Friend of mine claims he picked this up and beat it at lvl 13 by mostly ignoring random encounters. Its been a while, but I don't remember it being that easy.
Totes doable if you Card random encounters till you get Diabalo and unlock his Enc-None support ability. Then you just need to Card high AP guys for the rest of the Refine Skills.
The big things to remember are that enemies levels and stats scale to your level, that junctioning better spells to your stats are what make your stats get big, that levels do not make your stats get big, that certain easy-to-get items can be refined into better spells, and that refining cards will get you all the other items you'll need for big power.
Yep, that's more or less how he described it. Was it always like this or did they do some tinkering for the steam re-release?
It was always like this. The game is probably the most breakable FF game in the series, and the one that punishes you the hardest for playing it the way the game intends you to play it.
Basically, GFs are only good in battle early on when you don't have the tools to break the game over your knee. Once you start collecting Fish Fins on the beach near Balmb Garden, you can convert them into mid-tier Water spells as soon as you unlock the Ice Mag Ref GF ability (learned by Shiva) which you junction to Squall's Str using Ifrit, then later you can start buying Tents and use Life Mag Ref (learned by Siren) and make shitloads of Curaga spells which you then junction to Squall's HP, get him into critical health, then spam his Limit Break for the rest of the game (and FYI, all of this and Diabalos can be acquired within the first half of the first disk, easily). For best results, do roughly similar things to Zell and get Quistis to learn Degenerator, upgrade spells as necessary, and don't forget to pump up somebody's Mag so that they can maximize their Draw capability, break to your liking and enjoy.
One thing to note is that you will have to play the card game quite a bit to get some of the items you'll need for better equipment and spells, and some of the best items come from Refining your one of a kind cards, so you'll have to keep an eye on the card game rules.