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SummaryAll hype and all show, but at the expense of story and gameplay.
The GoodSquaresoft heard its fans after the success of its previous offering, Final Fantasy VII. "More!" they cried. And more they received. What we have in Final Fantasy VIII is every ounce of graphical glory the programmers could force out of the PlayStation, improving upon the powerful combination of pre-rendered graphics and full-motion video that made #7 so popular. Gone are the blocky characters, replaced with more realistic figures who really do stand at full height, with fully textured clothing, too. Unfortunately, it seems many gamers are unable to see past the superficiality of this game. I'll get to that in a bit.
There is, gladly enough, one really good saving factor to this game that I think might even be more fun than the actual game -- and that's Triple Triad, the card-collecting sub-game that permeates the game world. You collect monster cards, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, and then you challenge townspeople and extras standing around to play with you, and if you win you could win their cards (and if you lose, say goodbye to your own). There's so much strategy involved, and just when you think you've got it figured out the game tosses in another rule. Just collecting these cards, playing people to track down the rare cards, and the richness of gameplay this affords could very easily keep you from actually playing the game for hours.
The BadUnfortunately, Squaresoft bowed too much to peer pressure -- or fan pressure, as the case may be. Final Fantasy VIII is about twenty steps too far in the wrong direction, striving to be a bigger and badder version of Final Fantasy VII with more technology (both in programming and in the game environment) but lacking, unfortunately, in story and gameplay. We'll take a look at what Squaresoft thought they could do with #8 from what they learned in #7, and what went wrong.
Let's start with the Guardian Force/Junction system, which is how characters gain skills and abilities. See, in Final Fantasy VII, characters could equip summon spells that allows them to summon monsters in battle to do massive amounts of crucial damage. That, and give them some truly amazing animated visuals, and those summons easily became one of the major selling points of the game, gracing all sorts of marketing devices and magazine previews everywhere. So in Final Fantasy VIII Squaresoft figured these summoned monsters, now given the name "Guardian Force," could become the basis of the skill system, and characters would now be forced to depend upon the GF's for most of their attack power. In #7, summoning was limited to a maximum of five times per battle. In #8, you summoned as many times as you liked.
The result of this catastrophic decision was that every difficult monster had to be given huge gob-loads of hit points, since it was very easy to up your GF's attack power to a maximum of 9999 damage per hit (and sometimes they would even perform multiple hits). To prevent every monster from dying immediately at the hands of the powerful GF's Squaresoft had to make some regular monsters have as much as 100,000 to 150,000 hit points! But that's not all -- GF animations became even more over-the-top, increasing not only its "coolness factor" but also the length of time it took to play out, which made even regular battles a gigantic half-hour borefest of watching your powerful GF do the exact same thing fifty times in a row. This is not my idea of fun.
There are, as well, plenty of minor gripes to make: The characters, themselves, are largely identical in ability -- Final Fantasy used to be about specialization of characters (some of them forced) but here, you could use the same three characters for the entire game, just change the GF's around depending on which ability you'd like to use, and you'll never even have to look at the other characters if you don't want to ever again. There's a lack of equipment -- you only choose weapons, and even those are limited to four choices throughout the entire game, kind of like a simplified Equipment for Dummies, which further focuses your character's development on GFs alone. Then there's the Limit system -- a way for each character to perform superpowerful attacks when they're near death -- while it's well-meaning, you could still trick the game into letting you have a nearly unlimited amount of Limits just be never healing yourself, which again forces monsters to have insane amounts of HP just to stay alive. And one must also ask the question, why does a world so technologically advanced only have about three major cities in it?
Not to mention that halfway into the game there's an improbable plot twist -- I won't give it away here -- that can only be explained by tossing in the copout "Oh, GF's have a side effect of causing memory loss." Durrr....
Granted, Final Fantasy VIII could easily stand on its own and be a great game, but the point is, it's can't. See the words "Final Fantasy" in the title? There are years of prequels to live up to and by that comparison Final Fantasy VIII has failed. Unfortunately, this is a case when Squaresoft tried to give too much of what the fans wanted, and ignored all sorts of game design sensibilities altogether. While it's great that they made the effort, I'm afraid I can't really respect the end product.