Final Fantasy 8 is the most controversial game of the PS1 FF era and for good reason. With a new convoluted customization system called the Junction System, the addition of consumable magic which the player must draw, a weird money system, the removal of equipment, and a bizzare story, Final Fantasy 8 was bound to rub many people the wrong way. Unsurprisingly, it seems that this game is widely regarded as the worst of the PS1 era. And while this is mostly true, FF8 is still a great RPG that is easily worthy of the series' high standards. It could have done with more polishing and the new systems could have used some more time in the oven, but even in spite of its flaws, FF8 is an uncommonly artistically beautiful game with an exciting story that has more than its fair share of lovely moments.
The story is really weird, so I'm not going to try to explain it gracefully. Basically, you're a maddeningly moody and apathetic 17 year old named Squall Leonhart. He is a SeeD at a military cadet university called Balamb Garden; SeeDs are soldiers that are dispatched all around the world to carry out missions. After passing his SeeD graduation exam, Squall and his peeps are assigned to a mission that, after many events, unites Squall with the willful and endearingly childish Rinoa Heartily, who he develops a romance with during the game. In the course of this mission, Squall discovers that the continent of Galbadia is uniting with a Sorceress intent on taking over the world. Squall and friends are then tasked with assassinating the Sorceress, but this is just the beginning. There are forces at work much bigger than the Sorceress or Galbadia, a few of these being bodily possession and something called "time compression" which is never really explained in much detail. Overall, the story is very interesting and has tons of beautiful moments, most notably the romantic bits, which I thought were well done. Yes, the story is a bit derpy in places, not enough information is given on certain key points, and one "twist" (you'll know which one it is when you encounter it) will have you shaking your head, but the ride itself is so thrilling and unique that these flaws can be acknowledged but forgiven. I would much rather play through FF8's flawed but striking tale over something less flawed but trite.
The character development is pretty good overall even in spite of some spotty dialogue. I hated Squall's moody apathetic attitude, but when the story all came together, I understood the reasons for his early douchiness even if that initial characterization of him turned me off of the character for the whole game. Supporting characters like the flirty and deceptively cocky Irvine, the dumb but still endearing Zell, and the cheerful but slightly crazy Selphie were all pretty good companions for your forty-something hour journey; no character really seems out of place. I especially liked the easy-going Laguna, who is the star of a bizzare parallel story that initiates when your main characters mysteriously faint and get swept into a dream world.
Where the story really shines is how it ties into the gameplay. The pacing is done in such an exciting way. Examples of this are an assassination section in a slightly French-looking city called Deiling that feels quick and tense, or a thrilling train section in which you have to run on top of the train cars to disconnect them before time runs out, or a truly dynamic Garden invasion section which climaxes with you fighting a soldier on a flying wire in the sky. Instead of getting bogged down in a town, overworld, dungeon, overworld, town format, FF8 lets the story decide the pacing, so you feel like you're moving from narrative to playable set pieces in an extremely dynamic fashion. Excellent stuff.
The combat section of the game is where things get a little shaky. The combat itself is traditional turn-based FF-style battles, but there are some very notable differences. Instead of having a pool of MP points for your magic skills, you have to draw spells out of enemies or draw points. This means that you have a stock of magic that can only be replenished by drawing more, ensuring that careful players will think twice about wasting spells. In theory, this is an interesting system, but the drawing can get very tedious and sometimes you'll wish that they had stuck with regular MP. But the twist is that in some cases, it is better not to use magic at all. This is because of the infamous Junction System. The Junction System is a customization system that is tied to a Guardian Force, which is basically a Summon like Shiva or Ifrit or whatever. There are many of these Guardian Forces and they allow you to junction commands (you can't do anything but a standard attack without a GF) and abilities (some of which are very useful) to your character. But most importantly, you can junction magic spells to your characters' stats (this replaces getting new equipment like weapons, accessories and armor), powering them up in ways that makes leveling all but useless (enemies level up right along with you, making leveling up doubly irrelevant). The magnitude of your stat upgrade depends on the type of magic and the amount of you have in stock. If you deplete the stock, your stat will revert to its base value. So you'll want to avoid using magic that is junctioned to your stats. For example, if you junction 100 thundaras (the max) to your strength stat, you'll get quite a dramatic increase in the damage you do. But if you use up that magic, you'll be back to doing normal amounts of damage. And really, if your characters are not properly junctioned, you'll be overly reliant on your Guardian Forces, which do far more damage than normal attacks. I found that this over reliance made battles far too drawn out and tedious. It wasn't until I junctioned 100 copies of powerful magic to my strength and HP stats, and upped my HP and strength with ability bonuses such as HP+40% and ST+40% that I did enough damage to stop relying on them.
Note: You'll need your GFs to learn abilities like strength junction, HP junction, etc. through gaining AP points in battles before you can actually junction magic to stats.
As you can see, the system is very convoluted and multi-layered and it is not explained particularly well. The robust nature of the system has both its drawbacks and strengths. One strength is that the system is incredibly deep and somebody who knows the system well will have plenty to sink their teeth into as well as having an incredible amount of control over the amount of damage that their characters do. On the other hand, the system has too many hoops to jump through, which might reduce the fun for a lot of people, and unfortunately, the system turns out to be pretty unbalanced. You never get a good middle ground between overly weak and overly powerful characters. Combine this with the need to draw, the early reliance on GFs and you're looking at a combat portion that is fun in its own way, but feels far less fluid and simply not as fun as other systems in the series.
There are other little oddities. For example, you don't get money from killing monsters. Instead, you get it in intervals based on your SeeD rank. The payments are based on distance traveled, so you won't be getting payments with as much regularity as you might like. Luckily, you can up your SeeD rank rather easily by taking tests and looking up the right answers on the internet. That's what I did and I had plenty of cash for all of my needs. Another weird aspect of the game is the weapons system. You don't find or buy new weaponry. Instead, you upgrade the weapon you all ready have by acquiring a weapons magazine that features the upgrade, collecting the necessary parts by defeating monsters and paying a fee. In theory, this system is perfectly fine, but in practice, the parts you need to upgrade are way too much of a b!tch to find. Upgrading weapons is definitely worth it though as you'll get quite a substantial boost in strength.
The best single aspect of the game is the visual design. The art in this game is gorgeous and incredibly unique. It has a very striking modern look that is definitely more sci-fi than fantasy but has more elegance, beauty, grace, and visual imagination than you'll find in your Mass Effects and Phantasy Stars. It is a very bold and unorthodox look with a slightly feminine aesthetic that complements the love story extremely well. You'll constantly be surprised by the strangeness, beauty, and variety of the environments that the developers serve up. The CGI is equally beautiful and visually arresting even if is a bit grainy at times. It is amazing how seamlessly the normal graphics engine transitions into the CGI segments, which was way ahead of the curve in 1999. As many flaws as FF8 has, the visual design is one aspect in which there is absolutely nothing to complain about. This game is a feast for the eyes as well as the imagination. Not to mention that this is the first FF game with realistically proportioned characters whose designs are great I might add.
The second best aspect of the game is the amount of side content. Between finding additional GFs, playing the immensely fun card game called Triple Triad (I prefer this incarnation to the one in FF9), seeking out the most powerful magic, and finding landmarks that are not encountered in a straight-and-narrow playthrough, players will have an immense amount of stuff to sink their teeth into if they wish to. This is the case with most FF games, but it seems especially pronounced here.
The sound design is also superb. The soundtrack is striking and beautiful, with delicate melodies that capture the loveliness of the story as well as sonically interesting militant themes that tie well into the military cadet portion of the game. The music that plays during encounters with the Sorceress is especially riveting.
If I were to recommend a "starter FF" for a player new to the series, this would not be it. The learning curve is steeper and the game is harder to love "at first sight" due to the many potential annoyances. But those who have the patience to overlook these things will no doubt appreciate this game's endless imagination and beauty. Yes, FF8 is the worst of the PS1 FFs because some of the systems were not gracefully executed, but if FF8 is the worst of an era, then you're looking at a series that is pretty damn special.