Final Fantasy VIII is the latest game in Squaresoft's extremely popular and often debated Final Fantasy series. Love it or hate it, with Final Fantasy VIII Square has once again set the precedent for overall quality and attention to detail in RPG's.
"What is Love?"
The Final Fantasy series has always prided itself on deep story lines with strong themes and character development. Final Fantasy VIII carries on this tradition in probably their most consistent and focused fashion yet. The story revolves around the growth of one Squall Leonheart, an aspiring member of the mercenary group SeeD. Squall is a quiet and promising student whose silence is often mistaken for arrogance. In reality, Squall is merely determined to get by without having to rely on others who may let him down.
Final Fantasy VIII's theme is love, and it relates this difficult subject in a very convincing fashion. It conveys love not just in a romantic sense, but also in the sense of friendship and family. Squall's growth as a person is very real and the player is able to develop a close bond with him through his many soliloquies. It's about time that Square decided to steal that wonderful device from the great bard and put it to good use. I've rarely had as strong a connection with a character in a game. His soul is laid bare before us and the game's story takes on a much more personal feel. I was worried that Square might fumble the idea of love, but I was more than pleasantly surprised at how well they handled it. The strong focus on one character worked perfectly and more than made up for the few losses in secondary character development.
Yes, the secondary heroes don't quite get the focus you usually expect in a Final Fantasy game, but they also decreased the cast of characters significantly to make up for it. This tight focus, while not making characters with many layers, made characters that seemed very real (Oh Quistis, my Quistis, you must be real). They are very consistent in their demeanor and I found them quite likeable (especially Quistis). It's a different approach for this series, and while I don't really feel it's better or worse it does work for this game and that's what matters.
The plot flows very smoothly and retains its focus. No matter how many twists they throw at you, it never really takes you too far off track. The game doesn't really take on the grandiose, world beating mantle of past Final Fantasys, but it is probably their most consistent effort story-wise yet. It is much more about relationships than it is about saving the world. I have to give credit to Square for taking some chances and telling a story that stays true to its nature. If they hadn't taken those chances, it certainly wouldn't have worked as well.
Finally, the translation is the best yet from Square. I wasn't able to find any errors and the localization is spotless. The dialogue is also of much higher overall quality than ever before, so you won't have too many silly quotes to goof on. If that's something you enjoy doing, don't expect to "get a good feeling" from this game. NPC's usually have something interesting to say, and occasionally something funny. If you talk to them two or three times you'll usually get at least two different pieces of conversation.
"True Beauty, in All its Pixilated Glory"
The graphics in Final Fantasy VIII are, as expected, fantastic. Even after basking in the glory that is the Sega Dreamcast and Soul Calibur, I was very much impressed with FFVIII's visuals. While the Playstation's 3D limitations are on full display, the game designer's art direction more than made up for it.
The easiest way to get through this is to just break it down into the many different graphical sections. First of all, the pre-rendered backgrounds from FFVII are back. They are vastly improved and one of the most impressive aspects of the game. Visually, the backgrounds are a feast of diversity and beauty. Architecture of the past, present and future are melded together to create a unique and beautiful world to explore. They are also a lot less static than most games that use this technique. You can almost always find something moving in the background, and the backgrounds are far more layered. One thing I missed from past RPGs that seemed to be taken away by pre-rendered backgrounds was parallax scrolling; a simple technique where several layers of background are moving independently to add a sense of depth and distance. There is a ton of parallax in FFVIII and it really made a difference for me. The world seemed as vast as it was meant to be, and the constriction I felt from past games was gone. The only problem with the pre-renders is one we're all familiar with: navigation. Finding the way to go when the backgrounds are so lush can be a real chore at times. I think it was a mistake for them not to bring back the navigation arrows from FFVII. It isn't a "pull out your hair and smash your controller" problem, but a problem nonetheless.
Next are the over world graphics. This seems to be the area where the least progress has been made. While the textures are more detailed and the viewing distance and resolution are a bit higher, it is very pixilated. The system limitations are readily apparent and traversing the over world ends up being something you HAVE to do instead of something you might enjoy. They are also much simpler in design than FFVII. It is mostly flat, colored land with an occasional clump of trees and a mountain range. It is uninspired and you feel more like you are just going from point to point rather than actually traveling. The camera angles are also responsible for this as they are at a higher angle so you have the feeling of just observing instead of being a part of it.
Now we'll go on to the meat and potatoes, the battle graphics. The character graphics are splendid. They have a much higher level of texture detail and excellent animation. They are quite pixilated due to the detailed textures, but it's a worthwhile trade-off in my opinion. I believe they used numerous models depending on the camera angle in battle as levels of detail change quite often. This takes a lot of stress off of the engine and provides for some wonderful character close-ups. When the camera zooms in during a spell animation, the detail in the character faces is wonderful, from Quistis' blue eyes (whip me baby) to Squall's scar. The characters really come alive in these moments and it makes them seem even more real. The enemies have the same plusses and minuses visually. They are very detailed and wonderfully designed, but it really pushes the system to its limits.
The huge summon animations also make their return and are wonderful to watch...the first three or four times. They really need an option to turn the animations off as it does get a bit ridiculous, especially early on in the game where you really have to rely upon them. The game play is open enough that you really won't have to use them for most of the game, but it would be nice to turn them off if you want to play the game again. Regular magic spells are okay, but I wasn't quite as impressed by them overall as I have been in the past. Some, like Meltdown, are really nice though. What is impressive though is that the character and enemy models often have specific reactions and distortions to some spells.
Finally, we'll talk about the FMV. Everyone has probably seen at least some of it by now, so there isn't much to say. It's simply incredible, surpassing anything that came before in any medium. The expressions, motion captures and level of detail are all astounding. They also meld wonderfully at times with actual polygonal characters, and at times you will be amazed as you actually weave in and out of, and interact with, some FMV scenes. The quality is consistent throughout and they are a perfect enhancement to the game overall. As expected, there is only one problem with them; you HAVE to watch them every time. You should have the option to skip them, at least the second time you go through the game. I know a lot of hard work and money goes into them, but for some of them once is enough (although any scene with Quistis should be mandatory viewing).
"Eyes on Uematsu"
FFVIII may be Nobuo Uematsu's last Final Fantasy soundtrack, and it's a fitting eulogy to a wonderful marriage between a composer and a series. I found the soundtrack to be one of his best ever. It is strong throughout and diverse in style and arrangement. The music is still PCM, but of slightly higher quality than FFVII. I'd have trouble picking out a weak track, and there are plenty of truly outstanding ones that will go down as masterpieces along with One Winged Angel and Celes' theme. Mr. Uematsu has taken some strong criticism for the past two Final Fantasy soundtracks; most of which I felt was unwarranted. There are few game composers out there that could handle such a huge amount of music and have every track be as good as the last one. I will certainly miss his work if he steps away from the world of game soundtracks to pursue other venues, and I know I won't be the only one.
Sound effects are also improved this time around. They are much more unique to specific actions and there are a wider variety of them. Aurally, the game is almost on par with the visuals and I'll certainly be picking up the soundtrack once I find the money.
"GF Junction, what's your function?"
FFVIII is probably one of the deepest console RPG's in terms of game play mechanics ever made. You could play the game numerous times and find a different way to approach each battle every time. There is a lot to discuss so I'll just try to break things down into sections. I'm sure I'll miss some aspects, but you should be playing the game instead of reading this anyway. ;)
The biggest element to the game is the GF-Junction system. GF's, or Guardian Forces, are your summoned monsters. You obtain them by finding and beating them in battle, or drawing them from enemies. When you junction a GF to a character, you can open up abilities. Without a GF, your character will only be able to attack physically. With a GF, you can open up other abilities such as using magic or items. You're limited in how many you can open so you have to balance your party properly. GF's gain experience along with the character they are junctioned too. Raising levels will make their magic stronger and give them more hit points and defense. You also earn AP in battles, and AP is used to open up new abilities in your GF. Abilities can be anything from an extra percentage of hit points for your character or a special attack. You can also unlock specific trait junctions, like speed or strength junctions. These will enhance your character's abilities in those areas.
Just having the ability, though, won't improve junctioned traits. In order to improve, you have to junction specific magic to that ability. Certain spells are better for certain trait, such as using haste on a speed junction. The more spells you have, to a maximum of 100, will make for a greater improvement in that area. It sounds very confusing but once you get a grip on it, it becomes very intuitive. There are also informative tutorials within the game to walk you through it (taught by the wise and wonderful Quistis) and an auto-option where all magic junctioning is handled by the game in the most advantageous manner possible.
Now I'm sure you're wondering where this magic you junction with comes from. This brings us to the draw system. It's pretty self-explanatory. If you have the draw ability selected you can draw magic spells from enemies or from various draw points located around the world. The higher your magic level is, the easier it is to draw and the more spells you'll receive. Stronger spells are, of course, harder to draw. You can draw as many as 100 per character of one spell. There is also a nice exchange menu that lets you trade drawn spells with other characters in your group.
The only drawback to the draw system is that it is so time consuming. No matter how good you are at magic, you'll usually only receive a maximum of about 9 spells per draw. Drawing has pretty much taken the place of leveling up in the game, and is just as time consuming. I like the draw system itself, but I do wish that the time it takes to draw was more balanced with the benefits of drawing. What you gain in many cases isn't quite equal to the time it took to get it. As I said, there is no point in gaining levels in the game. What you gain from regular exploration is more than enough, as your enemies will gain levels with you. The enemy level is an average of the levels of the characters in your party. It takes the same amount of experience each time to go up a level, and experience is static for the opponent you face no matter what their level is.
Fighting with magic has a few new wrinkles as well. There are no "all" spells in the game. Summon spells will hit every opponent, but magic is a 1 to 1 deal. You can however find spells in the game that are named "double" and "triple". They do pretty much what they say. If you cast them on a character, they can cast double or triple of whatever spell they choose. This adds a new level of strategy to the battles. You have to decide if it's worth the time to cast 1 spell in order to cast two or three. Is attacking faster? Will summon spells get the job done better? Do I want to waste the spells I have junctioned and actually lower my character's statistics? Casting GF summon attacks also presents some new problems. Each GF has a set amount of hit points. When you cast a summon spell, the GF's hit points take your place and your AT bar counts down to the casting of the spell. Your GF can take damage during this time and actually be destroyed before you are able to cast the spell. Also, the longer you have a GF junctioned to one character, the higher their compatibility and the lower the time it takes to cast the spell.
Your characters no longer buy armor to upgrade their defense. You also no longer have new weapons to buy, but instead can upgrade your base weapon. In order to do this you have to find both a weapons magazine with a description of the upgrade as well as specific items that are used to make the upgrade. These items can be stolen from or dropped by enemies. You can also refine them from other items if your GF has the proper refinement ability.
Limits also make a return and provide the only real differences between each character in battle. Many of the limits are far more interactive than before. Some involve hitting a trigger button at the right time, others require precise command inputs and some can be learned from items or magazines. There is no limit meter that build as you take damage this time. Now you can pull off limit attacks only if you're very low in health or if you use a certain spell to raise your chances. This makes using limits far more accessible, but also much more risky. They can do a lot of damage, but you have to hope your character doesn't die before you pull it off.
Money is also handled differently. Coins don't magically fall out of dead monsters. Instead, you receive a paycheck at set time intervals for being a SeeD. How much you get paid depends on your ranking as a SeeD, which can be anywhere from level 1 to level 30. Your ranking can raise or lower depending on how you do in battle and how you do on SeeD written tests you can take. Unfortunately, money isn't all that useful in the game aside from buying items. By the end of my game, I had over 500,000 sitting in my wallet.
Despite a few minor design flaws, I had a ball playing Final Fantasy VIII. There is just so much you can do to customize your character and so many ways to approach battles that I never got bored. The encounter rate is just about right and the difficulty level is quite challenging, even for RPG veterans. The game is very deep for an RPG, and can appeal to just about anyone's style of playing.
I'm sure there will be plenty of debates surrounding the quality of this game, simply because of its pedigree. Square seems to draw extremes of ire like garbage draws flies. All I can tell you is that I truly enjoyed this game. It is a masterpiece of design and attention to detail. Its minor flaws would probably be considered great innovations in other games. Is it the best made RPG I've ever played? Probably. Is it my favorite RPG ever? Not really, but it's damn close. It's an excellent game and every RPG fan should give it a try. Play it with an open mind and you may just surprise yourself.