SummaryJunctioning GFs with teenage angst!
The GoodMelodramatic tendencies have been evident in the Final Fantasy series ever since the sixth one demonstrated what marvels could be done with a typical cliche plot if every character got his (or her) own personal, emotionally engaging "sub-story". As a result, the main plot took a backseat to what was an equivalent of a TV series, where the gradual development of the relationships between the characters fascinates the spectator more than how the whole thing might actually end.
Final Fantasy VIII is, from the point of view of its premise and most of its narrative, a logical conclusion to this tendency. Take a look at the famed love story, for example. Old RPGs showed a main hero with big muscles killing a big bad guy and getting the girl as a result, regardless of natural processes such as gradual falling in love, mutual understanding based on common interests, etc. But people don't fall in love as if hit by a magic wand. They usually do it after a long period of conversations, time spent together, some important events experienced together, after a period of misunderstandings and doubts. That's exactly what Final Fantasy VIII tries to show; regardless of the results, it comes to say a new word, establish a different style of narrative.
The way Square tries to get rid of Japanese RPG character stereotypes in this game is commendable. We don't have a princess-rescuing knight who saves the world just because he was "chosen" to do; instead, we have a nervous teenager with attitude problems who doesn't care for all that as long as his love interest is not involved. We don't have a bunch of hardcore adventurers who follow the lead just to bring some variety into the party, contribute their part to the universal revenge, or provide an excuse for the multitude of character classes; instead, we have "schoolmates" who first get involved in the conflict because of their jobs, and then go together with the main character because they seem to care for him. We don't have a good guy/bad guy conflict; instead, we have two guys who are neither too good nor particularly bad, and see how the two of them, so similar in the beginning, follow separate ways that eventually make them enemies.
In terms of complexity and themes involved, the plot also doesn't disappoint: starting as a military conflict, it soon prepares the ground for the future love story and revolves around Squall, the main hero, unwillingly facing a reality that he didn't want to accept; love enters his life unexpectedly and demands from him to act and take decisions. In addition to that, the story has a second "layer", focused on Laguna, a seemingly unrelated character. Laguna's uncomplicated character and the overall simplicity of his story (a very different, much more simple and "pure" love story, the rough life of a soldier as opposed to the "luxury" style of the elite SeeD members) is the necessary contrast to Squall's part and a very important part of the architecture of the narrative.
As in any good melodrama, there are plenty of wonderful emotion-loaded scenes in Final Fantasy VIII, with the famous dance scene stealing the show. This dance scene is probably the closest thing to TV drama-like entertainment you'll encounter in the world of video games. It is immensely fun to watch, and belongs to my favorite video game cut scenes of all times.
Generally, the CG movies in this game deserve a special mentioning. Instead of being just eye-candy, those (mostly short and silent) movies serve as little dramatic scenes that refresh the narrative and help to emphasize important events by taking them "out" of the gameplay.
Final Fantasy VIII has great visuals. The "realistic" characters were a correct design choice for a game that attempted to move away from epic fantasy towards "real life" 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.
The setting also says a new word. Final Fantasy VIII has an undeniable "retro vibe". There are some pure sci-fi parts, but generally the game is set in a sort of "alternate reality" reminiscent of the "sixties". The main heroes are for the most part "rebel teenagers", the cities have a distinct retro look, and there is even a rock concert performance!
With all its flaws, the gameplay contains some truly excellent ideas and is surprisingly innovative. The series' trademark Espers, who are now called Guardian Forces (GFs), became a kind of a universal equipment, which not only influences characters' stat gaining when leveling up, but also determines the commands he can execute in battles, the usage of magic, protection against status effects, etc.
Magic-casting no longer requires MP; you don't buy magical spells or learn them, but instead draw them from enemies (a "draw" command should be enabled) and then store as equipment on your characters. Each casting of magic costs you one unit, until you run out of units and have to draw it again from somebody. Since magic is used instead of armor in the game (yes, there is no other kind of armor!), you'll spend a great deal of time thinking what is best to do with the magic units you have accumulated: equip them somewhere or use them in battles? Instead of equipping armor (in this case, magic) on body parts, you "junction" it to your characters' parameters: HP, Strength, Agility, Magic Power, Luck, etc. Naturally, various magic spells different effects on your parameters. So it is up to you what class your character will belong to. If you wish to make a good fighter, you'll junction a good strength-raising magic to his strength and probably neglect his magic power, and so on. Junctioned magic can also protect you from various abnormal conditions or raise elemental defense.
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, and you'll get one of the most interesting and flexible systems ever seen in a Japanese RPG.
There are many secrets to discover in this game: some character-related sub-quests, many optional boss battles, and huge amounts of powerful items to hunt for. Although a bit less open-ended than earlier Final Fantasies, the game is still far from being an "interactive movie" some people claim it to be.
Once again, Nobuo Uematsu delivers excellent music. The sheer 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 a pastoral scene, a nocturne, an intimate piano-bar tune, and a light-hearted, pompous waltz in Johann Strauss style is absolutely delightful.
The BadThe gameplay system ended up being too ambitious, over-complicating things that could 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, because it takes time to let the enemy do the necessary damage in order to bring your character to near-death status.
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 narrative 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, inserting 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.
The Bottom LineSquare surely took chances with this one. It alienated many fans and is still seen by many as the one that "killed the franchise". But I love this game for the very same reason many others hate it for: it is different. I welcome the "60-ies" setting; I welcome the teen melodrama; I welcome the GF junctioning; I welcome the realistic graphics: I welcome the ambitions of the narrative. Yes, Final Fantasy VIII is full of rubbish; but when you truly "connect to its vibes", something clicks, and it turns into gold.
I think I can accept the rubbish because I really, really appreciate the gold. How about you?