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Retro Review: Final Fantasy VIII

In 1999, after introducing thousands of fans to the rpg genre through the massive commercial success of Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft (known as Square Enix today) published its eighth entry in the popular Final Fantasy series, a game that has unfortunately become known by many rpg’ers as the “black sheep” of the franchise. And undeservedly so in my opinion! FFVIII is a unique game that absolutely can and should be enjoyed by just about any rpg player out there, and it has been a long time favorite of mine. In this retroreview I will break down the systems, the story, and the main causes of FFVIII’s black sheep status, as well as provide some practical responses for those of you that put this one on the shelf and let it collect dust.

New Game…my favorite moment in any rpg

It doesn’t matter how many times I start up a new game for Final Fantasy VIII, the intro is always gripping.The music from the opening FMV is stirring, exciting, and tells a whole story in and of itself. As the scenes flash by we’re given a sense of a love story entwined with something bigger and more dangerous, as well as the urgency of the battle between Squall and his nemesis, Seifer. Goosebumps. The first time I saw this video I was hooked. Drawings of Squall in his distinctive leather coat, gun-blade in hand decorated my locker at school. What can I say? Once a nerd, always a nerd.

The initial game sequence following the powerful opening is a bit slow. You name your hero. You meet your first companion, Quistis, who is also your instructor and apparently has the hots for Squall, (but can you blame her? Am I the only one who thinks Squall looks like Josh Hartnett?).

I told my wife I want that coat for Christmas

Such a pretty boy hero. Maybe this is the beginning of the androgynous male hero’s of the FF series? Oh well, Squall is still a great lead character. You are then introduced to a bunch of tutorials explaining technical stuff about the systems in the game. Junctioning. Guardian Forces. Magic. Drawing. If you’ve played it, then you know what I mean. If you haven’t, we will be getting more into the systems in a moment. All in all, your first ten minutes in the world of FFVIII will give you an excellent taste of what is to come.

Finally, human looking in game characters! FYI this screenshot is definitely from the PC version, as those of you who play it on the PSX can attest.

One of the first  things you will notice is the fresh overall art direction. Instead of the cartoon like characters of FFIX, or the ridiculous block people of VII, you are seeing real, humanoid designs. Combine the excellent and modernized soundtrack with the new art direction, and for the first time, I find myself taking the world, and the characters, seriously. It’s almost like…Final Fantasy just grew up.

The ATB battle system is back, and just like in FFVII you can adjust the speed of battles by selecting “active” or “wait” for menu navigation. Random encounters occur in dungeons and on the overworld map and you jump into battle with up to three characters. And then you smack them, cut them or shoot them, in traditional FF fashion gaining levels and AP (Guardian Force exp) in the process.

The battle theme is great, but I really love the boss theme. Here’s a lengthy battle that showcases lots of the different abilities you can utilize later in the game. The Limit Breaks are especially fun in Final Fantasy VIII. Renzokuken say what?

Will these two young lovers ride off on a chocobo into the sunset together?

Ok, so a few quick words about the game basics. The characters are…ok. I don’t love them the way I loved Vivi or Aeris, but I do really enjoy Squall’s dynamic character growth. The love story he shares with Rinoa is decent, and while many people loathed that aspect of the game, I enjoyed the fact that they “went for it” instead of just hinting at feelings between characters. Yes, a few of the later scenes can be a little overly dramatic, but can you think of even ONE other rpg that successfully tells a love story as well as this? (Ok fine, I can think of one series: Shadow Hearts 1 and 2, my all time favorite games.)

The other characters never really get much spotlight, so if your looking for lots of character growth, aside from Squall you won’t really find it here. But at least Zell likes hotdogs which can be amusing? Someone told me once that Irvine doesn’t speak after the second disc. If this is true, I’ve never noticed. Possible though, as I dont’ really care for him and probably wouldn’t notice if he did.

The next general info that must be addressed is the junctioning system. Basically, instead of learning magic spells by level, as in some of the FF, or with an item as in FFVI, VII or IX, you gain magic by taking it from enemies via a battle command called “draw”. This will allow you to amass up to 100 cast’s of a spell, which sit in your inventory like items. The spells can then be “junctioned” to your stats to increase your characters battle effectiveness. For example, late in the game you will junction Ultima to Squall’s strength stat, and destroy everything. Let me be very clear here. This system is OVERLY COMPLICATED. And the menus to utilize this system are SUPER ANNOYING. But once you get the hang of it, its incredibly fun and makes this game an absolute blast to play because of the extensive customization options. Long story short: there is very little use for actual magic casting. Magic instead is a tool that you will use to make your team have high HP, strength etc. If you like magic casters a lot, then maybe this isn’t your cup of tea.

Menus galore

The follow up to the junction system are the Guardian Forces, which are the “summons” of FFVIII. The usual cast of summons are back, including Ifrit, Shiva, Alexander and Bahamut. As you discover the GF’s throughout the world, you can equip them to your characters to increase their junction capabilities. Yeah, I told you it was complicated. If you think it ends there, then your wrong. Add to all of that a card game which allows you to turn cards into items, items into magic and magic into stats and your looking at a very comprehensive game vision. Wow, if I heard myself say that out loud I would think I was crazy…perhaps I should junction 100 Firaga’s to my Intelligence.

So the systems are overly complicated, the characters are a bit drab, the love story is somewhat dramatic, the music is excellent and the battle system is still classic. But none of that is reason for this game to accumulate so much hate right? Well, sort of…I think the FFVIII hate comes from the following two issues:

Eight Hate Reason Number 1: The GF Amnesia plot twist

At a certain point in the game, an unbelievably cheesy plot twist takes place involving, of all things, amnesia. It’s so bad its almost amusing, except that it is just so out left field, and you can’t help feeling somehow let down when it happens. And the story problems and inconsistencies this create are just horrifying. If you hate this game, for THIS reason, then I completely understand. It’s an abominable portion of storytelling, possibly only topped by the final twist in Star Ocean 3. Its bad.

Eight Hate Reason Number 2: The junction/magic/GF/leveling up issues

Yeah, we sort of already addressed this but still, the other major reason I hear that people hate this game is that they never really figured out the whole magic junctioning system. And again, I completely agree. It’s very confusing early on, and unless you are a pro at this game (I consider myself a sort of pro as I have completed the game more than once), you are going to need to really be patient figuring it all out. It’s like algebra in 6th grade. Once you figure out the basics, its all really simple. But should you need to understand complex algebraic systems in order to play a video game? Probably not. But for some of us, like myself, its fun and has high replay value due to all the different customization options.

I’m sure there are other reasons for the Eight Hate but these are the most common. But let me share a few tips with you that will make this game an absolute blast to play, and hopefully overcome some of the more lackluster elements. I’m going to call them the…

RETRODRAGON’S TOP 5 REASONS TO PLAY FFVIII!

Number 5. Insanely good music. I often turn music down when I play rpg’s because it can be so annoying. But I love the music from this game. Its easily my favorite all time rpg soundtrack. Listen to the main theme in this video below and feel your heart melt…in fact, better yet, play this music while you read the rest of this review!

Number 4. Brilliantly written dynamic main character. Yeah yeah yeah, I know you love Cloud and Sephiroth, and Locke and Kefka, and I’m sure you love Tidus (well maybe), but give my man Squall some love! He’s really interesting, and this is groundbreaking storytelling for 1999 in an rpg. Dark backstory that plays directly into his personality. Slowly progressing leadership development. A hard heart turned soft by love. Its all here and it’s excellent. The consistent narration of Squall’s thoughts really add some depth. Rather than focusing on why the rest of the cast are sort of duds, focus on how well they wrote Squall’s character.

Number 3. Genius customization options. This game allows you, the gamer, to customize your play experience more than any jrgp before or since. You can focus on whatever characters, stats, GF’s, playstyle that you want. You can use magic as magic, or use it to boost your speed. You can play as a summoner who loves to send Leviathan and Bahamut-like death to the enemies, or just smack them with nunchaku. You can leave your characters health down and focus on Limit Breaks, or use a more balanced approach. You can play THE ENTIRE GAME without leveling up AT ALL because the enemies level scales with your own, or level up to 100 and make the final bosses a true challenge. Lots of customization really sets this game apart.

Number 2. Masterfully constructed story sequences that integrate awesome FMV’s. What I mean by this is that there are several points in the game where the story sequences are really well structured, so the gameplay and excitement build nicely. And the integration of the excellent FMVs with the gameplay make for a very well constructed immersive feel. For example, early on in the game your trying to escape a massive robotic boss while running down a mountain away from him. The scene builds really well and ends as one of the best sequences in the game. Later on, you attempt an assassination,  break into a missile base, go all “Mission Impossible” on a train, as well as enter outer space (a nice theme in the Final Fantasy series). When I play a game I love those sequences that give battles and storytelling a feeling of intensity. Really well done on this front. You will have lots of memorable moments in FFVIII.

Number 1. Renzokuken! Yeah I know I already mention Limit Breaks, but lets face it, trying to get Lionheart to trigger against Ultima Weapon is about as fun as it gets, and is sure to make some memories.

For some reason, every year during the holiday season, I play one of the old Final Fantasies. This year it was Final Fantasy VIII. I know it’s probably not your favorite, and maybe it shouldn’t be. But before you write this title off as the problem child of the family, you should take some time to consider it. I really think you’ll walk away being glad you did.

Ok, here’s the final rundown!

Bottom line, should I play this game? YES! It’s on PSN for $10 bucks, so even if you don’t finish it, or find you don’t like it enough to really dig in, its probably worth the money.

Where does FFVIII fit on your list of best Final Fantasy games? This is a great question because it will help you figure out how biased I am. My top five are as follows: X, IX, VII, XII, VIII. Suprised that none of the TRULY retro FF’s made the list? (This site is called “Retrodragon” after all) I do enjoy them, but the modern graphics and complex systems of the “post VI” FF’s make the pre Playstation era FF’s in the second half of my top 10. And yes, VI is my number 6.

What’s the best way to play this game? I am playing on my PSP/PS3, because its easy to swap back and forth. Honestly though, the PC version has the better graphics, so you should go that route if you can afford it. The PC version will run you about $30-40, but hey, no grainy pixelated character models!

Should I use an FAQ with FFVIII? Yes, and this is why. Use a spoiler free walkthrough, that shows you where to get the Diablos GF. Then learn “encounter none” as soon as possible. Play the game using low levels, and with minimal junctioning. This will balance the difficulty, making more of the game a challenge as well as allowing you to progress without ANY random encounters. Sweet!

How hard is this game? This is the easiest of all the Final Fantasies in my opinion. Renzokuken is way too strong, and if you take the time to get the Lionheart sword, this game is just stupid easy. The final boss will die practically on accident. Fight the Weapons for a challenge.

I played this based on your recommendation and I hate it! That’s not really a question, more of a statement. And if that’s the case, well, I understand. I’m sorry you aren’t able to enjoy a game that has great overall direction because of it’s few significant flaws.

Here’s one final classic scene from FFVIII. Yep, its Squall and Rinoa…

Thanks for reading!
By Retrodragon

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4 comments on “Retro Review: Final Fantasy VIII

  1. I agree that this is a FF game that anyone who likes JRPGs should play at least once. I think I had a good enough time when I did play it, but I have no desire to play it again. I am no Squall hater but maybe because I actually liked/empathized with him and disliked Rinoa, I hated the romance of the game. Actually I didn’t find it believable, but it’s not like I have any experience with relationships so I guess I’m not the best judge… I guess I’m also a “hater” for reason #1. I did feel like the game was paced pretty well, even if the plot holes got pretty big. I’m not sure if I’d enjoy it more or less if I played it again; maybe being older I might appreciate the try at romance and I think I’d enjoy mucking with the battle system more.

    • Yeah I think this is one of my favorite games to talk about with people, because it can be so divisive. But I do agree that the romance was shaky. Better dialogue would have made a huge difference. In my current playthrough I’m focusing more on the way I level and in combat and its been pretty fun. Want to wrap it up though bc I’m itching to start up a game in Chrono Cross…

  2. I enjoyed the game, but agree the junctioning system was deeply flawed. Milking enemies for magic got tedious and casting spells was discouraged as it would decrease your stats. I also dislike games that have monsters leveling up when your party does. If you avoid fighting and just junction magic the game becomes a cakewalk.

    • Yeah my new approach to the game is to get max level as early as possible to up the challenge. Gets pretty tough at that point bc early on you don’t have great junctions. Fun game but deeply flawed. Holds a special place in my heart only because of the age I was when I first played it really. Somehow I keep going back for more lol

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