Andrew Vestal, the writer responsible for videogames.com's History of Final Fantasy and The History of Console RPGs, features got his hands on an import copy of the recently released Final Fantasy VIII. Here are his first impressions.
So far, Final Fantasy VIII, The Game, appears to be holding its own against Final Fantasy VIII, the Hype Machine. Everything about the title that we've seen so far has been excellent. Graphically, the game is stunning: The backgrounds, characters, spell effects, and FMV are a step above Final Fantasy VII's. The character design is uniformly excellent and attractive, and the story seems enjoyably convoluted. Interestingly, two storylines are occurring simultaneously. The main story concerns Squall, Rinoa, Zell, and their classmates in the world of Garden and SeeD. The other story, however, is about Laguna and his two friends, Kiros and Ward. What this trio's place in the overall storyline is has yet to be revealed.
The polygons, light sourcing, and so on are great, to be sure, but what really stands out is the animation and motion capture. Both the FMV and in-game models exhibit fantastic animation. When a character is restored to life by magic, they don't just stand up; they stagger to their feet in a dazed stupor - reincarnation isn't easy. Characters have dozens of animations with which they express and pantomime emotion. And the pivotal dance sequence of the first disc must be seen to be believed.
The decision to eschew superdeformed anime characters appears to have been a wise one. The integration of the characters, their environments, and the FMV is tighter and more fluid than ever before. Final Fantasy VIII's strongest design point would have to be the consistency of design between the various mediums. You rarely feel "pulled out" of the action by a video sequence - it's usually seamlessly tied in with the player's actions. The more realistic graphical approach also suits Square's more mature storylines.
Aurally, the title is ranging from average to good. Some songs sing with the inspired touch of Uematsu, while others seem derivative of songs from previous Final Fantasy titles. Instrument samples retain their sampled "SNES synth" flair, although not to the extent of Final Fantasy VII. Sound effects are satisfactory.
The Draw system and Junction system are both turning out to be quite enjoyable. In Final Fantasy VIII's world, all magic is "Drawn," either from enemies or from "Draw Points" scattered throughout the world. Magic is then stored as a quantifiable commodity; if you Draw out five "uses" of Cure from an opponent, for example, then you can cast Cure five times before you have to Draw out more "uses." Final Fantasy VIII fixes the major problem the Draw system had in the demo (included with Brave Fencer Musashi): not enough "uses" per Draw. Instead of one to three uses (as in the demo), characters now Draw (on average) five to eight uses per turn. This makes stocking up on basic spells such as Cure, Fire, Heal, etc. much less of a hassle. The Draw system makes powerful spells more valuable, as they can't be restored simply by staying overnight in an Inn; you'll have to seek out an opponent who carries the spell and Draw it out of him.
The Junction system lets a player "Junction," or join, a Guardian Force - FF VIII's summoned monsters - to a particular character. Junctioning has many benefits. First, until a character Junctions, the only menu command he has is "fight," making him fairly worthless. Second, each Guardian Force brings with it various skills, abilities, and innate effects - Junctioning a G.F. is like assigning a Job in Final Fantasy V or Tactics. Special points earned after battle apply towards developing new skills and attributes. Third, Junctioning a G.F. opens up various attributes to magic enhancement. All in all, there's a lot to customize, and it will probably be months before players have uncovered the most effective combinations.
The Card system is also fun; the rules of the card game itself are simple - the higher number always wins - but the variety of cards that can be played, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, make the possibilities manifold. Turning an enemy into a new card, too, is extremely addicting. I've gotta catch 'em all....
The title does have its share of major changes, however. There is no armor at all in the entire game; defense is an entirely innate characteristic. Each character has only one weapon, which is forged and upgraded throughout the game, as in Square's Secret of Mana. Gil is not procured from defeated enemies. Instead, Squall is periodically paid a wage dependent upon his "SeeD rank level." He's a salaryman! Each character level is separated by one thousand points, yet enemies always give you the same amount of experience - this is because Final Fantasy VIII's enemies go up in level along with your characters! Contrary to previous reports, the title does contain treasure boxes.
We're withholding final judgement until we're further through the game, but thus far, Final Fantasy VIII appears to be more than worthy to uphold its predecessors' pedigree.