Review by Leebo

"Find out why you should save the world all over again"

Final Fantasy VIII certainly had some impressive shoes to fill. It has been said that all Final Fantasy games are popular solely because of the hype surrounding them, but few other games are held to the level of scrutiny that is applied to the next link in this series' chain. Each game that Squaresoft makes in this collection must follow the legacy of its predecessors; to go above and beyond in the areas of production value and to keep players addicted for countless hours is the task of a Final Fantasy. The 8th iteration does not stray from this path.

The introduction to Final Fantasy VIII is a great example of the quality of the cinematic direction that is employed. It sets the epic tone for the game with an unbelievable computer generated cinema of a sword fight mixed with images of an unidentified girl who seems to call out to the player. “Liberi Fatali” rumbles in the background and introduces the first musical themes that relate to the game's main antagonist. Squall Leonheart, the protagonist, is a member of the elite mercenary force known as SeeD. SeeD members grow up and are educated in giant university-like facilities called Gardens (noticed the pattern?). As the plot begins to unfold, you'll be pitted in conflict against the Galbadian Army, but the scope of the events widens greatly as the game continues. You'll be forced to confront Squall's mysterious dreams and deal with his painful past. Unfortunately, the writers tried just a little too hard with the twists and turns that they decided to add. Up until the end of disc 1 the plot is gripping and exciting, with just enough uncertainty to make it worthwhile to continue. Afterwards, it starts to lose its momentum as the villain is rather weak in motives and deeds.

The plot could have fallen apart altogether late in the game when an utterly dumbfounding twist hits you and seems like it was thrown in for sheer surprise factor. Luckily, this doesn't totally ruin the story, since it has little relevance to the current events and the characters move on with a greater bond than before. The ending is fairly rewarding and seems to have been made so in response to the fan criticisms of the ambiguous ending of Final Fantasy VII. Some might not like Squall's dark personality, but he has good reason to be troubled and the process of warming him up is likely to make you care about him. Certain scenes really got me involved emotionally, which is an impressive feat for any form of entertainment.

Fans of the Active Time Battle system that Square has championed will not be disappointed with Final Fantasy VIII's basic battle mechanics. They didn't do much to alter the system from its form in Final Fantasy VII except for the fact that you are now limited to only 4 in-battle commands (such as Attack, Magic, or Item) at one time. You can choose them yourself, though, so it probably won't hinder your play. Battles can be fast paced if you want to set the options to Active and the speed to Fastest, so those who normally fidget during turn-based combat might be less restless.

Limit Breaks have been adjusted slightly, so as to make them a little less powerful than before. They are now semi-random, and are not triggered by filling up a bar like in Final Fantasy VII. Rather, the chances that you'll get a Limit Break opportunity grow when your HP is low. So if you have only 1 HP, your chances of getting a Limit Break increase to almost 100%. If you felt that the Limit Breaks in Final Fantasy VII made some battles a little too easy, then you'll be glad that they've become a bit more balanced. One other interesting aspect of the battle system, which only applies to Squall, is the use of his weapon, the gunblade. By pressing “R1” as he makes contact you'll be able to augment the damage done. It's a small factor, and you can set it to automatic, but it's worth recognizing.

Summons are referred to as Guardian Forces, because of their role as those who accompany SeeD members. The GFs embody some of the most notable changes to Final Fantasy's mechanics, and they might even make or break the game for you. Simply put, the GFs are your livelihood in Final Fantasy VIII. Without proper knowledge of how to use them in and out of combat, the game will get much harder. In battle, the problem of long (although aesthetically pleasing) summons is partially dealt with. They're still long, but now you'll have the ability to “Boost” their power during the animation through controlled button mashing. They aren't much different in terms of selection, since you'll have the standards like Ifrit and Shiva, but there are some new ones too.

A notable addition is the concept of GF compatibility with certain party members. Each time a character uses a GF in battle that character's compatibility grows with that GF. A higher compatibility means that the wait when summoning will be reduced significantly. Alternatively, this lowers all of that character's compatibilities with the other GFs. It's important to monitor compatibility throughout the game, or you'll end up with certain GFs that don't want to be summoned. The in-battle use of GFs will feel familiar, but the real shock will come when the Junction system comes into play.

The entire reason that GFs are so important is because of the Junction system. In the past, and in most other RPGs, your characters gained levels to increase their stats (which is maintained here) and equipment was provided to slightly improve these stats. Junctioning at least one GF to a character allows him or her to perform almost all of their necessary abilities. Your characters won't have the ability to do anything besides attack until they have a GF equipped. Once one is equipped, they are given the baseline command options of “Magic”, “GF”, “Item” and “Draw”. Those should all sound familiar, except for “Draw”, but I'll explain more on that in a bit. As you level up your GFs (which is accomplished through going into battle with them equipped) they'll gain new abilities and some can provide you with more command options.

Equipment (aside from weapon upgrades) is completely done away with in Final Fantasy VIII. The junctioning of magic replaces equipment as a method of stat-maxing. Once you have a GF junctioned you can do this. Each stat, such as HP, Vitality, Attack, and Spirit, can have a spell junctioned to it. Certain spells will allow for greater increases than others, such as the fact that a Cure spell is going to give you more of a benefit when junctioned to HP than when it's junctioned to Attack, but a Fire spell will help your Attack more. Spells with elemental or status properties can be junctioned to affect your attacks and defense as well, just like you'd expect equipment to do. If you have the patience to obtain enough spells to make Junctioning useful, and you have the knowledge of what works best for Junctioning, then you can really make your characters powerful. The Junctioning system is different, to say the least, and it takes a lot of getting used to. Some players will be frustrated by it and they may not like the game because of it. It is such a divided issue; I can't ensure that you'll enjoy it. But what I can ensure you of is that it provides a level of depth to character customization that can't be found in a lot of other RPGs. Your characters' stats are in your hands, and it's your job to make them what you want. If you're a fan of deep customization, Final Fantasy VIII will really whet your appetite.

The only thing holding this system back is the “Draw” command and all that it entails. In and out of battle, you'll have the ability to draw magic from specified drawpoints, as well as from enemies. Your characters don't have to learn new spells to use them; they only have to draw them. This means that you will only have a specific quantity of each spell. This might have worked, but it is hindered by the Junctioning system. Because of the fact that each character's stats are directly tied to the number of spells that are junctioned, I often felt reluctant to actually use them in battle. The use of my precious spells would mean that more would have to be drawn in the future and the stats to which they were junctioned would suffer. This functions to make drawing and maintaining your magic a chore. Just obtaining 100 of a new spell takes forever, since you can only draw a maximum of 9 at a time in battle. Drawpoints out of battle cannot be used constantly and need to be left alone so they can refill. I don't know how else this could have been done to minimize the “choreness” of it, since it plays so strongly into the Junction system, but it does detract from the enjoyment you'll get out of Final Fantasy VIII.

At its release, Final Fantasy VIII was the most graphically impressive game on the market. Even today, its graphics stand out as an achievement, since the game sports almost an hour of Square's trademark cinemas. The character models were greatly improved from Final Fantasy VII, and they no longer look like walking polygons. The textures look a little rough and there are jaggies in most of the polygonal backgrounds, but the prerendered scenery is so impressive that it makes up for those flaws in a big way. The animations are smooth and the computer generated scenes were motion captured to retain a more realistic feel.

The musical score is one of Final Fantasy VIII's best features. Almost every track is utterly amazing, from the soothing tunes of “Balamb Garden” to the epic, orchestral movements of “Don't Be Afraid”, the battle theme. There is an early mission involving a D-Day style beach landing that is perfectly scored with the song “The Landing” and its heartbeat percussion. The game's main theme, “Eyes on Me”, is a beautiful love song that captures the romantic elements of the game exactly. “The Man with the Machine Gun”, another battle theme, employs a cool techno beat. If you are a fan of Nobuo Uematsu's work in the Final Fantasy series, then you will certainly enjoy Final Fantasy VIII's soundtrack. It is arguably his best.

The production value of Final Fantasy VIII really serves to make it so great. There are so many secrets for the player to find that you could spend more time actually finding them than completing the story. As with any Final Fantasy, there is a myriad of sidequests and minigames. You'll have the option of finding several GFs and fighting powerful hidden bosses. Chocobos return, and while their minigames are not quite as fun as they were in Final Fantasy VII, they are still a joy to ride. Triple Triad is an excellent minigame that can be played with almost any NPC at any point in the game. It's a card game based on the enemies and characters of Final Fantasy VIII, and the multitude of cards and rules make it a deep and challenging experience. If I told you everything about Final Fantasy VIII that can be experienced you'd be missing out on something special, so I'll leave the rest to you.

Okay, now that you know what makes Final Fantasy VIII so great and rewarding, there's only one thing left: It costs less than $15! There's no reason to pass up this experience if you claim to be a fan of Final Fantasy or RPGs in general. It does everything that a good RPG and a good game should do. It will take you on a thrilling adventure while keeping you addicted to its battles and character customization, and it will reward you with more to do than you could ever ask for. Drop what you're doing and go save the world, or regret missing one of the PSX's finest games.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 12/14/04

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