Review by JohnRobertLynch
"A Mixed Successor to Final Fantasy VII"
After the huge success of Final Fantasy VII it would make sense that a game similar to it would sell equally well. Final Fantasy VIII went this route, and the negative reaction was so strong that Squaresoft promised to go back to its roots in Final Fantasy IX where it included everything that wasn't in FFVIII.
Gameplay is where the game departs most from Final Fantasy VII. Although there are many superficial similarities between Final Fantasy VII and VIII, the feel of each game is very different.
In most of the final fantasies prior to this one, equipment played a crucial part. This was most obvious in FFVII where your ability to cast magic is completely dependent on the items you have equipped. FFVIII moves away from this by removing all equipment except for your weapons. Instead your stats are determined by the junction system.
The junction system is the big difference between FFVIII and its predecessor, although you can see what ideas they drew on from FVII and developed into intriguing mechanics. In FFVII your ability to do anything beyond a simple basic attack or using an item required you to equip the appropriate magic. In FFVIII this is replaced by instead equipping yourself with a Guardian Force, which are the name given to summons in this game.
Each Guardian Force is unique and as such only one character can be equipped with a particular summon, but there is no limit to the number of summons each character can have. And where in FFVII your attempted to equip as much magic as possible to each character, you'll be doing the same with Guardian Forces in FFVIII.
However each Guardian Force have a variety of abilities, most of which will increase a stat. Other abilities will open up new battle commands such as Mug. Although these later abilities are a straight-forward replacement for command materia, many of them are unique to particular Guardian Forces. And so where in FFVII each character eventually became quite similar, in FFVIII each character can be made to feel unique and special.
Boosting a stat is done in one of two ways. The simplest way gives you a boost of a particular percentage. However the most common method is to instead learn how to equip spells onto certain stats. This method not only increases your defences and ability to attack, but can also give you resistance against certain energy types or transforms your attacks from ordinary damage to have a certain type.
Although these effects are quite similar to particular materia from FFVII which could be combined for similar effects, the increase in stats is dramatic enough that each character can feel quite different from each other. Unlike in Final Fantasy VII where the characters became fairly homogeneous, you can customise each character to feel quite unique by boosting different stats.
By the game being so reliant on junctioning magic, any character can be replaced as long as you give the new character all of the summons and magic of the old one. Unlike past final fantasies where you would occasionally be forced to quickly level up an unused character, the junction system makes this a non-issue.
Given the importance of magic in the junction system, I have to mention how you get magic. In this version you do not get magic by going to the store and buying it. In a definite nod to Final Fantasy VII, you you simply draw magic out of monsters or special points on the map. This adds another tactical element to combat. The sooner you finish the combat, the sooner you stop being able to draw spells from the monsters. However if you prolong combat in order to get more copies of the spell, the monsters are able to deal more damage to you.
This coupled with the unimportance of equipment makes gil almost irrelevant. As such you will no longer find it on the dead bodies of wolves or other unintelligent monsters. Instead you will periodically get gil after you graduate and become a fully fledged member of the mercenary company known as SeeD. As with all other elements of the game, this may require some careful spending early on. But you'll quickly get more gil then you can spend.
Given the importance of Guardian Forces to the gameplay, I should mention how the summons themselves work. After selecting the guardian force you wish to summon, a bar needs to reach 0 before the Guardian Force will appear and deal damage to the enemies. During this time the enemy can attack the character summoning the Guardian Force and the GF will instead take the damage instead of the character. If the GF's hit points are reduced to 0 then you will need to revive it through an item or sleeping.
Just like in its predecessor, the animations for summons, while quite nice, do drag on. What was once amazing quickly becomes boring after seeing the same summon 30 times. The lengthy sequences also can't be skipped. Although as always this adds a tactical element to the game for the combats that have a time-limit. If you summon too many GFs during the combat, you might find yourself still in combat when the counter reaches 0. This almost always means game over. Fortunately there aren't too many timed combats.
Although one thing that hasn't changed from previous Final Fantasies, is battle. It acts much like it did before with random battle encounters making a return. Fortunately you can eventually reduce or even remove the random combats and simply progress from boss to boss. However given how important magic is to the junction system and the most common way to get magic is through combat, you will need to find a balance.
Also making a return are limit breaks. Although you don't have a gauge that fills up as you take damage. Instead you are randomly offered the ability to use your limit break when your characters HP are low. This offers the tactical decision to either deal more damage but be at a greater risk of dying. Or to decrease the risk of dying significantly, but rarely use your limit breaks.
Unfortunately the tactical elements of the game are undermined by the difficulty level of the combats. By about 10 hours into the game you'll have gained a good understanding of the combat, and from that point on the battles become increasingly easy. Fortunately the difficulty increases dramatically for the fourth disc where you'll be scrambling for every edge you can get. Although the fourth disc is little else besides the final dungeon, it ensures that completing the game itself is still an accomplishment to enjoy.
As always, there are a plethora of side-quests, all of which are of course optional. The main one is the Card Game. This is a card game where you can win or lose cards. This is actually quite enjoyable and a fun game that requires smart tactics. Most NPCs you come across will be willing to play the game, with the most powerful cards only available from a certain NPCs.
Another interesting element to the card game is rules will spread depending on who you play with. However this has the downside of spreading horrible rules such as the random rule where your cards are randomly selected. Playing under this rule is a great way to lose your cards. This is worsened by the fact you can accidentally spread this rule to all the card game players.
Fortunately this is only 1 sidequest of many. The others range from collecting all the guardian forces to searching for buried treasure with a Chocobo.
In a roleplaying game the most important element is the story. If your story is terrible, then the RPG is almost always a failure. Where FFVII built upon its predecessor, selecting the strongest elements to create an even more intriguing story. FFVIII took the worst elements from FVII and uses them to tell a new tale. This makes the story the weakest element of FFVIII.
Making a return are the story elements of memory loss and a brooding main character. Everyone seems to take delight in making light of Squall's brooding nature, and it does improve over time. However on the heels of FFVII, these were the worst story elements to include. 9 years ago I had grown tired of Cloud's brooding and the memory lapses, and as such was quite annoyed to see them return in FFVIII.
A new story element to FFVIII is the Dream Land sequences. In these sequences you gain control of 3 different characters and get to experience their story which at first appears completely independent of Squall and his companion's stories. As such they are quite confusing and coupled with the surprise twists which feel forced and unnatural, the story is quite confusing and ultimately dissatisfying.
Fortunately though, I came back to FFVIII despite remembering these flaws and coming pre-armed I was able to gain a new appreciation for the story. By remembering most of the surprise twists, I was able to view the story in a new light. Where before I was confused, this time I was able to understand and appreciate the story and see where the upcoming surprises were foreshadowed.
Ultimately Final Fantasy VIII is a coming of age story. It follows the tale of teenagers who are about to graduate from a mercenary school before going out into the world to fight for whoever pays them. This is quite mercantile compared with previous save the world themes. But it creates a believable and enjoyable experience. Having said that, as time passes the main characters will become heroes and will have adults turn to them for guidance. This felt forced at times and became very reminiscent of Harry Potter. However its a crucial element to the story as the teenagers become adults themselves.
Unfortunately not as much thought was put into the villains of the story. They are quite two-dimensional and ultimately do evil deeds simply because they are evil people who must be defeated. This coupled with the coming of age storyline makes this game best suited to young teenagers. Compared with FFVII which becomes quite adult at some points or FFIX which can be enjoyed by all ages, this is quite a surprising departure and ultimately hurts the game. Had more thought been put into the villains, the story would have been more enjoyable for everyone.
If you could only say one thing about FFVIII, it would have to be that the graphics are pretty amazing. The cut-scenes must be some of the finest to have ever graced the original Playstation. Not only are they quite stunning to look at, the transition between actual gameplay and the cut-scene can often be seamless.
However just as watching the same graphically satisfying summon can get tiring after a while, the use of cut-scenes become fairly gratuitous in the first disc of the game. These cut-scenes don't add anything to the game, and you're sometimes left wondering why the game had to be interrupted for it. Fortunately though, this problem mainly plagues the first disc. Once you complete it, they cut back on the cut-scenes dramatically.
Gone are the blocky hands of FFVII with FFVIII attempting to display the character as realistic characters as possible at all times. Unfortunately we're delivered characters that look anorexic and somewhat alien. While this would be better displayed on the Playstation 2 with FFX and FFXII, the original playstation is unable to handle such characters gracefully.
With all of the sidequests in addition to the lengthy storyline, you can easily play the game for 80 hours and still fail to complete everything. While the games mechanics are a joy to play, they're unable to compensate for the storyline with its two-dimensional villains.
While I do foresee myself playing this game once more as the mechanics are just that different innovative, I could easily go 10 or maybe even 20 years before I do it up once more. As such, the replayability of this game is somewhat limited.
I'll admit I don't pay too much attention to the music. But for the most part the music fit the game well. Its score was varied with any repetition of the music immediately evoking a memory from earlier in the game.
Unfortunately there were two issues with the music. A couple of the songs are sung in English, but the music overpowers the vocals so much it can be difficult to make out the words. The other issue is that the music for the card game and battles is sometimes jarring and quickly grows old.
Overall Score 6.5/10
The game is by no means a must buy. In fact if you've just finished Final Fantasy VII I would recommend playing something else, as you'll likely compare VIII with its predecessor and it will always fall far short.
Instead if you've just finished a story-rich game but were unsatisfied with the mechanics, for example FFIX. I would highly recommend Final Fantasy VIII. Although the story is simple, the gameplay can make up for it to a degree. Although with that said, if you're a young teenager and don't mind playing games where you have to read what people say instead of listen, this would definitely be the game for you. All PSX games are compatible with the PS3 which saves your game directly onto the harddrive.
Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 01/19/10
Game Release: Final Fantasy VIII (AU, 10/29/99)
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