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Final Fantasy VIII (PlayStation) artwork

Final Fantasy VIII (PlayStation) review

"Final Fantasy VIII is a gorgeous work of art. It has a damn good story, too. But, to my chagrin, I have to say that Final Fantasy VIII is a pretty shoddy game — one that betrayed the magnificence of the previous two games in the series and, in my eyes, brought Square’s monolithic series plummeting from its perch on top of the role-playing world. "

Final Fantasy VIII is a gorgeous work of art. It has a damn good story, too. But, to my chagrin, I have to say that Final Fantasy VIII is a pretty shoddy game — one that betrayed the magnificence of the previous two games in the series and, in my eyes, brought Square’s monolithic series plummeting from its perch on top of the role-playing world.

Welcome to “What Went Wrong?”, a new investigative series from the folks who brought you “When Good Games Go Bad!”

Admit it, you got suckered in by the beginning, didn’t you? After a phenomenal cinema scene to open the game, you kick things off in the shoes of reluctant hero Squall, as he mopes around Balamb Garden, where he’s situated as a member of SeeD (elite “good-guy” forces). Gorgeously decorated, your home base is light years beyond the dingy, industrial Midgar of FFVII, creating an illusion that this game is light-years beyond that classic in play value.

For me, those illusions were dispelled the minute I was sent outside the Garden on Squall’s first training mission — to tame the beast Ifrit in a nearby cavern. After leaving the Garden, odds are it won’t take long for you and your instructor, Quistis, to get in a tussle with the local wildlife. When you start fighting, you’re introduced to the “Draw” system. When you realize this system isn’t merely a little joke installed by the programmers to goof on you a bit in the prologue, the honeymoon is over.

You see, Squall doesn’t have any inherent magical abilities. Neither does Quistis. Future party members, Zell, Rinoa, Selphie and Irvine are equally impotent with spells; as are any of the minor characters you control for brief spells. But, they can use the “Draw” command to filch ‘em away from unsuspecting enemies on the battlefield. Let’s say you’re fighting some random critter and notice he has “Fire”. By using “Draw”, you can snag a few uses of this spell. The more times you use the command throughout your adventuring, the more spells you can get.

Think about how ludicrous that sounds. You’re trying to kill these monsters. They’re trying to kill you. These are randomly generated battles and you’ll be in one hell of a lot of ‘em. Exactly what is the logic behind forcing players to artificially extend many of these fights?

Lackey: Uh....Mr. Squall, sir? General Death’s gonna unleash the warheads in 15 seconds. If you don’t stop him, the world’s gonna blow up!!!
Squall: Just a minute, fool! I just need to draw out a couple of Ice spells from the General’s subordinate and I’ll have the full 99! I don’t have time to bother with saving the world!

The sad thing is, you’ll want to draw out as many of these spells as humanly possible. By junctioning these spells to themselves, Squall and company can gain resistance to various sorts of attacks and improve themselves in a number of other ways. And the more of each spell you’ve grabbed, the more you’ll notice the effects of junctioning them. A healthy handful of the right spell junctioned to your hit points, for example, could easily double the amount of damage Squall can take.

So, essentially, Final Fantasy VIII based their combat system around an annoying concept — and then made it impossible to truly evolve your characters into mighty powerhouses of destructive glory without utilizing “Draw” until you’ve been sapped of every last ounce of desire to go on with your quest. Sure, there are several draw points scattered through the land where you can get magic without fighting, but as you’ll eventually find, most of the best spells are located in invisible spots on islands boasting only the toughest of monster encounters. So, if you want Ultima or other godly spells, you’ll have to stumble around on these islands hoping to find the right invisible draw spot before a Malboro or Chimera decides it’s time to initiate “Operation: Trespasser Eradication” once and for all. Great fun, that....

What happens when Square forgets that “variety is the spice of life”?

Then again, maybe all the work Square expects you to put into junctioning magic to your characters is a good thing — because there sure isn’t much you can do with their equipment. Each character only gets a tiny collection of weapons and obtaining most of them involves you painstaking gathering the proper ingredients to craft them.

Most monsters tend to drop these “parts” (as well as components for many other items), giving you another reason to fight countless battles. While it’s child’s play to gather the items needed to make each character’s first couple of weapons, you really have to work to make their best stuff. Usually each ultimate weapon has at least component only available as a rare drop (or steal) from a high-level monster.

And the only way to fight high-level monsters is to be at a comparable level. Unlike other Final Fantasy games, this one only has about 100 or so baddies, but they evolve as you do. A monster that was a pushover early in the game, may suddenly develop brutal counterattacks and prove capable of slaughtering your whole party without breaking a sweat when you encounter it by, say, the third of Final Fantasy VIII’s four discs. I won’t deny that’s a pretty neat concept, but after playing the SNES games in this series, I was a bit disappointed with only having a half-dozen or so different foes in most dungeons WITH many of them being recycled from previous catacombs.

The moral: With video games, just because something looks and smells like a rose doesn’t mean it is....

All those gripes do get obscured somewhat by the sheer number of things that Square did right with Final Fantasy VIII. Players get to partake in an enjoyable and addictive card game that proved a great way to pass the time away on those days I had no desire to engage in the ol’ “draw-n-bop, bop-n-draw” chore. You also have hordes of little sidequests to partake in, many of which can result in your party getting some of the game’s more powerful summons.

With the exception of one small flaw, if there was one thing Square nearly did perfectly in Final Fantasy VIII, it revolved around these summons (called Guardian Forces in this game). Not only are these majestic beasts gorgeous to gaze upon and deadly to foes, but also have many other uses. Each summon has a number of unlockable skills ranging from the ability to junction magic to certain stats to transforming items into some of those elusive weapon components. The more you use each Guardian Force, the more of a bond it gains with its controller, reducing the amount of time it takes to show up and unleash its deadly onslaught after you’ve called upon it.

That deadly onslaught takes a while to be unleashed, though. Each Guardian Force has a lengthy entrance followed by a time-consuming attack sequence. While most GFs come with a button-tapping game you can play to boost their attack power during this cinema, after a few uses of each one, odds are you’ll be wishing that you had the option to turn off the animations.

Still, the GF system is pretty innovative — and the summons look beautiful. Of course, if you’ve played any of Final Fantasy VIII, you’ve probably already realized that the entire game is beautiful. The comically blocky characters of Final Fantasy VII are gone and replaced by people that actually bear a strong resemblance to members of the human race. The pre-rendered backgrounds are nothing short of breathtaking AND even they pale in comparison to the frequent cinematic scenes that advance the story.

Speaking of the story, that’s another thing Final Fantasy VIII got right. Yeah, Squall tends to be an angst-ridden twit for much of the game (think of a less-manly Cloud), but his character flaws don’t detract from an excellent plot. After Squall overcomes the antagonism of rival Seifer to become a full-fledged member of SeeD, he’s given a mission to help the lovely lass Rinoa — an event that changes his life. As Squall slowly develops feelings for Rinoa, the forces opposing the young heroes become more and more imposing (yes, you do go up against powers more devastating that Seifer’s snide taunts....). Maybe this sounds pretty run-of-the-mill and unexciting, but trust me — in Final Fantasy VIII it all works to perfection, even if three of your six characters (Zell, Selphie and Irvine) tend to be of the thinly-developed, comic-relief variety for much of the game.

But what does all of this tell us? On an aesthetic level, Final Fantasy VIII could be called one of the top titles on the PlayStation, but as far as the actual gameplay goes, I found it quite lacking. After I finally forced myself through the final, massive dungeon, I’d discovered the final, sad truth about this game. I realized that Final Fantasy VIII is a game that I’d have no trouble watching someone else play for hours. I’d relish watching each Guardian Force and cinema scene, while delighting in observing the story gradually unfold. I just don’t ever want to be the guy playing the game again.

overdrive's avatar
Community review by overdrive (June 07, 2005)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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