Review by Black_Seed

"Final Fantasy VIII - A game which will always bring fond memories."

I was 11 years old and still wet behind the ears when I heard about FFVIII. A casual gamer with only a PlayStation to his name, the screenshots printed in an issue of PSM had me hooked before I even got my hands on the box. FFVIII was to be my first Final Fantasy and I had heard good things so I stuck up the cash and started to play.

Right from the beginning, FFVIII draws you in. Square had to do something huge to follow up VII and the cinematic opening does not disappoint in raising the bar. Nobuo Uematsu's score is hugely powerful in these opening scenes, and remains evocative throughout the game – in my opinion his best effort of the 3 PSX Fantasies. The FMV graphics stretch the capabilities of the console to the limit, the detail and realistic characters are a huge improvement on VII. The realism has proven divisive amongst gamers and I loved the character art. In a first playthrough, these games are always about the story for me and I can relate better to a human than I can to a frog or a Black Mage or whatever. Maybe I'm just a bit close minded in that sense but the human characters made the story more important to me – I genuinely cared about what happened to these people which makes the game all the more powerful.

The storyline itself is for the most part sublime. The world in which the game is set is on a nameless Earth like planet, with cities that resemble real life towns and those that most certainly don't. Unfortunately the World Map engine hasn't been upgraded since VII, which although not an issue is not up to the par of the rest of the scenery. You play as Squall, a trainee mercenary of sorts at a ‘Garden' school devoted to combat. Only 17, he and his colleagues are taking their final exams before graduating, and it is at this point that the story begins. In time honoured FF fashion, things grow drastically out of hand over the course of 4 disks with truly memorable set pieces and revelations. There are some overtly sentimental moments and ridiculous plot twists but these are a matter of opinion. I found them completely believable first time through and only after repeated plays did the scenes grate. The story would make a decent movie, but the key lies in the length of the game allowing for far greater character and plot development than any Hollywood blockbuster.

The gameplay itself is highly customisable. Square developed the ‘Junction system' for the game, which initially looks very complex but is in essence very simple. Extremely briefly, the Junction system allows the player to assign (junction) magic to a specific stat, for example Fire to Strength. This gives extremely customisable gameplay – the possibilities are literally endless. Magic is obtained by ‘drawing' it from enemies, ‘draw' points or by refining it from items. The refining system allows items to be turned into weapons, different items and magic at various shops located on the game world.

There is also mini game played throughout the game, a card game known as triple triad. This can prove highly addictive, as it is not only a fun strategic and sometimes complex game but also very beneficial to the player as cards won can be refined into rare and useful items. In fact, the card game can be almost fundamental to the player's strategy for the whole game if s/he chooses it to be. I found the gameplay system to be well thought out and satisfying thanks to the level of customisation available but it has its flaws. First, once you know what you are doing it is far too easy to become completely overpowered and eliminate any even in the first disk of the game. Second, the junction system makes magic almost obsolete. The player is so busy assigning magic to improve their stats they rarely cast it as it weakens the characters. This is a great shame for a game in a series which has grown famous for its numerous spells.

Summoned monsters are again a large feature of the game. Named Guardian Forces (GFs), the player acquires them over the course of a game and they are integral to a successful and strong party. They need to be junctioned to a character for them to use any ability other than attack and item – needless to say completely necessary. Not only that, by they collect ability points to go along with the characters experience points. These ability points (AP) teach a huge selection of abilities. There are far too many to go into here but they include curative abilities, status defences and bonuses to strength and health and so and so on. Each GF has a different set of abilities so it pays to track them all down to make use of them. Of course, they can also be summoned to aid you in battle with spectacular attacks, and these can be relied upon to beat the numerous bosses - but their true strength lies in the ability to customise your characters.

The battle system again uses the ATB system of FFVII, with 3 characters to a party. There are no classes this time round, leaving the player to choose who to assign to roles as healers, mages and attackers should they want to. They can also activate limit breaks, powerful moves which can only be used when in critical health. This system makes it easier to control when the characters can unleash their moves, which although satisfying can again reduce the challenge somewhat.

The graphics are truly astounding. The background art is beautifully drawn throughout and they are more than fitting backdrops to the events that unfold in the game. Unfortunately the in game characters are overly pixellated, and although perfectly acceptable for the time, stand out against the smooth backgrounds and close up look poor. The battle graphics are also not great. Well, maybe that is a tad mean because some of the spell animations look awesome, but it's no real improvement from FFVII. The GF sequences are very cool first time, but always lengthy and after half a dozen viewings positively boring to sit through – Square would have done well to address this with shortened animations after the first few summonings. The battle arenas look good but not brilliant, not anything like as detailed as the normal backgrounds which honestly are magnificent at times.

It is the FMV's that make the graphics of this game so great. There must be upwards of an hour of them throughout the course of the game and the level of detail is incredible. Whilst sitting through an hour of movies may sound boring, I can assure that you will love every second of them. Remember that you will care for these characters, and seeing them brought to life so brilliantly makes the experience even more immersive. Combing with the incredible score, they make for powerful viewing.

Nobuo Uematsu's soundtrack is almost without exception perfect. The FMV music is undeniably awesome, but even the background music fits seamlessly with the area being explored. The cities of the game are inseperable from the music that accompanies them, and I have stopped play at times just to listen to the sound coming from my television – and that is just about the best compliment I can give. The climatic finale is made even more exciting by the incredible songs that are played over it. Uematsu is undoubtedly an incredible musician and I find this to be his best effort.

The game should take you upwards of 20/30 hours to complete first time, a long time for sure but the replay value and volume of sidequests can push this number into the hundreds if you really play the game to completion – gaining all cards and special items. Although the storyline ceases to be as important on repeated plays, I think many players will be tempted to go through the game at least once more to enjoy some of the better moments and battles. It does not have the replay value of FFVII however, there are only so many ways to make the game more challenging – the Junction system is simply too powerful.

So, to summarise

Great plot
Unique and customisable gameplay system
Outstanding graphics and score
Card game good fun and relevant to the game

Lacks challenge once the player understands the junction system
Disappointing magic system

Although I am probably a bit biased due to this being my first FF, I still think years on that the game deserves a 10 and is a great achievement, so that's what I'm giving it. I shed a tear when I first completed it and that says it all. Well done Square.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 05/27/08

Game Release: Final Fantasy VIII (EU, 10/27/99)

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