Abbreviated boilerplate! Once again I return to this ongoing series, in which I attempt to play through every game in the Final Fantasy franchise that I can get my hands on, from FF1 through Lightning Returns, and a variety of the spinoffs and other titles not included in the ‘main series’. This list continues to undergo revision, and I seriously considered removing Final Fantasy 9 from it for personal reasons. In addition, no MMO titles will be played. Sorry, folks?
I think all of this is extremely important knowledge, and that the human race will be improved by my research. Let’s move on!
Why not start with some music?
Version Played: Steam-client PC port, with largely unnoticed upscaled resolutions!
Final Fantasy VIII, notable for its awesome FMVs and its mixed reviews, received a lot of hype. A lot of hype. Coming off of the cultural sensation that was Final Fantasy VII, how could it not? Unfortunately, the truth is, Final Fantasy VIII was disappointing for a lot of people. More than enough people for it to be considered a disappointment overall. Even I, who have always loved FF8, have no choice but to admit its faults. We’ll get to those in a minute.
To my mind, that FF8 fell victim to its own hype machine is a shame. Because as a kid, there were very few games that I enjoyed as much or as completely as I enjoyed Final Fantasy VIII. And this is going to lead to my most controversial opinion about this game (well, maybe not, we’ll see). But it’s also an opinion that needs to just get out there. Let’s talk about it. Leave some feedback in the comments. Let’s talk about the protagonist, Squall Leonheart.
Ultimately, Squall isn’t that likable. I recognize that now. But I’ve always identified with him on some level. It’s important to remember that the characters in this game are all intended to be teenagers. Teenagers with teenager problems. Squall is misunderstood in his own mind. In everyone else’s, he can’t communicate, so they can’t get to know him, so they misunderstand him. In a lot of ways, he’s a very realistic character. He’s devoted himself to his studies, but he’s awkward around everyone, because he never considered that he might need social or leadership skills, because his childhood taught him not to rely on other people for anything. His arc, over the course of the game, is coming to terms with the fact that people aren’t islands. Everyone needs help sometimes, and together, we can be greater than the sum of our parts. I believe his arc, so I like Squall.
Oh, and there’s a love story with Rinoa.
This is the first Final Fantasy game which has a focus upon a love story of any kind. We’ve seen the theme of love before; Cecil and Rosa create a love triangle of despair with Kain in Final Fantasy IV. Locke sees the love of his life come again in Celes in Final Fantasy VI. Cloud was totally oblivious to the various beautiful women hitting on him in Final Fantasy VII. It’s not until Final Fantasy VIII where we actually explore a love story as a central idea in the plot. Squall and Rinoa meet early in the game, get off to a great start, then fall apart when they get to know each other a little. Only to come all the way back around once they get to know each other a lot. The sequence I personally associate most with their relationship is best captured on video. It can (and probably should!) be argued that this is not only not the most important sequence, but doesn’t even make the top five. Among other highlights, Squall carries a comatose Rinoa on his back across like, literally, half the world, along some train tracks in a probably-futile effort to save her. Later, he attacks head-on a garrison of the most technologically sophisticated troops in the world with uhh… with his steel balls, mostly. Oh, and probably the 255 STR you’ll have Junctioned by then, as it’s very nearly the last bit of the game.
The rest of the characters are kind of incidental to this process. Quistis doesn’t become jilted when she realizes that Squall’s just not that into her. Zell, Selphie, and Irvine don’t grow up. None of them gets an especially deep treatment. Quistis and Zell get to have a little more fun since they’re around early in the game, but there’s just not much for us to know about most of these characters. They’re mercenaries. They’re time-travelers. They’re hyper-realistic.
The hyper-realistic style of FFVIII was another significant departure for the game when it first launched. Obviously, the later technology of the PS2, and the XBox 360 rendered this distinction irrelevant, but it was a big deal at the time, and the relatively lukewarm reception that the realistic character models got informed the design choices in FF9, which ultimately became all about going back to the ‘roots’ of the series. Squall and his friends have realistic proportions, and while on my HD monitor they looked pixelated and kinda crappy… they looked that way on the PSX too. The technology didn’t really exist to bring them to life. While some sequences show off the realistic motion of the characters (Quistis and Rinoa both speak in a lot of subtle gestures), the motions of Squall and Zell – particularly Zell – are often hugely exaggerated, and not really at home with the character models themselves. Luckily, the monsters and Guardian Forces don’t suffer from this same issue – they’re as grand as ever.
I probably mentioned a couple times about the time-travel. I assume at this point everyone has played FF8, but a reminder is always helpful, yes? The basic plot of Final Fantasy VIII is this: In the world, there exists a succession of powerful, female, spellcasters. They are called, creatively enough, Sorceresses. This condition is not genetic, but it is inherited, with the Sorceress either voluntarily relinquishing her powers to another, or when that Sorceress is very near death, they pass on by default. Of the four Sorceresses we meet in Final Fantasy VIII, one is a power-hungry madwoman, one is a time-traveling psychopath, and the other two are possessed by a time-traveling psychopath. Fortunately, since this is a world that knows Sorceresses could go crazy at any time, a man named Cid Kramer established a military academy at Balamb. Balamb Garden, as it is called, trains SeeD, an elite force. To finance Balamb Garden, SeeD undertakes military operations all over the world. SeeD’s true purpose, however, are to be warriors ready to contend with these Sorceresses. That much all seems pretty grounded. Now let’s take a magic carpet ride. All of the party members but Rinoa – but including major Plot MacGuffin Ellone – were raised together in an orphanage. Only none of them remember that because the Guardian Forces (the game’s summons, and the beating heart of the Junction system) steal memories in order to function. The sacrifice for becoming powerful soldiers is a loss of memories, starting with early childhood. Only Irvine actually does remember, he just doesn’t tell anyone, until everyone figures it out. Huh.
Ellone, meanwhile, has the very special power to send people’s consciousnesses back in time. She uses this ability on Squall and his friends repeatedly, sending them back into the bodies of deuteragonist Laguna Loire and his friends Kiros and Ward, who had their own misadventures 20 years earlier. Because time travel, Laguna and his friends survived many battles with the super-powerful SeeDs from the future dumping rocket fuel into their minds. Ellone just wanted to change the past for her own selfish – if understandable – reasons. She failed. But her powers are also very much desired by the time-traveling psychopath Sorceress from the future – Ultimecia – who is trying to cast a spell from three different time periods called Time Compression that does… eh, let’s actually not worry about what it does. We don’t know what it does. “Time Compression” doesn’t sound good for us though. In fact, it’s only good for Ultimecia. That’s all we know. So in order to stop that, we hatch an elaborate plan to let it happen, only, before it finishes, Squall and the gang will go rough Ultimecia up. She has a spooky castle, it has a superboss in it, and Ultimecia herself has got roughly five forms. And some great battle music. She’s also actually pretty hard if you cut a lot of corners on the way to her, and get unlucky during the battle.
So that’s the story of FF8. Only, what may or may not be interesting is that the game isn’t really about most of that stuff at all. It would be disingenuous to say that Laguna Loire’s story doesn’t matter, because you spend a fair amount of time playing as him… but the rest? That’s just stuff that’s going on while Squall tries to grow as a person, he and Rinoa fall in love, and he eventually does a series of very brave and very stupid things in order to rescue her. Then, in the end, she saves him when he’s lost in the vagaries of time travel. Time travel!
Final Fantasy VIII’s take on the battle system is also controversial. What can I say? It’s a controversial game. The Junction system works like this: You have an “inventory” of Magic, up to 100 copies of each spell, rather than using MP or spells per day or whatever else. In general, these spells never get cast, because they are “Junctioned” to your stats, like strength and defense, or your defenses. 100 Firagas to your elemental defense, for example, will put you at about 25% “absorb” on all incoming fire damage. The better the magic, the stronger the effect. Ultima junctions well to just about everything, and if you’re patient enough to accumulate 100 of them, it will raise any stat as high as it can go. So, it’s very customizable, you can basically do whatever with the characters you like best. As with FF7, the specific differences between characters are primarily in Limit Break techniques, although in FF8, Squall’s is so powerful it’s virtually required to defeat the superboss Omega Weapon. So if you’re not familiar with the game, the question you should be asking right now is “how do you get this magic?” Well, the game has a sophisticated system for refining items into spells, said items both being won from battle and from playing the (incredibly addictive) card mini-game, Triple Triad. Oh, how do you get magic before you have the right item? Or if you can’t find the right item? Well… unfortunately… you ‘draw’ it from enemies. As a command in battle. Very slowly.
Yep. This is why people hate the Junction system. The first few hours of FF8 – assuming you already know where the right monsters are to draw from – are spent largely of sucking enemies dry of their magic to power yourself up. This process is occasionally helpful through the rest of the game, as if you know where to look, you can get early access to very powerful spells. Bosses often have good spells as well, and there are also several Guardian Forces you must ‘draw’ from bosses throughout the game. Unfortunately, unless your – I think? – Magic stat is pretty good… you’ll draw spells at a rate of 0-5 with each use of the command. You really need 100 of your spells, as the quantity affects the power of the Junction. So drawing sucks. This is where one feature of the Steam version is quite handy; the magic booster! With this turned on, all your party members receive 100 of a bunch of core spells. None of the best stuff, mind you, but some solid spells so that there is NO time lost drawing early in the game. Since the later drawing is entirely optional – everything can be obtained from items, often more easily – the Junction system’s worst feature can just be switched off. All other versions will have to go through the grind.
But FF8 isn’t about the Junction system. Junction is just something you have to deal with. And if you can get past it, you might appreciate the game a little. It’s by no means a bad entry in the series. Its plot is full of holes. Most of its characters are pretty shallow. But there’s some really good stuff at the core of FF8, and it certainly has its place in the development of the franchise as well. I think it deserves a little bit of our love.
And now I shall leave you with another one of FF8′s beautiful cutscenes. Good day.