Review by grasu
"Broken, because no one tried to make this game work."
Caustic acid. Everyone knows what it does. This magical chemical burns through just every type of material that humanity has come across. So what does this have to do with the review in question? Well, sometimes games can also be fairly caustic on their own.
RPGs have been around since the 1980s and Final Fantasy is one of the most respected series of RPGs out there. Born in 1988 as a last ditch effort by SquareSoft to save their nearly-bankrupt company it grew to become a phenomenon. Every series though, has its own lows, as well as its own highs. Final Fantasy VIII is a huge low for the fabled Final Fantasy series, because it is among the most flamboyant RPGs ever made, yet it's also among the biggest disasters of gameplay, sloppy execution, and rushed design (it took Square 2 years to make this game, while it took them 4 years to come out with Final Fantasy XII) to hit the PS1.
The sumptuous graphics and the nearly-human character models are among the saving graces of Final Fantasy VIII . Using a series of pre-rendered backgrounds to display high fantasy/techno-punk faire such as flying fortresses, sandy beaches, ruined temples and futuristic military facilities the graphics entangle the gamer into a world that feels and looks alive.
The main characters have mature-looking bodies, articulated well and appropriately, if albeit extravagantly dressed with the requisite crazy hair stiles. The animations these characters sport are complex, allowing them to roll, jump or move at the highest quality of animation that the PS1 is able to provide. Monsters and other secondary characters are also very well made, with attention being paid to detail stupendous animations, great use of style and animation are present for both monsters and other lesser NPCs.
One of the key features of any Final Fantasy game, attack animations, are absolutely superb. Featuring an over the top anime style which collides impressive lighting, with complex attacks such as Behemoth's Solar Flare and taking players only temporarily out of the action and helping the focus rest solely on the impressive Guardian Forces attack patter. Weapons and equipment look great, and the attacks that characters perform with these instruments of death are equally impressive. Squall's final attack is especially impressive as it blitzkriegs the enemy with a series of uber-quick hits while engulfing the screen into darkness. The visual effects created by these attacks are perhaps among the best the genre has ever seen.
Unfortunately, all is not perfect a few problems plague the otherwise perfect visual delight. The first major issue facing Final Fantasy VIII is that the framerate can seriously bog down at times. When entering the battle screen characters seem to slow to somewhere below 30 frames per second making their movements look unreal. A slight less important issue is that all of this visual flair takes the gamer out of the action quite a good deal: Some battles feel more like interactive cut scenes, since some animations can take upwards of 3 minutes, than battles. Nevertheless, the visual flair certainly makes these problems more than bearable.
Why, and I do mean why, didn't Square get off its lazy butt and hired some voice actors for these people? I mean at least for the screams and the 2 (or less) important dialogues in this game? Even Square's decidedly less fancy-schmancy affair, Parasite Eve had voice dialogue for the screams! Needless to say that there are PLENTY of PS1 games featuring voiced dialog: Diablo 1 had all of the voices intact, and featured superb acting, and the Legacy of Kain series pretty much became KNOWN for its superb voice acting. What's even more mind boggling is that one of the biggest premises of CD gaming was that players could listen to quality music and voice work apparently not in RPGs because in all fairness, neither Square nor anyone else seemed to take note of these new technological capabilities.
The sound effects and music don't fare any better. Assuming you can get passed the fact that the music is nearly IDENTICAL to previous Final Fantasy entries (excluding a few themes such as the title theme) you'll find that it's not exactly the best quality of music you've heard in a game. The music sounds muffled and the quality screams of BAD MONO. As for the sound effects, there's so little of them that you won't notice if they are there or not. Yes, magic spells have sounds, and so do footsteps and the occasional car or the numerous screams of the monsters or the clash of weapons, but the same samples have seemingly been used for an endless number of actions. Players will have a nearly IMPOSSIBLE time to spot the difference between striking with a sword or striking with staff. Some will find it equally hard to actually spot the difference between spells of the same class (water magic for example). What really tips the glass over however is the fact that there are ENDLESS sequences where nearly no sounds are played: When walking through hallways you'll see people running around and making no sounds, there isn't anything that you touch or see that makes a sound. When Resident Evil could differentiate between stepping on cobble-stone or glass 3 years prior the Final Fantasy VIII, these omissions are inadmissible.
In Final Fantasy VIII you fight the good fight along Squall and his teammates at a battle academy looking like a cross between a plane and a boat, with a house on top. Thing is that the term fight evil is used quite loosely in this sentence. What you'll most likely find yourself fighting is boredom, sleep and frustration as SquareSoft puts you through the paces of one of the most cliche RPGs ever.
RPGs now-a-days have one defining factor, story and Final Fantasy VIII drops the bomb in this category it drops it badly. I really don't go for the boy-girl/love story with seemingly impossible odds-routine to begin with so things weren't looking great from the start. Final Fantasy VIII's story is a convoluted love story with typical Japanese ''wannabe''-shock moments that nearly any long time fan of movies or books about star-crossed lovers has already seen a dozen times. Of course, in typical anime fashion, the story gets darker and more absurd as you go on evil witches terrorize the land, the true evil that you see before you has a dark and mysterious past, and the characters all have hidden agendas or inter-connecting storylines that make them all linked in some way. It seems like the world, from being peaceful 2 days ago, has now become a beacon of evil and destruction! Great! And if you're about to scream "spoilers" due to anything that was stated earlier, then you might as well throw this review in the garbage and go get the game. Assuming however that everything that was said seems familiar, which it should because it's been in hundreds of RPGs before it, Final Fantasy VIII won't be your best bet for a rich, story-driven experience.
For some inexplicable reason however, Square throws the proverbial-gauntlet in and makes this absurdity of a story downright terrible with one of the most unsatisfying endings ever: Without spoiling much, at the end the game desperately tries to intertwine psychological philosophies, and other dooms day prophecies together to make an impact that ends up feeling like a last ditch effort to save the story. And if that poor excuse of a complication didn't work for Matrix: Reloaded it's sure as hell not going to work for a much more badly written game. In the end though, this completely irrational love story becomes way too cliche for anyone with more then 10-15 RPGs under their belt and the only reason for pushing through the game becomes to find out what characters have hidden in their dark pasts or what sort of game-tuning, utterly-irrational, plot-hole-laden, twists Square cooked up for fans this time around,
Needless to say with a bad story also come bad characters. Simply put, the characters in Final Fantasy VIII are nausea inducing: Squall, the protagonist is a wanna be bad guy who gets softer than a tomato by the end of the game, Rinoa is the ''you can't get any of that'' princess that seems to fall in love with the rag-tag solider and finally the evil rival, Seifer, who wants to kill the main hero and kidnap the girl and turn her in to the big scary witch using her newly discovered super abilities. Again, if you're about to scream "spoilers" go out, buy this game and throw the review in the garbage.
It is nearly IMPOSSIBLE for any respectable writer to created characters more cliched than these. And while all is not lost as some characters do liven up the scenery with a more off-the-beaten path look or a more interesting background story, but they are far and few in between and with and some of these characters also end up falling in the same stereotypes that the others fell into. Due to poor development and paper-thin reasoning and motives, not to mention the lack of any dialog to give the some personality, characters end up being severely washed out. Usually, with this kind of all out cliché-a-thon developers introduce a mechanic to endear players to their characters: Grandia II had characters sitting around a table and discussing personal opinions before every new chapter in the story, The Protagonist in the Shin Megami Tensei series (ALL OF THEM) talked to demons, etc. Square doesn't even ATTEMPT to do any of that. All in all, Final Fantasy VIII features around 7 characters, that you'll be likely not to remember after finishing the game, and that share only bad things in common: Horrible dialogue and an even worse battle system.
The battle itself is exactly like it is in every Final Fantasy game: Each person in the battle takes turns at hitting the opposing team. The inclusion of the ATB or whatever the hell that was-bar was goes by completely unnoticeable. The whole point of the bar is for characters to get a more involving, real-time, battle experience with monsters hitting back if players just stand there and do nothing. The purpose of the ATB system was also to allow characters to hit more than once in a turn if the enemy is slow and unable to fill his ATB bar before his human counterpart: Rarely does this system actually work however. The only clear instance when you can actually see the ATB system at work is when you fight woefully inferior creatures or when you summon Guardian Forces which require more than 1-turn.
But the real fun of any JRPG battle system should come form the abilities, right? Well in Final Fantasy VIII it doesn't. The whole battle system suffers from downright atrocious structuring. The newest addition is the draw ability allowing characters can draw items or magic form monsters. So far so good, right? Well not really: The whole drawing thing means that unless you put yourself in danger (by checking the draw menu) or if unless you read a FAQ you may miss out on Guardian Forces (GFs) or spells that can NEVER be recovered throughout the course of the game. Needless to say that the game doesn't even offer you the slightest clue that characters might carry these spells or GFs so unless you enter each battle and risk wasting a turn on drawing, and the a few more turns to actually get the draw, you might miss out on some irrecoverable material.
Of course the ever-present random encounter problem plagues Final Fantasy VIII as much as any other Final Fantasy game ever made. Admittedly, Square did make some nice touches to help prevent excess encounters they come so late in the game that they're hardly noticeable. The main ''improvement'' to the random encounter system is the ability of one of your GFs to learn a skill that either halves or completely eliminates random encounters. However by the time that GF actually learns that skill, since it's not exactly a quinte-essential skill for you too learn, you won't even bother with it since the skill is woefully out of your reach when you need it. The skill becomes available only late in the game when you NEED the random encounters in order to actually level yourself up. Oh, and by level up, I don't mean willingly leveling up but actually being forced to do it: In order to actually beat Final Fantasy VIIIit is imperative to reach Lv. 99 by walking around in circles in the most dangerous area in the game. It is nearly impossible to beat the game without doing this.
The fun however is never over: After you're done ''leveling up'' your next task is to go around looking for the 3 or so, available weapons... great fun!! Each character gets about 5-6 weapons that all must be crafted and they act as upgrades to their main weapon. These upgrades require no such thing as actually buying them from a shop, you know like in all the good RPGs. Rather, in order to get a new weapon, you have to go out in the world, find some incredibly rare monsters, and then fight them until they drop an incredibly rare drop. Then, you can go buy the weapons. Oh, let's not forget that the same rule-o-thumb weapons in RPGs should always be canned also applies to Final Fantasy VIII: You can't go out and find or purchase better armor nor weapons. Your ONLY solution to get the better weapons is to endure this mindlessly boring and repetitive forging task. When you finally acquire these weapons you also unlock super-special attacks for each character. The ONLY unique things about the characters themselves are these attacks which are mind numbingly powerful. The only way to engage into these attacks is to reach your limit break, by getting pummeled to death by monsters and then to unleash the attack on a foe. Spells also might help with fill your Limit Break but the system has a huge crack in it: Sometimes, the most powerful attacks happen randomly. In other words, sending Squall to perform his most powerful attack MIGHT lead into a series of very powerful slashes, but it might also just stop after the first attack is completed. This is one of the most utterly idiotic, and pointless additions to EVER grace RPGs and it seems to prove the final dogma about weapons in JRPGs: The weapon is a tool of the leveling system in order to increase your chance of striking the super powerful attack you need to increase your luck attribute.
Final Fantasy VIII at least gets the monster part right: A bountiful array of monsters ranging from huge plant/octopus-like animals named Marlboro's to your own Guardian Forces and the indispensable super-monsters are all present in Final Fantasy VIII. Every single one of the monsters is intricately designed with attention being paid to detail and with a myriad of attacks. Unfortunately, one thing ruins any hope that Final Fantasy VIII might pick itself up from the ashes: The monster unbalances! Some of the monsters in this game are absolutely ridiculous. Take the Marlboro for the previous example, a plant that uses Bad Breath to infect your whole crew of shallow cretins with every stat alteration possible. Better yet, it uses that 80% of the time, as soon as you randomly encounter him; in the first turn of the battle!! YAY!
That's not all there is to it when it comes to monster problems though.
Most monsters in this game (that is, the ones that actually are a challenge to fight or that don't kill you instantly in the first 3 turns) are immune to most stat altering magic (mini, toad, poison). Many RPGs use this, but Final Fantasy games have made a very, very bad habit of giving you GFs or summons that use these abilities: It is plain simply useless to use these stat-altering GFs in battle as they're only as strong as their poison that most high-level creatures are immune to! So then, why the hell give them to you in the first place? For you to junction them.
Final Fantasy VIII uses ''junctioning'' as a way of enhancing your characters abilities and even gifting them with other super abilities in other words, it's the basic leveling system in Final Fantasy VIII. What you do, in order to get new abilities or attributes is junction (i.e. equip) your character with any 3 GFs at a time, or junction his stats to the spells that he/she drew from monsters or spell dispensers. Junctioning gives you special attributes that the GFs might have learned; it allows you to greatly increase your stats or to use battle commands such as Draw or Magic. For each of these additions you lose something: If you want to use Draw and Magic you might not be able to use Summon or Item abilities for example. The GF part of the junctioning system is also unique: See GFs are magical stat altering creatures. They can either alter you characters stats (with such passive skills as, Hit Points plus 300%) or they allow you to equip abilities such as No Random encounters (in exchange for one of your current slots).
OK, let's put it in a more concrete example. Say you junction a mage with 10-strength with 99 Aura spells (among the strongest in the game), that mage will be blessed with 255-strength. Which means you will see mages doing the same amount of damage as fighters (some where over the 60000 margin). But no biggie, of course characters can all be expert fighters/mages/theifs this way if only it wouldn't be for those pesky summons. It completely boggles the mind as to why, after being able to junction all of your characters with these super-power-ups you would ever use Guardian Forces. The strongest Guardian Force takes over 2 turns to ready up and, only when using the boost ability will it EVER be able to match HALF of the damage done by one of these super warrior/mages/whatevers. Now imagine that GFs are a totally SEPARATE entity that allows even more mind bending character alteration, allowing ANY character to boost stats such as Strength or Mana by huge amounts. Balance is thrown out of the window again in favor of absurdity. Oh, let's not forget that by the end of the game the only thing separating your characters are their weapons, clothes and Limit Breaks since they can ALL be junctioned in such a way that they do nearly identical damage, and have nearly identical HP and stats.
A few positive aspects of the gameplay actually do exist. The amount of Guardian Forces you can summon is huge. Even if some of these GFs are a bit useless they're all put to good use with the junctioning system as they're the ONLY things in this game that have unique abilities. Better yet, a familiarity system, which allows frequent users of the same Guardian Force to summon it with ease and to help it deliver more damage saves the characters from being close of each other. Second, the side quests are well structured and they offer unique and useful rewards such as parts for weapons, spells or Guardian Forces. Not to mention none of them are based on pure luck
Finally a Card Game, that has you playing with acquired cards (which you may draw from monsters, bosses, or receive from NPCs) against other players is a decent addition and helps somewhat with the monotony of the game. Unfortunately when the rules from different regions start mingling with each other the game becomes nearly unplayable and it quickly loses its novelty.
Final Fantasy VIII is bad, and it's not because it suffers from a bad presentation but because it fails to deliver anything new or compelling, outside of an altered leveling system to gamers who've actually been WAITING for something new from the Final Fantasy series. If you're the sort of person who thinks that Final Fantasy VII is the best RPG ever, Final Fantasy VIII won't disappoint you. If you want something new and fresh go pick up Persona 2.
Reviewer's Rating: 1.0 - Terrible
Originally Posted: 04/01/05, Updated 03/10/06
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