"For all the effort Square put into making Final Fantasy VIII’s plot interesting, it failed to trigger the emotional fireworks within me for one simple reason: I didn’t care. "
For all the effort Square put into making Final Fantasy VIII’s plot interesting, it failed to trigger the emotional fireworks within me for one simple reason: I didn’t care.
FFVIII begs to be taken seriously as a love story, yet Squall Leonhart is the very definition of the depressed, emo-inspired protagonist that ran rampant throughout many an RPG during this era of Square’s existence. A really engaging plot needs a strong central character to back up the emotional support; if we’re playing as someone, we should probably feel somewhat attached to that person, right? And yet Squall is an arrogant, selfish jerk, the kind of guy who’s antisocial not because he’s unable to make friends but because he doesn’t want any friends. I had no interest in this man’s affairs; I had difficulty rooting for him during major boss fights, even though in reality it was my ass on the line. I wanted Squall to win so I could continue on with the game, yet a part of me sort of wanted to see this sorry bastard fail. Die and get out of my life, Squall! You’re certainly not making it any easier.
What better place is there for him to be antisocial than at school? Squall is training as part of a special military unit called SeeD, and if there’s a more unthreatening name for a soldier than that, I haven’t heard it. These SeeDs get trained at an enormous academy known as a “Garden,” which draws laughter because ha ha, SeeDs in a Garden, get it? The world is being threatened by the existence of an evil sorceress and Squall’s first order of business as a Garden graduate is to lead a group of SeeDs – begrudgingly, as Squall HATES PEOPLE – and take out this woman before she does evil things. But first! Squall must ensure the safety of the “princess” Rinoa. Her perky attitude is a stark contrast to Squall’s wrist-cutting emo mindset, and they’re totally made for each other.
It’s a love story, you see? And I find love stories endearing so long as they’re believable. But the connection between Squall and Rinoa is so weakly established that I didn’t buy it. Squall is such a boring, unlikeable guy that you’ve got to wonder what Rinoa sees in him, why she pursues him so tenaciously. C’mon, honey, ditch this guy and go for someone better! But obviously, Squall isn’t a jerk for no reason, and as time goes on we start to learn about his past, about how he was hurt as a kid, about how he doesn’t want to grow attached to anyone anymore, and boo-hoo, we feel so sorry for him. You know, acknowledging that your protagonist is an asshole doesn’t make the problem go away. In fact, that only makes it worse.
Meanwhile, nothing really happens. I note that the game’s plot – kill the sorceress! – is straightforward enough from a glance. But that conflict is resolved sooner than you may think, and after that the writers just sort of ran out of ideas. The game’s last two discs are hilarious in this sense, as you’ll witness the most random events and occurrences being thrown at the wall in an attempt to make the game as long as possible. But it’s okay, because we’ve got this enchanting love story to distract us in the meantime! We know Squall and Rinoa will end up in embrace because it’s in the freakin’ intro cinematic, yet they go back and forth for about three discs before anything actually erupts between the two of them. So we’re waiting for them to have their big moment, just waiting for them to get together, could happen anytime, let’s speed this up, any second now, let’s get a move on, haven’t got all day, still waiting… and, okay, there it is, great, that’s awesome, now let’s go home.
I say it again: A crap! I did not give one.
If the plot ever got interesting, then it happened far too late in the adventure, at which point I had become too bored with the game to really care. This is Final Fantasy, so of course it must be huge and long and epic, and by that I mean it took me over fifty hours to complete. Most good RPGs can’t last that long. When I think back to some of my favorite lengthy RPGs, the ones that kept me motivated to play for such a long stretch of time – I’m thinking Star Ocean: The Second Story, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Baten Kaitos, etc. – I realize that these games took off with promising ideas from the get-go, and as I went along I grew more and more accustomed to the intricacies that these titles provided. A good fifty-hour RPG is the kind that still feels too short, because the game keeps getting better and better as you play.
FFVIII is the opposite: It starts off dull, and the more you play, the more you realize how simplistic and hollow the whole thing is. FFVIII will intimidate you with big, cluttered menus, as well as something called “junctioning,” which looks deep at first but really just boils down to raising a character’s stats with magical spells. For all its needless complications – the instruction booklet spends about twelve pages on junctioning – well, let’s just say I didn’t think they could come up with a character-building system shallower than FFVII’s materia crap. Somehow they’ve managed to drain just a little more out of the kiddie pool.
The battle system is pretty rudimentary turn-based stuff, I suppose, but there are a few quirks. The biggest change Square made was eliminating the magic bar. Magical spells now come in quantities (like items), and the only way to obtain them is to “draw” them, either from enemies or from various draw points throughout the environments. Fine – but one thing that truly annoyed me about FFVIII’s battle system was that, in addition to your basic “attack” ability, you can only choose three options per character. And since the “magic” and “draw” commands are pretty much vital, that only leaves you one slot for anything else.
But it’s all for naught when you realize that just about any battle can be won in a matter of moments with a simple summoning. The junctioning system requires that each character merge with a GF (Guardian Force), which is essentially a mythical beast along the lines of Ifrit or Odin or whatever. You have the ability to summon your GF for an all-encompassing mega-attack to wipe out your opposition. Such “summon” spells are commonplace among RPGs, but they usually require so much magic energy that they’re used sparingly. But FFVIII doesn’t have a magic meter. So what’s the cost of summoning a GF? Well… it takes a few seconds to charge up. And you’ve gotta watch those long-ass unskippable animations over and over again.
Seriously now: What’s the point of doing ANYTHING else? Most random battles can be cleared in a single turn with a good GF summoning, and entire BOSSES can be taken down in only a few hits. GF summons delete the challenge, the strategy, and any potential intelligence or depth FFVIII had. There was one fight late in the game in which a boss monster was holding one of the main characters hostage. Using an “attack all” move would mean damaging that person, which meant summons were out. This was the only challenging fight in the game.
And I have to play through fifty hours of this? I got bored in one hour. Only forty-nine to go!
But alas, all this negativity is overwhelming. One thing I love about FFVIII is its production values. The game looks futuristic, but not quite… as if this world is too far advanced from our own, yet still somehow feels at home. Fisherman’s Horizon is the best example of this, as its beautiful landscape creates a memorable image that stuck in my head as one of my favorite game environments of the PSX era. It’s all complemented by Nobuo Uematsu’s wonderful musical score, which as always nails every scenario with the right style – some techno here, some Latin chanting there, whatever the situation calls for. And I hate doing generic graphics/sound paragraphs like this, but FFVIII’s technical prowess feels like the only area of the game that was handled by true experts of the RPG genre. The rest is the work of an amateur.
If you enjoyed this Final Fantasy VIII review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!