The greatest, and perhaps most underrated Final Fantasy game ever created.
The following may include spoilers. *Some of my facts may be incorrect, it's been a long time since I've played the game.*
You start off as Squall, a young man of 17 years who is in Balamb Garden, a training academy for SeeD special forces. You appear antisocial at first, not wanting to associate with any of the other SeeD members, and when you do you say only what needs to be said, and answer questions directly. The reasons for your antisocial habits are explained later, and eventually Squall develops new personality traits as he opens up and reveals his past to his companions. The character development is top notch, and it's clear that as you advance through the game Squall's personality changes, especially after he meets Rinoa.
The back of the game case claims this is a Final Fantasy based off the theme of love, but it takes awhile to show that. At first Squall gets into fights with this headstrong girl he's assigned to protect as a SeeD, her name is Rinoa. They fight off and on and eventually gain feelings for each other, but they're extremely subtle. It's not until after she is possessed by Ultimecia, that Squall realizes how much he loves her. The games story goes from a Special Forces mission to assassinate the president of a foreign country, to missile threats on Garden, to sky battles, and to the possession of Rinoa. Eventually they travel to space to consult scientists about Rinoa and a lunar phenomenon strikes the planet, and the true enemy, Ultimecia is revealed. Ultimecia is a sorceress from the future who can transcend time and space. It's a pretty intense experience, and I'm horrible at conveying it. It's something that has to be played through.
Graphically this game is ahead of almost all PS1 games. The prerendered backgrounds are full of color and life, while the character models have detailed textures. In other words, the graphics are great.
Sound wise, Nobuo (IIRC) has made another great soundtrack. With fitting melodies that stand out in your memory to some fan and series favorites like Liberi Fatali. It's also the first FF game to use a licensed song "Eyes on Me", by a Japanese pop artist (Sorry, don't remember the name...)
There's a lot to do replay for, the story is absolutely amazing but the card games are what kept me coming back. There is a minigame that you can play with people, it's called Triple Triad. It involves collectible cards who have a stat number for each side and you can place them on the board. There's different rules in seperate regions and if you win you can keep some of your opponents cards depending on the trade rule. Plus, there's lots of other things to do, like leveling up Seifer, and getting Lionheart on Disc 1.
Now about that high learning curve. There's a character skill system (somewhat like Materia, just more indepth and complicated), it's known as the Junction System. The first time through, it can be confusing and hard to understand, but when you get the hang of it there shouldn't be a single boss battle that you have trouble with. The Junction System revolves around equipping GFs or Gaurdian Forces to your characters and using them to enhance their abilities. Magic is equipped to stats which enhances them and makes your characters stronger, as long as immune to other effects. It gets complicated fast, but mastering this system ASAP is extremely important. Also, the enemies will level with your character. Now this isn't like Oblivion (Elder Scrolls IV) where enemies won't even appear until a certain level. In FFVIII enemies have a starting level, and a maximum level. For example (just making this up, these aren't actual numbers) Ruby Dragon can be encountered any time in the forest, it's starting level is 25 and it's maximum is 85. This applies to bosses too, however some bosses always have a set level, like Omega Weapon has a set level of 100.
I guess part of the reason this game isn't given as much credit is because it's so different from the other FF games. Storyline wise this game is a large turn for the series. The idea of "group of heroes save world" is still here, but now the story is advanced through character development and is based more on the characters relationships. FFVIII also portrays a more realistic relationship between the characters when compared to games like FFVII. If you like RPGs in general, and enjoy games with deep character development and a great story, then FFVIII may be a perfect game for you. I thought it was decent at first, but it wasn't until I played through it a second time that I was able to fully appreciate it and understand everything that was going on. It's a beautifully well-crafted game, and it takes it's spot as my favorite game of all time.
Hope this review helped!