Review by bigmuffpi

"The weak gameplay isn't enough to stop this mesmerising classic"

Saying Final Fantasy VIII had a lot of hype would be a grave, grave, grave understatement. The game had so much to live up to, that it had surpassed hype in a 1000 yard dash. Final Fantasy VIII was beyond hype. It was spatial. Even the Martians felt the tremors when Squaresoft unveiled the first images of its newest game in its multimillion selling series. After the inhuman success of Final Fantasy VII, finally breaking the barrier of RPGs being reserved to the Dungeon and Dragons masters, or the geeks, the nerds. VII united them all and added the word “mainstream” to a list of RPG definitions. So, of course, the weight was all on the shoulders of Squaresoft's 4 disc FFVIII, and did they disappoint? Well, it honestly depends on whom you ask…

This is easily FFVIII's strongest side. In some ways, it manages to stay away from practically every other Final Fantasy. The other seven games, when viewed up close, can easily be dissected into a single story : a group of characters trying to defeat a certain evil mastermind; the forces of good, against those of evil.

And Final Fantasy VIII, of course, is no exception.

It follows a young man named Squall Leonheart who seems completely indifferent towards everything and everyone else. His quiet and cold personality brings others to find him quite mysterious, but Square does a great job at making Squall's opinions and emotions still accessible to the player by means of being able to hear (or rather, to read) his thoughts. Squall, along with a steady cast of others, work for Garden : a huge organization based all over the world at several huge academies (evidently entitled Garden). At a certain age, the members of these gardens must pass an exam to become members of Garden's high class mercenary soldier, called SeeD (get it? A garden and its seeds!). These SeeD members are called upon all over the world to protect or carry out quite gruesome missions. While all this may seem a little to familiar with FFVII's Cloud Strife being a high class SOLDIER for the company called Shinra, they truthfully, couldn't be anymore a like.
Early on, Squall passes the exam and becomes a SeeD. This here is when FFVIII feels most un-FF-like. To be precise, the whole first disc feels completely different from the other Final Fantasies. From the initial opening sequence, anyone can tell that Squaresoft has developped, and matured as a company (for better or for worse). And considering how shocking I found the battle system (read on), it was the story that surprised me most.
The player carries out missions as a SeeD cadet for a long part of the game. The story advancing slowly and tediously for these beginning missions. However, it's the after-party for the SeeD exam that holds the first discs most important scene : the introduction of Rinoa Heartilly.
And with all the characters and events happening throughout the game, it's really only about one thing : Squall and Rinoa (okay, two things then!).

The story continually goes back to their [hidden] emotions, and how, even with all that's going around in the hectic time that they live in, the events continually unfold with their troubles and problems coming before the ones of the world (an aspect Squaresoft manages to pull off quite nicely, which keeps the theme tightly together).

At around the midpoint of the game, Square realizes that « Honestly, this isn't going anywhere » and so, they REALLY pick up the pace. The hidden emotions of the characters, the strenuous SeeD missions take a backseat and in comes the formulaic ‘big bad guy', except, this time, it's a sorceress!
This is where Final Fantasy VIII wins many people over : The FF veterans (if they stuck with the game for this long) start to like its ‘'tried and tested ways'', while the newcomers (or at least those of the Playstation generation) will continue to swallow up this ‘'interesting storyline''. From the big spells, to the fancy plot twists, Squaresoft, like always, delivers it with a majestic and stupefying ease. This reviewer feels that he's already given away too much, but near the end of disc 3, FFVIII takes another huge turn. This part of the game, unlike the highly styled opening disc, or the opening of the second part of the game, is were, to me, Final Fantasy VIII transforms from the odd, mission-based plot developing anti-FF, to an original, yet classic Final Fantasy.
The first time I played it, the story barely captivated me, and only after the ending video did I realize that this was a great, solid story, with dynamic characters.
Unlike Final Fantasy VII's protagonist, Cloud Strife, a complex young man with an identity crisis strong enough to destroy his life and everything in it, or Final Fantasy IX's Zidane Tribal, another confused young man who questions his existence, Squall Leonheart seems quite human, believable and (with enough persistence) likeable.

The inconsistent changes throughout the story may not be for all FF fans, but I for one, found this to be the game's strongest point. And while most FFs feel (at least to me) that they start to lose it near the end, this one only got better and better.

Ah, the Final Fantasy VIII gameplay. What can be said about the Final Fantasy VIII gameplay? When I first played it, like many people, the classic “ What the heck is this?!” was my first comment. For several years, I stayed away from this game, something about it made me shiver. But recently, after letting it collect dust for a couple of years, I put the game back into my PSone, my first reaction was, once again, “ No, really, what the heck is this?”.
Somehow, instead of putting it back in its case, I started to play. And to tell you the truth, the gameplay isn't all that bad, but myself, after much adoration of the previous FFs, this one seems too different, grant it, diversity can be good in a long lasting series, but the core of it? Such a major change was not something I was ready for.
Now I know what you're thinking, “ what's this gameplay that you, oh noble, brave critic, detest oh so much?”
Well, my peasants, I shall tell you of the tale that is know as the Junction System.

Alright, settle down, all of you, don't let its little name win you over (like it did so many to so many people I know).
The Junction System is the one used in every aspect of the battle system, but what it essentially means is that you junction stuff unto your characters. Or, rather, you junction GFs (the new fancy way of saying summons) unto your characters, and you junction magic unto the characters, through the GFs (which are needed for all this Juncton paraphernalia). The magic and GFs junctioned on to your characters let them have new abilities or a drastic boost in your stats.
Now all this sure sounds nice and dandy, but the part that Square loses me on is when they cut out MP: that's right, no MP.
To us magic, you need to draw it from enemies or Draw Points. You draw a certain amount of magic.
For example: “ 8 firagas drawn!”
Some may find this system pleasing, myself; I find it to be Square's biggest mistake. Fortunately, Square didn't follow this concept for episodes IX, X, XI, XII and hopefully, forever.
I found that all this Junctioning made the characters rely too much upon their GFs, and that (apart from the always exceptional Limit breaks from Square) the characters were much to vulnerable, monotone, and plain. Even though “ Attack” is the default command, the game wouldn't have played out any different if it was completely removed. The first timed I played through it, I probably only selected “ Attack” once or twice throughout the whole game. Only on my second playthrough, did I actually figured out how to Junction properly. But still then, a quick, costless summon of my GFs would finish a fight quicker than any attack. Quicker isn't the right word to use, since the lengthy animations for the GFs are much too long for such a common action to be performed in a round. Imagine a basic attack lasting 30 seconds and you have an idea of the length of a fight. Fortunately, in one of the only gameplay enhancements over Final Fantasy VII, running away during a battle now can be performed successfully in quite a quick amount of time.
Another of Squaresoft's many wacky “enhancements” to Final Fantasy VIII is the levelling up: no matter what your level is, it'll only take 1000 experience points to grow a level. This makes getting from level 8 to 9 just as long as getting from 99 to 100.
“Why?” asked your curious reviewer. I couldn't understand why they did this, so on my first playthrough, I got to level 55 on the first disc. I thought I was invincible, but then I fought a regular boss, and to my surprise, he wasn't any easier than if I was at, say level 12. This stumped me for a long time until a friend explained to me that the baddies levelled up with you. This was quite obvious, but myself, I'm not very sharp.
The concept of your opponents growing stronger with you was a very clever one that many found to be FFVIII's gathering point. It took me quite a while to come to terms with this system (since I've always been the kind to uber max all my characters before continuing the plot. This being for the eternal fear of getting “ stuck” in a game).
But no matter how much I hate all these new ideas by Square, they are, however, by Square, so, they are not to be questioned too much, therefore making me wrong, and Square right. Sigh…

Squaresoft, for all your little ideas that I disagree with, there is one thing I shall never question, your ability to amaze. And this game, like any other, is no exception. From the opening video (the best of the series) to the ending video (also the best of the series), Square has pushed all the limitations of the Playstation. Every video is a beautifully made CGI which show enough emotion to rival the best Hollywood cinematography. But these “cut scenes” aren't the only beauties. The character designs, background layouts and every aspect of this beautiful world is animated with so much detail and diversity, that you could only expect this much from Squaresoft. Though one has to question how come the character models for battle scenes are much more smooth in FFVII. In VIII, everything is quite pixelated, compared to FFVII, where they realize their limitations and create the character models deformed. But comparing the visuals of both VII and VIII is quite pointless, since Final Fantasy VIII eclipse it almost every aspect.

Another aspect that time can only improve through technology is the sound quality. Every sound effect is accurate and realistic. Everything feels much less computer-like and more natural. Some of the laughable sound effects from VII (like the sound when a code or switch is deciphered: a burp) are nowhere to be seen. Crisp earthquakes, train engines, sword clinging and even the chirpy ding whenever someone grows a level, are all beautifully done.
But the sound effects are only a certain part of audio experience. The much more important one is the soundtrack. Nobuo Uematsu composes another flawless mix of cultures in the VIII soundtrack. Every song fits the scene perfectly, which is something quite important for a PSone RPG, were music is practically all you hear throughout the whole adventure. In other words, does the music you are listening to blend well with the book you're reading? In this case, the music does more than accompany the game, it enriches it.

Not much can be said about the controls. Quite solid though, and if you don't like them, you can configure them to any other order. Once again, the Dualshock has created another winner.

Considering how old it is, purchasing it used for 10.00$ is quite a deal and I would recommend the purchase since a player will probably not get far enough into the game to realize how much he hates/loves it. But over anything else, do try to finish it, because even if you despise it, you never know when it could win you over. Which it very well could.

Story: 10
The story may feel quite different from the other Final Fantasies, but at heart, it's just as classic as any of the others, if not better.

Gameplay: 6
The most different of all FFs to date, some found it revolutionary, I found it bad.

Visuals: 10
Except for FFIX, this is the most beautiful Playstation game.

Audio: 10
Just like FFVIII's visuals, they stay clear all this “junction” stuff.

Controls: 10
How can an RPG have bad controls?

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 06/24/04

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