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Final Fantasy VIII (PlayStation) artwork

Final Fantasy VIII (PlayStation) review

"The ocean looks calm, as the tide moves inward. Suddenly, the tranquil beach scene transforms into a flower field, as a lonely girl in a blue cape walks across. She holds a golden feather in her hand, which floats up into the sky. Then, a brown-haired young man in a black jacket grips his gunblade by the hilt. Enter Squall Leonhart, a lone wolf at a military school known as ''Garden''. He goes through life routinely, ignoring almost everyone and having numerous struggles with his rival Seifer Al..."

The ocean looks calm, as the tide moves inward. Suddenly, the tranquil beach scene transforms into a flower field, as a lonely girl in a blue cape walks across. She holds a golden feather in her hand, which floats up into the sky. Then, a brown-haired young man in a black jacket grips his gunblade by the hilt. Enter Squall Leonhart, a lone wolf at a military school known as ''Garden''. He goes through life routinely, ignoring almost everyone and having numerous struggles with his rival Seifer Almassy. A trip to the city of Timber to defeat the evil empire of Galbadia, however, turns Squall's boring life into an adventure with twists and turns at every corner, with Rinoa Heartilly there every step of the way.

Seifer, another gunblade master, is the 32-bit version of Final Fantasy IV's Kain: spiteful and arrogant, but confused about his goals. He listens to no one until he meets a strange individual who I won't mention because it would spoil a major part of the game. His hatred of Squall is immediately apparent, but he holds a strange secret he constantly hides.

Rinoa, the female lead of the story, is originally plotting a scheme to Galbadia's demise until she meets Squall. After that, she desperately tries to break him out of his shell of seclusion and into the real world, while constantly trying to find out who the ''real'' Squall is. Although she seems like the ''Mary Sue'' of the game, she later shows that her personality is far deeper than almost any previous RPG character.

This is Final Fantasy VIII. Buckle your seatbelts, and prepare for one hell of a ride!

As video game historians would know, the Final Fantasy series has essentially made RPGs what they are today. Games like Final Fantasy IV, VI, and VII are heralded as the greatest games ever made by many, although there area always some who disagree. Square decided to make Final Fantasy VIII bigger and better than all the ones before it, but what they found was startling anger. Such arguments as ''It's not FF7'' and ''Squall is a loser'' were the most common among gamers. But cast your fears aside! This is truly one of the greatest Final Fantasy games ever made.

One of the reasons the Final Fantasy series is so well-known is because of its epic storylines. While some RPGs have dull characters and a generic storyline, Final Fantasy games almost never fail to impress. The amount of cutscenes, dialogue and characters in each game make the plot all the more memorable. This is also true in VIII, where the relationship between Squall, Seifer and Rinoa is one that was rarely seen in RPGs before. But Square wasn't content to have a simple love story, because it goes far deeper than that. Occasionally, Squall will pass out and awaken to find himself in the body of Laguna, a mysterious man formerly of the Galbadian army. Who is Laguna, and why does the party have dreams about his life when none of them have ever met him before? Square created dialogue, animation and character designs that really shape the way characters feel. It’s very easy to relate to Squall’s internal struggles or Laguna’s shy personality. No longer do characters feel like generic characters, but they really feel like people with their own hobbies and personalities.

Unfortunately, the supporting characters in the game seem a little weak. Besides Squall, Seifer (for a short time) and Rinoa, your party will also include Squall’s teacher Quistis, the childlike Selphie, the boisterous Zell, and Irvine the ladies’ man. Their personalities are a bit intriguing for a while and add some character to the game, but you'll quickly get tired of Selphie's sickening optimism or Zell's ''sk8t3r b0i'' attitude. Luckily, you won't hear too much of them later on in the game, and it doesn't really detract from the amazing story too much.

One reason the characters seem more realistic is because of the game's graphics. Square decided to make the right decision and ditch the super-deformed, blocky sprites of yesteryear and create more realistic character models. No longer to you have to see someone with hooves or an obvious lack of facial features! Best of all, the graphics are consistent, unlike Final Fantasy VII. In that game, while the characters in the field looked like Lego people, the battle graphics were much more realistic. In FFVIII, the field graphics match the battle graphics, which match the FMV graphics. It's like Chrono Trigger, but even better.

Better, yet, there’s an astonishing level of detail and animation. Squall’s scar is obvious immediately, and so are the designs on his gunblade. In battle, characters don’t simply move, they really fight. Zell’s quick punches cripple monsters, and foes cower in fear as the summoned Ifrit launches a fireball at the ground. And the FMVs are even better: the opening scene actually sums up FFVIII in a few minutes, and does so spectacularly. In addition, the ending FMV is probably the best I’ve ever seen.

And like every Final Fantasy game, FFVIII has a soundtrack that brings everything else to shame. Nobou Umeatsu (the composer of almost all the Final Fantasy tunes) has practically outdone himself with this soundtrack, although it's not as good as FFVII's. Songs like ''Liberi Fatali'' and ''The Extreme'' not only fit very well, their tune creates a dramatic mood for the situation. A pop song called ''Eyes on Me'' was included, and to my surprise, it didn't suck! While some of the tunes, such as the battle and boss battle themes, don't sound all that great, they still have some very catchy tunes. Sound effects have been updated as well, from the footsteps of someone walking across the sidewalk to the explosion that occurs when Squall gets a critical hit. No, there's no voice acting, but it was probably for the better. (See Kingdom Hearts for details.)

All of this would be useless without awesome gameplay, and FFVIII delivers. Battles are in a typical turn-based fare, but they have a not-so-typical magic system. Unlike most RPGs, FFVIII incorporates a ''draw'' system that treats your magic spells more like items. In order to obtain a particular magic spell, you must first draw it from an enemy or draw point. For example, if Quistis wants to cast the Cure spell, she must draw it from a particular enemy, and she will receive anywhere from one to eleven Cure spells. That means she can cast Cure one to eleven times, providing she doesn't already have more Cure spells stocked. It's a pretty cool idea that prevents a player from being too liberal of magic, but it is very tedious to draw a certain amount of spells just so you have enough for that boss battle. Good thing you can also refine magic from special items.

That's not all! Instead of simply leveling up to raise stats (that's actually a bad idea, as enemies level up with you), you can ''junction'' them. Once you learn certain abilities, you have the option of equipping spells, which raises a certain stat depending on how many of that spell you have and what type of spell it is. For example, the Protect spell, which reduces damage from Physical attacks, raises your defense stat higher than, say, Thunder. Later in the game you can also junction spells to certain status or elemental attributes. For example, if you junction 33 Stops to your Status-Attack stat you have a 33% chance of causing Stop when attacking. If you junction a certain amount of Holy spells to your Elemental Defense stat, you take that much less damage from Holy-element attacks.

You can't do any of this without GFs, though. What's a GF? Short for Guardian Force, it's a summon monster in the world of FFVIII. Instead of being simply an overblown magic spell, the GFs in the game are actually necessary to complete the game. Without one, the only things you can do are attack and (if you're lucky) use a limit break. So, how do these monsters work? First you have to junction them to a character, and then they will automatically enable that character to use any abilities they've learned. For example, a GF with the Initiative ability allows the player to always have the first attack in battle, and a GF with the Doom ability lets that character set a death sentence on his or her foe. In order to learn an ability, a GF must obtain AP after each battle, much like many other modern RPGs. Finally, GFs can be summoned in battle, and their HP takes place of the summoner's HP before the summoning actually happens. Although summoning a GF is an easy way to win early on, during the later segments physical attacks become more powerful and you are actually penalized for over-summoning.

Limit breaks are back in FFVIII, and they've come with a vengeance. Whenever a character has very low HP or is in the ''Aura'' status (more on that later), they can perform a limit break. This time around, the limit skills are a lot more action-orientated. For example, Squall's Renzenokuken is activated by pressing R1 at the right time, and Zell's Duel uses combos much like Sabin's Blitz from FFVI. You can even do a damaging finishing blow by using a complex combo of face buttons and directions. The main problem with limit breaks is not that they take some time to master, but that it's hard to actually meet the conditions. If you want to have a character with low HP, he or she is in danger of being KO'ed. Fortunately, there is a spell called Aura that greatly increases the chances of using a limit break. However, this spell is rare and can be offset by bringing a character into ''Curse''.

There are a few problems with the Junction and Draw systems, however. For one thing, casting magic becomes rather pointless later in the game. Why bother casting Ultima when you spent so long trying to junction it to your Attack stat? If you cast it, your Attack stat will decrease. Although one of Rinoa's limit breaks enables her to cast magic for free, she will only cast offensive magic at random. Another problem is that the system is easy to abuse. If you junction Drain to Status Attack, you actually heal HP every time you attack! And if you junction Esuna to your Status Defense, you can be invulnerable to any harmful status effect. The Meltdown spell, which brings the enemy's vitality to 0, is easily drawn from more powerful monsters and can mean the difference between winning and, well, completely kicking a boss' ass.

But this doesn't stop FFVIII from being awesome. Even with such a system, enemies are still difficult because they level up with you. Bosses can be difficult and even downright cheap at times, but not too much to discourage you from playing. The battles are always fast an exciting, and there are plenty of places to explore. There's a minigame called ''Triple Triad'', which is a mix between Yu-gi-oh and Dominoes and one of the most addictive minigames ever found in RPGs. (Unless you end up stuck with the ''Random'' rule, which chooses your cards for you..) And, of course, there's lots of places to explore (they had to have something besides FMVs to fill in four discs, didn't they?!) and people to talk to.

You'll also find that FFVIII lasts a long time. Actually, it lasts well over fifty hours, if you include some of the sidequests and such. The story is so expansive that you'll want to keep playing, and you constantly look for that last GF to add to your party. It should be said that, like most RPGs, FFVIII requires dedication to complete. But it's worth it: the ending is one of the best I've ever seen.

All in all, FFVIII is a great installment in the series, and it should be. While it does have some important gameplay issues, its story and value outweigh that by a long shot. Even so, it is fun enough to keep you entertained even if you don't care about storylines. Pick up this timeless adventure: you won't regret it.

eoib's avatar
Community review by eoib (August 27, 2004)

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