The Final Fantasy series has made something of a name for itself in the business of innovation. Each new numbered entry features a new world, characters and systems that differ from the last title in the main-line series. Final Fantasy VII played things a little safe when the series made the leap to three dimensions and FFVIII sought to strike out in a new direction.
Final Fantasy VIII had a lot to live up to being the first main-line Final Fantasy title released after FFVII took the world by storm. Final Fantasy Tactics had filled the development time admirably but what everybody really wanted was FFVIII to arrive. What nobody expected was such a massive overhaul of the game systems. Junctioning is perhaps the series’ most ambitious and dynamic system to date, linking in to every single aspect of the gameplay, however its reception along with other less successful systems implemented led to a divided fan base at launch. Some praised its depth and complexity, whilst others thought that prioritising it over levelling was madness. Hindsight is a powerful tool where FFVIII is concerned and although it rarely makes the favourites list it’s certainly a better experience than its reputation at launch would suggest.
Graphically the game hasn’t aged as well as the titles either side of it, this is primarily due to the fact that the design of characters pushes for physically accurate and detailed character models rendered in 3D Though not a failure in this regard the original Playstation wasn’t capable of rendering aspects of the characters to the degree required to maintain a polished look later. Hair and some clothing look pixelated and hands seem tiny when there are biologically accurate. The background art they are rendered onto is of a similarly high if not better quality to the previous title however and visual effects are more impressive. The whole game has a more ‘directed’ feel, with clever in-game camera angles and even CGI cutscenes playing in conjunction to active game elements in order to give the player the feel that they are in a cinematic experience. Summoning ‘Guardian Spirits’ treats the player to a few classy animations as well, with perhaps the best rendition of Shiva to appear in the series to date. If anything the developers pushed the hardware too far with FFVIII in an attempt to top FFVII and some of the cracks have started to show, especially played on more modern devices.
There’s only really one track that comes immediately to mind when people talk about Final Fantasy VIII, although others such as ‘Maybe I’m a Lion’ and ‘Balamb Garden’ are distinctly memorable. This would be a piece called ‘Liberi Fatali’ that plays over the opening cinematic and utilises a full choir of singers to ramp up tension and create a sense of epic tone for what is to come. Overall it’s a great soundtrack, though not as memorable as FFVI or FFVII’s. Sound effects are actually much better than previous efforts however and very visceral. One later track uses vocals in a distinctly anime-inspired sequence for particular emotional resonance than can fall flat if the player isn’t in the right mind-set when they encounter the scene.
The story of Final Fantasy VIII follows Squall Leonheart and his classmates, a team of specially trained young soldiers called Seed who train together along with many other teams at a place called Balamb Garden. Working as mercenaries they are sent out on a variety of missions, usually for the local government that has strained relations with its neighbouring political power, headed by a powerful sorceress called Edea. Squall is something of a rebel and a loner and although that hardly changes through the story he does soften with the introduction and building of a relationship with Rinoa, leader of a rebel faction working against Edea. Spikey at first the pairing slowly develops into a traditional love story and although some characters are one-note others are intriguing enough to carry the tale (even after a somewhat hackneyed last minute plot twist). Supporting characters such as Quistis do a great job of feeling emotionally rounded and play to the strengths of the genre, and Squall’s rival Seifer is a satisfying mixture of raw potential and arse. Where the story is at its strongest is in the opening mission based structure of the Seed missions and the slow build toward an attack on Edea herself. Unfortunately the game also shoe-horns in a secondary plot thread of interactive flashbacks starring a secondary cast of characters led by a man named Laguna, which aside from one obvious twist does nothing to flesh out or add to events overall. From a narrative sense the story is a little bit of a mess by the final disc of this games mighty four cd long romp, but its enjoyable throughout with some excellent set pieces. Unfortunately Squall never becomes particularly likable at any point, leaving the player’s primary character something of an angsty idiot, especially when the people around him are going to great lengths to show him that they care throughout the story.
Gameplay is perhaps the most interesting and original system a Final Fantasy game has ever attempted and plays very closely to the concept of a Pen and Paper RPG at times. Revolving around the concept of ‘Junctioning’, it basically allows for stats to be boosted through the acquisition and equipping of spells through the use of a summonable Guardian Force. What this means is that whilst the game features all the standard exploration and puzzle solving/talking to NPCs of a regular JRPG, you’re given a strong focus onto battle and actively encouraged to take your time in them. This is because you can use a command called ‘Draw’ to steal magic spells from enemies which stack like items up to a total of 99 each. Equipping spells to stats boosts their potency based on what they do in correlation to that stat, so putting a pile of Cure spells onto Health adds bonus points to your health total that Fira spells wouldn’t add. GFs also level up through experience of their own to unlock new skills and abilities that the player can equip to the character using that GF, and the pair develop a bond over time to hasten summoning time in battle (FF8 still uses an ATB system). What this means is that acquiring a Guardian Force through a quest of story element and keeping it Junctioned to the same character from the start is a powerful incentive. Levels in the game mean very little as a side effect of this however, with stats being boosted significantly through the Junction system, and with enemies on the map scaling in difficulty to meet your level it’s easy to break the game by keeping to a low level and maximising your Junctioning. As systems go this is a unique one and it works remarkably well, offering a lot of depth. The game throws monsters at you that harbour interesting abilities and you can even draw/cast simultaneously from an enemy to immediately cast a spell you don’t possess. Some points around the map also feature static ‘Draw Points’ that can be harvested for free spells. Junctioning also allows access to some basic item synthesis skills that opens up the system a little more. Aside from Junctioning the game can feel a little streamlined, weapons are upgraded into the next powerful model in line through item acquisition and visits to shops instead of brought and tested for example. Currency in the game is dolled out at regular intervals in amounts according to your Seed rank, which is a pain to maintain and actively makes exploration harder in some cases because it deems you as ‘off mission’. Limit Breaks return in a similar form to the Desperation Attacks last seen in FF6 and although interesting and unique between characters they aren’t as useful in battle as they were in FF7. One cosmetic difference that the series has never repeated is that the full party is visible on screen at all times, possibly a reaction to the western world’s confusion at seeing a whole team run into the lead character at points as is the genre staple.
Overall Final Fantasy VIII is something of a flawed masterpiece. The story itself isn’t anything particularly special and although it provides memorable moments it doesn’t build up to a good story or even a cohesive whole. Some of the characters however are fantastic and the games systems were ahead of their time in terms of depth and innovation. Had junctioning been a feature of the more streamlined Final Fantasy XIII for example the game would have felt more rounded and fully functional. Ultimately it had the hard act of following what many consider to be the series masterpiece and a whole lot of hype from fans new to the series and not aware of the (at the time) policy at Squaresoft to work on a different world and story with each new game. Re-released for PC at the time as well as PSOne it did very well for itself in sales, and on the Playstation Network it works very well as a PSP or Vita handheld title today.