Review by Tom Clark
"It's not final, the story isn't really a fantasy story, but it IS the eighth in the series. Unless you count the Game Boy games.."
There's just something about the words 'Final Fantasy'. Those two words, when placed together, seem to send gamers everywhere into a rather exited state. In fact, it would be no overstatement to say that the Final Fantasy series of RPG games may well be one of the most revered in all of gamedom, right up there with Mario, Sonic and Zelda. So the pressure is very much on every time that Square choose to release a game in the series. And Final Fantasy VIII was perhaps under even more intense scrutiny, coming as it did right after the really rather popular seventh instalment of the franchise. And, unfortunately, Final Fantasy VIII didn't seem to go down too well - a not insignificant number of people, well, hated it. This is odd, as Final Fantasy VIII stands up tall among the hordes of Playstation titles, and is, quite bluntly, one of the greatest games ever for Sony's ageing console.
Final Fantasy VIII tells the tale of Squall Leonheart, a lonely teenage orphan growing up in a tough military academy. When we join the story, Squall is preparing to take the SeeD field test - a test that sends Squall and his fellow students, including the overeager Zell, the wide-eyed innocent Selphie, and the all round smug git Seifer, along with his teacher Quistis into a real combat situation, an initiation into the ranks of SeeD, an elite group of mercenaries for hire. Not wanting to give too much away, from this point a sequence of events is set in motion that will bring Squall and his friends into contact with the beautiful but mysterious Rinoa, the oddly familiar but thoroughly nasty Sorceress Edea, and the longhaired, jovial Laguna Loire - a man with whom Squall seems to share a connection....
Spanning over four discs, this plot is one of the most epic seen on the Playstation. While it may seem at times to be a little thin for the sixty plus hours of gameplay on offer here, there are plenty of twists and revelations to keep the whole thing fresh. Admittedly not all of these twists work - there is one fairly major twist about halfway through the game that just seems, well, ridiculous, but even so, the plot manages to be very engaging, and the fact that many gamers will find something in one of the characters that they can relate to - be it Squall's feeling of isolation and his unease as a leader, Laguna's light hearted approach to life or Selphie's attempts to keep her head while the world around her gets continually more chaotic, there's bound to be something that makes you feel attached to the characters in this game.
But plot and characters alone are not enough to keep you playing through four discs of gaming - to hold your attention that long the gameplay has to be something really special. Well thank the deities, because Something Really Special could easily be the subtitle for this game. The emphasis in this game is very much on the battles you get into - be they random encounters on the world map that will last you five minutes, or massive boss fights that will take upwards of half an hour. The battle system follows the trend set out by previous Final Fantasy games, and indeed by many previous RPGs. You are allowed to use three of your characters at a time (there are six main playable characters in the game, and several fringe players who join you for brief amounts of time). Each character (and each enemy) has a bar counting down, and when it reaches it's max (after about ten - twenty seconds) that character can make a move - be it using his or her weapon for a physical attack, using an item, using a magic spell, or calling forth a Guardian Force - or GF - huge demons, gods and monsters that assist your party in various ways. The physical attacks speak for themselves really - different characters have different weapons: Squall uses a Sword-gun hybrid, Laguna a machine gun, Zell his fists and so on, and throughout the game stronger weapons can be made using items you've collected along the way. Where the physical attacks get interesting, though, is when your character's health drops low, prompting a limit break - a physical attack that can do devastating amounts of damage to your unsuspecting opponent. The items that can be used in battle are generally used to heal your players, so it's a fairly important aspect, but just not very interesting, and you may find that you'd rather spend time unleashing ferocious magic on the bad guys. The magic and the GFs are very much where the appeal of the battles lie. Magic spells are acquired by 'drawing' from your opponents - basically sucking them out. You suck out a certain number at a time, and these spells then get added to your arsenal. There are no magic points here, either, the only limitation to how much magic you can use is the number of spells you have drawn. While it is a more simplistic system than in the other two Playstation Final Fantasies, it is still quite strategic: you are, if anything, less eager to use magic, as each and every time you use a spell, you know that it's one less spell that you have to use at a later point in the game. Unfortunately, there's no such limit on the number of times you can use your GFs. With the tighter limitation on the magic spells, it becomes all too tempting to just send out one of the more powerful Guardian Forces, such as the mighty Bahamut, which not only makes the battles end quicker, it is also quite boring. The appearance of the Guardian Forces, while undeniably spectacular, is a lengthy process (one of them takes up to two minutes), and you can't skip them. So, using a mix of items, magic and physical attacks (or just sending out the GFs) you've defeated your opponent. Now it's time for the rewards. After each victory you get experience points, which go towards levelling up your character to make them stronger, Ability points, which teach your Guardian Forces new abilities that can be given to your characters, and if you are lucky, a few items to help you on your way. This makes the battles a necessary but enjoyable process.
The battle system also relies heavily on what is known as junctioning. This Junction system is the manner in which characters increase their various attributes. Each character has statistics for their performance in certain areas - such as strength, defence and such. What junctioning allows is for these characters to attach the spells in their repertoire to these statistics in order to boost them. For example, junctioning a large number of Full Life spells onto a character's health gives them 9999 hit points (the energy system used in the game) - the maximum amount a character can have. It seems a little daunting at first, but stick with it and experiment a little, and soon your characters will be near unstoppable (until the next boss that is).
Even though the battles are very much at the heart of the game, that doesn't mean that everything else is just filler. There's just as much fun to be had pottering around the various towns, and talking to the locals. While most characters you meet have very little of any importance to say, they seem more than happy to stop for a quick chat, and the fact that most of the characters are unnecessary just makes the game world seem more real - if everyone you met had some sort of relation to the plot at hand the whole game just wouldn't seem as credible, and as such wouldn't suck you in as completely as it does.
There are plenty of diversions in the game, too. The card game is great fun - you can challenge pretty much anyone to a game of Triple Triad, a kind of Top Trumps affair, and there are plenty of cards that can be won this way to collect. And unlike Final Fantasy IX, this is not totally superfluous - the cards can be modified (with the right GF ability) in order to give you rare and important items that could prove vital as the game goes on. There are also quite a few side quests in the game - indeed, this is the manner in which a great deal of the more powerful GFs (such as Odin, Bahamut and Eden) are acquired. While it is by no means necessary or compulsory to undertake these quests, they add some extra challenge to the game (not to mention a fair few extra hours of gameplay) and make progression through the later stages of the game much easier.
This game isn't really that difficult, which is a bit of a minus, but there are still moments that will cause you to see the Game Over screen several times over, and what the game lacks in difficulty it makes up for in sheer length. Difficult or not, this game will still be well worth the cheap price it'll be retailing for now.
Graphically this game is absolutely stunning - the environments are crisp and clear, the characters smoothly animated, and the magic spells and GF appearances in battle completely spectacular. Square have opted to buck the trend of cartoony characters with big heads for this game, and what we are treated to instead is an ultra-realistic style of character - there's no Cloud-style big eyes, or Zidane-style monkey tails here, and when moving around the towns and dungeons, the two other characters in your party follow Squall around the screen, as opposed to seemingly diving down his trousers as in the other two Playstation Final Fantasies.
Perhaps the thing that this game is most noted for is it's spectacular Full Motion Video sequences. While it is true that these are all absolutely jaw-dropping in quality, to be perfectly honest I felt that they interrupted the flow of the game somewhat, and at times made it feel as if you were watching, rather than playing, the game. As lovely as the FMVs are, in all honesty I'd have preferred that the game used in-game graphics to convey these moments, as seen in games such as Breath Of Fire. let's face it, the in game graphics are good looking enough, anyway.
The sound, too, is utterly superb. The battle sounds are suitably meaty and explosive, but the music is incredible. It seems perfectly suited to every moment of the game - it's dramatic when it needs to be, it's touching and emotional when it needs to be, and it manages to be evocative in all the right places. It really is among the best videogame soundtracks that I can think of.
At the end of the day, the bad reputation that seems to have accumulated around Final Fantasy VIII is completely unjustified. The plot is engaging, the characters alarmingly real, the gameplay involving, and the presentation among the best of the 32-bit era. Yes, it is too easy to rely on the ultra-tough Guardian Forces, yes, one or two of the plot twists invite you to suspend disbelief a bit too much, and yes, the FMV sequences can be a (very good looking) pain in the neck, but on the other hand, yes, this is one of the greatest games of the Playstation's vast library, heck, perhaps one of the greatest games of all time. Square were making a risky move in substituting the apocalyptic plot and anime style graphics of the immensely successful Final Fantasy VII for the realistic looking love story that is Final Fantasy VIII. Well you can breath a sigh of relief, as it's a gamble that paid off. Disconnect your phones, stock up on food and drink, lock the doors, and let Final Fantasy VIII take you on a videogame journey that you'll never forget.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 02/11/02, Updated 02/25/02
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