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Final Fantasy VIII (PlayStation) artwork

Final Fantasy VIII (PlayStation) review

"Yet often too fantastical to believe, the game seems eerily aware of its own incredibility."

Squall is nearing the end of his studies at Balamb Garden, a campus host to mercenary youths who study combat skills and magic as everyday course material. Here, girls can still be found gossiping in hallways, and boys picking fights over petty insecurities. For Squall, those childish urges leave him a scar, a nasty gash across the face from a rival classmate's gunblade, the weapon itself a true representation of the bizarre balancing act that is Final Fantasy VIII. Where realistic and familiar components -- a blade and revolver -- combine to make something new and incomprehensible.

In its attempt to mesh the realities of high school life and military regiment, Final Fantasy VIII creates a premise -- like the gunblade -- beyond belief, but of rich fantasy. Squall's first mission is actually just part of his school's curriculum, a field exam where students raid the beaches of a city under military occupation. The whole segment is a complete rush, battle screen to battle screen as heroic music bites at your heels, although afterward, it's back at school with an impatient and obnoxious group of kids, waiting in corridors for test results to be posted.

The game is often surreal in this way, a sort of boyhood fantasy come to life. Daringly realistic in its depiction of the growing pains of youth, but wholly unreasonable in the situations it places its cast of young adults. Childish moments during grisly missions may have you ready to flip the nearest table in disgust, and there are many. These youths showcase no qualifications to be soldiers, just the naivety of their age. Only when they are linked with what's called a Guardian Force do they become a group capable of saving the world.

These guardian beasts form what's called a Junction with their human counterparts, opening up customization options for your party. Of these the Draw command serves most valuable, since in Final Fantasy VIII, its enemies that hold the magic. Drawing allows you to steal spells that when stored can be attached to the stat sheets of your party members. A turn based system under an active time frame; you must decide when to pull magic, and when to deal damage. The more you collect of a spell, the more it benefits the stats of say, Strength, Magic, or elemental modifiers to your strikes.

Drawing is rather gratifying, both in its colorful, sucking animation on the battle screen, and how it makes your characters stronger in the menus afterward. But it's also daunting. Each person can hold a 100 of each type of spell, so collecting maximum amounts of Fires, Blizzards, Cures, and others can become a nightmarish grind if you pursue it. And when many creatures don't bear much in the way of teeth, you don't really have an excuse not to drink your fill from their temptingly infinite reserves.

Addicting, perhaps -- raising your stats to premature levels of dominance -- but the system's fragility will take a toll on your experience in one way or another. Powerful spells can be collected at certain points in the game, such as the Life magic that can triple your party's HP amounts early on. Savvy players that figure such tactics out will later find themselves facing encounters of little value, where in fact it's smarter to run away as leveling scales you with the rest of the game's enemies.

Conversely, those who can't wrap their head around the freedoms of the Junction system will end up either drawing everything in sight, or clinging to what works early on -- summoning. This means calling an actual Guardian Force, thus a torturous, 20-30 second long cinematic attack. With Junctioning stats being the more rewarding and effective way to power, it's odd the game tries to push you towards a reliance on summons at the start, providing little in the way of helpful hints to playing properly. Enjoyment is instead dependent on player strategy, both an intimidating and refreshing idea, and luckily for some not a huge focus. Large dungeons are in fact nearly non-existent, so rarely does the system get laborious.

The typical cast of intolerable child heroes also seem to have a ghost of presence, largely ignored by both Squall and the game. Never of primary concern, it's as if they exist to annoy the main character. Squall is a blunt professional who hates small talk and petty social obligations, and to great relief of likely most players, he becomes agitated when you would. A relatable and adult minded person placed in absurd situations, he points out the very outrageousness of the game around him. When you feel like facepalming, you may be surprised to see Squall do so first.

Taking advantage of this amusement, the game is primarily comprised of light hearted skits, scenes of dialogue that move with very lifelike animation, obtuse Japanese humor, and fantastical set pieces. It runs with its imagination and never looks back, rampantly day dreaming. Here is a world where simple fishing towns reside on one continent, and futuristic cities, hover cars, and fluent space programs on another. It introduces huge plot elements at the drop of hat, nonchalantly informing you about its theories of telepathy, time compression, and out of body experiences. At one moment you'll be hijacking speeding trains with a group of rebel misfits, and the next shooting up to orbit.

Yet often too fantastical to believe, the game seems eerily aware of its own incredibility. Even its soundtrack -- of Uematsu's best work -- is a combination of the dreamy and nightmarish. It hides something beneath its outlandish narrative and unorthodox battle strategy, something more real and down to earth. That is, a clear inspection of an introverted young adult. As if using its fictional qualities to disguise its true intentions, the game drapes Squall and the player underneath its decorative wings of fantasy. As you both take note of its unbelievable nature, you are gradually being lured out as subjects of study.

Beckoning you from your RPG is a girl, the romantic interest that takes hold of Squall's life. She defines Final Fantasy VIII not merely as a love story, but rather as the theatrical, musical, and visual trip it is. She resides in it as the game's obsession, the idée fixe that tears apart the mind of a man forced into a heroic role without the mental strength to succeed in it. Always challenging his cold approach and mathematical demeanor, she annoys him as much as the others do, but relentlessly and adorably. Dismissing her as well as his own feelings, Squall takes her presence for granted; eventually finding himself uncharacteristically bereaved when she is placed in danger.

In this telling scene, Squall's crew is again ranting on about the insanely crafted conundrum of a plot that surrounds them, but here the screen fades to dark. Dialogue boxes continue to pester your view, but now scatter around Squall's thoughts. His appear squarely at the center of the screen, and are clear: this girl is all that matters now. And from here to the end, his battles will be fought over a regretful conscious. As he reaches for her the game becomes more and more incredulous, to the point of utter psychosis as you face villainess witches that drip with personal foreboding. The finale -- a chilling introspection to a repressed mind.

Indeed, there's something about the girl named Rinoa Heartily. The way she ardently struts towards your removed world of fantasy, invading it with her dark eyes and conceited smile. Pressuring you into decisions and confrontations throughout the game, she drags you from the comforts of role playing escapism and into self-analysis. In a world of elite magical soldiers, evil sorceresses, brilliant mythical beasts and time travel, she remains tangible. A comforting constant within a schizophrenic universe, she pulls you by the arm towards emotional clarity. Onto the ballroom floor and into the spotlight, "I can't dance" isn't a response she'll accept.

Rating: 8/10

holdthephone's avatar
Featured community review by holdthephone (October 23, 2012)

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zippdementia posted October 23, 2012:

Yeah, the leveling does drive me crazy in this game. Before I knew it, Squall was at level 68. And it didn't make things harder, since he's also got an adjusted strength of 255, but the very notion of you should run away from battles is never laid out as a strategy that you should be paying attention to.
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holdthephone posted October 23, 2012:

For me I refined some high level magic, and drew max Quakes from one of those giant iron knights. Pretty much did the job for me. Finished the story at only 25 hours in, intense final showdown but i couldn't have asked for a fairer challenge. I hear for a lot of people they just steamroll the final segments.
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zippdementia posted October 23, 2012:

25 hours, that's fast! I'm at about 40 hours and I estimate I have another 10 or 15 left. Could be way off on that estimate, though.

The real problem with FFVIII is that it never gives its players confidence. No matter how much you feel you have the system figured out, you know there is a good chance the game is going to randomly throw some new, unexplained element your way for a single battle just to kill you and make you have to try again. It's not that these are difficult elements to overcome, it's just that they are given no buildup or warning and often go against the way the game has been asking you to play.

I just hit one of these moments the last time I played. For a long time the game encourages you to junction elemental types to your weapons, and it makes sense. I mean, doing elemental damage, especially against enemies that are weak against it, is damn useful. Obviously, when you go somewhere like the fire cavern, you probably want to unequip your "fire" elemental damage.

Well, I went into the battleship graveyard (where you get Bahamut) and was pitted against an unavoidable, inescapable, fight against a fire dragon. Of course, I had fire elementals equipped. And there's no way to change that mid battle. I also happened to have Squall on counterattack, so pretty much he healed the enemy for 7000 damage every time the enemy attacked. End result: a very long and painful battle, followed by another unavoidable attack by a Red Dragon. End result? I reset.

Now, I'm not against this sort of mechanic. But where was the warning for this? Where was there any indication that I was about to fight a fire-absorbing enemy, let alone a string of them? To make this even more asinine, there were enemies in this area that were WEAK AGAINST FIRE.

That's what I'm talking about. The game never gives you confidence that you are doing well or making the right decisions. You know that at any time the rug might be pulled out from under you and everyone will have a quick laugh at your expense.

*to note, the same thing happened with a red dragon in a Laguna segment. It doesn't help that the game automatically chooses fire as your main elemental if you are auto junctioning.
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holdthephone posted October 23, 2012:

Same thing happened to me at that laguna segment, haha. But still, crazy how different everyone's game turns out.

As for me I never really stressed over elements, just junctioned the leftovers to those. Game seemed more about stacking strength, though I never got higher than ~160. I pretty much had Squall hitting hard, Rinoa as a draw/support station, and Zell filling in for whatever emergency. Was comfortable most of the game with this set up, especially when I got the Cerberus summon (Triple cast for everyone, hello).

To be honest though I really scraped by some of the harder fights with Squall at near death, but dealing obscene amounts of damage with Limit Breaks. Obscene amounts. Exactly how I beat the game.
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zippdementia posted October 24, 2012:

Yeah, the limit breaks. Jesus, those are strong. Or, specifically, Squall and Irvine have strong limit breaks with Quistis coming in as a distant third.

Well, it's comforting to know you didn't have any trouble with the end of the game. Cause I'm about ready to be done with it. That's probably my biggest sign that I lost my enjoyment along the way—I just want to finish and see the ending. I have no interest in the side quests (we'll chat about those in a moment) and I'm tired of hunting down rare spells. I am ready.

My Squall is at 255 strength (I got strength bonus about 40 levels ago and never unequipped it) and consistently deals 9,999 damage. His Limit Break ends up dealing around 60-70,000 damage. My secondary character set up deals about 4,000 attack damage. My third is weaker, only about 1,000; but they have a lot of magic power. Still, magic sucks compared to strength attacks. I also have recover equipped, which is a ridiculously broken ability, and treatment. And the 100 megaelixers from Bahamut's card... yeah, I kinda do feel invincible at this stage. I want to get some auras and some of the other rare spells, though. Auras I'll get from Seifer.

So, last thing before I sign off for the evening. Side Quests. What the hell is up with Side Quests? I'm going to go off about this for a couple minutes; you can consider this the end of the post if you're tired of me talking. If not, let's look at some of the older Final Fantasies. Just some examples...

- Final Fantasy one had the infamous rat tail quest which increased your class level and gave access to all sorts of new stats and abilities

- Final Fantasy IV had side quests which tied up loose ends in the story (like finding Yang in the Sylvan cave) or giving specific characters massive power boosts (cave of summons for Rydia) and all the quests were pretty involved

- Final Fantasy VI pretty much made the second half of the game one big sidequest; each character got their own unique side quest which often highlighted some aspect of who they were and often resolved it (Locke's quest for the phoenix jumps immediately to mind; but so does Terra's whole story, whose character arc only gets resolved if you finish her side quest)

- Final Fantasy VII had the game room and colliseum at the Gold Saucer, which was just fun in general (but also led to uber powerful items). It also had the entire side quest revolving around Yuffie's character; not to mention Yuffie and Vincent as complete side characters (but characters who get a lot of development if you have them around)

And then we get to FF VIII and IX. VIII and IX are particularly asinine when they focus on their terrible card games (IX's game is worse) for the majority of the side quests. VIII and IX also have these really dumb Chocobo games and then these very random side quests which don't tie into the story or the characters at all. The UFOs and Odel lake and the Shumi in FFVIII spring to mind. The mognet service and the mystery mouse in FFIX.

Rant done.
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holdthephone posted October 24, 2012:

Yeah I think VII was the only older FF where I really enjoyed doing side content. Of the later ones I thought the hunts of XII and XIII were a lot of fun. For VIII I didn't do much on the side, but I mean, you really didn't like the card game? Everyone likes the card game!
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zippdementia posted October 24, 2012:

Well, I do have to admit that a good ten hours of my playthrough were probably spent playing the stupid thing, but my enjoyment eventually turned into annoyance. The card game is fun for maybe the first disc of the game. Then they start throwing in rules like "random" or that rule where you lose any card that's flipped, and you end up losing a good card. Fine, that's part of the game, right? Then you spend the next forty five minutes winning it back. And then you realize you have spent forty five minutes playing a game that has no bearing on character growth, whether plot related or status related. Yes, I know you can refine cards into items, but it's surprisingly understated as part of the game's design and there are almost always better ways to item/tool farm.

Again, it's a part of the game which inspires no confidence in the player. I wouldn't mind losing a good card if what I was getting in return was useful, but rarely is it. So really you shouldn't ever use your rare cards, which makes collecting them a little pointless and misleading. Even then, it wouldn't be a problem if the computer consistently used your rare cards after you lost them and gave you a fair number of chances to win them back. But no, instead you have to slog through untold hours of random card configurations before seeing your card again. It's just one more form of grinding in the game that ultimately loses its sheen because the pay off isn't equal to the effort.

FFIX is a far worse culprit, however. They have the gall to not even explain how the card game is played and hide the "instruction manual" all over the !@#$! game. And that might be fine if the game had rules the equivalent of Mancala, but then, if you ever do go on gamefaqs and look up how the thing is played, its fairly complicated! How they expected anyone to enjoy a game they don't know how to play is beyond me.

I appreciate the idea of having to learn how to play from within the game itself; it's sort've an immersion thing. But it wasn't the right game to do that with. When I need to learn how to Gin Rummy, it's fun to just play with a couple friends and figure it out. When I need to learn how to play Twilight Imperium, I need to look at the !@#$! rule book.
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dagoss posted October 25, 2012:

Yeah I think VII was the only older FF where I really enjoyed doing side content

Oh god. FF7 isn't old. It came out in '97...
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holdthephone posted October 25, 2012:

You're right, it's ancient.
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zippdementia posted October 26, 2012:

Oh, hey... I'm much closer to the end than I thought I was. I didn't realize Ultimecia's castle is basically a boss run. That... shaves some time off. Thank god, I am really ready for this to be done. I'm tired of the game's constant lack of direction, screwing around with me with random combat situations that I have no way to plan for, and bizarre convoluted plot that makes me feel like I'm deciphering hieroglyphics rather than playing a game.

But I have enjoyed the Squall/Rinoa relationship, which you focus on in your review and rightly so.
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zippdementia posted October 27, 2012:

Beating it tonight; I'll share my thoughts on the ending here, Holdthephone. And then I'll have to do a review sometime soon.
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Suskie posted October 27, 2012:

I'm tired of the game's constant lack of direction, screwing around with me with random combat situations that I have no way to plan for, and bizarre convoluted plot that makes me feel like I'm deciphering hieroglyphics rather than playing a game.

I feel this was a big problem with Final Fantasy games of that era. JRPGs suddenly needed to be "epic," and epic equates to long in most developers' minds. So with VIII and IX in particular, you'd have around two discs' worth of solid, objective-driven plot before the writers would run out of ideas and go off on random tangents to keep the game afloat for another 20 hours.
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holdthephone posted October 27, 2012:

VIII's stupidity gave the developers justification for some very cool scenarios, so I didn't find the incoherent nature of the game too discouraging. It's only when the nonsensical plot combines with a focus on secondary characters and pointless combat that the experience really dipped. In this regard, the prison escape and missile base espionage segments were hands down the worst parts of the game. They couldn't have made a dryer string of events to occur after the glory of disc 1's ending.

The game only works when it goes big, like the beach landing, train hijack, sorceress parade, the garden battles, or outerspace. Outerspace easily being the most ridiculous part of the game and a middle finger to any players still trying to follow a story, but one of my favorite sequences. It was really well done.

And I couldn't do IX. It had the best introduction I've seen to a game but boy, *nothing* happens after that. Maybe some day I'll give it another chance and beat it, but when they threw Kuja into the picture I just turned off the game.
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zippdementia posted October 27, 2012:

The whole first disc is actually pretty great, you're right. It evenly develops all the characters (Quistiss gets DROPPED after disc 1). And it ends on a great note. And then disc 2 starts and opens with the orphanage. Oh, screw me, the orphanage. What a dumb plot point.

Still, even then, I appreciate much of Disc 2. The attacks on the school, going into the school's basement, the concert—these are all well done and add a lot to the game.

Other than that, you get a lot of good moments that aren't linked in well to anything. Like even in the missile base: I really like when Selphie and everyone thinks that this is it and they are going to die; but they've saved their friends. It's actually a heartfelt scene and one of the few times it feels like those side characters are adding anything to the picture. I also really like when they cross over the bridge on foot to the Esthar continent. It's just a cool idea: a bridge that spans an ocean. That's the kind of otherworldy thing that you play sci-fi games for. It has a similar ambiance to the scene in Final Fantasy VII when you cross the mountains and the wreckage of the old mine tracks.
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Suskie posted October 28, 2012:

I always really loved the look of Fisherman's Horizon, and the accompanying music (which I'd easily rank among Uematsu's best). VIII had some occasionally very striking stuff that convinced me it could have been one of my all-time favorites if it'd had a story that made sense, characters I liked or gameplay that worked.

I don't like VIII, by the way.
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holdthephone posted October 28, 2012:

That place was so chill.

I'm sure you've heard that theme orchestrated and arranged for piano, yes?
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zippdementia posted October 28, 2012:

You probably haven't heard it performed by moonbow which do an incredibly faithful but simplistic rendition that I always imagine it would sound like if someone in FH were actually strumming it.

Okay, so I beat the game—it was so insanely easy to beat that I'm shocked that this is listed as one of the harder FF final battles on many faqs. What the hell? Not that I'm complaining. Like I said: I was ready. But the final battle took me all of about ten minutes. Good call Hold.

Anyway, the ending. Another confusion point for me. I've heard so many fan theories about the ending: did Squall and Rinoa make it? Was the ending real? I don't know where this is coming from. Really, do people not sit through the credits? It's a thankfully simple ending, in my opinion, that ties up the loose ends and is emotionally satisfying. I'd go so far as to say I like it.

One thing the ending really did illuminate for me was the real reason I returned to FFVIII. It was for Laguna and his story. It's his story that gets me teared up and emotional. Squall and Rinoa have a nice love tale, yes, but the real heart of the game is in Laguna's plot. What I love about it is that it had the balls to be realistic. Laguna falls in love as a soldier with Julia and, hey, it doesn't work out. He goes back to war and she marries someone else. The song she writes about him just pulls at the heartstrings because they never ended up together.

Of course, that's not the end of the story. He finds love again, though probably a simpler less thunderstruck love, in Raine and the two do find happiness together—though that is cut short by Raine's death, you still get the sense that Laguna found a kind of bittersweet peace by the end of the game. It's a very moving story because we can all relate to it. In life, we often can find happiness, but we also leave many things behind on the path to that. And happiness isn't a black and white thing; it's built upon both the sadness and the joys of the past. It's a simple story that doesn't require insane (and ultimately stupid) plot twists or a world ending in order to make it work. It works because it is a human tale.

... and so it begs the question as to why this game wasn't just about Laguna. Seriously, with Laguna's story they could have had a nice 20 hour game with a very tight story, three interesting playable characters, and an emotionally deep arc. Or at least they could've combined the two stories more deliberately. I would've liked a game where the point was more tied into figuring out who Laguna was... rather than treating it like a bad acid dream that Squall occasionally has and then brushes off. Lose all of the bullshit about the orphanage and the stupid villain who is actually just a kindly, albeit possessed, woman. Focus on Ultimecia from the start and tie her in with Laguna so the two goals are combined. Basically, cut down on the Squall storyline, expand the Laguna storyline. Then you still have a forty hour game.

Of course, that didn't happen in this reality. All's the pity.

By the way, well said point about the "epic" requirement of RPGs, Suskie. Very well said, indeed.
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Suskie posted October 28, 2012:

Piano, yes. Orchestrated, no. Although I actually think the former fits the song much better. One of the things that I love about the track is its delicate simplicity in comparison to a lot of Uematsu's work. See also: To Zanarkand.
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holdthephone posted October 28, 2012:

I've read the big theories but they are full of holes, as is anything people try to make of a plot like this. The narrative is connected so haphazardly throughout the game, people give Square way more credit than they deserve by thinking up explanations for them.

For me, the ending was pretty haunting. The shattering sound and zoom on Squall's eye after his "trip" was a powerful moment that could imply death, but also birth. Either interpretation would serve it as a moment of clarity to the game's message, and the after credits were just enough to plant a seed of hope into people desiring that he lived. Up to you. For me, he died, because I like tragic stuff. And the camera footage at the end seemed like it could imply he wasn't actually there.

As Suskie noted, the game is obviously trying to be as epic as possible, almost like it has to meet some expected criteria. This is what made the experience so strange to me, because it was such an obviously staged attempt at the typical epic RPG. Staged, as in the whole premise was just illogical and outrageous from the start. Perhaps taking that for granted at first because it's a Japanese game, but by the time you're shot into space I think many people realize the entire thing was nonsense. What the hell are you even playing at that point?

When it grabs your attention in this way, it then totally inverts its image as the epic RPG and starts to get real personal about what you've actually been experiencing. I thought Ultimecia made that very clear, because she's a total RPG prop. The villain of another FF, but entirely fake, where the game has no interest in explaining her. Her first words are essentially "I'm evil and I'm going to kill you, rawwr," but when you hack her to her last hit points, her final words are completely outside the bounds of the game:

"Reflect on your childhood...
Your sensation... Your words...
Your emotions... Time...
It will not wait...
No matter how hard you hold on.
It escapes you. And.."

Totally lifts the veil off the game and says "hey, this about you," and I thought that was just awesome. You'll have to excuse the sappy insight, but hey, that's just how it hit me. Other people may want to write theories about time compression and monsters raining down from the moon, but for me I read the game's intentions differently. I could easily write up another piece dismantling what is a hopelessly stupid story, but as it turned out, the game was just too interestingly constructed for me to dismiss as just a case of awful writing.

As for Laguna, I didn't look at his adventures as a separate game. Hell, even your GFs directly Junction over to his alternate timeline. The connection worked well, I thought, having a character the exact opposite of Squall and all.
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zippdementia posted October 28, 2012:

Enix's official stance is that Squall lived. I'll see if I can find the official link to that information (I found it last night while looking up stuff about Laguna), but to me there can be no question of it anyway. The game clearly shows the player Rinoa's perspective after the credits and it's very clear he's alive and well. It's just a teaser before that to make you think, "oh my god, Squall might be dead!" They did the same thing in Final Fantasy IX.

Here's the video for Squall being clearly alive.

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honestgamer posted October 28, 2012:

I'm not sure what Enix is doing commenting on a game that Square made, but it's very nice of Enix to clear that up for anyone who was curious. ;-)
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zippdementia posted October 28, 2012:

C'mon, I meant Square Enix ;)

Though, yeah, i do miss the days of "Square Soft."
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zippdementia posted October 28, 2012:

Anyway, now that I'm done here, I can finally move on to Alundra, which I also never completed. Started that up again today and already love it again. Amazing how ahead of its time this game was, and all through adhering to the basic principles of Zelda.

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