In Final Fantasy VIII, you play as Squall Leonhart who is a trainee mercenary. As part of his final exam at the school known as Balamb Garden, he is placed in a group with Zell, Selphie, and rival Seifer, and sent to defend Dollet from the forces of Galbadia. After this, all but Seifer graduate, and your party (along with former teacher Quistis) are sent to help a resistance faction assassinate the Sorceress who is using the Galbadian forces. There you meet Rinoa who is Squal's love interest.
The story contains the usual twists and turns you expect from an RPG, but is rather confusing since the story isn't really developed until midway through the game. The characters are pretty weak too, especially since Squall is reserved and protective of his feelings.
At certain points in the story, your party members pass out and have dreams about a man called Laguna who was a soldier/journalist in the Galbadian army. You don't get an explanation of how this ties into the plot until much later in the game, and even then it doesn't seem to be as relevant as it could have been.
The game's combat is like Final Fantasy VII where you attack when your guage is full; where it fills based on your character's speed. You have to be quick to select your moves since your enemies don't wait around for you.
There's some interesting but weird design decisions to the level up system. Enemies get stronger as your main character levels, and your attack and defensive stats are mainly based on your "Junctioned" magic. There are many powerful beasts (usually known as Summons, but in this game they are Guardian Forces GFs) to acquire. Assigning these GFs allows you to assign magic to certain stats and can be switched freely. Certain magic is better being junctioned to specific stats, so assigning a magic like Cure to HP will boost it more than assigning Fire. Junctioning a status effect like Sleep is a great choice for Status Attack, whereas the choice of magic to assign to Elemental Attack very much depends on the enemies you are facing. There are only a few weapons to acquire in the game, with no armour, so the only customisation you have is the Junction system.
In battle, you have the option to Draw magic from your enemies. Each enemy has 1 to 4 spells to take, and you can farm them; repeatedly drawing from the same enemy. The way this system works mean that you can abuse it early on if you know where to find the most beneficial magic.
Early on, you rely on your GF's to do the damage since they can do hundreds to thousands worth of damage compared to your double figured attacks. When you summon your GF's, a countdown begins before a 30 second scene plays out. While you wait, they even take damage if you are attacked in the meantime. The GF's attacks quickly become boring and it would be nice to speed up the scenes.
When you finish a battle, your character and GF's will receive experience to level up. GF's also receive AP which unlocks their abilities. Each GF has a different set of unlockable abilities, such as allowing your characters to Junction magic to different areas, increasing GF health, GF attack, increasing your characters stats, and more. You can assign multiple GF's to your characters, giving them access to a wide range of abilities and buffs.
The system puts a large emphasis on Drawing magic to have a wide range of spells, and a large stockpile of each. This means it is beneficial to spend some time repeatedly drawing from enemies then fleeing. Fleeing is beneficial because you won't gain experience; remember, enemies become stronger as you level up, so it's not so advantageous to grind out levels. Obtaining AP is beneficial though since that unlocks your GF abilities. There is a trick you can do which involves turning enemies into cards instead of killing them. This allows you to gain AP without XP.
When your health is really low, you can pull off special attacks called Limit Breaks. These attacks differ per character. Zell has to input commands, Irvine uses bullets from your inventory, Quistis can perform special attacks she has learnt from enemies.
Outside of battle, there are occasional moments where you need to press a button repeatedly, or time your button presses. One example is where you have to enter codes to disconnect train carriages while avoiding patrolling guards. These moments are very clunky and aren't fun.
You can challenge many of the characters to a game of cards, where the rules vary across the regions. I didn't really understand the other rules because there didn't seem to be an explanation of them. In the basic game, you have a 3 by 3 grid, and can place cards down in an empty slot. The cards of 4 numbers on them which are used to 'attack' in the respective directions. If your number is larger than the adjacent card, then the card's colour changes. At the end of the game, whoever has the most cards in their colour wins, and the winner gets to take one of the loser's cards to add to their collection. As previous mentioned, you can turn enemies into cards. You can also get an ability to turn cards into items. This means players may wish to invest time into the game to assist them.
I found the graphics to be very inconsistent. Some backgrounds looked decent whereas others were pixelated. This happened with the non-player characters too. If someone was a character you can talk to, then they would have a higher level of detail than the citizens that were there just to show the area was populated. The world map looks terrible and it's not that great to explore either. There's a lack of places to visit across the world, and you often spend long periods of time in one location. The cinematics still look pretty good, and this has been an area that Final Fantasy games have excelled in for a long time.
There are some really interesting ideas within Final Fantasy VIII, but the game is slow paced, full of shallow characters and set in a fairly bland world.