Final Fantasy VIII - Staff Retroview  

An Abnormal Fantasy
by Michael "Macstorm" Cunningham

Final Fantasy VIII
20-40 Hours
+ Avoiding random encounters encouraged.
+ Lots of customization available.
+ Great overall presentation.
- Story is hit and miss.
- Lots of micromanagement involved.
- GFs make you forget? Sure, whatever.
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   Final Fantasy VIII seems to be a love or hate experience. The game features some fundamental differences from others in the series that when understood make for a very enjoyable game. Perhaps the game's biggest failing is that these nonconformities are not highlighted well enough. On the surface, Final Fantasy VIII appears to be straightforward, but deep down is where the differences really shine... well, at least in terms of gameplay.

   The obscured uniqueness of Final Fantasy VIII is all found in the combat system. While this game could be played just like any other turn-based RPG, to do so would ignore what makes the battle system original. The major differences involve drawing magic, junctioning, and the way leveling is handled. Magic is typically used in RPGs simply for casting spells, but in Final Fantasy VIII it has a very different purpose. These spells, which can be drawn from enemies in combat or found around the world, are stocked for use with the junction system. Junctioning is a system for assigning magic spells to character stats in order to enhance them. Want to boost a character's health? Assign Curaga to HP. Feel like doing more physical damage? Junction the Ultima spell to the strength stat. Want to blind enemies so they can't see? Forget just casting Blind, draw out some Sleep spells and equip them to the Status-Attack stat. Since magic spells are treated as consumables here, the more spells in the inventory, the greater the stat boost. It's a highly customizable system that can be easily exploited to create powerful characters with minimal effort.

   Another aspect of Final Fantasy VIII that goes against the grain is that enemies scale in level along with the player's party, so grinding is futile. Futile is really an understatement, since the game actually encourages avoiding random encounters by giving players access to an ability early in the game that allows encounters to be reduced and another later that removes them completely. This assists players by keeping enemies at a lower level while boosting their own party's stats through the junction system. Players have the option to make the game as easy or as difficult as they wish, though they will have to think outside of the standard Final Fantasy mindset to truly appreciate this system.

A bright shining star Blinded by the light?

   Guardian Forces (GFs) are Final Fantasy VIII's take on summoned monsters. This time around these powerful creatures are not just used for demolishing enemies, though they can still be used in that manner. Their main purpose is character customization, as players will be equipping GFs to gain abilities. Without a GF characters only have the "Fight" command. By equipping GFs, characters gain access to the draw system, magic spells, and stat junctioning as well as unique skill enhancements. Different GFs allow junctioning to varied stats, and some even offer new offensive and defensive skills that can be learned as they go.

   Players can shape their party as they see fit, moving GFs and junctioned magic around to create a team that performs as they wish, though it does require a fair bit of micromanagement. Often times players will have to shift their selected configurations to a new party as the game forces players to control other characters. This micromanagement can be frustrating at times, but at least the game offers a quick exchange option for moving configurations between characters. Overall, the gameplay might seem too similar to traditional games and the new mechanics too vague for many to pick up these nuances readily, but they are unique and enjoyable once understood.

   The story of Final Fantasy VIII is the least consistent aspect of the game. It starts off as an adventure involving a young group of mercenaries fighting to stop an evil sorceress. During this quest, there are periods where the dark and brooding Squall and his companions will lose consciousness only to find their minds in the past trapped inside the bodies of Laguna and his friends Ward and Kiros. These flashback-style scenes will highlight past events that eventually tie into the present in one way or another. While this aspect isn't too much of a reach, the fact that major plot points of the game have to be explained by amnesia is a big stretch, making for a somewhat hollow experience. Thankfully, the characters are developed quite well, even if they aren't all very likeable to a mainstream audience. Often times Squall is faulted for being a quiet loner, but the true reality of his character is explained throughout the course of the game as he slowly opens up to himself, and eventually the rest of the team. The game's main failing is that some things are explained away too easily with some aspects of the plot being a bit of a stretch. The dialogue is fairly solid throughout, though it's not nearly as polished as it would be today, ten years later.

not bad Maybe not perfect, but not bad either.

   The game's graphics are a true high point, though not without a few minor deterrents. Character models are meant to look proportionate to real life people, and the game pulls it off quite well. Also, the game's environments are highly detailed and very impressive, especially in the seamless transitions between exploration and cinematic scenes. The overworld map is rather bland compared to the rest of the experience, but it's not a problem. Everything from character designs to GF summon animations are impressive, though in the case of GFs, they are a bit too drawn out and cannot be skipped. Considering that the game can be easily completed without ever summoning a GF, this is a minor detraction.

   Final Fantasy VIII's audio presentation is also top-notch for the most part. While not every piece within the game is remarkable, the game does feature quite a variety of high caliber tracks such as the intro "Liberi Fatali" and the parade theme "FITHOS LUSEC WECOS VINOSEC." Though some tracks are outright dreadful, the overall soundtrack tends to perform quite well, so that helps to outweigh the problems.

   Those who go into Final Fantasy VIII expecting a game exactly like its predecessor will be in for a shock. On the outside, Final Fantasy VIII appears to be the same style of game and it can be played as such. However, deeper down this title is a completely different animal. The gameplay is easily one of the best features of the game due to the fact that it encourages avoiding random encounters. It does take some adjustment to really understand what to do, as a straightforward playthrough will net less than stellar results, but once you do it's really enjoyable. Combine the unique twist on combat with the wonderful presentation and you have a fairly solid experience. The story is clearly a point of contention, but isn't that bad in the long haul. Those willing to go into the game with a different set of expectations and a better understanding of how the fundamental mechanics work might just find themselves enjoying this game. My initial experience ten years ago with the game was not positive. Thankfully this second, more recent playthrough was enough to show me that the game isn't really as bad as I remembered. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit and would encourage the game's detractors to give it another shot. Just make sure you don't go in gunblades blazing, and it might impress you.

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