Final Fantasy VIII is, quite possibly, one of the most debated of the Final Fantasy series. It’s almost the marmite of the series, in a sense. Yet, when you consider how beloved the Final Fantasy series is, isn’t it a bit strange that one of them would have fans so undecided?
I mean, there’s Final Fantasy VI, which almost everyone admits is a work of art, and then there’s Final Fantasy XIII which is widely panned. But FFVIII is probably the only one where fans seem to be split almost 50/50. So why is that? What is it that makes Final Fantasy VIII so good to so many, yet so bad to so many others. Why don’t we take a look? (And yes, I am aware I’ll probably get tomatoes thrown at me in the streets for this post.)
Final Fantasy games are well known for their incredibly complex and deep storylines that go on for (sometimes hundreds of) hours. With plot twists galore, an insane amount of backstory and lore, as well as (generally) well-rounded characters, playing the games is like being in control of the characters in some epic fantasy novel (think Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones). Final Fantasy VIII, however, is a little different from the norm.
Rather than you playing the rebel fighting against the mad king (or jester) or evil corporation, FFVIII has you in control of protagonist Squall Leonhart; a student in a private boarding school for mercenaries. Yep, you start the game as a contract killer in training. That was a pretty big jump for the series, even if the last game had you start as eco-terrorists.
From there, you have to take a field test that involves the students in actual, live combat against soldiers attacking a nearby coastal town. However, if you were lulled into thinking that would be the focus of the game, you’d be wrong. The actual act of being a mercenary ends about 4 hours into the game (depending on how quickly you are playing it). After being sent on your first mission after graduating, you meet Rinoa and her band of “freedom fighters”, which consists of just three people (including Rinoa herself). Their mission to kidnap the president of a nearby city state goes wrong and both you and their group are forced into hiding.
Now on the run, you find yourself pulled into a scheme to assassinate a sorceress who is working with that same president. However, that too goes wrong and you end up being dragged into a plot where that same sorceress wants to merge the past, present and future into one consistant time.
Meanwhile, there’s not one, but two different love stories going on; that of Squall and Rinoa’s in the present, and Laguna and Julia in the past. And you get to see both of these stories develop. However, they are both tragic love stories in their own ways, with various different (and actually very original) twists changing the lives of all involved.
As you can see, the story is incredibly complicated, with tonnes of different side stories all happening as well. It can get very confusing, if you don’t pay attention to what is happening. But in my opinion, that makes for a great story! I’ve never been a fan of a story that is so loose or thin that you can just zone out for ages and still know exactly what it is going on. You can’t do that with things like Game of Thrones, so why should it be the same with an epic fantasy video game?
And yes, the actual story gets very, very weird in the latter half of the game, what with the whole merging of times thing. But you know what? I still think it manages to pull it off!
Considering the fact that Final Fantasy VIII came out in February 1999, over 18 years ago, you’d expect the graphics to look pretty bad. Yet Squaresoft managed to really make the most of the PlayStation’s hardware, pushing the boundaries with graphics in ways that hadn’t been done before.
Whilst most Final Fantasy games typically featured rather cartoony looking characters with odd proportions, FFVIII instead featured more realistic character models. This was yet another major shift in style for the series, and actually put a lot of people off. The overall darker tone of the game’s world, along with the more realistic characters, meant that it felt less like a typical J-RPG and more a game you’d expect from western developers.
Even the menu graphics were significantly altered from previous common designs in the series. Gone were the rounded edges of the menu screens, as well as the blue background textures. In their places were sharp, rectangular menu sections with a mostly solid grey colour scheme. This rubbed people the wrong way, as many felt it was far too cold of a design for the Final Fantasy series.
Whilst I agree that it was a major change in the tone of the game, graphically, I also think it was the right choice. FFVIII was not a happy storyline, by any means (just look at the Squall is dead theory), so having a far more somber colour palette fit perfectly.
One of the biggest positives about Final Fantasy VIII, in terms of graphics, can actually be seem in the aforementioned first mission against the soldiers. Or rather, at the end of that mission. You see, towards the end of the mission you are chased down a mountainside, across a bridge and through the streets by a large spider-robots (because “why not”). Whilst you can kill it on the bridge, running away as you are told to will treat you to an awesome scene where you are controlling Squall, running away from a cutscene robot!
Now, that may not sound like a big deal, but you have to remember that this was at a time where major story video cutscenes were basically just movie segments; you had no control of them. So, to be able to actually control the in-game character model of Squall whilst being chased by the FMV version of the spider-robot was epic! Just watch!
The moment I first saw that, I was blown away!
Oh, and we haven’t even spoken about the GFs yet! These are the monsters that you can summon to attack your enemies, and they look incredible. The animation of them is out of this world, especially for the GF known as Eden. All in all, the graphics really are awesome for the time, and I think every design element complemented each other and the style of the plot.
Ok, so this is where a lot of people really had a problem with FFVIII, and that’s because of two systems; the Draw system and the Junction system. You see, in old Final Fantasy games you either got magic from items, buying the spells in shops or by equiping certain special items (e.g materia from FFVII). However, in Final Fantasy VIII you got your magic by “drawing” it out from enemies. Each enemy would have a finite amount of a particular spell, so you could only get a certain amount without spending time grinding. Even then, you could only hold 100 of each spell.
To me, though, this added a sense of strategic thinking to a game already part of a strategy-heavy genre. Add to this the fact that you can “junction” (or equip) spells to your stats to make your characters strong, and things become very tactical.
You also had to make sure you had the right type of spell junctioned to the right stat! For example, equiping healing magic to your health stat boosted your total health significantly.
Because of this added level of depth to building up your characters (plus the fact that the most powerful summon in the game needs to be drawn in the first), people got frustrated with the idea of didn’t like it. I, however, found it incredibly rewarding. The learning curve was very steep, that’s for sure… But once you got your head around the Junction system, you could really make yourself strong and customise how you wanted your characters to be.
In the end, the overall gameplay was great. There was a lot to do, and the addition of one of the most addictive card games only served to add to that. Battles were also very fun, and using Squall’s limit break (special move) became an interactive delight,
The world and the creatures within it were really well designed. Each town felt unique and alive, whilst every monster felt unique and original (even the ones that weren’t). This all just added to the sense of immersion that the game offered, allowing you to be sucked into the story quick and easy.
So whilst the Draw and Junction systems take some getting used it, those systems and the other aspects of gameplay all came together nicely!
And That’s All Folks
Final Fantasy VIII remains one of the games with the most divided opinion, but personally, I think it is one of the best Final Fantasy games released. The graphics were astounding when it was released, and as the Steam re-release for PC shows, still look good today. The side quests and extra games (like the Triple Triad card game) offer great depth to the game itself, whilst the storyline grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go.
If you’re looking for a mix between epic fantasy and science fiction, then you could do a heck of a lot worst than Final Fantasy VIII!
Have you played FFVIII? Or any other Final Fantasy games? What are you opinions on Final Fantasy VIII? Let me know in the comment section below!