There are many opinions on the subject of ‘When Final Fantasy games were good’. I sit comfortably in the PSX demographic and believe that Final Fantasy VII and VIII are two of the best JRPGs ever made. Over the years, Final Fantasy VII has stolen much of the well-deserved limelight that the franchise has earned and rightly so. It stands out to as a masterpiece in RPG gaming. Yet I always felt that VIII was slightly underrated. Being the first Final Fantasy game I actually owned it has always been my favorite and here’s why.
In a nutshell – Final Fantasy VIII follows the journey of Squall Leonhart, a graduate of Garden Military Academy, as he fights for survival, justice and independence. Along the way Squall is embroiled in numerous inner conflicts and accrues a small team of diverse individuals who each arrive with their own emotional baggage. Though they don’t all gel at first, you can count on life threatening situations and evil world endangering schemes to eventually bring any team together, so buckle up and get ready to watch the drama unfold.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is. Strip away the game’s finer details and what you’re left with is the generic core story for most JRPGs out there today. Where this game breaks away from the mould of other RPGs is in its storytelling and presentation.
In a little more detail – Squall’s assessed mission to secure the war torn coastal town of Dollet goes south when his team leader, a wayward school rival named Sefier, (essentially Malfoy to his Harry Potter) decides to take matters into his own hands. After everyone but Seifer passes the assessment, Squall and company embark on their first real mission; to assist a resistance faction named the Timber Owls in the kidnapping of a president. Though plausible, the hastily drawn up kidnap plan goes far from smoothly and thrusts our protagonists in into the middle of a political feud between the Republic of Galbadia and the rest of the world. Without spoiling the story, even the high political angle gets turned on its head as Squall goes through twists and turns to uncover who is really pulling the strings. Not only does Squall have to take on the world, he has to do it whilst trying to seem in control of his continuously see-sawing emotions. He is also struggling to deal with a blossoming romance between himself and love interest Rinoa.
During their quest for truth our heroes frequently fall victim to strange and unpredictable shared dream sequences in which we relive the experiences of a Galbadian soldier named Laguna. Needless to say these out of body experiences seem disconnected from the rest of the game at first but become more relevant as the plot thickens. Some people found the story of this Final Fantasy game to be confusing and over complicated but in all honesty I really liked it.
I first played this on PC and as my computer wasn’t quite up to spec, it ran at half speed in a quarter sized screen. Nevertheless I soldiered on, my eyes glued to the (at the time) amazingly detailed environments and superb cut scenes. I think it is fair to say that visually, Final Fantasy VIII has not aged quite as well as its PSX siblings have. Replaying it recently bombarded my eyes with a whole spectrum of blocky textures and character models that I don’t remember from my childhood. That being said, when looking at older 3D games I sometimes have to remind myself that as game graphics have evolved, so have my expectations and to judge a fantastic game like this based on today’s visual standards, even if sometimes subconsciously, is unfair.
At the time this was cutting edge and though Squall’s face may occasionally look like pixelated vomit on modern widescreen televisions, it is still a beautiful game to behold. Environments still look great, being mostly pre-rendered with their own specific styles and offer much potential for exploration. Final Fantasy titles are usually praised for their soundtracks and this game is no exception. The game is packed with brilliant and memorable melodies.
I find that when telling a story via the typical RPG format, pacing is the key. With a plot as complex as Final Fantasy VIII’s it would be easy to lose the player’s interest very quickly. Fortunately, though the pace does sag in places, VIII has generally good momentum and switches between action, dialogue and exploration in equal measure. The world opens up bit by bit, your potential for exploring expanding with each plot milestone you reach and acquiring vehicles which allow you to progressively traverse land, sea and skies.
The combat follows the formula of previous games which is a good thing. Battles occur randomly for the most part, and pit your chosen team against any number of nicely designed enemies and bosses. Battle actions unfold via a turn based system which allows for strategic use of your characters abilities. All characters have the basic commands to begin with; item use, melee attack and the newly crafted draw ability. The draw system essentially replaces the previous game’s MP (magic points) and allows you to gain magic from enemies during battle and from the many ‘draw points’ in the world. Spells that you draw basically go into your magic stock and can be used in battle or linked to your character’s attributes to boost their offensive and defensive capabilities. While a little laborious at times this system can be fun to experiment with as each spell will affect your character’s stats in different ways, so finding the optimum balance is rewarding.
Another mechanic which differs from earlier installments in the series is the GFs (guardian forces). These are creatures you can call into battle to damage enemies or buff your team and where you were previously expected to shell out MP to use them, you now have unlimited usage. What’s more, while you are waiting for a GF to arrive, their life points will replace yours so that if you are hit while summoning it actually damages your GF. They can be revived if killed however and tactical timing of your summons could save your bacon in a tight spot. GF’s can be acquired by drawing them from enemies or completing quests.
Final Fantasy VIII also has mini games and side quests to pursue, should you feel like a break from the main story. The best mini game has to be the trading card game, which functions very easily and certainly lengthens the lifespan of the game as there are numerous cards to collect and play for scattered all over the world.
My only real criticism of this game is that the enemies level up with you. That doesn’t sound like much of a problem but when you power level for a while to get an edge over the next boss, it doesn’t really feel like you have made much progress. Nevertheless I still have fun grinding away at the levels when I play it, if only for the sense of achievement when my characters stats increase.
Overall this is a fantastic entry in an already stellar series and can be found on the Playstation network or picked up in original PC/PSX format at a reasonable price.