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For the longest time, Final Fantasy VIII has been the butt of many jokes, from “You’re the best looking guy here!” to Square Enix’s apparent inability to even acknowledge the game whenever they announced another Final Fantasy port. Well, no longer does FFVIII need to live in the shadows, and this remastered release is easily the best and most accessible way to play the game to date. It’s perfect for old fans and newcomers alike, with optional cheats to make the game more accessible as well as a new lick of paint.
Let’s start with what’s new in this version. The most obvious update to FFVIII Remastered is the new character models. Square Enix have painstakingly recreated each of these models, and some are based on their newer designs (Squall’s model, for example, is based on his Dissidia appearance). They look closer to early PS2 models, and you can see lots of new details on each character, such as the highlights in Rinoa’s hair, or the flecks in Zell’s denim trousers.
This visual overhaul isn’t consistent, however; those who’ve picked up the FFVII and FFIX ports know how Square Enix handled the pre-rendered backdrops, and unfortunately, the same can be said for FFVIII. Each location looks incredibly blurry and muddy, and it’s even more noticeable given how detailed the character models are. Well…most of the character models, anyway. The same care hasn’t been given to all the NPCs; in some areas, character models are in fact part of the backdrop, and it really shows in the remaster.
As mentioned earlier, the game also comes with a handful of optional cheats. The console versions only come with three, which are the same as what was offered in the FFVII and FFIX ports: speed up, no encounters and battle assist. The first two are self-explanatory, allowing you to either speed through the game or avoid enemy encounters (which you can actually get as an in-game skill too, though it’s nice to have it from the get-go.) The last ensures your HP is always at max and you always have access to your characters’ limit breaks. These are for people who just want to experience the story, and they can be turned on and off at any time. There are additional cheats for the Steam release, such as max gil and all items, but you don’t have to use these if you don’t want to.
Even with these additions to FFVIII Remastered, there’s still a solid and underloved Final Fantasy game hidden underneath. Honestly, replaying FFVIII for the third time felt very unusual. I’d forgotten just how weird it was and just how far it strayed from tradition and the rest of the series, both in its world and gameplay. Its weirdness works both in its favour and against it. Simply put, FFVIII’s story is completely whack. It starts off tame, with a group of students training to become mercenary soldiers known as SeeDs. Within hours, you’re on the hunt for a sorceress and are thrown into a time-and-space-bending adventure, complete with flashbacks and character swapping, that throws all logic out the window.
Even 20 years later, there’s nothing else quite like FFVIII. The sheer bizarre twists and turns that Squall and friends experience might put you off, or the central love story between Squall and Rinoa might be too much, but there’s so much I love about it too. FFVIII’s world might be one of my favourites; from the wacky city of Esthar to the journey you make into space, it feels wholly unique both within this series and compared to other RPGs. Learning Limit Breaks and creating weapons all come from within the world too, with Zell learning new martial arts and Rinoa teaching her dog Angelo new tricks by reading various magazines. The characters don’t excite me and the story is a lot to take in, but the world is something to behold. Although I’d still like a more fleshed-out story about Laguna, Kiros and Ward, Square Enix.
Things don’t get any more traditional with the gameplay either. While exploring the world is the same as other FF games, FFVIII’s combat is far from normal, relying on the Junction system. This system allows you to equip Guardian Forces (this entry’s name for summons) in order to draw magic, either from enemies in battle or draw points on the field, and junction that magic to your stats to increase them. You can carry 100 of each spell, and the more of the spell you have, the bigger the stat increase. Some spells are better for certain stats (Life, for example, will raise your HP more than Fire), and you can eventually even add resistances to elements and debuffs. I’m a big fan of this system because once you get the hang of it, it’s really rewarding.
On the flipside, FFVIII is incredibly breakable because of this system, and it’s very easy to become overpowered as a result, even in a game where all enemies scale with your level. All you need are a few high-level spells early on and you’re set for the entire game. Drawing magic from enemies is pretty tedious, but that fast forward function comes in handy if you can scroll through menus at a rapid pace, meaning you can stock up on magic very quickly. And eventually you learn skills that allow you to refine spells from cards and items. And yes, I did say cards, because FFVIII is the home of video gaming’s greatest minigame: Triple Triad. If you don’t spend at least 20 hours playing this, then your willpower is tremendous.
And let me talk about the music, because this port is actually based off the 2000 PC port. That version, along with the later Steam port (not to be confused with the recent Remastered port) contained compressed midi tracks which were, frankly, pretty terrible. But here, Nobuo Uematsu’s glorious original score has been brought back, along with everyone’s favourite power ballad “Eyes on Me.” I think this is one of Uematsu’s best soundtracks, and it has some of my favourite battle themes in the entire series. Yet in a few scenes — noticeably in Timber and during the battle between the Gardens — some of those midi tracks have managed to sneak into the game, and to say they’re mood killers is an understatement.
Final Fantasy VIII Remastered is lacking a fair bit of polish in some areas, and it isn’t the easiest Final Fantasy to recommend to everyone, but it’s a piece of history in Square Enix’s storied life. This is easily the best and most accessible version of the game you can get today, and I’m so glad it’s finally getting a bit more love and attention. FFVIII embraces its weirdness and quirks to full effect, and it’s definitely worth giving a shot if you’re curious. With this release, I hope a lot more people realise this game is better than many made it out to be back in the day.