Some games, like The Sims or Call of Duty, imitate the here and now. We can relate to a virtual person cleaning the house, taking the dog for a walk, or even going off to war, because these are real-world situations people actually face, even if the ways these games present them aren't always realistic. Final Fantasy VIII, like most games in the series, isn't intended to be grounded in any sort of reality. The characters convey--and frequently vocalize--thoughts and emotions that are applicable to the real world, but the blurred line between you and the land of Gaia sharpens once a loud-mouthed cat riding a stuffed Moogle explains its plan to save the planet.
The fantastical nature of this legendary role-playing game series is one of its most appealing qualities, and being able to travel across a monster-riddled continent on the plush back of a Chocobo is a form of escapism I've put hundreds of unforgettable hours into. But it's still high fantasy, and simple to distinguish from the many real-life circumstances taking place just beyond the edges of the screen.
However, not all Final Fantasy games are created equal, and Final Fantasy VIII--which just saw a PC release on Steam--might be the best example of the series' multiplicity. Eye-popping visuals, more pragmatic characters, and an unorthodox draw mechanic that established a new approach to magic are just a few of the features that define this polarizing product. Not all changes were received with open arms; the deep junction system, which requires you to siphon and equip magic from enemies to increase specific stats, had Final Fantasy fans split on the game's system of progression. Fortunately, the Steam rerelease gives you the option of stocking up on magic directly from the launcher through the Magic Booster. The inventory for spells, such as fire, blizzard, and thunder, can be increased by 100 with the simple press of a button, eliminating the need to slow down combat by continually drawing during random encounters.
Mechanically, Final Fantasy VIII has always been considered distinctive, but what has kept this PlayStation game engraved in my mind is a narrative that successfully conveys real human emotion, a feat accomplished by just a select few games before 1999.
It seems inane to be so personally attached to a game featuring a protagonist barely willing to contribute more than a nonchalant "whatever" to every conversation. I get that. But what helps sell Squall Leonhart and the rest of his colorful crew is their physical and psychological realism. Yoshinori Kitase, the director of Final Fantasy VIII, set out to make this massive RPG a thematic combination of fantasy and reality. This was the first time in the series that the characters sported sensible proportions and, for the most part, looked like ordinary people. You likely wouldn't see a modern-day cowboy like Irvine Kinneas--the game's amiable gunman--strolling down the streets of LA, but the wacky, animalistic party members that so often appear in a common Final Fantasy party are notably absent in this entry.
The blurred line between you and the land of Gaia sharpens once a loud-mouthed cat riding a stuffed Moogle explains its plan to save the planet.
The dedication to a more grounded experience didn't stop at the characters. The locations were designed to resemble pieces of real-world geography, trains and cars replaced the franchise's massive airships, and motion-capture technology was implemented in an attempt to achieve lifelike movements for the entire cast. The short, blocky heroes of past Final Fantasy games just wouldn't fit in this particular representation of Gaia, contributing to the overall effect of the most thematically divergent game in the long-running series.
At a glance, it's easy to see that Final Fantasy VIII attempts to add a spoonful of concentrated verism to a world full of sharp-toothed monsters and maleficent sorceresses. But it's not just this thematic shift that cements the game as one of the most interesting and personally relatable Japanese role-playing games on the market. Surprisingly, it's the introverted protagonist, Squall Leonhart, who gives the narrative its emotional backbone.
Squall is aloof, cold, and unable to successfully communicate with his peers. He's a member of SeeD, a mercenary force designed to provide military support to civilians, and these personality traits create a lack of cohesion between Squall and his fellow hirelings. He's unfit and unwilling to lead, but his proficiency as a tactician and fluency with a blade make him too skilled not to take charge. The other students trust his decisions and respect his abilities, pushing him into an uncomfortable leadership role. Squall is a lone wolf forced to lead a pack, and he rarely holds back from expressing his desire to do everything on his own. Even during the most complex of missions, he pushes his allies away and appears too cold to even hold a conversation.
Yet Squall doesn't act this way without good reason. As an orphan with few memories of his past, he projects this undesirable air, afraid of getting too close to those around him.
This becomes increasingly apparent as we begin to see what he's actually thinking. Squall narrates his thoughts throughout the game, and lines like "As long as you don't get your hopes up, you can take anything...you feel less pain" illustrate why he's unwilling to accept the emotional support of his party members. Even as the story progresses and Squall begins to establish a greater trust with his companions, his nagging insecurities often drag him back into emotional instability.
As an orphan with few memories of his past, he projects this undesirable air, afraid of getting too close to those around him.
"To tell you the truth...I worry too much about what other people think of me. I hate that side of me...that's why I didn't want anyone to get to know me," he tells his love interest, Rinoa Heartilly. "I wanted to hide that side of myself. I hate it. 'Squall is an unfriendly, introverted guy.' It made it easy for me when people perceived me that way."
Unmistakably, Squall is an exaggerated recluse. His insistence on being left alone, paired with his ham-fisted quips about not needing to be understood, can grate on the nerves, but I still related to him when I first played the game. As a homeschooled adolescent who struggled to approach kids my age, I sympathized with Squall's introverted tendencies. I continually fought to temper my insecurities whenever pushed into a social setting, so Squall's refusal to utter the thoughts that only the player can see just made sense to me. Honestly, if you spent a hundred hours with this turn-based experience instead of socializing, you likely connected with portions of his plight, too.
He's the game's hero, but unlike the archetypal JRPG protagonist, Squall isn't a gallant, confident figure with a strong sense of justice. He's just a kid with pitiable social skills, and that's undoubtedly more relatable than your average white knight. My psychological similarities to Squall made his journey feel like my journey. That was me overthinking relationships and pushing people away through silence. That was me moving forward alone, even if those around me were trying their hardest to reach out and help. It's this connection, bolstered by the series' newfound realism, that makes Final Fantasy VIII's journey more personally potent.
Eventually, the main characters chip away at Squall's hard outer shell. He becomes emotionally invested in those around him, and as the battles become more difficult to overcome, Squall realizes he can't just continue to push forward on his own. The thoughts he so often hid from the rest of his party find a voice, and he somehow even manages to crack a smile before the story concludes.
That simple smirk that caps off the epilogue? Even seeing it 14 years later, I get emotional. I would never argue that Final Fantasy VIII features the strongest writing or most cohesive story in this still-young medium, but the game just clicked with me. Squall's personal evolution, which has him start as a socially conflicted kid and end as a confident leader, clicked with me, too. The game's protagonist might not represent every timid, disinclined player who held that PlayStation controller, but the less fantastical setting coupled with that standard Final Fantasy flight of fancy allows you to jump, even if subconsciously, into his black leather boots.
It's not a visual stunner in 2013, but the turn-based combat and deep junction system still hold up today. It's one of the most well-designed JRPGs available, and with few developers creating blockbuster-budget games of this ilk, Final Fantasy VIII on Steam acts as the perfect reminder of why you fell in love with the genre in the first place.
However, if you happen to relate to Squall's personal shortcomings and social deficiencies, Final Fantasy VIII becomes essential.
That simple smirk that caps off the epilogue? Even seeing it 14 years later, I get emotional.
Completing the game didn't encourage me to grab a gunblade and save the world. Final Fantasy VIII is more grounded, but as previously stated, it's still just a game. Yet this game helped me become more cognizant of my introspective tendencies. It pushed me to spark conversation when I'd otherwise find it easier just to keep to myself. And in the end, it presented a story that I still return to every few years.
I won't spend your $11.99 for you. The Steam release of this classic RPG doesn't improve upon the now-dated visuals, and other than the Magic Booster, the 45 Steam achievements are the only notable additions. But even with next-generation consoles now available for purchase, there's no other game I'd recommend more than Final Fantasy VIII.