Final Fantasy VIII is perhaps the most experimental game in the series, and it succeeds for the most part.
SquareSoft's Final Fantasy series is arguably the most popular RPG series of all time. RPG gamers have come to expect greatness from each and every new installment in the series; Final Fantasy IV with its now-standard Active Time Battle system; FFV with its improved Job system (it first appeared in the Japan-only Final Fantasy III for the NES); FFVI with its huge cast of memorable and vastly different characters; and finally, FFVII with its Materia system and its now-standard flashy FMV. So, what does FFVIII bring to the table? Well, probably a lot of things one wouldn't expect in a Final Fantasy game.
FFVIII stars Squall Leonhart, a student of Balamb Garden, the world's top military academy. After successfully completing an important training mission, Squall--along with his friends Zell Dincht and Selphie Tilmitt--is inducted into SeeD, an elite group of mercenaries. The new SeeD recruits receive their first important mission: capture the Galbadian president Deling, and prevent a Galbadian alliance with a powerful sorceress named Edea. This may not sound interesting, but most RPG premises never reveal the whole plot, right? One of FFVIII's strengths is the characters; they aren't just typical RPG characters...they seem more like actual people, and I'm not saying this because of the realistically-proportioned character models. By the end of the game, you'll find at least one character you can relate to.
The graphics in FFVIII are a huge improvement over FFVII's graphics, which looked good already. You have to wonder how much more the aging PlayStation hardware can take before it conks out. The music is also an improvement over the disappointing FFVII soundtrack, although I've heard better soundtracks than both in other games.
FFVIII is wildly different from the previous FF games. Square has pulled out all the stops and "experimented" with new gameplay ideas that will either impress or disappoint. For the most part, I was impressed with what Square has done, sometimes to the point where I feel that other RPGs should implement some of FFVIII's gameplay ideas. The core gameplay is the Junction system, which resembles the Materia system, except it's more complex (maybe a little too complex). Junction refers to equipping spells, abilities, and summons (now known as Guardian Forces) to your characters and/or their statistics. You can customize everything, from battle commands to parameters like hit points. However, before you can customize anything, you must first acquire Guardian Forces (GFs).
GFs are more useful than they ever were in previous FF games. They actually become stronger as you progress, so rest assured that Ifrit or Shiva won't become useless halfway through the game. More importantly, they have the important abilities you need--mainly, the ability to junction--to win the game. Summoning a GF is now unlimited (since you have no MP), but they can be killed during the summoning process. Outside of battles, you'll need GFs to make your characters stronger. In addition to being able to junction spells to your stats, GFs hold special abilities and stat bonuses which must be "learned" by accumulating Ability Points (AP) after each battle. Learning some abilities opens up new abilities, which can then also be learned by acquiring AP. New GFs may already have some abilities known.
So, now that you know how to junction spells to your stats (hopefully), where do you get the spells from? There are three ways to acquire spells in FFVIII: through Draw Points, which are pit stops to stock up on magic; through battle, which is the most tedious way to acquire spells; and through item refinement, which I feel is the best way. Chances are though, you'll likely be getting the majority of your spells through battle. By using the "Draw" command, you can steal magic (anywhere from 0 to 9 uses) from your adversaries, and you can either cast the spell on-the-fly, or keep it and use it later. I find that using drawn magic immediately is not as effective, unless it's something that doesn't directly affect HP (e.g. Sleep, Blind, etc.). Draw Points are straightforward, but you must have the "Draw" command equipped before you can use them. Refining items is the best way to go; all you need is the "RF-Item" command, which certain GFs have. The majority of items in FFVIII serve no purpose other than to provide magic, so it's worth your while to make spells out of them.
So, what else has Square done with FFVIII? Money is no longer acquired after battles; instead, you now have a salary, in which you are given money periodically. You can increase your salary in several ways, but it can also decrease depending on your actions. Characters no longer wear any armor, and only have one weapon (which can be upgraded at a junk shop). Only 1000 experience points are needed to go up a level (think Suikoden). Speaking of leveling up, monsters always stay at the same level as your characters. I like this feature very much because fighting the same monsters never gets old. Monsters gain more HP and more attack power, but at certain levels, they gain new spells to draw out, new abilities, and new items to obtain. The only way to get a good strength advantage over your adversaries is through proper junctioning, and not just constant level-ups.
One last thing to mention is the mini-games. Square took a "less is more" approach, and included only 2 mini-games in FFVIII, the best one being Triple Triad. Triple Triad is a popular card game in FFVIII's world. Almost every person you come across will have a deck of cards, always ready to do battle. Let me tell you, Triple Triad is the best mini-game I've ever played. It's addictive, and it's deep; so deep, in fact, that it could almost be its own standalone game! The cards you collect can be refined into special items, so learning and mastering Triple Triad is definitely worth your time.
Square has tried a lot of new ideas with FFVIII. One can praise Square for their innovations, or one can curse them and tell them what they shouldn't mess with in an RPG. However, one cannot deny that FFVIII is very different from past FF games, almost to the point where it doesn't feel like any other FF game. Final Fantasy VIII is a game that no RPG gamer should pass on.