Review by Kafkaligula

"Moody teenagers transcend time and space."

Amongst the many hate-bashers and super-fans of this game in the series, I find myself right around the middle of this spectrum. This one does have a disappointing battle system and some dull teenage characters, but it's also an unforgettable adventure full of wonder and emotion. There's no doubt that FFVIII continued a long run of outstanding RPG's. It's not the first FF that I'd recommend, but I believe everyone should give this a go-through.

The unexpected war hero has become the backbone of the Final Fantasy series (and many other JRPGs). These protagonists are usually a real athletic dude or some young girl who happens to be a sorceress. These kiddies are ruthlessly put into the limelight as the destined saviors of the world. This time around, it's some hard-working college kids from Balamb Garden, who train to become esteemed mercenaries for hire, known as SeeD. Magic exists but requires training to use, and the technology is modern. Things hit the fan when a sorceress quickly gains control of an entire army through political (and later violent) means. The protagonist Squall is chosen to lead SeeD through an assassination attempt on the sorceress. This story unfolds (and expectedly) into lofty cosmic dimensions involving space and time. The story behind the sorceress and the ultimate evil intent of the game is engaging and thoughtful, like a good sci-fi story. It may get a bit over-the-top towards the end, but as soon as it touches poetry all is resolved.

Other key elements to the story are the flashback sequences into the past, during the misadventures and missions of Galbadian soldiers Laguna, Kiros and Ward. These sections are a welcome escape within an escape and end up becoming very involving, culminating into a full circle at the end. Another important aspect of the story is the crush that Squall and the female lead Rinoa have on each other. This was very important for the developers, as this type of relationship hadn't really been tried in a game. It's not a very convincing or even interesting love story, since it's a very saccharine smooching-in-flower-fields-and-hugging-in-space type of fantasy crush. It's very cute and proper mushy for the girlies, but this ended up as the least affecting aspect of the story. I was having a good laugh at the end during a serious non-FMV sequence with the two lovebirds near the end. Rinoa's wooden man-face and hair going through parts of Squall's face during a very serious moment was enjoyable.

The other characters range from moderately annoying to wimps, but luckily there are a decent amount of interesting people to consort with throughout the game. When compared to the previous Final Fantasy games I felt distanced from the playable characters. I was more intrigued by my surroundings and the details happening in even the smallest areas of all the sprawling locations. Still, this story has it's share of surprising turns and mystery. After you take it all in you could debate further elements of the plot and think on about connections and what happened. This is what makes a great story, and this is what makes Final Fantasy games outstanding.

FFVIII features an odd spin on the turn-based battles the series has used. Options your characters have in battle (Attack, Magic, Draw, Item, etc.) are determined by which Guardian Forces they have equipped. These Guardian Forces, or GF's, are autonomous bodies of energy that manifest themselves in accordance to the wielder of the GF. When these GF's are "junctioned" to a character they can utilize abilities that are attributed to that GF. In battle you receive points that increase points on your GF that go to abilities you want it to learn. When you summon them in battle they appear after a bar slowly depletes. While you wait for the summon, the GF's health bar replaces yours, effectively absorbing damage for you. If they're KO'ed, you must revive them like another party member. Each GF has a distinct set of abilities and stat bonuses so you can equip them to the character that best suits your strategy.
To acquire Magic, you must "Draw" it from your enemies. You select Draw, your target, and then which magic you'd like to extract. Each enemy has certain magics to draw, and in some cases you can draw a Guardian Force. Each Draw gives you 1 to 9 casts of the spell you choose. Spells are then "Junctioned" to stats for each character, like Strength, Magic, Vitality, etc. Certain spells are better for certain stats, and you can also Junction spells to elemental and status attacks/defense. Characters receive EXP and level up for winning battles, but this growth is small compared to the stat bonuses received from Junctioning.

This system seems alright on paper, but it actually requires too much maintenance, is easily exploitable, and really leaves little room for strategy. If you have 99 of the best spell Junctioned to a character's stat, you're actually overdoing it. Keeping around 99 of a spell Junctioned makes your characters too strong, and you will breeze through enemies with little problem. It makes sense to keep a strong number of spells junctioned, but I advise against it. I tried to keep a modest couple of draws per battle and I ended up beyond the curve for the majority of the game until I intentionally laid off so the enemies could catch up. I don't see this happening to everyone who plays, but allowing the player to dictate how strong they are to this extent is a mistake. You can say that you could always do this in RPG's by going off and leveling up, but drawing is a considerably quicker way to become stronger.

The Junction system can also be a drag, because after realizing that there's always an obvious spell that is the best to use for each stat, you realize that you're just doing a lot of tedious maintenance. Switching magic stock between players is rather slow too, so when a re-Junctioning session comes near, you might not look forward to it. Another issue I had was with the Limit Break system, which now works by your characters being below around 30% health. You can effectively stay at that health range and use Limit Breaks all day, which is insane considering the damage that can be done with them.

In conclusion, if you keep a brisk pace and not draw too much or set aside much time collecting stuff, you'll have a good challenge. However, if you like to do sidequests, look for new magic and check out GF abilities, you will more than likely become too strong without realizing it. This game doesn't have the best balance to handle different approaches even as much as the last three games in the series, but the large amount of unique battle abilities you can get from the awesome GF's are a lot of fun to experiment with.

One aspect of FFVIII that I absolutely loved was the collectible card game Triple Triad. You can collect these cards by turning weakened enemies into cards, winning them in battle, defeating other card players, and by other mysterious means. It's a simple but highly strategic grid-based game that I won't attempt to explain here, but I'll tell you that it's very addictive. These cards can be "modded" after learning the Card Mod ability from a GF. This turns cards into certain items, which could be magics, parts to create weapons, items and even GF abilities. I collected as many cards as I could throughout the main quest, and when I modded the ones I didn't use for my Triple Triad strategy I got some very strong stuff. (Yet another way to get ridiculously strong...)

FFVIII shuns equipment for your characters. You don't have to buy any new armor, accessories, or weapons. You modify and upgrade the first weapon you have several times, and that's how equipment progression works. The later upgrades call for rare materials which can become side-quests in themselves. It's strange that only harnessed Magic increases your defense, but finally it makes sense that your characters look the same throughout the whole game!

The modernized setting (with streetcars, trains, leather jackets, beanies and big-screen televisions) blends with the ultra-fantastic beautifully. From pastoral towns and fisherman's villages to crystallized dungeons and hovering magical towers, there's always a marvelous look to your surroundings. You'll see some wild fashions here and there, not too extreme like in FFX, but watch out for extraneous buckles, jean capris, bad attitude hair and Squall's halter top/leather jacket. FMV's often seamlessly blend with the real-time graphics, which was very cool at the time and still very cool. Standing next to the Pandora as the immense buzz and blur of it's take-off rattled my controller is still as blood-rushing as it was when I first played through the game.
The harmonization of the wonderful graphics with mesmerizing and lush music really solidifies the excellent presentation of this game. Nobuo Uematsu had already proven himself with the previous Final Fantasy games, with a knack for infectious melodies, unusual world music and grand orchestrations. With this game he'd stepped it up with arguably some of the greatest instrumental music created in the decade. A vast sonic palette of different styles to suit the many situations and areas gone through in the game. The bizarre creature designs, awesome weapon upgrades, great music and memorable areas make this a game that will stay in your memory banks to invoke nostalgia when thought upon.

FFVIII certainly doesn't have a great battle system, but exploring the world and experiencing the massive events is worth the trip. It's strange to recommend a game where only half of the story is interesting and the micromanagement is a drag, but the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. The amount of interesting detail, the secrets to be found, the gorgeous music and the awesome design warrant a play-through for even casual RPG fans.

SCORE: 8.6

Interesting and multi-faceted story
Awesome graphics/art design
Fun ability system based on fantastic summonable creatures
Addictive and tactical collective card-based minigame
Awesome weapons
Excellent soundtrack

Tedious magic system that can easily break the difficulty curve
Corny romantic subplots
Several dull characters with bad fashion statements

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 02/04/11

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

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