Review by Computerbug8
"Final Fantasy VIII: my 'final' fantasy before FFXIII comes out, and probably the toughest to review"
With the exception of Final Fantasy XI (MMOs aren't my thing) I have now completed-and when I say completed, I mean I've only beaten the final boss of-every single Final Fantasy game to reach North American shores in some form or port. Hold on, I can read your thoughts: "Why the heck are you rambling on about this??". There's actually a point I'm trying to make; out of the past eleven FF games I've played, each and every single one of them has had obvious flaws and strengths. For instance, I can confidently say something like, "FFV had a weak story, but its battle system was great" or "FFIX had a battle system that was WAY too slow, but the characters were likable", or "FFXII had a boring and non-existent story, but the customization options were unbelievable." However, I can't say anything like that about FFVIII. This is the last FF game I plan on playing until FFXIII comes out, and it is probably the toughest one for me to review. Like I said, there's nothing concrete I can say about it. Keep reading to find out what I mean.
The story starts with a teenager named Squall Leonhart, a special type of mercenary called a "SeeD". Squall has just passed his test in Balamb Garden (the place where he has been training to become a SeeD) The agreed upon mission of the SeeDs is to train so that they one day might be able to defeat the Sorceress, and that's soon what Squall sets out to do. He and some fellow SeeDs meet some companions along the way, and before long they find out the truth about the Sorceress, about their Garden, and about many other things.
I'll be blunt: the story for the most part isn't all that engaging. There are several spots when nothing exciting was happening, and there aren't really any plot twists that will knock the wind out of you or cause your jaw to drop to the floor, even the "major" one that takes place at the end of disc 2. (The game spans across four discs, by the way; discs one and two are decently long while discs three and four are short)
Perhaps one of the reasons why the story isn't so exciting is because there aren't too many interesting characters. Our protagonist, Squall, is seldom anything more than an angsty, quiet teenager who tries not to let his emotions get the better of him. Secondary characters, such as Zell or Irvine, don't have a ton of development and little is learned about them as the plot progresses. Then there's the spunky Rinoa, Squall's love interest. Yes, the story to FFVIII later focuses heavily, and I mean, heavily on a romantic subplot between Squall and Rinoa.
And unlike most of FF games, the narration switches several times throughout the game. During these switches, the player takes control of a man named Laguna, although not much is known about him or his comrads at first. However, as the game goes on, you'll soon learn more about Laguna, about his past, and his connection to Squall.
But like I said in the opening paragraph, I can't actually say the story was bad, because it wasn't. In fact, the plot that the game actually boils down to is pretty solid. The futuristic and sci-fi atmosphere are a nice change from the traditional fantasy elements. However, that doesn't necessarily mean I liked it. No, I don't really consider it "average". I suppose the plot itself was better than it was worse, but the best I can comfortably say is that some parts were interesting and enticing while some parts were boring.
Did that description of the story confuse or irritate you? Good, because there's plenty more of it coming up. Yes, the gameplay is the clearest example of how some of the game's biggest strengths are also its biggest weaknesses. Well, just about all of the gameplay is somehow tied into the battles. Let's start there, shall we?
In traditional FF fashion, you can have up to three characters battling at once. In order for a character to attack, you have to wait for their time bar to fill up before selecting an action. Once that happens, you can have a character do things like physically attack, use an item, cast magic, or summon a creature to help fight. (In FFVIII, the summons are called Guardian Forces, or GFs)
Sound normal? I hope so, because that's the extent of it. Apparently, Square was trying to create a completely different type of system; there's no denying that they succeeded at that, but sometimes the changes were just a little too much. I'll start with the way you have your characters get stronger as you get deeper into the game.
First off, you don't buy equipment that builds up your character's defense or strength. Second, there's no MP system in this game. (Well, I suppose you could pay to upgrade it, but that's not the same as just buying new stuff) "Wait, how am I supposed to make my characters stronger if I can't buy equipment? And how can I cast magic if there's no MP?" Well, my friend, I shall tell you: you level up through the Junction system.
To be honest, I've heard and read several explanations of how to use the Junctioning system, and pretty much every single one of those explanations has made it sound harder and more complicated than it really is. Nevertheless, I shall do my best to explain. To start, you have to junction a GF to one of your fighting characters. From there, different stats open up, like HP, Stength, Magic, and the like. After that, you take a spell from your character's magic list and you junction that spell to the stat; the stronger the spell and the more of it you attached, the more that stat will level up. But like I said, there's no MP in this game, so how do you get magic? Drawing it.
Put the pencil and paper down, I don't mean literally drawing it. What that means is that you have to equip the Draw ability to your fighters and, when it's their turn to attack, you draw a certain number of spells from an enemy. Yes, a certain number. Here's what I mean by that: when you draw spells from an enemy, you draw a quantity of them, ranging from one to nine. (So you might draw five Fires from an enemy) That means you have five fires stocked and can use them whenever you like. Or, if the spell is junctioned to a stat, you'll probably want to save the spell and stock up on it, because the more of that spell you have, the stronger that stat becomes, with the maximum number of spells able to junctioned to one stat being 100. So having 80 fires stocked and junctioned to Strength will allow you to deal greater damage than if you just had 10 fires stocked and junctioned.
But be careful. If you cast one of those Fires junctioned to strength, then you'll have fewer Fires junctioned and your strength will go down. So, ironically, it's the spells you spend several minutes (which, overtime, will probably add up to hours) drawing and stocking that will be the ones you never use, until you find stronger magic and replace it with the magic you junctioned. And magic isn't just junctioned to help with typical stats; it can also be junctioned to help you resist magic attacks of a certain element. (so junctioning Thunder in the right spot will naturally give you greater protection against lightning-based attacks)
However, the GFs you junction at the beginning will only allow you to junction magic to select stats, so how do you unlock other stats to upgrade? Well, you'll probably have to get more GFs as you encounter them throughout the game. That's all well and good, but do the GFs have any other purpose besides helping you junction magic? Why, yes indeed. They themselves can help you out in battle. As stated, you can summon them in battle. When doing so, they'll display some flashy animation and then perform an attack before disappearing. But, despite the fact they only help you out for one turn, you can summon them as many times as you like in battle. "Well, there must be a catch! They must cost magic, or HP, or money to summon!" No, no, and no. Summoning your GFs is completely free; there's no limit to how many times you can summon them per battle, and there's no penalty or cost to doing so. In fact, the only drawback is that you have to watch the same animation over and over again because there's no way to skip them. That, and the fact that just spamming GFs will make the game easy.
Oh, and since I briefly mentioned money for the first time in this review, allow me to explain how you earn money in this game. Since you're playing as a mercenary, you obviously make money by fighting. However, you don't earn it directly by collecting it after winning battles. Instead, you have a certain level that determines how much money you make periodically. If you are able to do things like perform certain tasks in a short amount of time, your level will go up and you will earn more. Remember: this happens periodically as you're walking through the towns and dungeons. If you don't have a high level, then you can still make money the old fashioned way by selling unwanted items.
Speaking of high levels, that brings me to one more point about the level-up system: as you get stronger, so do the enemies. Yup, if you like maxing out your characters and obliterating all your foes, you'll have a harder time doing it in this game. (especially the final boss) However, this makes the game a bit more challenging than other FF titles, and it could even work to the advantage of someone who was under-leveled.
All right, my rant on the gameplay has finally ended. The junctioning system makes this one of the more unique level up systems out of any RPG I've played. And, like the story, that's both good and bad. The system of junctioning magic was a nice idea and could have been more fun and enjoyable had it not been for the tedious periods of time when you just have your characters selecting "Draw" over and over and over and over. (Thankfully, scattered draw points and methods that allow you to extract 5 to 20 certain spells at once make it less of a chore) Summoning GFs with no penalty was also a little weird, but it could help if you were stuck on a boss and needed to deal more damage or at least needed a shield against a strong attack. And some things, like the bizarre way of making money, were just plain weird. But at any rate, despite the changes and the tedium they can bring, FFVIII somehow managed to deliver an enjoyable experience. (Just remember-like the story, it's very possible to go from liking it one minute to despising it the next)
This is probably the one section that I can say for sure whether it was well or poorly done. As far as graphics go, FFVIII doesn't even come close to disappointing. Seriously, it's Square. What were you expecting?
At any rate, the game starts off with what is probably one of the best FMVs I've ever seen. The solid graphics and the fast speed are a great combination to get you sucked into the game. And there are plenty of other great moments throughout the game when the graphics will take your breath away and you see the true power of the PS. (Hey, even all these years later it's still impressive)
Luckily, though, the in-game graphics are well done as well. Now, anyone who's played FFVII knows of how weird the characters were rendered. Seriously, they looked like they were lego-men! Thankfully, those are done away with. The character models and their environments have a much more realstic and detailed complexion, which is very welcome. And as always, the battle spells and animations look great as well, ranging from the GF summons to the limit breaks.
Job well done, Square. Very nice job with the graphics.
Okay, back to the very mixed feelings aspects. Due to their being no voice acting, the bulk of the sound comes from the music. There are plenty of good tracks, like the famous Liberi Fatali that plays during the opening cinematic. There are also some pretty good boss tunes that get you right in the heat of battle, especially the tracks that play during the last fight of the game. Unfortunately, the main battle tune is bland, and a lot of the music from various locations throughout the game isn't all that memorable either.
That actually sums up the music fairly well. Yes, there are some boring and forgetful tunes in the game, but they're cancelled out with some of the more tracks that are among the best I've heard in the series.
The amount of time it takes you to complete FFVIII is really up to you. If you want to just complete the main game and be done with it, then you could be at the final battle point by the 30 hour mark. If, however, you want to really take advantage of all the game's sidequests and beat those infamous side-bosses, you can look forward to adding a lot of time to that clock. (try doubling the 30 hour estimation I made about a plain playthrough) Basically, the game can last you a long time if you want it to, but it can also be played in a short, enjoyable amount of time. Okay, nothing too bad to say about the length either.
I guess the main amount of replay value for FFVIII comes from the level up system and how it enables you to make a lot of challenges for yourself. Aside from playing through and possibly picking up on things you missed the first time, you could easily want to play through again and set up a challenge for yourself. That, and there are sidequests you might want to play through if you missed them the first time.
+ Story is pretty good when it comes down to it
+ Junctioning system is unique
+ Having enemies get stronger with you adds challenge
+ Some good tunes
+ Amazing FMV graphics
+ In-game graphics are much improved
+ Decent length
- Story is dull and boring at parts
- Junctioning system relies too much on repetitive drawing
- Having enemies get stronger with you may add unwanted challenge
- Some dull tunes that you'll forget after five minutes
You see that? The majority of the Pros have a direct relationship to one of the Cons. Yes, almost everything good or unique about this game has a negative flip-side to it. But as I said earlier, I don't want to say the pros and cons cancel each other out to make it an "average" experience, because FFVIII certainly isn't just "average". To put it simply, this game has a lot of great aspects to it, which are also its worst aspects. That's all I can really say about it.
So, there you have it. My *final* fantasy for now is the hardest to review. Sorry, no interest in going into the spin-offs. I guess that means I'll be seeing you guys when FFXIII finally comes out. Until then...
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 04/24/08
Game Release: Final Fantasy VIII (US, 09/07/99)
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