Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Final Fantasy VIII is the second installment of the amazing Final Fantasy series to appear on the Sony PlayStation. Like Final Fantasy VII, the Japanese release of Final Fantasy VIII was met with a ton of hype under the interested eyes of not only Japanese gamers, but gamers throughout the rest of the world as well. Because a Final Fantasy game always seems to get hyped up to be the greatest game of all time prior to its release, Final Fantasy games, while among the best the genre has to offer, still often have difficulty fulfilling the heightened expectations for them. For me, Final Fantasy VIII is no exception; while it is one of the best in the series, it still isn’t as great as I had hoped it would be. It is, however, one of the best traditional RPGs you can get on the PlayStation.
Final Fantasy VIII tells the tale of impending war between Dollet and Galbadia, 2 neighboring kingdoms that had previously enjoyed peaceful times. The weaker Dollet kingdom has enlisted the aid of SeeD, an independent highly trained mercenary group that opposes the aggressive Galbadia kingdom.
Members of SeeD are trained in military academy-like schools called Gardens. Squall Leonhart, the main character of Final Fantasy VIII, is a SeeD cadet training at Balamb Garden. As the game begins, Squall wakes up in the Balamb Garden infirmary after a heated sparring match with fellow cadet/rival Seifer Almasy. Quistis Trepe, his teacher, picks him up there and leads him to class, where the player gets an opportunity to learn the basics of the game.
After class is dismissed, Squall embarks on 2 training missions (the latter of which is the mission in the FFVIII demo). Upon successful completion of both missions, he graduates into the ranks of SeeD. His first mission as a full-fledged SeeD member is to hijack a train that the president of Galbadia, Derring, is riding in. At this point, the game begins in earnest.
Like its predecessor, Final Fantasy VII, FFVIII’s most impressive aspect is its visual presentation. It contains some of the most beautiful graphics in any game that I’ve ever seen, and, as far as RPGs go, I’d rank the visuals second only to Legend of Mana. The area maps (still 2D, thankfully) are beautifully drawn, and virtually unrivaled in their detail. The color palette, while not one of my favorite possible combinations (too many drab colors and pastels are used for my tastes), doesn’t detract too much from the overall look of the game.
The most noticeable improvement over FFVII’s graphics in FFVIII is in the onscreen characters. Gone are the super-deformed characters with Popeye-like arms, and, in their place, gamers are treated to characters with perfectly proportioned bodies and more realistically proportioned faces. In addition, the polygonal characters are much more detailed than those of FFVII, and animate more fluidly as well (this time around, female characters animate with loads of feminine charm). Another improvement is the prerendering in the backgrounds; the hazy look of the prerendered backgrounds in most other RPGs is thankfully absent here. This, combined with the increased detail in the characters, greatly diminishes the character/background detail disparity that plagued FFVII. The only weakness in the area map graphics is that the characters are still noticeably blocky, especially when they animate.
The battle screens are also improved over those of FFVII. Though similar in principle (3D battles with computer-controlled camera work), the FFVIII battles feature better camera work, smoother and more detailed animation, and greater detail and better proportions in player characters and enemies alike. The bosses, like those of FFVII, are often huge and impressive, but sport even more detail than their predecessor’s counterparts. However, the battle screens still look pretty low-res compared to the area maps and world map.
The spell effects are equally impressive (I would say on a par with those of FFVII), and among the best that I’ve seen in any game to date. A multitude of lighting effects, nice animation, and killer direction are used in the execution of these spells. The summons are even better, surpassing those of FFVII (the former king of summons in my mind). They are every bit as dramatic as those in FFVII, but animate even more fluidly and look much more detailed.
The CG movies are some the best that I’ve ever seen. The direction and choreography is amazing, the animation fluidity and speed is unparalleled, and the amount of emotion shown in characters’ faces is unprecedented. Despite the fact that some of the movies are noticeably grainy (something that I thought was a thing of the past for PlayStation FMVs), I was extremely impressed, to say the least.
Other than the color palette, the one disappointing aspect about FFVIII’s graphics was the 3D world map. Even though the characters are detailed and perfectly proportioned, the backgrounds are quite drab and a bit lacking in detail, and the animation (such as waves lapping against the shore) is noticeably choppy. This is one area of FFVIII (graphically speaking, of course) that takes a step backwards from FFVII.
Another aspect of FFVIII that really got my attention is the storyline. FFVIII surpasses most of its predecessors in the series in that department. Although I overall enjoyed the storylines of all of the past FF games that I’ve played, I have my gripes about each one. The past couple of FF games have had extremely promising plots fall apart in the second half of their games, and I’m happy to report that the FFVIII plot stays consistent and true throughout its length. FFVIII also manages to steer mostly clear of the overtly cute predictability of FFIV and the overall mediocrity (relatively speaking, of course) of FFV and FFI.
Like past FF games, the scope of the plot is truly epic. The plot contains many exciting twists, and poignant moments abound. Character development for the lead characters is excellent, too, though the supporting characters could have been developed better. The dialogue is quite clever in some places, which is also something new to me for the series.
One of the few things that did bother me about FFVIII’s storyline was that, for some reason, the characters as a whole didn’t really appeal to me. In past FF games, there were always characters that I really liked, and as a whole, I always liked my party. In FFVIII, this wasn’t the case, and I’m still not too sure why. Sure, there are annoying characters. For example, Zell looks like what I’d imagine to be the Japanese stereotype of what a Californian skater-punk looks like (I honestly think he’s one of the most absurd-looking characters ever to star in an RPG, despite the cool tattoo on his face). He also exhibits all of the control of a five-year-old over his emotions. Quistis’ arrogance turned out to be a nuisance as well. But Squall, Rinoa, and the others aren’t annoying, but still didn’t really appeal to me (OK, I did like Laguna and Rinoa). But as a whole, I didn’t really care about my party (I should say parties, since you get to switch between parties a lot in FFVIII), and that gave me a disturbing sense of detachment that I normally don’t experience in FF games.
Another thing that annoyed me a little about FFVIII’s storyline is that throughout the game, you are presented with a lot of choices, often at key points in the game. This in itself is great; however, the choices you make seem to have no effect on the storyline or the outcome of the game. It would be nice if they had some bearing on what happens, like in the Sakura Taisen games, Star Ocean 2, or most of the Langrisser games.
In terms of gameplay, FFVIII shares some similarities to FFVII. Battles still occur as random encounters, and combat is still turn-based, with the turns being generated in real time. Characters can still use magic and skills or summon creatures to attack. Limit breaks still exist, too.
However, FFVIII makes some radical new gameplay changes from past FF games (and previous RPGs in general). The most important one of these is the new magic/summons system (in FFVIII, these 2 go hand-in-hand), which is called the “junction.” Summoned creatures in FFVIII are called Guardian Forces, and for a character to be able to do anything in battles other than fight (even use items), a Guardian Force must be junctioned to that character. Unlike past FF games, Guardian Forces have their own HP meters, and can be damaged in battle. There is also no limit on how much a Guardian Force can be summoned in battle, as long as it has HP left.
Magic is obtained in a unique new way in FFVIII. Magic points are completely done away with, but once a character is junctioned to a Guardian Force, he or she can use an option called “draw,” which allows him or her to leech magic off of enemies in combat. The relative strength between your character and the enemies you are fighting has a large part in determining how many uses of a particular spell you get from the enemy in one draw (or whether you’re successful at all or not). Although there are draw points scattered throughout the game, you will most likely get most of your magic in this game by drawing it from enemies. You can even draw Guardian Forces from some of the bosses.
Once obtained, magic spells can be junctioned to your characters, just like the Guardian Forces. Each Guardian Force allows certain types of spells to be junctioned to certain attributes (such as strength, HP, and speed), thus increasing the attributes. The more uses of a particular junction spell that your character in question has in reserve, the more his or her relevant attribute is increased, giving you incentive to stockpile those spells. There is a default junction setting where the computer chooses which spells to junction to which attributes, but the adventurous can customize their own junctions, too.
Another nice touch is the pet-raising aspects of the Guardian Forces (get ready to run away, EsquE). The Guardian Forces gain their own experience points (called AP), and go up in levels along with your characters, increasing their HP and attack strength along the way. In a system that’s quite similar to that of Final Fantasy Tactics, they can learn skills, too. Examples of skills include new commands for your characters to use in battle, increased character attributes, and increased Guardian Force attributes. In addition, Guardian Forces can be fed certain items to increase their attributes, and they have their own set of healing items (though they can’t be healed during battles).
Even outside of the complex new magic system, many changes abound. Menu management (excluding the junction menu, of course) has been greatly simplified since there is no longer any armor or accessories to equip. A character’s defense is determined entirely by the character’s innate attributes and junctions. In addition, you don’t buy new weapons in FFVIII; you upgrade your current weapon in weapon shops if you have the items needed for the upgrade. Of course, you also need to know how to upgrade your current weapon into a better one (you learn how to upgrade your weapons from weapons magazines scattered throughout the game).
The experience point system also makes some departures from previous RPGs. In FFVIII, it takes exactly 1000 EXP to go up a level regardless of what level you are on, and enemies don’t decrease in EXP value as you level up. There’s a catch, though. The enemies level up with you. So, when you encounter enemies later on in the game that you’ve already seen, they may have new methods of attacking you as well as new spells for you to draw from them.
Even money is obtained in a completely unique new way. Enemies no longer give you money for defeating them, but as an employee of SeeD, Squall receives a salary (paid approximately every 10-20 minutes of area map play). Squall’s salary depends on his SeeD ranking, which can be increased by successfully completing missions and taking the test in the tutorial section of the main menu. Squall’s SeeD ranking will decrease if you make bad choices or dawdle around (I dawdled around a lot). This new money system is great; it adds realism (last time I killed some big plants in my backyard, I didn’t find any money on them) without detracting in the least from gameplay.
Limit breaks also work differently from the ones in FFVII. Instead of having a limit bar that builds up as you take damage, limit attacks (called “desperation moves”) can only be executed when your character is at a critically low level of HP. Although low HP is a prerequisite of the desperation moves, it in no way guarantees that your character will be able to perform one immediately. However, there were times when I was able to pull off limit attack after limit attack when keeping my character’s HP low.
Like in FFVII, minigames are present in FFVIII. The minigames in FFVIII, however, are somewhat improved over those of its predecessor. They are either more closely tied in with the plot of the game (such as the Simon Says-style game that you have to play while hijacking the train) or they yield results that can be important in the game (such as the card game). The cards won from the card game can be changed into a variety of items, some of which are necessary to upgrade your weapons.
By introducing a lot of new concepts in gameplay, FFVIII manages to eliminate certain problems that plague other traditional RPGs, particularly in menu management. However, the new concepts also introduce new problems. The junction system is brilliant (it’s probably my favorite magic system I’ve seen in a game to date), but it has a few key problems. You switch between parties a lot in FFVIII, and unfortunately, the junctions don’t switch with the parties. Because there is apparently no way to save your junctions into a macro or anything like that, you have to rejunction everything manually every time you switch parties. This is extremely time-consuming, and gets even more annoying if you use custom junctions.
In addition, previously drawn spells are not replenished by resting at an inn. They have to be redrawn to be replenished, which is not difficult, but tedious and time-consuming. Each character is also limited to a relatively low number of 32 different spells at a time.
Because the Guardian Forces can be used repeatedly without limit (as long as they have HP left), players probably won’t be shy about using them. Combined with any good custom junction, this severely unbalances the battles in the player’s favor. To FFVIII’s credit, later enemies try to discourage players from using their Guardian Forces too much, and the challenge of the game increases as a result.
Battle speed is another debatable issue in FFVIII. In my opinion, FFVII had the perfect balance of in-battle animation and battle execution speed. FFVIII, while sporting more and better in-battle animation, slows things down a lot. In addition, like those of FFVII, the Guardian Forces are very lengthy in their animations. Because players will likely be using them a lot, it would have been nice if the animation could be skipped at the player’s discretion.
The weapon upgrade system is ingenious in principle, but also could have used some work in its execution. Many of the items needed for weapon upgrades, particularly the later ones, are prohibitively difficult to obtain. Through the first 2 discs of play, I had only managed to upgrade the weapons of half of my party members once.
I did not like the fact that monsters level up with you in FFVIII, especially since monsters’ experience levels are determined by Squall’s experience level, rather than the average level of your party. Because you will almost always be using Squall, but have to switch the other characters in and out of the party, it is prohibitively difficult to keep your party balanced in terms of experience. The number of different enemies in the game seems to have suffered slightly as a result, too.
Like FFVII and Parasite Eve, the limited amount of interaction with the backgrounds is present in FFVIII. However, because of the unprecedented amount of detail in the area map graphics and the dearth of items to be found in area maps, this limited interaction is even more noticeable in FFVIII than in the aforementioned RPGs. In addition, there is an annoyingly high number of areas that look like they lead to other screens, but in reality are just dead ends. This, combined with the extremely high encounter rate in some areas of the game, can lead you to waste a lot of time needlessly.
FFVIII’s control is very similar to that of FFVII. Your characters can move in 8 directions, move at a brisk pace, and, in a reversal of conventional RPG control mechanics, there is a button to slow them down to walking speed. The freezing/skipping phenomenon of FFVII (see my FFVII review for more details on this) is thankfully absent, too.
However, even though the overall control is excellent, the characters aren’t quite as responsive as those of FFVII. Your characters control isometrically in a lot of the screens, too, which I can’t stand, especially since you bounce off of some of the objects in the background. This problem is compounded by the fact that when you are standing next to objects, the game sometimes can’t decide whether it wants to control the characters isometrically or in a standard way. Because searching for items in FFVIII usually requires pretty specific character placement, this is a royal pain (it once took me 15 minutes to move my guys into proper position to talk to a cat in Winhill). I also didn’t like the dash/walk reversal too much, though it was a relatively minor gripe.
FFVIII’s menus, like those of past FF games, are generally extremely well organized and easy to navigate. They’re also full of useful information to the player, and my only gripe about them is that in the junction menus, only 4 spells are shown per page (instead of all 32). This makes it tedious to sort through spells or transfer them between party members. Only 4 spells are shown per page in the battle menus, too, which is bothersome if you play in “active” mode; the enemies lay waste to your party while you search for spells over 8 different screens.
FF games have historically been excellent in the sound department, and FFVIII upholds these lofty standards. The sound effects are robust and clear, and the sound system used is noticeably improved over that of FFVII (which, surprisingly, had one of the worst sound systems that I’ve heard in a non-remake 32-bit game). Like past FF games, there is no voice acting in FFVIII.
Many longtime FF fans were somewhat disappointed with FFVII’s soundtrack. They’ll be happy to hear that Nobuo Uematsu takes a step towards returning to form as one of the industry’s top composers on the FFVIII soundtrack. “Liberi Fatali,” the background music that plays during the opening FMV, is a bombastic yet subtly brilliant orchestrated piece that ranks among my favorites of all time. The majority of the rest of the tracks, while highly reminiscent of the dark, droning style of the FFVII soundtrack, are mostly better composed than their FFVII counterparts, with more memorable melodies and fuller arrangements. Highlights include “Force Your Way,” a Baroque-style tune that segues into a soaring rock melody (complete with a brilliantly placed key change), providing the perfect aural backdrop to fight bosses to, and “The Man with the Machine Gun,” a dancey yet insanely melodic theme that plays during Laguna’s battles. FF veterans will also find “The Extreme,” the spectacular final boss theme, to be immediately familiar, as it contains some elements from past FF battle themes.
Although FFVIII’s soundtrack is an improvement over that of FFVII, it still contains its share of stinkers, the most notable of which is the vocal ending theme “Eyes on Me”. This tepid love theme recalls to mind Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, a song which I absolutely despise. In addition, the FFVIII soundtrack still isn’t as strong overall as most of Uematsu’s past works.
Final Fantasy VIII, despite some flaws, left a very compelling impression on me. Though it doesn’t quite surpass Final Fantasy VI or Final Fantasy VII, it’s still one of the best Final Fantasy games yet, and without a doubt one of the best RPGs available on the PlayStation. If any of the points I covered sound particularly ominous, I would recommend a pre-purchase rental, since most of the new gameplay elements were not apparent in the demo. Otherwise, I wholeheartedly recommend this game to any fans of the genre.