Review by Halron2

Reviewed: 06/13/02 | Updated: 06/13/02

How romantic can a game be?

After the huge success of Final Fantasy VII, the expectations upon the next installment of the series soared higher than ever before. Would the new game be in the same vein as its predecessor? Or would it go back to more classic Final Fantasy tradition? Judging by the sales of the previous game, not to mention the critical acclaim, it wasn’t hard to predict which way Square was headed when developing this game. When the product hit the shelves, the success it achieved surpassed that of the old games. Final Fantasy VIII actually followed the steps of the previous game, pushing further in some areas, while borrowing old elements of the series as well. Still, the game created controversy among old Final Fantasy fans and generated many complains, perhaps more than ever in the series’ history.

The story of Final Fantasy VIII is one element that is similar to the previous game. The hero of this game, Squall, will definitely remind you of Cloud, if you played Final Fantasy VII. This time, however, the game isn’t only about him (even if he is clearly the main character), but about his relationship to another character, Rinoa. Their romance, so clear for everyone to see from the beginning (it’s even stated in the game’s logo) and the way she effects changes upon him are what this game is all about. This may seem like a crappy romantic waste of time for some people and Square almost wasted it all by, once again, coming up with a weak female lead character, specially if compared to her male counterpart. Thankfully, Rinoa is no Aeris, in the sense that she’s, in a way, a conflicting character. But she is still too devoid of depth and complications, which implies that all problems in her relation to Squall are only his fault, not hers. She is still too much of a perfect girl for my tastes. Besides, it goes against the feel of the game. On the other hand, upon playing the game you will get the feeling that Square spent quite some time to develop their new tormented hero. Squall is probably one of the deepest, most intriguing characters to ever grace a game. His mind doesn’t contain wild mysteries as Cloud’s, but he captivates because of an unseen level of humanity in his personality, which points to one of the game’s most defying traits: realism. Like in Final Fantasy VII, the events in the story don’s matter so much. What really matters is how the characters respond to that.

Unfortunately, all characters apart from Squall and Rinoa lose their importance and turn out to be too shallow to really matter. None of them receives enough development. All of the get one or two interesting moments in the plot and that’s it. I think Quistis is probably the most promising character, but she gets forgotten after a certain point in the story. Although the main enemy in Final Fantasy VIII isn’t at all memorable, mention must be made of Seifer, Squall’s rival and recurring enemy, who is an intriguing character that also doesn’t receive enough attention.

One fo Square’s specialties is creating unique world and it shows here. The setting in Final Fantasy VIII also follows the tendency set by the previous game. This means it opposes the 16-bit Final Fantasies in being a futuristic setting, with hi-tech elements everywhere. However, the similarities end here. The depressing traces of the previous setting don’t appear here, even if the world of Final Fantasy VIII isn’t, by any means, a happy place. As if Squall’s personality is turned into a world, this place has a cold, isolated, mechanical nature. Warm traces are rare in the setting, predominating this melancholic feel which reflects the personality of the main character.

The plot itself is quite weak in Final Fantasy VIII. Even if what really matters is the character development and not the events, some of the plot twists in here are really stupid. There is one point in the game, specially, that I find offensive, so irresponsible that it is (I won’t say what happens, so that I won’t spoil the “fun”). Also, the dream sequences, that seem to be of relevance at first, are unnecessary, not adding much to the story and turning out to have a secondary place in the plot. One thing about the plot that I do like is the ending, which encapsulates well the whole story told in the game, making it all look better than it really is.

In the gameplay, Final Fantasy VIII succeeded really well in adding new elements to the classic Final Fantasy engine. At first, the gameplay may seem strange to old-timers, but it becomes quite fun in no time. The first differences to be noticed are the absence of MPs, weapon shops, earning money from battles and other things that are taken for granted in RPGs. Magic, for example, is used through the Draw system, which means you spend the magic when you use, replenishing your stock by drawing the spells again from monsters, a completely different engine from the traditional magic points. Weapons can only be upgraded, not bought and money is earned through a salary, that varies according to your rank in the organization the characters work for. More than offering changes to a tired, beaten up system, all these new elements fit perfectly in the game and, after a short while of playing, it seems like you’ve known these things for all your life.

The most interesting thing added in this game is the Junction system, which encompasses the abilities your characters receive, status enhancements, summon spells and elemental affinities. To use Junction, you must first have a Guardian Force, or GF, which are the summoned monsters of this game. After junctioning to a character, the GF also gains experience, gains AP, levels up, which gives the junctioned character new abilities and such. I won’t get into details here, but the bottom line is that the junction system is great, even if it retains too much customization, like Final Fantasy VII (because GFs can be switched at will and they have the abilities, not the characters). To give the characters more identity gameplay-wise a new and much better Limit system is used. This new system is much more useful and frequently activated than the original, making quite a difference.

Before closing the subject of gameplay, mention must be made of the mini-game of Final Fantasy VIII, the card game. For once, Square got this mini-game thing right, creating a rather simple, but extremely addictive addition to the game. It isn’t rare to find yourself wanting to collect every card there is and losing hours of your life playing this little game, something that must have been much easier for Square to do than all those terrible mini-games in Final Fantasy VII. In the end, the gameplay in Final Fantasy VIII comes out as a real fun, apart from innovative, experience. Also, one of the most unique in the series. And, undisputedly, one of the game’s best qualities.

Graphically, the game was also unique. Not only for its spectacular technical side, but also for the impressive design. For the first time in the Final Fantasy series, the characters actually looked like real people, not deformed creatures, another aspect where the game looks for realism instead of fantasy. Also of note is the fact that you only control humans and, for the most part, you don’t interact with non-human characters. The character design is also great, most of them being really memorable. Apart from that, the world the story takes place in also has a very coherent, solid design.

Every graphical quality of the previous game was enhanced this time, making this the most visually impressive game on the console at the time. The characters had a freedom of expression that surpassed by far what had been done before. Also of note is the fact that the characters look so good during exploring that no change were made to the way they look in battles. The summons and FMVs, highlights in Final Fantasy VII, were also upgraded to much more impressive and realistic visuals. Once again, however, the most beautiful thing about the game’s graphics are the pre-rendered backgrounds. If in the previous game there was a sad beauty that made you stop and take a look at them, this time they are so explicitly beautiful that you are likely to distract from the gameplay to observe them. And there’s no doubt that a lot of them will stick to your mind long after you’ve turned off your Playstation.

The same, however, can’t be said about the game’s music. Make no mistake, the soundtrack of Final Fantasy VIII is filled with beautiful, touching themes. But the first thing to be noted is that, following his previous effort, composer Nobuo Uematsu wrote a much more moody soundtrack than his work in the SNES-era, even more than in Final Fantasy VII. This results in a work that, for the first time, doesn’t win you quickly, but rather has a quality to grow on you with time. For that, the music in this game is sometimes mistaken for a poor, bad work. Of course, some of the tracks are catchy as hell (like the battle themes), but it’s not the general rule here. However, it should be noted that, while in general the quality of the music is pretty high, this was, at the time, the Final Fantasy soundtrack that contained the biggest number of uninspired tracks. But it is, no doubt, another masterful work and one that fits wonderfully in the cold melancholic atmosphere of the game. Also, no comment on the game’s music would be complete without mention of the sappy, romantic, trend-setting pop-song ‘Eyes on me’, something that would be repeated in almost every RPG game after Final Fantasy VIII.

Overall, this is a very strong game, a fun experience that, if not as remarkable and compelling as the previous game in the series, still had enough depth and character of its own to be relevant. The technical prowess, result of of millionaire investment, which attracted legions of players, paid off and brought to life in great style what it perhaps the most convincing love story ever featured in a videogame.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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