Review by KingBroccoli

"A yard from immortality."

As the sun sets and dusk approaches, the two tribes draw near. They're shouting, brandishing weapons, and waving silk banners of all kinds of colours. As they get closer the din rises, and insults that would strip paint off a wall are hurled backwards and forwards. Blood is going to be spilt.

Leading one side is Squall Leonheart, a worldly lad from the back streets of New Galbadia. He sees only red. The reviewers, gamers and assorted geeks have insulted him and his game for too long, and he's about to fix this. He charges into battle, leading his troupe of followers, and the front-lines merge into a bloody rabble.

When the sun rises on the battlefield all is still. There is no movement, there are no survivors. But it's merely another chapter in this long, endless conflict. Who knows when a winner will be found?

Over to you, King Broccoli!

Thank you introduction! Never in all my life have I seen such conflicting arguments surround the one game. The din that comes from your average Final Fantasy VIII debate is enough to provoke an aneurysm, and years after it’s release this is one quandary that has not yet been put to rest. Is FF8 a package of genuine class, or is it a 60-hour lesson in pretension? Is Squall’s introverted nature immature and aggravating? Are the plot developments contrived? I’m choosing to enter the debate by siding with the former, and heaving a big NO at the last two questions. I myself consider the eighth installment of this world-renowned series to be an important and entirely necessary step, not just for Final Fantasy, but also for the gaming world in general.

The story focuses on a group of “SEEDs” mercenaries for hire, who are trained at Gardens all around the world. When rented out to a ragtag resistance group, the newest bunch of SEED recruits think they’re in for the most banal time of their lives. Little do they know, they’ll soon be thrown headfirst into an all-out war against the president of Galbadia (local metropolis) and his mysterious sorceress advisor. Whilst everyone else stands around and occasionally hands out an item or two, it’s up to these new recruits to go about saving the world!

Final Fantasy 8 is far removed from the remainder of the series. From a graphical standpoint, many traces of the fantastic no longer appear. The world that Squall and his friends inhabit is relatively modern and industrious, and the realism of the graphics reflects this. Big neon cities, smoothly rendered machinery and lots of speedy trains abound. The sweeping plains of the game world, and the outrageous enemy designs remind us all what franchise we’re playing, but the attempted level of realism is definitely a deviation from the Final Fantasy ethos.

This games intentions can be devised from the design of the characters. Deformed polygons and sprites a thing of the past, the characters here are as realistic as the Playstation technology could possibly allow. This outward sophistication is then mirrored by the depth and range of emotions bestowed on each cast member, creating perhaps the most well rounded characters in RPG history. They fuel the plot. Whilst it is, at its core, your average tale of saving the world and vanquishing evil, the sub-elements of the plot give FF8 the class it desires so badly.

Squall Leonheart is naturally the hero, the introspective youth who leads his warriors into battle. He is one of the most intriguing characters the FF series has ever provided, and a far removed from the majority of game heroes. Whilst Cloud (from FF7) has an indifferent nature that stems from his rejection from society and the likes of Cecil (FF4) simply appear pre-destined for heroic deeds, Squall proves a more difficult character to decipher. More often than not his battles are internalised, struggling to come to grips with his role as a leader, and failing to communicate with those around him. Many have argued that Squall’s behaviour is churlish, immature, and painful to watch. But I (and I hope I’m not alone) see his behaviour as an engaging internal struggle, and a remarkable work of characterisation.

It is this characterisation that sets FF8 apart from the heap of RPG’s available. Never before have the flaws of a cast of characters been exposed to such an extent, never before have their weaknesses been revealed and exploited on such a large scale. At times this might appear to be akin to a teenage cast on a soap opera running amok with the emotional spectrum. There are moments when the developments might become a tad overzealous or overbearing, but it works. FF8 often proves to be a celebration of the optimism of youth. This bunch of mercenary warriors are barely out of their teens, but their approach to their quest is admirable. Slightly older and more wizened is Quistis Trepe, former SEED instructor and mentor. Her experience serves as a counterpoint for the other characters. Her quiet, demure antics often contrasting with the flashiness of the younger generation, and highlighting their “zest” for life. It is a zest that can sometimes lend itself to comparison to the antics of a teenage cast on a soapie, but more often than not there is either an air of electricity or a sense of poignancy hanging over the plot developments. These traits manage to carry the game through to its grand finale.

We’ve seen the ways in which plot and character set FF8 apart from the rest, but how does it function as a game? I’d say it works pretty well. The main feature of this title is its JUNCTION system. This has you drawing spells from enemies, and junctioning them to your characters various attributes. The more spells you accrue, and the more powerful they are, the more they’re likely to enhance the power of your characters in battles. This system is inherently flawed, lending itself to unnecessarily long battles in order to garner the amount of spells necessary to survive. However it is impossible to deem these fatal flaws, as they are offset by the nature of the leveling up.

Essentially, the enemies level up as you do. This actually removes the need to constantly progress to certain levels, and ensures you’ll remain competitive no matter what. I say “so what!” to the naysayers that highlight the turgid nature of the junction system. If you’re feeling flustered after a lengthy drawing session, just forgo the next dozen or so battles, it won’t affect your progress. By adopting this approach to levels, Squaresoft have created a game that is well-rounded enough in its progress to detract little from the story.

Who knows. Maybe it wouldn't matter at all if FF8 wasn't structured in such an immaculate way. Once the action kicks in, it'll take a semi-trailer to drag your attention away from the events on-screen. Seeing Squall and his counterparts going about their business - breaking into TV Stations or out of prisons, with all kinds of blistering music pumping in the background - will hold the attention of the most chronic A.D.D sufferer. It's not all whips and death-defying, the tenderness and romance of the sub-plot amply providing a balanced narrative; but it's hard to fault the premise of sneaking undercover through an enemy missile base, sabotaging it subvertly, before throwing caution to the wind and battling your way through countless enemies before it's blown to smithereens. If you want heart-pumping adrenaline meshed with heart-wrenching drama, Final Fantasy 8 is the place to be!

Everything that everybody in the world loves about Final Fantasy has, naturally, been crammed into this little package as well. A swarm of overly large swords have been sharpened and are waiting to be used, the chocobos have taken time away from their karting aspirations to appear here, and the same old enemy fights have been put in their appropriate place. Those with a spiritual alliance with the Final Fantasy series know all about these little babies. You've got your physical attacks, your magical spells, and your summoned monsters that will momentarily take your place in battles. You'll need to use all of these offensive modes and have most of your wits about you if you're to finish this sucker off. But hold on! I sense an imbalance in the force!

Limit breaks, the pseudo-super-mega-hyper powerful attacks that act as extensions of each characters attack, are here again! However in this particular Final Fantasy, they will only appear when your character has low HP. This system enables you to keep one or more characters in a perpetual state of endangerment, and rort the system for big rewards. A chink in the FF8 armour, who would have dreamed? =O

All in all, Final Fantasy 8 was a brave move from the lads down at Squaresoft. With bread and butter elements such as weapon upgrades, the implementation of armour and the levelling process undergoing major revisions, the threat of alienating an enormous fanbase. And although there is action aplenty, much of it has been forgone for the sake of a deeper, more involving plot. With a love story that often dominates the narrative, constant temporal shifts, and seemingly separately fated characters that cross paths, there's no doubting that this is a more mature piece of work. Something monumental has been attempted here, something that could have very well set a precedent for many of the more adult games that were to follow in its wake. If certain elements of the story weren't contrived to a small extent, and had the antagonist been a good deal more imposing it would be a monster of a title.

As a Final Fantasy game, this is far from the ultimate. But as an old fashioned story of good and evil, love and hate, there is little else that compares. A narrative that appears untidy and unweildy is resolved and wrapped up in the tightest little bundle possible. Love flourishes, good prevails, and we're all that little bit better off for having experienced this landmark game.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 07/07/03, Updated 07/07/03

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