I've been a Final Fantasy fan ever since the day the Nintendo Power strategy guide first arrived in my mailbox. Poring over the pages, I just knew that I had to play this game, to live in this other world. Heroes and villains, magic and mystery, epic quests and noble causes were all waiting to unfurl before my eyes. And ever since I vanquished Chaos, I've been hooked. Each of the English games has been analyzed, replayed, and studied as if it were a sacred text - and I'd be lying if I didn't acknowledge the Final Fantasy series as the primary impetus behind my Japanese studies.
But after the seventh game, my seemingly limitless faith in the series began to falter. Final Fantasy VII was an excellent title, to be sure; but with a Final Fantasy game, "excellent" is never good enough. Some sections seemed like they were straight out of a Hollywood summer blockbuster: flashy, impressive, but ultimately unsatisfying. It was with some trepidation that I awaited Final Fantasy VIII's release: Would it be a return to the series' roots or a further digression into flash and brashness? In the end, any qualms I had were for naught; Square has finally understood how to use the power of the CD properly. Fear not. Final Fantasy VIII is a masterpiece.
The core of any Final Fantasy game has always been its story, and Final Fantasy VIII's story is the best the series - and likely the genre - has ever seen. With Final Fantasy VII, Square showed that it had mastered the epic; with VIII, it shows that it has mastered the personal. The characters and their relationships are all extremely believable and complex; moreover, the core romance holds up even under the most pessimistic scrutiny. The decision to eschew a cast of dozens and focus on a central cast of six major characters appears to have been a wise one. The characters don't seem like base archetypes or generic "heroes," but like actual people.
Squall Leonheart is a student at Garden, the world's foremost military academy. His classmates are a motley bunch: the brash but good-natured Zell Dincht; the brash but ill-natured Seifer Almasy; the childlike Selphie Tilmitt; the precocious Quistis Trepe; and the personable Rinoa Heartilly. After a successful training mission, Squall, Selphie, and Zell are all inducted into the elite combat-unit-for-hire, SeeD. Their first mission: assisting a rebel organization in the capture of Galbadian president Deling, who is set to announce a new alliance that will bring Galbadia glory and triumph over its opponents. This alliance is not with any faction or nation, but with a powerful sorceress named Edea. Don't worry that the schoolyard trappings make Final Fantasy VIII seem like "Teen Beat RPG," though; these engaging characters experience some of the most epic, grandiose events imaginable. While the plot may begin at an academy, it eventually spans the entire globe - and beyond. The twists and turns the story takes will leave you reeling; at the end of disc four, you'll laugh at the misconceptions you had about the plot with which you first began. A great deal of credit for the story's attractiveness must go to the graphic design. The first Final Fantasy through the sixth featured super-deformed, or SD, heroes: squat body, huge head, saucer-plate eyes. Final Fantasy VII was a hodgepodge of conflicting graphical styles; the field models were SD, the battle models were non-SD, the FMV was mostly non-SD (with a few SD exceptions almost humorously juxtaposed). With Final Fantasy VIII, Square has taken the series fully non-SD, and it's all for the better. The more mature plots of recent titles seemed at odds with the quirky, cartoony look with which the series began. Involving, personal, and emotional stories are far more believable when they come from, well, people, not short, bizarrely shaped cartoon characters. While the SD style suits many games, it's not the best choice for every RPG - and it certainly isn't the best choice for Square's latest Final Fantasy. In Final Fantasy VIII, the field models always match the battle models, which always match the FMV models. Always. This coherency of design is the game's greatest visual asset over its predecessors.
The graphics are absolutely breathtaking. The detail in the backgrounds is frighteningly meticulous, and almost all backgrounds contain some animated elements. Battle sequences are nicely textured, and the sheer number of battle environments is borderline obsessive. Most full-motion video sequences are well integrated with gameplay, eliminating jarring "cuts" to and from CG sequences. Words don't do the graphics justice; neither, for that matter, do stationary screenshots. The motion and animation are what set Final Fantasy VIII's graphics apart from the rest. Both the FMV and in-game graphics are extensively motion-captured, and the difference is stunning. Characters don't just move around the screen; they act. The dance sequence on the first disc is equal in every way to Final Fantasy VI's famous "opera house" sequence. Square has proven that it has the biggest, baddest graphic artists and sound composers in the known world. Now, size no longer matters; they're going to awe you with majesty. While the limitations of the PlayStation hardware rear their ugly head from time to time, the sheer artistry and detail of the movement, the models, and the textures are beyond reproach. The mind reels at the thought of what Square can do with the next generation of gaming machines.
The sound, while excellent, is perhaps the game's weakest point; the music doesn't match the perfection of Final Fantasies IV, V, and VI. Of course, almost no video game has ever equaled the aural bliss of Nobuo Uematsu's SNES trilogy - but the bar was set, and Final Fantasy VIII falls just short. Even so, Uematsu is still a certifiable genius, and the soundtrack is very good, with more "quality" songs than Final Fantasy VII's. Even Faye Wong's pop sensation "Eyes on Me" is surprisingly inoffensive. Sound effects are excellent during FMV sequences, but only average during battle and gameplay sequences. The promised "Dolby Surround Sound" is mostly unnoticeable. Voice acting would have added a great deal to the FMV sequences; the game sometimes feels like the most beautiful silent film ever made.
Battles take place in the traditional RPG "active time" system: Your characters and their opponents take turns unleashing fury (or defending furiously). Final Fantasy VIII introduces (in traditional Japanese RPG style) several new "systems" for you to learn and master: the draw system, the guardian force system, and the junction system. The draw system replaces the traditional "pool of MP" system. All magic in Final Fantasy VIII's world is "drawn" from another source: usually an enemy or a "draw point." Each draw brings with it a number of uses: If you draw the cure spell, for example, you'll usually draw between five and eight uses of the spell. The character who drew can then cast a cure spell five to eight times before the spell must be drawn again and the stock replenished. Some opponents also have special items, such as guardian forces, that can be drawn out of them. The number of uses drawn is dependent on both the drawer's magic power and the strength of the spell being drawn. This is a self-balancing system: Powerful magicians have ready access to powerful spells; lesser magicians have limited access to a few uses, while even-lesser magicians will be unable to draw the spell out at all. Powerful magic becomes more valuable when it isn't easily replaced in a tent or at an inn. When you have only six "uses" of the meteor spell in the entire world, you'll think twice before casting.
The guardian force system is Final Fantasy VIII's way of handling "summoned monsters." Every guardian force, or GF, is like a sub-member of your party. Each has its own HP, life, level, statistics, and abilities. After each battle, your characters earn experience, the GFs earn AP, and all gain levels and skills accordingly. When a GF is summoned, its HP replaces your character's HP for the duration of the "casting" period, and any damage to your character is absorbed by the GF. GFs have their own healing potions, life potions, and even shops.
The junction system works with the GF system to give you varying skills and abilities. Each GF can be joined, or "junctioned," to a character. The effects of this are manifold. First, until junctioned with a GF, a character has no battle commands except "fight." Junctioning a GF gives you immediate access to the "magic," "draw," and "item" commands; many offer extra commands, such as "card," "death sentence," "revive," and "steal." Second, GFs have a list of skills that they can master - like a "job" in Final Fantasy V or Tactics. Some of these are player abilities, some are extra commands, some are party abilities, and some are "junction" abilities. You can assign a certain skill as "active," and all AP will go toward mastering and unlocking that new skill. Third, when junctioned, a character can often junction spells to various statistics. For example, Quezacotl may open up the HP statistic to magic junctioning. You can then junction a spell - probably a cure or life spell - to the HP statistic, and the character's HP will react accordingly. Certain abilities can be unlocked this way; for example, linking a "level three" elemental spell to your characters' defense statistic will let them absorb HP from that element's attacks. The more powerful the spell - and the more uses stocked - the greater the effect on the statistic. The possibilities for customization are immense.
Initial criticism held that the GF system is unbalanced and makes the game too easy. It's true that, at first, your GFs are ridiculously powerful, but as the game progresses, their strength becomes less unbalanced and more absolutely necessary. Late in the game, GFs are all but forgotten as junctions, special commands, and physical attacks take the forefront. While the game does tend to be on the easy side, it's still more difficult than other recent games in the series. Even the greatest RPG fanatics will find the ugly words "Game Over" staring them in the face more than they'd like. Some have also argued that it's too easy to "abuse" the system by repeatedly drawing the same spell from an opponent. Repeated drawing is possible, but it's no more "abuse" than repeatedly fighting the same groups of weak enemies to raise levels and gain money. Repeated drawing is boring, to be sure, but it's a flaw common to the traditional RPG format. Levels and money, by the by, are two more things that Final Fantasy VIII tosses aside in the name of progress - along with traditional ideas of armor and weapons. All levels are one thousand experience points apart from one another, and all enemies give the same amount of experience. How can such a system work? Enemies are always at the same level as your characters, a la Final Fantasy Tactics. As your enemies' levels increase, they gain new skills and abilities; accordingly, abilities gain importance, as you'll never achieve a purely numerical advantage over your opponents. Armor and weapons are also mostly jettisoned. No character wears any sort of armor, and each character has a single weapon that can be "upgraded" at junk shops by combining certain rare items. Without any weapons or armor for you to buy, money is mostly useless - and so it, too, is all but eliminated. The party is paid a periodic stipend (the size of which depends on Squall's SeeD ranking) with which to purchase basic supplies and items.
The RPG purist will immediately scoff, but further reflection reveals that these changes might actually be for the better. After all, in Final Fantasy games, armor and weapons are practically indistinguishable except for their numerical power. And what player won't immediately equip the more powerful item he just discovered or purchased? Weapons, armor, and money are all artificial statistical impediments to your progress through the game; by removing them, Square returns the focus to the story, characters, and battle strategies. It's a simplification, to be sure, but by no means a "dumbing down." You can still customize your attack and defense powers and characteristics (and almost any other statistic) through creative junctioning of assorted magics.
The Card Battle game, Triple Triad, is a more-than-worthy RPG minigame. There are several hundred cards to collect and swap, and local variations on the standard rule set help make each battle unique. Some cards are won from battles against opponents; others are found by using the "card" command on a weakened enemy. What's more, rare cards can be converted to rare items; rare items can be converted to rare weapons. In other words, your skill at the minigame can affect the main game itself. A single in-depth, well-done minigame is vastly preferable to multiple throwaway sequences. Nowadays, when I want to ride a motorcycle, I just plug in Road Rash. The only thing missing is a suitable reward for collecting them all - obsessive RPG fans deserve more than a star of commendation.
The English version of Final Fantasy VIII sports a decent, unassuming translation. While no one is likely to confuse Square's translations with the works of Shakespeare, the localization is grammatically correct and structurally coherent. Given the state of the RPG union, these are grand accomplishments indeed. The English version also sports one of the most welcome additions in RPG localization history: "Junction Exchange." This one-step character-swapping tool swaps spell inventories, junctioned GFs, and junctioned spells with a single click, making what was once a headache into a pleasure. With character swapping made this easy, players of the English version are far more likely to experiment with different party members than their Japanese brethren.
Final Fantasy VIII combines a fantastic story, amazing visuals, and excellent sound with solid RPG gameplay, an eminently tweakable junction system, and scads of secrets and extras. After a string of visually stunning but uninspired games from Square, many gamers feared that Final Fantasy VIII would be more of the same. Cast all fears aside: the latest Final Fantasy is the greatest game ever to bear the name.