphics, presentation, and style. The menus are cleaner and more polished, if a bit cluttered with all the junctioning crap. The game has a more attractive appearance than FF7, which is a good thing. The game also opts for a more realistic visual style, with characters that actually look like real humans (versus FF7's stylized Lego people). While it's not necessarily fitting for the franchise (I liked FF9's whimsical, cartoonish look much more), FF8 is still a more consistent-looking game. Technically, it's one of the best-looking PSX games ever, with detailed character models and amazing effects in battles (even if they went overboard with the long-ass summon animations again). More importantly, though, is the art direction. FF7's world had this gritty, depressed, rundown feeling, and I personally prefer FF8's classier, more futuristic atmosphere. Though it's at times a little future-goofy (just wait until you get to Esthar), some of the game's regions, like Fisherman's Headquarters, were absolutely stunning.

As for the musical score… well, it's a mixed bag. Nobuo Uematsu handled the music once again, and in some cases he does a really good job – for example, the melody accompanying the opening CG sequence is masterful, though with the Latin chanting, it's obvious that Uematsu is trying to mimic the success of FF7's “One Winged Angel” (that is, I'm assuming it's Latin, but I don't actually know for sure). I had a few favorite songs throughout, such as those accompanying Balamb Garden and Fisherman's Headquarters. On the other hand, some of the tracks didn't work for me. The battle theme gets really grating after fifty hours of play time, but more irritating are the overly melodramatic tracks that litter the game's more emotional moments (in these cases, Uematsu is obviously trying too hard). There's also no real theme, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but makes this soundtrack inferior to that if FF7.

Pros

+ Well, it's Final Fantasy.
+ Some of the CG sequences are outstanding.
+ Love story eventually gets interesting.
+ Graphics and art direction will take your breath away.
+ Respectable score my Nobuo Uematsu.

Cons

- Bloated, boring plot and dull characters.
- It takes a while for the love story to work.
- Battle system is overly simplistic and is littered with flaws.
- Summons are a cheap and easy way to get through the game.
- Horribly paced, with unclear objectives.
- Overworld navigation sucks.

Overall: 4/10

I'm glad that a lot of Final Fantasy fans actually agree with me on one thing: Final Fantasy VIII is the worst of the series. I don't dislike it because it's different, I dislike it because that difference is a very bad thing. The battle system is deeply flawed, the pace is stilted, and even the story can't hook me (I had problems with FF7's plot, but it certainly had me compelled to the very end). Sure, the presentational values are excellent, and this is a much more polish and consistent game than its predecessor. But I was never really having fun with FF8, and as a result, the game ran out of steam long before its fifty-hour quest was over. I only kept playing because it was Final Fantasy, and I believe that's why many people managed to drag themselves through this adventure. Though I don't necessarily advise you to stay away from it if you haven't played it before (it is Final Fantasy after all), I can't see myself recommending it to anyone unless they're diehard series fanatics that simply must play anything associated with Final Fantasy. Though FF7 is far more overrated, FF8 nearly made me lose my confidence in the franchise, and had FF9 not saved the day, our beloved RPG world may have vanished forever. FF8 has permanently tarnished the Final Fantasy name.


Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 06/06/06


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