Review by ZFS
"Space, time and orphanages -- does it get any crazier?"
After the huge success that was Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft has yet again delivered another entry into their famous Final Fantasy franchise. Final Fantasy VIII is definitely the one Final Fantasy that deviates heavily from the tried and true formula of previous games in the series. The greater emphasis on character development, as well as the twist on gameplay really makes this game risky from their business standpoint. But Squaresoft does pull off all the interesting new elements and tweaks on past things perfectly.
Final Fantasy VIII puts you into the role of a young man named Squall Leonhart. He's an introverted guy who prefers to keep to himself on many issues. To start off, Squall is found injured in the infirmary after a vicious training session with his rival, Seifer Almasy. It appears things got a little out of control and Squall is left with a permanent scar across his face from the Gunblade. However, Squall managed to give Seifer an identical mark across his face before passing out. From here, you see that Squall is currently stationed at a school that is training a group of Special Forces called SeeD. The name of their military academy is called "Balamb Garden." It's humorous when you consider that Garden is training SeeDs. This is how the game of Final Fantasy VIII starts off. The storyline for the game gets much more complex later on, as does the cast of characters.
The real emphasis on what the game is trying to show is being able to move on from your past. Final Fantasy VIII, arguably, has more focus on its characters -- particularly Squall -- than it does on actually overcoming the final boss. While Squall is an introverted fellow, you will constantly see his thoughts all throughout the game. He has a rather cold, "I don't care" attitude at the beginning of the game, but his gradual progression as a character is something that no other Final Fantasy has been able to match. The other characters in the game really are there to push Squall forward as a character more than anything. This is readily apparent as the game progresses; everyone becomes more and more focused around what Squall must and must not do. This, without a doubt, is Squaresoft's best game of pulling off character development and interaction. Everything feels real between the characters; dialogue, feelings, etc. are all superbly done. You become very attached to these characters. Even upon completion of the game, you'll want to have more to do with the cast and see what happened to them after the events of the game. It's actually rather amazing how much effort was put into each one to make them as likable as they are.
Despite the huge emphasis on the characters and their development, there is a very new, controversial, gameplay element put into all of this. It's called the "Junction System." It is, without a doubt, the most complicated system of magic Square has put into one of their Final Fantasy titles. In previous games, you had the Materia System or the Esper System, which really weren't that hard to understand. However, they took an interesting turn with the Junction System. Instead of having a constant supply of magic that uses Magic Points (MP), you only have a limited amount of magic. Also, the only way to obtain this magic is through a variety of things called "Draw Points." These are scattered all throughout the world in nearly every area you visit. Once you run into one of these points, you can draw -- if you have the ability set -- the magic found in the DP (Draw Point). This number is usually no higher than 10. That's right, you could, for example, only draw 10 Fires from one Draw Point. Now, these will eventually regenerate and allow you to regain the Fire you initially drew; however, that isn't simply a matter of leaving the screen and coming back like most games with regeneration points. This will actually clock a certain amount of time and then regenerate. How long it takes coincides with how strong/weak the spell happens to be. Something like Ultima will take far longer than something like Ice.
To make matters more complicated, what you will need to do in order to gain strength is junction the magic you have with the appropriate area. You can junction Fire to your Strength stat in order to raise your strength. However, once you run out of that particular magic your strength rating will go back down. This basically means that you wouldn't want to use very much of your magic against enemies. The number of magic you have junctioned to a particular stat will determine how strong that stat will be. One Fire will be far weaker than if you had 20 Fires attached onto the aforementioned Strength stat. In order to do all of this, you will need to have something called Guardian Forces (GFs).
Guardian Forces serve as the summons of Final Fantasy VIII. The twist here is that they have levels, HP, etc. just like you do. They gain experience along with you and can be damaged, even knocked out, if the enemy manages to hit them enough. You can acquire all sorts of different GFs. Some of them are optional while others are required to get. You don't need all of them, but they bring an amazing amount of skills to the table and really are needed to make your party strong. Each GF, while gaining levels, will learn certain ability. You are completely in control of what they learn. If you need them to learn Encounter-None, which makes it so that you have no random encounters, you simply select for them to learn that skill and then after they have acquired enough Ability Points (AP) -- gained after each battle -- you will be able to set that skill with the character who has the Guardian Force equipped.
Yes, this is a very complicated system. It has plenty of room for one to become confused. That's a really big downfall of it. It does allow you to have complete customization of your characters, making them as unique as you want. But it takes some serious time to get used to and understand. What's more, it is imperative that you learn it. Without proper junctioning, the party becomes very weak and has a very hard time defeating bosses and basic enemies alike. Now, the other downfall of the Junction System is that once you do learn how to use it, it becomes very abusable. Your characters can become very overpowered very fast once you get the mechanics down and learn what the strongest spells are for each stat. So it really settles into two different extremes. On one had, it's very complicated and can turn off many people in its complexity when it comes to learning how to use it. On the other, once you spend the time to learn it, the game becomes a complete cakewalk. There's nothing that poses the slightest bit of challenge. It's a shame that there couldn't have been more of a balance between the two. Because it really is a great idea, just one that has some very glaring flaws.
Yet another new element introduced into the Final Fantasy series is the idea of enemies and bosses leveling up with you. That's right, leveling up in this game is actually bad in some respects. The more time you spend leveling up to make your party stronger; the enemy will be doing the same. They usually sit a few levels below you at all times, but as you progress some of them become hard to deal with. Why is this? The amount of HP, attack, and defense that these enemies have becomes stronger as well. Unlike the controversial Junction System, this idea is actually a good one. You can make the game harder by leveling up, because while you become stronger, you won't just plow through everything with no competition. No matter what level you are at, the bosses and enemies will present a challenge to you. Now, this isn't to say that leveling up is bad, because it most certainly is not. It doesn't become insanely difficult by doing this, but instead takes the focus away from constantly leveling and puts more emphasis on the characters and progression of the story.
While the gameplay has varying amounts of greatness and plain crap, what is pulled off absolutely flawlessly is the musical score composed by the incredible Nobuo Uematsu. This man is the best composer of any music within video games and the music for Final Fantasy VIII is no exception. From the opera sounding opening theme titled "Liberi Fatali" to the techno beat in "Man With The Machine Gun," Uematsu pulls out all the stops with the musical score. Each scenario in the game has music that is fitting of the situation at hand. It can be a very peaceful, serene tune during the calm town areas while a dramatic, loud track will play during scenes of anxiety and tension. The huge plus here is that every track holds the same level of quality. There isn't a large spectrum of good and bad here. What you get is just one big ball of great. Without a doubt, this is one of the best soundtracks in gaming. All of the different instruments that he uses blend very well; the range of between some rock tunes as well as the techno beats are brought together perfectly. You really cannot ask for better.
Another equally as impressive technical aspect of Final Fantasy VIII, is how visually stunning the game manages to be. This is the first Final Fantasy in which the character models retain a very realistic look to them. Unlike Final Fantasy VII, the previous 3D Final Fantasy, the character models aren't small, no hands/mouth/nose characters who have large arms. Instead, each character has his/her own unique look to him that retains a great deal of realism. The characters are all normal height, have hands, mouths, noses, eyes, etc. What's more, the backgrounds are no longer pre-rendered like they were in Final Fantasy VII. Instead, the backgrounds blend perfectly with the characters themselves. There are some very jagged edges on both the environments and the characters, but considering the technical limits of the PlayStation, this isn't really much of a surprise. It can take away from the atmosphere of the game, but the sheer amount of detail that went into making this world come to life is good enough.
The other big part of the visuals is the Full Motion Videos (FMV) that started with Final Fantasy VII. These are of the most top-notch quality one can find. Even by today's standards, FFVIII holds up extremely well. The characters are extremely fluid and environments that are a thing of beauty. Further, the quality of the FMVs is just as impressive. There is next to no difference between it and a completely CGI movie put onto DVD. The quality oozing from these visuals is enough to leave one wondering why Square hasn't ventured into making complete movies out of their big franchise -- yeah, I suppose we all know how that turned out.
To bring everything together, Final Fantasy VIII ranks among one of the best Final Fantasy games of the series. There are some serious issues dealing with the Junction System, the characters and story are "love it or hate it." As good as the game may be technically, there are still things that will keep everyone from enjoying this. The amount of people who dislike this game are in large, so it might be a good idea to look more into the game and see if you're willing to handle all the new elements that Square threw in. Even with the flaws, it's still a very enjoyable game and has a few genuinely good characters.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 07/14/05, Updated 09/10/07
Game Release: Final Fantasy VIII (US, 09/07/99)
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