“And on the eighth day, God created the sequel.” I read that advertisement in the back section of a gaming magazine in the summer of 1999, and it nailed the feeling most gamers had as the release of Final Fantasy VIII approached. Simply put, there was no way that Square’s latest effort was going to meet expectations. Say what you will about VII, but it revolutionized the RPG (for better or worse) and single-handedly brought the genre into the mainstream. FF8 was never going to live up to this near-Biblical level of hype, but even when judged strictly on its own merits, FF8 is still a massive disappointment. The lackluster characters and appalling battle system completely ruin what is an otherwise interesting take on the series. The game truly tries to experiment and innovate, though often with disastrous results.
The story of FF8 departs from the apocalyptic styling of VI and VII in favor of a school setting, where we see the cast attempting to complete their exams and become members of the mercenary group SeeD. This refreshing change does a lot to revitalize a plot structure that had become quite stale. Too quickly, however, Square reverts back to the standard “Evil Empire (EE) trying to take over the world” scenario that has been driving the series for as long as most people can remember. The EE in FF8 is the Galbadia Empire, which has a new head of state in the Sorceress Edea. Ultimately, there is a dark force behind the scenes attempting to gain control of space and time, also rather standard fare for the Final Fantasy series, although at least the opening school setting attempts to take it in a new direction. The pacing of the story is a little off as well, with occasional grand revelations interspersed between hours of mind-numbing exposition. In addition, the big reveal is quite similar to that of FF7 in a lot of ways, which further prevents VIII from standing on its own.
Even though the game is almost entirely linear, figuring out how to advance the story is frequently confusing. It doesn’t help matters that the pre-rendered backgrounds often have paths and alleys that are not obvious or intuitive to find. Though this issue never gets to the point of total bewilderment found in Parasite Eve’s constant perspective changes, it does add a lot of weight to the argument for getting rid of towns in Final Fantasy games completely.
The cast of FF8 is truly remarkable in that they are thoroughly unlikeable. The main character, Squall, is simply Cloud Strife without any of the charisma, which is saying something. He is rude and insulting toward those around him in order to keep people away, like the angsty kid who sulks in the corner during a party, glaring at all the people who pass by. I like the fact that Square gives him an internal monologue to try to justify his behavior, but he is nonetheless a jerk, plain and simple. His love interest is Rinoa, but the two lack any sort of chemistry, and the love story, which Square had been hyping since the first images were released, is completely superficial. Squall and Rinoa love each other because they stare into each others’ eyes and sappy music plays in the background. There’s no real connection between the two, which makes it hard to take the development of their relationship seriously. The rest of the cast is completely disposable, from the annoying Zell to the kooky Selphie.
That being said, all the problems about the story and cast go right out the window whenever Laguna is involved. Originally, FF8 was going to feature two protagonists, Squall and Laguna, but we ended up only getting snippets of the Galbadian soldier’s tale. Laguna and his crew are far more interesting than anything else going on in FF8, and the tone of their adventures harkens back to the NES and SNES days of the series. If Squall is the emo kid in the corner, then Laguna is the guy who brings the booze and welcomes everyone to the party. He’s the guy everyone likes, and he’s the high point for the whole game.
When a Final Fantasy game is completely broken in the story and character department, it is required by gentlemen’s law to excel in the gameplay department (see FF5). But VIII is even more of a failure in this area. The Junction System sucks all of the flow and character progression out of the game in favor of stat tracking and mindless menu hopping. In order to do anything other than attack in FF8, you have to equip a Guardian Force (GF), which gives you the ability to junction magic towards certain stats to make you stronger. But the characters don’t learn magic in the traditional sense, and instead must draw it from enemies in battle. You stock up on magic (a maximum of 100 of any kind of spell) by pressing the same commands over and over until you are satisfied. Every time there is a new spell available from an enemy, you’ll want to stock up again to keep your characters powerful, because gaining levels is actually the last thing you’ll want to do in FF8 – enemies level up along with your party, so the only way to stay ahead of them is to properly junction GFs and magic to give yourself an advantage.
One of the main complaints people had with FF7 was that the materia system basically made your characters blank slates, and you were only concerned with the level of magic and abilities in those silly glowing stones. And yet FF8 goes even farther. One step too far, in fact. I could have cared less who was in my party, because the only things that truly mattered were the GFs equipped and the magic junctioned to my stats. Sure, there is a lot of strategy involved, and it is one of the more complex battle systems in a Final Fantasy game, but this doesn’t change the fact that you will be flipping through menus (all of which are terribly unintuitive and ugly) and drawing spells from your enemies. However, even after drawing those spells, you’ll want to use nothing but physical attacks, because you run the risk of reducing your stats each time you use a spell. In this way, FF8’s battle system is almost meant to be avoided once your party is properly stocked with spells. FF8 has one of the most broken battle systems in a Final Fantasy game, and in all of the “drawing,” what it draws the most of from the game is the fun.
Battles are slow in FF8, and not just because you have to constantly draw spells from enemies. The overall battle speed is completely different from the brisk pace in the previous titles: every time you input a command, your character goes into their ready stance and then attacks. If they are attacked during this ready stance, they will take the hit, animate the reaction based on the amount of damage taken, and then return to their ready stance. Characters also take much longer to reach their enemy for each attack than the admittedly bizarre jump-and-attack animations from VII. These animations completely kill the flow of combat. Combine this with the fact that enemies aren’t much of a challenge, but seem to have a huge number of hit points, and the game slows to a snail’s pace. Increasing the battle speed doesn’t really do anything to help this problem, either, and it still leaves you with the issue of the summon animations. Thank God you don’t have to use these to complete the game, but the most powerful attacks available to your party come in the form of boring, long, and indulgent summon animations that play out the same way every time. Be ready to watch these animations ad nauseum if you regularly choose to summon your GFs to do the fighting for you.
Graphically, FF8 was a powerhouse in its day. The use of color and texture is clearly a step up from VII, and the fully proportioned characters look great. The overall look of the game is much more consistent than previous efforts as well – Balamb Garden looks great, and it doesn’t stand out as garishly as Gold Saucer when compared to the rest of the environments. This helps to give the world a much more cohesive look, and goes a long way towards immersing you in the experience. And for all my other complaints, the battle animations look great, too.
The musical score is a bit of a mixed bag. Certain themes are absolutely great; most notably the boss music and Laguna’s battle theme (again, it’s like Square saved all of the good stuff for him). The overworld theme is truly grating, though, with sharp string chords that will hurt your ears. More than a few songs on the soundtrack feature these harsh tones, in fact, and each one is hard to listen to. Series composer Nobuo Uematsu also included some rather ominous tracks for the main villains, which seem to have been influenced by classic Disney animation. You can’t help but feel the presence of Maleficent every time Edea’s theme plays in the background.
In conclusion, Final Fantasy VIII was a grand experiment not unlike the second album after a band’s popular debut. Square manages to nail the presentation, but this was expected even back in the late ’90s, so they shouldn’t get special commendations for it. I do, however, commend Square for at least attempting new things, even if they didn’t really work. Perhaps going all the way with the school setting would have helped, or maybe placing greater focus on Laguna and his crew. The battle system is completely functional, but there is little fun to be had due its slow pace, repetitive nature, and constant menu hopping. There are good things to be found in FF8 (the final dungeon deserves special recognition, as it is probably the best the series has ever had), but this noble experiment fails more often than it succeeds.