Final Fantasy VIII came out at the peak of popularity of the series. Final Fantasy VII, by far Square Enix's biggest commercial success at the time was the previous game, and fans were really hungry for the next in the series. They wondered if Final Fantasy VIII would continue moving away from the fantasy genre and move more towards futuristic settings, or perhaps something completely different. What fans got was a game that moved leaps and bounds forward in the graphics department, but in the mechanics sense moved in a completely different direction, one that had its critics for sure. Let's take a look into this very divisive game in the Final Fantasy universe.
The story of Final Fantasy VIII is incredibly confusing. So much so, there are multiple theories on the entirety of the story. Let's start with the basics. Squall Leonheart is a student at Balamb Garden, a school for mercenary soldiers. After graduating you go on your first mission along with a couple other recent graduates, Zell, and Selphie, who is a transfer from another garden in Trabia. Also coming along is your former instructor Quistis. You work for a resistance group called the Forest Owls who are trying to free the town of Timber from occupation by Galbadia. The forest owls are led by Rinoa Heartlily, daughter to the General of Galbadia's army. Galbadia declares it is going to discuss peace, and appoints the Sorceress Edea to be Galbadia's diplomat. Edea soon murders the president of Galbadia and the team is dispatched to assassinate the Sorceress with a sniper named Irvine. The assassination does not go as planned and Squall is injured... remember this point
After the assassination attempt the Sorceress tries to retaliate against the Gardens by launching missiles. A volley of missiles destroyes Trabia Garden and the group is barely able to stop the attack against Balamb Garden after escaping from prison. The group soon discovers that Balamb Garden is a mobile base, and is soon able to start piloting it after defeating NORG, a member of the Shumi tribe who funded the creation of the Gardens and has been pulling the strings of Garden in secret. Galbadia Garden, also mobile, attacks Balamb Garden, during which time Squall is able to infiltrate Galbadia Garden and defeat Edea once again. At this time, Edea's powers are transferred to Rinoa, whom Squall has begun to develop many feelings for.
During this whole time, the group has experienced flashbacks of a man named Laguna, and his friends Kiros and Ward. This group of former Galbadia soldiers were injured during a mission at Lunatic Pandora laboratory. Laguna had been in love with a piano player named Julia who turns out to be Rinoa's mother, and falls in love with a woman named Raine from the town of Winhill who nurses him back to health along with her daughter Ellone. He is forced to work back in the Lunatic Pandora Laboratory and escapes with the help of a resistance movement against the leader of Esthar, another sorceress named Adel. Laguna agrees to become the face of the resistance movement and becomes Esthar's president, however, this causes him to miss the death of Raine who had a son with Laguna... Squall. These flashbacks were triggered by Ellone, who had the ability to transfer the conciousness of someone into the past of someone else she knew.
Squall, Zell, Quistis, Selphie, and Irvine realize they grew up together in an orphanage run by Cid the headmaster of Balamb Garden and Edea. This fact had been forgotten by most of them because when using Guardian Forces to increase their power, they lost some of their distant memories. Edea reveals that she was possessed by a sorceress from the future named Ultimecia who wishes to achieve time compression so that she could exist alone in the world. To do so, she requires Ellone, who has been in hiding. Rinoa is now possessed by Ultimecia, unbeknownst to everyone else. Squall believes he has located Ellone in Esthar and carries Rinoa there. Ellone had actually been broguht to a space station and Squall takes Rinoa there, where Ultimecia takes control of her and frees Adel who had been imprisoned in space. During this time, Lunatic Pandora laboratory had been unearthed and moved towards a focal point on the planet causing hordes of monsters from the moon to gravitate towards Earth. This destroys the space station and leaves Rinoa floating in space. Squall rescues her and happens upon an empty spaceship to return them to earth.
Dr. Odine, an Esthar scientist, reveals that long ago when studying Ellone he captured her brain waves, and came up with an idea for a machine that could give anyone Ellone's power. He must perfect this machine in the future which Ultimecia uses to transfer her conciousness into a sorceress in the present. The machine's limitations prevent her from achieving time compression, which is why she requires Ellone. The group infiltrates Lunatic Pandora laboratory which is being run by Seifer, a former classmate of Squall's and former boyfriend of Rinoa's. He has pledged himself to the sorceress and continually stands in our way. He captures Rinoa and revives Sorceress Adel who junctions Rinoa onto herself. The group defeats Adel allowing Ultimecia to fully possess Rinoa. Ellone sends Rinoa to the past where Ultimecia is able to achieve partial Time Compression. The group uses this as a pathway into the future where they are able to infiltrate Ultimecia's castle and defeat her. Upon Ultimecia's defeat, she travels back into the past giving her powers to Edea, thus creating a time loop. Squall is unable to return to his time period, however is rescued by Rinoa, his true love.
Now, remember when I said that Squall was injured by Edea. Well, there are some theories that state that everything that happens after this takes place in a dream state within Squall's mind as Squall is actually dead. There are some supporting facts for this theory. Firstly, before this, Rinoa has strong feelings for Seifer. After this event, these are hardly mentioned, and she seems to go out of her way to become involved in a relationship with Squall. Secondly, Squall is a new SeeD who immediately is promoted to commander of the entire force. Also, the beings known as moombas, explained as evolved Shumis taking the form of a red lion... the symbol of Squall, are not revealed until after this event. Finally, the events of the ending, from Squall losing the memory of Rinoa, to seeing a happy Seifer and friends, to Ultimecia's words themselves certainly lend themselves to this theory. I really don't have an opinion one way or the other on this, and leave it up to you on which one is correct.
The story is a huge part of this game, way more than any other game. It is written as a love story, and thus a large part of the game and whether you like it will center on whether or not you like the romantic interest, in this case Rinoa. The plot itself is okay, however, it seems sometimes like the two are being pushed together for no reason. There is really never a defining point where the two develop feelings for each other, the rest of the party members just seem to want the two together and go out of their way to help get them together, until Squall finally decides he does really love her. The time aspect of this game is extremely confusing. You have events happening in the present, many flashback sequences with Laguna, who we never actually are directly told is Squall's father, it has to be pieced together, and then finally a villain who is from the future possessing people in the present because of a machine theorized in the present and perfected in the future. Ugh!
Now, let's move on to gameplay. First, let's mention that this game was developed around the same time as Final Fantasy Tactics, and the two share an important mechanic. This is, that all random encounters have monsters who's levels are determined by your party's level. This means that as you level up, so do the monsters. This basically means that levelling up is basically useless, except to make boss fights easier. Also, it means that your levelling rate is constant. It is just as easy to go from level 1 to level 2 as it is to go from level 99 to level 100. This is extremely jarring coming from all previous Final Fantasies and never really made any sense. It causes you to want to avoid fights more than any other game.
The main method of improving your stats is not levelling for the first time in the series. The game's main mechanic for improving your characters are Guardian Forces. These serve multiple purposes. First, they are the game's summons, and thus, yes you can summon from the very beginning of the game. I'll get more into these mechanics later. Each Guardian Force has abilities that can be gained by killing monsters and gaining AP. The most important of these abilities are Junctions. Junctions allow you to take Magic and assign it to a stat, thus improving it. Magic in this game is not learned by levels, but instead from Drawing it from enemies or at fixed points in towns and dungeons. Each character holds onto Magic like an item, and can hold up to 100 of a specific type at a time. Some Guardian Force abilities also allow you to create magic from items. We'll get into this a little later as well.
The problem with equipping magic to a stat, is this. Usually, more powerful magics give a more powerful effect to the stat. The effect scales with the amount of spells the character has in its inventory, which means casting your best spells actually makes your character weaker! Also, casting magic means you need to replenish your inventory which can be a very time consuming process.
One of the more fun aspects of this game is its main "sidequest". A collectible card game called Triple Triad. This is a game you can play against NPCs in the world. There are 110 cards to collect and you obtain most of them by simply beating other players. Different regions of the world have different rules for the game and these can be manipulated in various ways as well. There is a very good reason for collecting these. One GF ability you can learn at the VERY beginning of the game allows you to turn these cards into items. These items are used for everything including crafting weapons, a very minor mechanic in this game, to creating any of the most powerful magics in the game, to items that teach abilities to your Guardian Forces.
The Guardian Forces itself have a mechanic called Compatibility, the more you summon them or do specific actions, the higher the compatibility and the faster they summon. While you are summoning a Guardian Force, any damage you take is redirected to the Guardian Force, thus they can be killed. Also, each Guardian Force can learn an ability called Boost. This turns summoning into kind of a red light green light mini game... the better you do the more damage the summon does.
At low health, each character has a Limit Break they can use. These vary by character, and are usually some of the most damaging abilities in the game. The lower your HP, the better chance you can use it, and in fact once you know your HP is low enough, you can literally cycle through turns until you are allowed to use them. There is even a spell later in the game that allows you to use them at any time!
Finally, something exclusive to the PC versions and Japanese versions of the game is a minigame called Chocobo World. This game gives you a little chocobo who you build up and find items that can be transferred over to the main game, including many powerful and even exclusive items. The chocobo can also be summoned using an item and deals more damage the more you raise it.
Now that I've explained all the mechanics in the game. Let me summarize. This is an extremely customizable game. You can rely on summoning your GFs. You can play trying to stay as low level as possible. You can maximize your stats from the VERY beginning of the game. In fact, you can really use your junctions to tweak all your stats to be as powerful or weak as you want to be at any point in the game. You can very easily control the encounter rate of the game. I see this game as kind of a strange fusion of a JRPG with alot of the tenets of a Strategy RPG. Unfortunately, you really have to go out of your way to make this game a challenge. Most of the mechanics are just way too powerful. Once you decide on how you want to handle battles, there are very few instances where you have to deviate from your strategy. So, while interesting, the battle system of the game really falls a little flat.
There's really very little postgame to speak of. The only superboss of the game is Omega Weapon. This boss, while certainly possessing a myriad of super-powerful attacks, also follows an amazingly predictable pattern, and again, can be taken down by the obvious offensive strategy. So, this, unfortunately is nothing exciting.
Now, we move on to the Graphics and Sound. This is where Final Fantasy VIII really makes its mark. I said about Final Fantasy VII that the game looks incredibly dated. Let's be honest the early days of the Playstation were not kind, it was the ugly puberty of video games transitioning from 2D pixel and sprite graphics to the polygon graphics of today. Final Fantasy VIII even today still holds up graphically.The character models are upgraded from blocky semblances of people to true life-like models. The backgrounds are also far improved. While this still uses the pre-rendered backgrounds, and still a few instances where they use an FMV for background with the polygon characters, these instances are far less glaring than in VII.The summons are all beautiful, as well, the only downside to this is that you spend most of the animation staring at the corner of the screen playing red light green light to appreciate how good they look. Another huge upgrade is found in the cut-scenes. They are liberally used in the game, with a huge beginning scene and a huge ending scene. These certainly did not disappoint with all the build-up after VII.
I feel the music in Final Fantasy VIII is a small step down from VII. The music is diverse, and well used to convey the different time periods of the game. From the gentle theme of Balamb Garden to the upbeat battle music in Laguna's world, to a gothic themed theme for Ultimecia's castle. Also of note is the great bouncy beat used for Triple Triad which you'll of course hear about a thousand times during the course of the game.
Overall, I feel that Final Fantasy VIII had some really ambitious ideas that just were not carried out as well as they could have been. Also, while the graphics and music hold up today, the mechanics and gameplay just do not. The too powerful card modding system to the near useless magic system to the barely implemented weapoin upgrade system, and finally of course the awful monster level system. Overall, this is not a game that has held up to the test of time.