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SummaryJunctioning GFs with teenage angst!
The GoodAfter the previous game conquered the masses with its visual splendor and drama, Square decided to go all the way with pomp and fanfares, and released one of the series' most hyped and controversial installments.
However, if you look beyond the often needlessly flashy exterior, you'll find quite an interesting game within. With all its flaws, the gameplay contains some very cool ideas. For starters, character customization is actually more free-form in Final Fantasy VIII than in most other Japanese RPGs. Where else can you freely manipulate a character's individual attributes and not just get him a stronger sword or automatically level him up to oblivion? There is a reason for the game's weird insistence on scaling enemies: you are not supposed to level up too much, but rather think how to build up your characters. Thus, the game encourages experimentation with different builds and thinking outside of the box, which is quite a rare achievement for the genre.
There are a lot of other sides to this system, and it is quite complex. The series' trademark summons (now called GFs) turned into a universal equipment of sorts, which determines the character's attributes, resistances, and teaches them new abilities. Armor is gone completely, and instead you junction magic spells to your attributes to raise them. This sounds like a crazy, convoluted idea, but once you get the hang of it you might enjoy the flexibility. Add to that the complexity and the variety of GF-junctioning, the large amount of special abilities those GFs can learn, the usage of GFs themselves as summon spells, the fact that many of them are optional, and you'll get one of the most interesting systems ever seen in a Japanese role-playing game.
Though the game is less open-ended that the previous installments, there are still secrets to discover, including character-related sub-quests, many optional boss battles, and large amounts of powerful items to hunt for. A fairly sophisticated card game can be played against various NPCs, yielding even more cool stuff to the player in case of victory. In an unusually realistic way, you get paychecks instead of farming monsters for money, which forces you to look at financial management from a different angle.
The melodramatic story of Final Fantasy VIII is not without merit. I liked its soap opera-like tone, its unusual focus on modern-day teenagers instead of knights in shiny armor. Take a look at the famed love story, for example. Old RPGs showed a main hero with big muscles killing the bad guy and getting the girl as a result. Here, the love relationship develops slowly, in an "episodic" fashion, with attention paid to mundane details and crudely presented, but somehow endearing psychological traits.
Square tried to get rid of Japanese RPG character stereotypes in this game, and that is commendable. The common goody-two-shoes protagonist who saves the world just because he was "chosen" for that is replaced by a surly teenager with an annoying attitude. His companions are normal people who initially fight just because it's their job, and they aren't above participating in a rock concert. The setting has a certain "1960's vibe" mixed with old-school optimistic sci-fi, reducing medieval fantasy elements to a minimum.
There are plenty of emotional scenes in Final Fantasy VIII, with the famous dance scene stealing the show. That scene is probably the closest thing to TV drama-like entertainment you'll encounter in the world of video games. It is very fun to watch and belongs to my favorite video game cutscenes of all times. Generally, the CG movies in this game truly enhance the atmosphere. Instead of being just pointless eye-candy, those (mostly short and silent) sequences serve as little dramatic intermezzi that refresh the narrative and help to emphasize important events by taking them "out" of the gameplay.
Final Fantasy VIII has exquisite visuals. The "realistic" characters were a correct design choice for a game that attempted to move away from epic fantasy towards modern-day melodrama. Graphical details constitute a great deal of the game's special atmosphere: pay attention to some of the characters' clothes and outfits, decorations on the streets in towns, train design, etc. Gorgeous, stylish pre-rendered backgrounds and real-time 3D battle graphics surpass everything the PlayStation has seen before.
Once again, Nobuo Uematsu delivers excellent music. The brilliance of this particular score is in the fact that a large part of it is based on only one theme - the Eyes on Me melody. The way this theme varies and shifts into different forms, becoming pastoral background music, a nocturne, an intimate piano-bar tune, and a light-hearted, pompous waltz in Johann Strauss style is absolutely delightful.
The BadThe gameplay system of Final Fantasy VIII ended up being too ambitious, over-complicating things that should have stayed the way they were before. The big problem with this system is the stubbornness with which the designers force the players to use GF attacks and limit breaks over and over again. I understand that boss battles should require more than simply tapping the attack button; but regular battles that drag themselves is a major mood-killer for a Japanese RPG.
The unskippable GF attack animations, admittedly gorgeous, are simply too long, and watching them again and again can become a painful process. What's worse is that the player feels too tempted to use them all the time, because they are completely free. Putting a penalty on GF usage (health or MP-draining or whatever) would have at least balanced that part a bit.
An alternative to GF attacks are powerful limit breaks; but you can execute them only if the character in question is on the verge of dying. It sounds interesting in theory, and really proves helpful against bosses; but using this technique against regular enemies again means prolonging the battle. Same applies to the dubious magic-drawing: why can't I just buy spells instead of wasting turns upon turns on getting them from enemies?
Regular enemies tend to have ridiculous amount of HP and also inflict ridiculously low damage on your characters. Put all of the above together and you'll have an idea about how tedious and unrewarding the battles of Final Fantasy VIII can become.
The ambitions of the story are severely hampered by strange, poorly explained, and needless plot twists. Maybe much of the quality has been lost in translation, but the writing doesn't improve at all over the previous Final Fantasy offerings, which were, frankly, never too good to begin with. The awkward and messy writing hurts Final Fantasy VIII more than it did the early installments, precisely because this game tried to disengage itself from "childish" fantasy elements and declared itself realistic and mature.
Plot holes and unsatisfying explanations become more abundant the more the game abandons its melodramatic tone and plunges into the depths of supernatural cosmic battles. Square didn't dare to pursue their new stylistic approach to the end and inserted a trivial, obligatory "save the world" grand finale, which seemed to have been torn out of context and pasted into the game without any good reason. And again, this damages the game more than it would a more traditional Japanese RPG.