Final Fantasy VIII - Reader Re-Retroview  

Schoolhouse Rock
by Jeremy Michael Gallen

20-40 Hours
+ Endless battle strategy/customization.
+ Triple Triad can be fun.
+ Great music and graphics.
- Some players will *hate* the gameplay.
- GF/Junction management could've been cleaner.
- Story is a little...weird.
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   Squall Leonhart is a student of a military school, the Balamb Garden, who becomes a member of an elite mercenary force, SeeD, after helping halt the invasion of the Dollet Dukedom by Galbadia. Squall and company soon learn afterward that a sorceress named Edea is the mastermind of Galbadia's hostilities, and thus seek to stop her. Square's Final Fantasy VIII marked the second appearance of the fabled franchise on the Playstation, making drastic gameplay changes from its predecessors. Whether or not these changes were for the better is largely a matter of opinion, although the eighth installment certainly has much going for it.

   FF8 once more marks the return of the franchise's randomly-encountered active-time battles, with each of up to three active characters able to execute various commands once their active time gauge fills up. However, in order to use commands other than standard attacks, a character must equip at least one Guardian Force (GF), after which the player can set up to three additional battle commands for that character alongside "Attack" as well as a number of support abilities depending upon which GFs he or she equips. The other battle commands characters can equip include summoning equipped GFs, using magic, using items, or drawing magic from enemies.

   The ability to draw magic from enemies significantly drives combat, with a character, in addition to being able to draw magic for his or her individual magic inventory (the player can also rarely draw additional GFs from bosses), also able to instantly cast a spell an enemy has against that adversary or another foe. Besides being able to use stocked magic against enemies (each character can stock up to a hundred of each spell, although there is a limit to how many different types of spells they can carry), the player can also junction stocked magic to each character's stats (such as HP and strength), depending again upon what GFs they have equipped, consequently increasing that stat depending upon how many of a stocked spell that character has.

Increasing stats and all that junk Junction, junction, what's your function?

   FF8, furthermore, dumps the equipment system of its predecessors, instead settling for a system where the player, with a little money and the right kinds of materials gained by killing enemies, can upgrade each character's weapon. In this installment, moreover, the player doesn't gain money from killing enemies, and instead receives a salary after a certain number of steps depending upon Squall's SeeD rank, which the player can increase by taking quizzes about the game's mechanisms in the game menus. Winning battles typically yields experience for each participating character, some items, and AP for equipped GFs to gradually learn new abilities.

   Each character can also summon any of their equipped GFs into battle, in which case a GF's HP will take place of the summoner's, with the GF then receiving damage instead of its summoner. After a reverse active time gauge empties, the character will summon that GF, which will execute its ability, typically offensive but in some instances defensive, with a flashy animation. Most offensive GFs can learn the Boost ability, which can allow the player to button-mash to boost that GF's attack power during its animation (although wrong timing of button-mashing can completely cost the player this bonus).

   Additionally, Limit Breaks return from the seventh installment, though this time, they randomly become available in each character's command menu, with a greater chance of access when a character's HP is in critical state (constant switching of active characters' menus can also help make Limit Breaks appear), although it is possible to obtain a support spell, Aura, that increases the odds of Limit Breaks becoming available, regardless of HP. The actual power of Limit Breaks, ironically, varies from character to character, and in most instances (except maybe the last boss, depending upon each characters' stats), Limit Breaks typically aren't critical to victory.

Time to solve some mysteries! The Mystery Machine makes an appearance

   Ultimately, given the endless strategy and customization available to plow through the game, the developers definitely deserve a deal of credit for the gamble they took in shaking up combat, which definitely has its moments throughout the game. Many, though, criticize the battle system for allegedly forcing players to spend an eternity drawing spells for enemies to make it through the game. Constantly devoting hours to drawing magic from enemies, however, is perhaps the *worst* way to play FF8, and is at best a last resort since many GF abilities become available to allow the player to synthesize magic from items.

   Spending a lot of time leveling characters, moreover, isn't exactly a great strategy, either, both because enemies throughout the game will level up with the player, and because the status increases from junctioning magic are much better than those gained by leveling (though some GF abilities can still give level-up bonuses). It is possible, moreover, to obtain a GF skill that completely nullifies random encounters, allowing for stress-free travel throughout dungeons if desired. Although there are certainly some challenging parts in the game, mainly the final boss, players can definitely enjoy the battle system without wasting an eternity drawing magic.

   FF8's interface is largely adequate, with clean menus and a decent direction, except maybe in one or two instances, on how to advance the game, although tinkering around with various GF and magic setups on the party can be somewhat burdensome. Outside of battle, moreover, is a mini-game, Triple Triad, which can be enjoyable as long as the player doesn't accidentally spread around some of the more complicated, frustrating rules (it is possible to abolish rules, although spreading and abolishing rules, lamentably, involves a heavy degree of randomization), with the player also able to synthesize items from Triple Triad cards. Overall, interaction doesn't severely hamper the game, although there are some aspects that could've been better.

   The eighth installment definitely deserves points for creativity, given the uniqueness of its gameplay mechanisms compared to both previous and future entries of the franchise, and to an extent its more modernistic/futuristic setting, although the story in some respects derives a little from those of previous games, and the game does retain many elements from its predecessors, such as active-time combat, spell names, airships, and the like. Nonetheless, FF8 even today stands as a unique entry into the fabled franchise.

Free of blood, no less Zell's exploding head trick

   FF8 attempts to weave an intriguing political/military story, which starts somewhat decently, yet ultimately delves into the realm of "been there, done that," with elements such as demonic possession, temporary character incapacitation, time travel, and so forth. Granted, the time travel element does add some backstory alongside the background already present for most of the playable characters, although the plot goes somewhat overboard with this element late in the game. Moreover, attempts to tie some of the game mechanisms into the story, and other aspects like the alleged romance between Squall and Rinoa, fall a little flat. It's not a bad story, given its maturity and a reasonably fulfilling ending, although it could have certainly been better, and isn't as strong as the seventh installment's.

   Nobuo Uematsu once again composes the soundtrack, which is up to his typical high standards, with most tracks such as the boss battle theme being solid, and some remixes occasionally appearing throughout the game, the Balamb Garden track being among the central themes. FF8 also features a nice vocalized track, "Eyes on Me," which also serves as another central theme. As usual, normal battle music could have used some diversity (a different battle track on each disc would have been adequate), but otherwise, music is one of the game's high points.

   The visuals are another high point, with character models being much more realistic, and anatomically correct, than those in the seventh installment. Photorealistic pre-rendered environments also return, as do FMVs, which as with before look spectacular. Granted, the character models do appear a little grainy at times, and the overworld is easily the low point of the graphics, but otherwise, FF8's visual package was well above average in its time.

   Finally, a straightforward playthrough of FF8 takes somewhere from twenty to forty hours (the final boss may require players to spend some time stat-building), but as with most other installments of the series, a number of sidequests and extras can easily boost playing time beyond that range.

   In conclusion, Final Fantasy VIII is certainly worthy of the franchise's moniker, although it does certainly have some features, notably its battle system and story, that have very much polarized alleged fans of the series. Nonetheless, the eighth installment reflects the fact that Final Fantasy is all about innovation and change, and deserves credit for trying things differently, alongside other aspects most can concur are solid, notably its music and visuals. Those that can accept the constant evolution of the franchise, as well as those who remember that they don't *have* to spend an eternity drawing magic, will certainly find something to celebrate, but those seeking tradition and security from an RPG series should look elsewhere.

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