"Yeah, stop holding FF7 against this."

Most people know the story by now. Final Fantasy 7 was arguably the best game ever made, and it vaulted Square to the status of industry titan. Fans wanted more from them and fast, so under the pressure Square pulled out every stop in making Final Fantasy 8. Final Fantasy 8... was goofy. It's not a bad game by any stretch, but it has the feel of Square trying to do way too much and falling flat in spots. The elephant in the room -- the whole "please forget Final Fantasy 7 exists when you play this" thing -- is also very obvious. But if you're willing to look past a few things, FF8 stands alone as a pretty good game.

Characters

Final Fantasy 8 has an odd cast, and most of the characters aren't very good. There's really no sugarcoating this.

The main character, Squall, starts the game off as an emo loner who basically tells everyone around him to screw off. He eventually meets a girl he likes, Rinoa, and spends more time ignoring people until he finally decides to man up and do what's right. It's hard to pinpoint the exact spot this happens without spoiling the game, but by the end Squall is awesome. It's a lot like Snake in the Metal Gear Solid games. In the original, Snake was a bitter idiot. As the series went alone, we became more and more attached to Snake until the big scene in 4. Squall is the same way. The guy is a complete loser for most of disc 1, but comes around and by the end, you'll really like him.

The problem here is most every other character isn't worth dealing with, so you can't hold it against Squall for not wanting to interact with mental midgets. Rinoa, the girl he's supposed to fall in love with, is one of the most unlikable princess types in any RPG. Zell, a sidekick, is a manchild who acts like a 2 year old incapable of calming down. Selphie is supposed to be the happy-go-lucky character who lightens the mood, but her love of trains is downright creepy. Lord only knows what hentai artists have come up with for that poor girl.

Two characters in the party are actually pretty decent, but suffer from "peaks too early" syndrome and they never get relevant screen time after disc 1. Quistis, Squall's teacher and pseudo-mentor, is actually really cute and has a massive crush on the guy. Naturally, he blows her off and she's never heard from again. We'll ignore how awful Quistis' character design is, and how she clearly exists for the benefit of otaku Japanophiles who can't get laid in real life. And rounding out the main cast, Irvine is this really cool sniper dude who looks like he walked right out of a Texas saloon. He gets a lot of buildup for one great scene in disc 1, and then he fades into the background as yet another "tons of lost potential in a JRPG" type.

The only non-party character worth talking about is Seifer, Squall's antagonist who used to date Rinoa. The guy is far manlier than Squall for the entire game, has arguably the best scene in the entire Final Fantasy series, and he's living proof Squall should ditch Rinoa like a bad habit and just go for Quistis instead. Nothing Squall does for that chick will match what she used to have, no matter how nice he gets. Every girl has the one ex boyfriend who could waltz back in whenever he wanted, and Seifer is clearly this for Rinoa. You actually get to control him for a time, and it is glorious.

Apart from Seifer being damn awesome, the other non-party characters aren't worth discussing because they're either terrible or just plain don't exist. It is more than possible to play through Final Fantasy 8 and not once figure out the final boss's motives. She tells you at the end before the final fight, but this is part bad characterization, part bad writing and mostly her not having any noticeable screen time. Only after the game ends and you look up what the heck just happened will you really get what was going on there.

Plot

Final Fantasy 8's plot starts out really good. Squall and Seifer have their duel and slice each other's faces to bits, and you wake up in a floating college campus. Your teacher hands you a Guardian Force (or "GF", this game's version of a summon), and off you go for training. The goal is to be accepted into an elite mercenary unit, and of course you're stuck working with Seifer on the training mission.

If there's one thing Square has mastered, going all the way back to the very first Final Fantasy, it's making the beginning of the game outstanding. FF8 is no exception, and an argument can be made it has the best early section of them all. You're given great scenes, some fun early gameplay and a ton of new characters and things to figure out.

But as any FF8 hater will tell you, the plot completely falls apart some time between the end of disc 1 and disc 3 or so. Everyone knows about the infamous orphanage plot twist by now, but there's more to it than that. FF8 has the biggest contrast between a "Holy crap this rocks" early section and "uhhhh wut" later. The Seifer rivalry is the only thing that stays consistent. Nearly everything else gets completely convoluted and ridiculous, and the thing we're supposed to be paying attention to the most -- Squall growing up through his falling in love with Rinoa -- is handled very badly. Video game love stories shouldn't be held to the standard of Shakespeare or anything, but a lot of the dialogue between those two is flat-out embarrassing to read. And we've already covered how the rest of the cast and the villains never pull their weight.

It's difficult to describe exactly where FF8's plot goes wrong without spoiling the entire game, so here's an analogy for you: Bridget from Guilty Gear. No worries, Rinoa isn't actually a man. But it's just like Bridget in that FF8 starts off doing one thing and once you learn the truth of things it gets too weird to take seriously.

So how does a game with a less than stellar cast and faltering plot remain good? Easy.

Gameplay

You can have a game be good even when some key areas are lacking so long as you're damn fun to play, and FF8 fits this. Before even getting into the core gameplay stuff, it's notable that FF8 has the best mini game in the entire series: Triple Triad. It's this ungodly addictive card game that gets more fun as you play it and more and get more rules involved, and for many people the story will only serve to expand how many people you can play cards with. This is no exaggeration at all, especially given the first GF you get has a card mod ability that allows for insane rewards from turning your cards into items. Triple Triad is basically the most fun thing in the entire game, and FF8 just wouldn't be as good without it.

The actual gameplay isn't so bad, either. For the first (and only) time in the series, you can do things mid-attack to make your hits stronger -- think of a watered down version of how SMRPG does it. It's a cool little thing to do in fights, and with Squall especially they make his gunblade feel lifelike. It makes random encounters a little more bearable, especially given there are some environments like roads where they flat-out don't exist.

Beyond that, FF8 has perhaps the most involved customization in the series. You don't get much in the way of equipment, so everything you do statistically involves something called the junction system. The in-game explanation is monotonous, so don't even bother with it. The whole idea is you can take magic spells and attach them to various stats to make your characters stronger, and you get spells by drawing them from enemies or simply finding them in the world. Unlike past games, you don't get a spell and keep it forever. In Final Fantasy 8, you can actually get a set number of spells. The more you get, the stronger the stat you junction it to will be.

So as a random example, let's say you have 100 Tornado spells (the maximum) and attach them to your HP. You get a huge HP boost as a result because Tornado is a really strong spell. You can attach Death to your attack and laugh at any enemy who isn't immune to instant death, and do a host of other things that completely break the game. It's a lot of fun if you're willing to take some time and stock large amounts of spells, but the obvious weakness here is you aren't able to actually cast anything if you want optimal use from all these spells you're storing up. In a nutshell, that's the junction system. It's a lot more fun than it sounds, so go nuts with it.

The gameplay does a lot of other things beyond junction, though admittedly they take a back seat. Limit breaks were completely redone from FF7, specifically the limit meter being gone completely. Now, you only get to use a limit break when your HP is low. This was done to balance limits, but of course everyone who plays the game will keep their HP low intentionally so they can annihilate the enemy with every action. For many players, "Lion Heart" and "Degenerator" will sum up the bulk of enemy kills that don't involve junctioning 100 Death spells to Attack.

There's also this weird level up system where the enemies level up with you and you only need 1000 exp to gain a level, so it's actually prudent not to level up to keep the enemies weak. You can get strong without experience, but the enemies cannot.

You get the idea by now -- Final Fantasy 8's gameplay is broken. But it's so broken that you can't help but have a ton of fun with it, which is doubly important given how dumb the plot gets as you move forward. There's just something awesome about Zell's weak limits actually being his best, or popping open the Playstation and having Selphie's slot machine still work properly, and all the other silly stuff you can do.

Graphics and Music

FF8 was the first game in the series that tried making human-looking characters, but the original Playstation was not the system to try this with. Everything is animated really badly, though obviously the cutscenes look amazing. FF8 is Square's scarlet letter when it comes to "advertise the cutscenes, hide how bad the core game looks".

The music is another story altogether. If you forget "Eyes On Me" exists, FF8 can make a case for having the best soundtrack in the entire series. "The Landing" and "The Extreme" highlight the soundtrack, but the overall package is excellent.

Overall

Final Fantasy 8 is a good game, but not for the reasons Square was hoping for. The plot is a bad car crash you pay attention to only because of how bad it is, and it's clear a lot of the gameplay wasn't tested ahead of time. You can immediately go into god mode without cheating, which means Square either didn't think the gameplay through or designed it too well. The amount of ways you can completely destroy the game are mind-blowing.

Yet in the end, FF8 remains pretty good. Not great or anything, but still pretty good. It's kind of like owning a really ugly dog. Yeah you're embarrassed to be in public with it, but deep down you still love the thing to death anyway. And that's what Final Fantasy 8 is -- a good game despite how ugly it can be.

This isn't the game that ended Square's reputation, by the way. Blame that one on 11.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 07/28/04, Updated 11/17/10

Game Release: Final Fantasy VIII (US, 09/07/99)


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