When people think of console RPGs, more likely than not, they think "Final Fantasy". A console mainstay for over a decade, the series has consistently proven itself popular and worthy of attention. Their first effort on the Playstation received a mixed response from the RPG community, and when Final Fantasy VIII was announced, many were skeptical as to whether Square could return to form - particularly with reports coming of a radical new magic system. Never fear - the game lives up to expectations.
"Finally...a gunblade master."
The story centers on Squall Leonheart, a student at Balamb Garden. Training to become a SeeD, or elite mercenary, the game begins with Squall preparing to take his field exam. Squall is a quiet, hardworking man with a tendency to avoid relying on others. His friends include Quistis Trepe, his instructor; Zell Dincht, a brash, confident martial artist; and his rival, Seifer Almasy. Through his travels, Squall will meet Selphie Timmitt and Irvine Kinneas - fellow SeeD - and a young woman known as Rinoa Heartilly. Moreover, Squall is linked to three men - Laguna Loire, and his companions, Kiros and Ward - by means unknown. How they are all related is a mystery.
How these individuals all relate and interact is the key to the game. The game has a plot as epic as any of the others, though perhaps not as in-depth. While the characters (excluding Squall) may not have massive amounts of back-story depth (with good reason), that doesn't make them any less real. The connections between some characters are explained aptly, and they're all unique. By keeping the total number of main characters down, Square has allowed for better cohesiveness between members.
However, even with all that, the theme of the game is love. Square's most notable accomplishment in the game may be their portrayal of the growing love between Squall and Rinoa. Romances in RPGs have traditionally been somewhat lacking, due to the difficulty of making the subject matter come across. By making it the main theme, the subject is given the attention it needs to be successful.
"You will like me, you will like me, you will like me."
The graphics in FFVIII are quite astounding, given the limitations of the Playstation hardware. First off, all the people are full-sized - no more Super-Deformed characters. What you see is what you get - whether on the world map, in towns, in battle, or in the FMV sequences - everyone looks the same. It goes a long way towards keeping continuity. The detail is even more incredible - characters blink, look around, and generally look like they're alive - you can even see Quistis's blue eyes. The camera in battle rotates showing the action and zooms in and out appropriately to keep track of the action.
The special effects in battle are absolutely astounding, even if you're used to Dreamcast games or high-resolution PC gaming. The Guardian Forces have detailed summon animations and are a joy to behold. Spells are a bit lackluster in comparison, but certainly not bad - returning favorites like Ultima and Holy are certainly fun to watch. Limit breaks are also very well done, and some of the most powerful Limits are both deadly and great fun to watch (Omnislash, move over - Lion Heart has your number). Like the characters, the enemies are also well animated and each unique.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the FMV sequences. Simply put, they're astounding - if this is any indication of the quality of the upcoming Final Fantasy Movie, I'm getting the DVD the moment it's available just to show off the visuals. There's more FMV in FFVIII than in FFVII, and it's used to better effect. Not only used with major plot events, FMV is used to introduce some new characters, some events, and to convey an even greater depth of emotion than the polygonal models can alone. Particularly towards the end of Disc 3 and throughout Disc 4, the animation increases in volume and gives the ending portions of the game a terrific boost. The ending alone features over 10 minutes of animation, and is worth the cost of admission.
"Does this sound good?"
Nobuo Uematsu provides yet another Final Fantasy score. The music is overall rather good, though the quality of the individual tracks varies (as one would expect). Sadly, some of the lesser-quality tracks are heard more often than the better tracks - I was quite lukewarm towards the overworld theme, and Laguna's battle theme is more likable than the normal one. When he's on a roll, however, Nobuo still remains one of the best game music composers out there, and tracks like "The Castle", "Love Grows", "The Oath", and "Lunatic Pandora" keep the standard high. Unfortunately, however, FFVIII's music has a lower sound quality than titles such as Suikoden, which made full use of the PSX's sound chip.
The sound effects are rather good. Monster growls, spells, and attacks sound like you'd expect - Quistis's whip cracks crisply, Zell connects solidly with foes, and Leviathan's waterfall sounds like a raging torrent. While none of the sounds stick out particularly, they're all good enough that they do their job - which is all sound effects are really needed for in RPGs.
"Received 5 Ultimas!"
When it was announced that Final Fantasy VIII would have no magic points (MP), the community wondered what was going through their minds - after all, why replace a system that's lasted for years and certainly wasn't broken? After all, why would anyone want to have to draw their magic from enemies? Why bother with magic, then, if you have a finite supply?
FFVIII introduces the Junction system. It's too complex to get into the fine details. To keep it simple, however, isn't too difficult. Guardian Forces (GFs) are attached (junctioned) to characters, which gain abilities. From there, they can draw and stockpile magic from enemies, and the magic can be used to raise statistics, or give the character the ability to attack or defend using that particular magic. The more spells of a type, and the more powerful the spell, the larger the effect. The beauty of the system is the flexibility. Guardian Forces have their own abilities, but can be customized if the player wants to. Rather than dealing with multiple pieces of armor or weapons, the same effects can be gained by simply placing a spell in a slot. If a character isn't strong enough in a particular area, simply attaching magic to that particular statistic can greatly improve the character beyond normal capacity. And for those of you who don't want to micro-manage, there are several default auto-junctions available to maximize strength, magic, or HP.
Critics of the system say it's tedious to draw spells. It can be, some of the time. But many spells can be obtained by other means, and nobody's forcing anyone to draw. You get back what you put into the system - if you draw 100 Ultima, Flare, Holy, Aura, and Full-Life spells, you become very powerful - it takes effort. In a way, it's a throwback to the older console RPGs, where powering up was a necessity. Instead of forcing people to junction, however, several paths can be taken. Those who take the time to draw many spells will have more power, and be less reliant on summoning Guardian Forces - in fact, to those who power up sufficiently, Guardian Forces are even unnecessary. If drawing spells doesn't appeal to you, you can gain your spells via other means and take a different approach to battle.
As a result of a character's abilities being reliant on the Guardian Forces they have junctioned, the differences between characters are mainly in their personalities, and their Limit Breaks. Limits return from Final Fantasy VII. However, instead of being useable only after taking a certain amount of damage, FFVIII's limits occur at random, but more frequently when a character is weak. The effects of the limits vary - Squall has an extremely damaging set of gunblade attacks, Zell has player-controlled martial arts combos, and Quistis has Blue Magic. With Limits occurring more often when a character is weak, another style of play is opened - rather than keeping characters fully healed, a player can keep everyone on the brink of death to unleash their full potential. It's another way to give the player a choice on how they want to battle, and the rewards match the risks.
Weapons remain relatively constant throughout the game. Rather than find new weapons, existing weapons are modified at "Junk Shops". By finding various items, a character's weapon can be upgraded to hit more often, more powerfully, and (generally) look much cooler. As well, some characters gain new Limit Breaks by upgrading their weaponry, which makes an already appealing decision that much easier.
Money is also less of a factor in the game. Rather than have enemies drop money, Squall earns a salary from SeeD every so often - the higher his SeeD ranking, the more money. Since money isn't used all that often (as equipment doesn't need to be purchased anymore), it's there to buy a few items, but unless you go on a few Galbadian shopping sprees, you're not going to have problems running out. It takes the emphasis off of stockpiling money, and keeps the focus on Junctioning and the plot.
Like in Final Fantasy Tactics, the enemies get stronger as you do. Generally, however, it's strengths in different areas - as you grow stronger, your party becomes more capable of inflicting damage and absorbing it. Enemies tend to simply gain more HP. As a result, the battles as a low-level character will be different than high-level battles, because it's more a matter of wearing down an enemy than surviving their attacks (though there are certainly exceptions). Leveling up is a quick procedure, as it only takes 1000 exp to gain a level, and enemies generally give constant amounts of experience.
"I am the Queen of Cards."
Within Final Fantasy VIII lies perhaps the most insidiously addictive minigame ever to hit our shores. The game is Triple Triad, and it's a game of skill and luck. Each player gets 5 cards and attempts to flip over the cards of the other player - and the winner gets to keep a few of them. With different sets of rules and unique cards all over the world, a player can easily spend 20+ hours trying to collect them all. It's a game that's simple to play, yet always challenging. The thrill of gaining a new rare card is more exciting than one would expect - it's a game that grows on you.
What's also impressive is how Square tied Triple Triad into normal gameplay. Cards can be played against virtually anyone, at any time. Once cards are obtained, they can be turned into items - rare and valuable items that can be obtained almost nowhere else. The player must decide if a card is too strong to lose in the context of the card game, or if the items are worth it. Triple Triad was an ingenious addition to the game, and is almost impossible to resist.
Aside from Triple Triad, there's a few miscellaneous minigames sprinkled throughout, which add to the variety of the game. They're all explained well, and add a challenge to the normal gameplay. Most of them can be repeated until you've gotten them right, but you can raise your SeeD ranking by performing well. It's up to the player if it's worth it to stress out and try to get everything right.
There are some flaws that mar the game, but most are simply annoyances.
A major flaw lies in the Guardian Force animations. Simply put, they take far too long. The beginning Guardian Forces take from 30-45 seconds to summon - and it only gets worse from there. They do a lot of damage, to be sure, but an option to skip them would be quite welcome. While offensive GFs can be Boosted to do more damage, they don't make the animation take any less time - many early battles take far too long because there's no real viable alternative to using the GFs.
The game seems short. It took me 65 hours, but that's including the 15-20 hours I estimate I spent on Triple Triad, and another 5-15 hours I spent on various optional character building tasks - drawing spells, leveling up, and the like. As such, while the game is on 4 discs, it's not unreasonable to say that someone could beat the game in about 30-40 hours if they skipped much of the side-quests and other tasks (Granted, it would be rather difficult, but it could be done).
The overworld takes too long to traverse. Walking on foot is slow. Renting a car is a bit faster, but it's still rather slow. The obligatory watercraft is a nightmare to try to control, and slow. Finally, the obligatory airship barely seems to keep enough speed to stay in the air, and has a turning rate like a cow. It's great that we've got such a huge world - but must it take so long to get across it? I can't be the only person pining for the days of FFVI where you could traverse the world at insane speeds and have fun doing little aerial stunts.
Finally, while junctions can be switched between characters with a simple command, there are several occasions when you have no control as to which junctions are transferred between characters, and which are not. This can be either annoying, or totally crippling, depending on how much gets temporarily lost.
"The mission was a success."
In the end, though, Final Fantasy VIII is a triumph. Nobody was sure if Square could pull off a risky new magic/equipment system. People were skeptical about the feasibility of love as a major plot element. And many were apprehensive that FFVIII might be another triumph of flash over substance.
I hesitate to use phrases like "Best of the series", because each game excels in different ways. What I can say is that each mission is fun, you look forward to seeing what happens next, and you want to see your characters succeed. There are several ways you can approach the battles - risky and quickly, or slow and steadily. You have full control over your Junctioning, yet you don't have to micromanage. The plot is well paced, and the music is good. Yet none of that truly matters.
All that needs to be said is that Final Fantasy VIII is truly deserving of its heritage. It's another exceptional RPG from Square.