Review by Denouement
"Home again, I promise not to leave you on your own again"
The precursor to Final Fantasy VIII--Final Fantasy VII, for those less familiar with the concept of Roman numerals--was among the most successful video games of all time. Needless to say, the expectations for this game were great. Squaresoft, struggling to meet those expectations, created an awesome game, the most epic and encompassing of al the Final Fantasies and the one to which most of us will best relate. Yet it is not a sequel to FFVII, and considering the number of fans who desperately wanted a sequel to that game, many were left feeling bitter at Square for abandoning that successful formula. In more recent times, they made a more accommodating choice by promising both FFXII and FFX-2--the wholly new game as well as the direct sequel.
Was Square wrong to make FFVIII different from its forerunner? In my opinion, it was better to let FFVII stand alone and move on, trying to forge a new excellence without depending on the previous success. This is ultimately what keeps the Final Fantasy series fresh: has any other series lasted through ten installments without becoming stale and eclipsed? None so well as Square's line of RPGs. Squaresoft's production teams take the time to do more than simply update a tired formula to accommodate new graphical technology. This effort pays off in the quality of their work.
This is a romance in the truest sense of the word. The story begins with essentially a typical high school, except for (and you knew there was an exception) one thing: our hero, Squall Leonheart, isn't learning chemistry or a foreign language, but is being trained as a SeeD, an elite special operations soldier. As the story begins, Squall is fighting with a classmate, Seifer Almasy, in a battle for macho status. Things take awhile to move beyond this point, which will further deter some players who never reach the crux of our plot. Eventually, Squall falls in love with a general's daughter named Rinoa, but as it turns out, she has hidden powers that will make her role crucial.
Predictably, the conflict between Seifer and Squall expands into a wider battle, as we learn of the true power controlling Seifer, the sorceress Ultimecia. It is naturally left to Squall and company to defeat Ultimecia. Joining him are Qusitis, an attractive instructor at the SeeD academy, the ditzy Selphie and wild Zell, two other SeeD candidates, and Irvine, a professional sniper. The side characters and their subplots turn out to be just as appealing as the main romance, and it's regrettable that they don't receive more screen time. Still, by the middle of Disc 3 or so, Rinoa and Squall become a very endearing couple, as love for Rinoa has opened up Squall's stoic and stubborn persona…at least, it opens up a little! A romance is one of the most simple and effective means of driving any story, since we are all naturally drawn to a pair of star-crossed lovers. Final Fantasy VIII follows this formula to perfection.
As you follow the storyline of the game, you will naturally encounter many random battles with various monsters, the heart of RPG gameplay. Guardian Forces, or GFs, are the root of all your fighting abilities. On one level, GFs act as Summons that can aid you in battle, but by Junctioning to a character, they open up new battle commands beyond the basic attack and Item. The simple physical attack, as well as the more powerful Limit attacks familiar to FFVII players, are available without adding a GF to a character, but all other more powerful abilities require it. One interesting subtext of the game is a pervasive belief that the GF-human bond actually damages the person in some way, and this only underlines the sacrifice our heroes are making.
Magic works differently in this eighth incarnation than ever before. First, you now acquire spells by drawing them from enemies during battle, or from certain points on the world map. In battle, when you select the draw menu, you see a list of spells that enemy possesses, and by drawing them you can stock up to 100 of each type for each character. Then, you may use those spells in battle until they run out: MP is no longer a facet of the game, since the limiting factor in your use of magic is how many spells you have. But here's the thing: you won't be likely to use your spells much at all. For the most part, spells will be used to Junction--spells can be junctioned to character stats, elemental attacks and defense, and status attacks and defenses. Using up spells would reduce the effectiveness of your junctioning, so you will only waste them on enemies infrequently.
The end result of this is, battles are quite monotonous since you will be using physical attacks almost exclusively. On the plus side, the Junction system means that players have the opportunity to use strategy and planning to most effectively outfit the party members (although, an Auto-Junction option is available for the less inclined). The Junction system is a fresh and interesting idea, but the execution is not so great. Nor, however, is the concept entirely bad.
Aside from matching better spells to your stats to increase them, you can do numerous other things to make your party more potent as the game progresses. Though, it should be clear, improving your party is not essential in this game as it was in the past--enemies are assigned a level based upon your party's level, so often a well-junctioned low-level party will be more successful than a poorly-prepared Level 99 team. Nevertheless, one is to improve your weapons. If you collect certain items, qualified armories, found in every city, will be able to reconstruct your weapon to improve its power. The power increase is usually minimal; for instance, the difference in Attack rating between Squall's most and least powerful weapons is only about 25 (out of a possible 255). However, improving the weapon might also unlock different Limit attacks, so it is very important. This system could have been great, except that each character only has about 4 different possibilities, so weapon improvement can't really take a role as an exciting element of the game, since it is so limited.
There is a wealth of other diversions to occupy your time, and these sidequests are not just of the fly-to-an-island, pick-up-an-item variety. There are long and involved missions to be carried out, as well as new areas containing special rewards. Ultima Weapon returns to present a special challenge for strong parties, and above even him is the awesomely difficult battle with Omega Weapon. There is also one very diverting minigame, a card game in which you use cards representing the different monsters in the game, and have a ''card battle'' with opponents. Not only is this a fun game that also requires some strategy and concentration, but it also offers awesome rewards. Not only can you collect all 100 varieties of cards, you can use the Card Mod ability to turn your cards into powerful items. This is an especially cool feature of FFVIII: through the various Mod abilities, cards, items, and spells are all essentially interchangeable and you can move between these forms easily.
The graphics in Final Fantasy VIII can be summarized in one word: realism. The blocky, disproportioned world of FFVII is gone, and all the people in this world look very human. They are also detailed; the facial expressions of your party members and of many townsfolk are clearly visible at all times. However, the FMVs are once again where Square truly shines. After marvelous success with this technique in FFVII, Full Motion Videos jam this game, filling in where normally-rendered cutscenes might have sufficed in earlier times. These movies are visually stunning, but Square is walking a fine line, risking the introduction of too much watching into the game, at a cost to the playing side. Still, in this game at least, they do not quite go too far; the FMVs are still adding to a story, rather than dominating it.
The world of Squall and his comrades has been designed to closely resemble ours in many ways. FFVII's Midgar was a bleak, unrealistic vision of the future, but towns like Balamb and Dollet could fit in very well in our own world. The hypermodern megalopolis of Esthar is a bit of a wild vision, but its suspended railways and highways, and towering skyscrapers, do not ring so far from the truth. The aim of these graphics is to make the world of FFVIII more accessible to the player. While this serves to help draw one into the story, it also takes away a touch of the ''fantasy'' element that is essential to the genre. Luckily, swords, spells, and GFs more than make up for this lack.
Sound & Music
The orchestration in this game is, per expectation, superb. Nobuo Uematso handles the composition, and while he has many old themes to work with, he tweaks all of them to match the modern influences of this world. His new works are equally nice and mesh perfectly with such standbys as the battle theme and the chocobo-riding accompaniment. The music also emphasizes the emotional impact of the story, often more so than the dialogue. Some sound effects are offered: footfalls, car engines and blaring horns, and so on, but the music is the heart of the audio experience. For me, the most reliable element of the Final Fantasy series has come to be the surpassing quality of its score; this edition certainly does not disappoint.
The Final Reckoning
Taken alone, Final Fantasy VIII is a great game. The legacy surrounding it broadens the expectations, however, and those who began playing Final Fantasy with number seven may very well feel a sense of disappointment and regret. Without doubt, it appeals more to RPG connoisseurs and less to more casual gamers: the story has less gripping, immediate appeal, and preparing your characters to succeed in battle is much more tedious and difficult. However, the epic romance and the compelling change in character Squall endures by the end of the game are utterly persuasive. A comparative judgment cannot be avoided, and I would say that this edition does not quite match FFVII. Still, it is an excellent RPG, and is worth playing despite all the criticism.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 01/21/03, Updated 04/10/03
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