Final Fantasy VIII- Retroview  

The Lesser Child
by Stew Shearer

20-40 Hours
+ Great graphics and good soundtrack.
+ Long, epic experience.
- Junction system is highly flawed.
- The story can be clumsy in some places.
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   To many people, Final Fantasy VIII is something of an awkward little brother. It isn't that the game is poorly made. It has many fine qualities that still hold up well today after nearly ten years on the market. Final Fantasy VIII simply suffers from the fact that its flaws look worse when compared to Final Fantasy VII, which many people still consider to be the end all, be all of RPGs. Nonetheless, for its rough edges, FFVIII is a solid title with a number of features that make up for the parts that stumble.

   Final Fantasy VIII follows Squall Leonhart, who, at the game's start, is a student on the brink of finishing his education at Balamb Garden. The garden is a training school for SEED, a mercenary organization. Squall is a bit of a loner who spends the majority of the game locked in a state of quiet surliness. His life changes however, when he meets Rinoa, a young woman and sort-of-revolutionary. The plot is almost simple, as its focus is primarily the romance that develops between Squall and Rinoa rather than any greater political or philosophical theme. This is both a blessing and a curse of sorts. The plot is not difficult to follow; usually whenever a twist in the story comes along it is rather well explained. This said, there are a few places where it stumbles into ridiculous plot points that are almost irrelevant to the story and drag the whole experience down. The cast of characters is also a mixed bag. While some are interesting, many, if not most, are relatively flat and serve little purpose beyond filling the required slots in the player's party. Squall himself can be annoying in some places, and at times the only thing that makes him likeable are the text boxes that pop up during the story revealing what he's thinking and demonstrating that he is slightly more than just an emo child.

Caption" Basic combat is governed by the ATB system.

   The gameplay of Final Fantasy VIII is shaky. At a basic level, combat follows the tried and true active time battle system. When battle starts, the player's party is on one side and the enemies are on the other. The player waits until the action meter fills up and trades blows until the opponent is defeated. The player chooses their actions via the same old menus that have defined the Final Fantasy games since the first. Out of battle, pushing the triangle button will bring one to a menu in which the status of their party and the various other game options are available. Veterans of the series will have no problem picking up this portion of the game, and for newcomers it isn't difficult to learn.

   Where Final Fantasy VII featured a stripped version of customization for its characters, Final Fantasy VIII takes things even further, though in a more complex way. Players no longer wander from town to town purchasing new weapons and armor. In fact, there is no armor to speak of, and weapons can only be upgraded through pseudo-side quests. Rather, players can upgrade their characters via the junction system. Junctioning is essentially the process of selecting available Guardian Forces, or GFs, and attaching them to a character to gain access to a slew of abilities.

   These abilities are as basic as casting magic or using items and can also be used to increase a character's stats or give access to abilities like Steal. Furthermore, with a GF in use, players can then junction specific spells to certain stats in order to customize each character. If there are a lot of Fire spells in stock, one might attach them to a character's defense rating and and double their HP. Unlike titles of the past, characters no longer have a set amount of magic points that determine how many spells they can cast. To use magic, it must first be drawn from enemies in battle. Spells become much like items, exhaustible in amount if they aren't restocked over time.

   The Junction system, unfortunately, is plagued with problems. The customization that serves at its core is both confusing and shallow. The game provides tutorials on its use, but even after a few playthroughs a player might not really grasp what it is they're doing. And even after the intricacies of the system are learned, very rarely is it useful to actually customize a character. Often the most beneficial results can be reached by simply allowing the game to automatically junction the best in-stock spells to desired areas. Adding to this is the tedium of the draw system. While it is interesting in theory, drawing magic can be worse than level grinding, and with such a dependency on magic to power up, it is a necessity of the game.

   Furthermore, the various ways to strengthen characters can make the game far too easy. Even early on, the GFs, which also serve as FFVIII's equivalent of summon spells, tilt most battles firmly in the player's favor. With no MP to watch, GF's can be summoned as often as a player desires, making the paltry damage dealt out by weapons seem somewhat pointless. The usefulness of GFs in combat fades as the player advances, but the game is then made even easier as a number of easily exploitable spells, coupled with the later weapons, make characters practically demi-gods. The enemies in the game technically level up with the player's characters, but that does them little good when Squall can do around one hundred thousand points of damage in a turn.

Caption FFVIII features some gorgeous FMVs.

   Musically and visually, the game is on par with the best of its generation. Its music can be a little forgettable in some cases, but for the most part it features an enjoyable retinue of pieces that run the gambit from catchy to stunning. This is not the best of Nubuo Uematsu's work, but it is still very good. The graphics of FFVIII are probably its most polished feature. At the time of its release it looked incredible and while the game is showing its age, to some extent they are still impressive today.

   FFVIII is the first game in the series to feature proportionally correct characters both in and out of battle. This does wonders, providing even the most minute and disposable characters much more detail than in previous titles. In combat the advanced detail is doubly appreciated. The cinematic camera that follows the action is prone to zooming in on the various enemies and party members very close up, and while the pixelation of the PlayStation era has lost some of its appeal in the decade since this game was released, FFVIII still looks relatively nice. This can especially be said of the GF summonings. Each GF is endowed with an impressive summon animation and even in their age, some are downright gorgeous. They tend to lose their appeal over time however; many are long and the game doesn't give the player the option of skipping them. By the end of the game they aren't nearly interesting enough to retain their appeal after that many viewings.

   The world itself is an oddball mixture of modern towns, futuristic cities, and thick wilderness. At times the pixelation can be rough, but it is primarily restricted to the world map. The pre-rendered graphics that illustrate much of what the player will actually explore are still nice. The areas in the game are unlike anything seen in prior titles in the series and rival even FFVII in how removed they are from the traditions of earlier games. One area where FFVIII still excels is in its full-motion videos. The FMVs of FFVIII are still some of the most gorgeous and exciting in the series. While the lack of voice overs might make them seem more quaint now, the opening sequence, amongst many others, still packs a punch.

   Like its many siblings, Final Fantasy VIII is a long affair. Following just the main storyline, one could expect perhaps twenty to thirty hours of play. But factoring in the numerous side quests, such as the pursuit of new weapons and GFs, the experience can be lengthened significantly. Overall, Final Fantasy VIII is a fine, but sometimes unbalanced experience. There are moments that will make you smile, make you sad, and at times cringe. Casual fans of the series might choose to ignore this entry, but for die-hard fans of Final Fantasy and RPGs in general, Final Fantasy VIII is a solid investment.

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