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SummaryIt's a love/hate relationship.
The GoodThis is going to be a very hard review to write. In all of video gaming history, few games are as divisive as Final Fantasy VIII. Seeing as it followed one of the most popular games of all time, FFVIII was bound to incite strong opinions. For every gamer that calls it innovative genius, another calls it an annoying step backwards. I personally have moved back and forth between FFVIII's love camp and its hate camp so many times that it's ridiculous. What it comes down to is that when FFVIII does something well, it does it amazingly well. Likewise, when it does something poorly, it does it epically poorly. Since this is the "good" section, I'll get right in to what I loved about FFVIII:
There is one area in which FFVIII surpasses all of its predecessors, and that is aesthetic. The soundtrack is one of the best you will ever hear from midi. The low-quality instruments of VII are gone, and their replacements will sometimes fool you into thinking that you're listening to CD-audio. Complimenting the soundtrack are the best FMVs of the PlayStation era, and an astounding number of beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds. With the (for the time) high resolution images that grace the prelude music, FFVIII establishes from the very get-go that it is an "art" game. It is clearly designed for gamers who value atmosphere above all else, and it excels in this category more than any game before it. Many a time while playing this game I simply stopped to look at the backgrounds, and let the music roll for a cycle or two.
The most drastic difference from FFVIII's predecessor in terms of aesthetic are the character models. The characters are all realistically proportioned and fully textured, and don't resemble the lego-like characters of FFVII. That said, the character designs themselves are for the most part superb, with only a few highly subjective stylistic nitpicks to complain about. Too many belts, anyone? This is merely digression, however, as the important thing is that the character designs support the pseudo-retro motif of the game marvelously. The '60s elements in FFVIII are something that I've never seen in another game. If there was one aspect of this game that I wish had caught on more, it was the '60s look. I want to see more RPGs with stylish cars, black leather jackets, and revolvers--even if those revolvers are swords disguised as revolvers.
Now for the moment I've been dreading: the gameplay. While the graphics of FFVIII receive near universal praise, the gameplay is an absolute hotbed for complaints. I have mostly complaints in this category, but there are some things that I liked about it. The controversial junction system is a prime example of how Square goes out of its way to break the norm and try something radically new. Once you get the hang of it, the junction system can be a complex and satisfying experience. Whether or not it is worth the amount of time you will spend drawing magic is a question that depends on your attention span.
Another aspect of FFVIII that is very hit-and-miss with gamers is the story. There are certainly some things to complain about it, but it is not without its merits. There are several moments of absolute genius, with the scene involving Irvine getting cold feet during the sniper mission coming to mind. It was very true to life, as the one who is the most confident about a challenge is often the first to break down. It is the humanist nature of the story that serves as its strongest point. It is decidedly melodramatic, which makes it delightfully more personal than previous FFs. This is best illustrated in the battle at Balamb garden, where the school nurse has to remind Squall that the battle is not about strategy, but is instead about the students who are fighting. Following this is a speech that embodies that spirit of the game. The students of Balamb are people before they are soldiers. Squall is not leading a band of mindless grunts, he is asking his friends to help him. If nothing else, the tone of FFVIII is unique, which is more than almost all RPGs can say.
One last thing I want to say before I rip at the game's shortcomings is that FFVIII provides an example of FMVs used correctly. Instead of showing us a twenty minute movie that could have been shown with the game engine (I'm looking at you, MGS4), FFVIII gives us short, wordless, beautiful scenes that serve to enhance the atmosphere without detracting from interactivity for too long. Pre-rendered movies can easily cut the player away from the game when used in abundance, but Square knows how to make them count.
The BadNow that I've told you why I love FFVIII, I'm going to tell you why I despise it. The first and foremost problem with FFVIII is the often abysmal gameplay. Innovation is nice and all, but poorly designed mechanics are still annoying no matter how radically different they are. The main issue here is that you have a choice of spending all your time either summoning monsters, or drawing magic. The summon animations are astounding, but the game forces the player to rely on them too much early on, so they can get old really fast. If you don't want to bother with the summons, you have to buff up your stats significantly, but here's the catch: Leveling up doesn't work. The monsters level up with you, so the only practical way to get an advantage on them is to draw magic from your enemies and junction it to your stats. This process takes an unbearable amount of time, and you will have to do it over and over again. Eventually, I got used to this, but I feel I must have lost a significant number of brain cells in the process. Drawing magic is basically grinding without the satisfaction of killing things. Either way, this leads to an insultingly mindless experience.
So, once I had gotten used to drawing magic and had learned the more interesting nuances of the junction system, I found that the game was far more satisfying to play than it had been earlier. As a newcomer, though, I was completely put off by this system which seemed entirely incomprehensible, boring, and inane. FFVIII may have one of the worst learning curves in all of gaming. Until you get to know it, the gameplay is positively agonizing. The tutorials do little to help, and are inexcusably drawn out. My advice to newcomers is to find a guide, which may save you the trouble of having to learn this game the hard way.
While I praise the story for the direction it took, there are many glaring problems with its execution. First and foremost, most of the writing is terrible. Whether this was a problem with translation or not, I don't know. What I do know is that the English script has shown no improvements over FFVII in terms of grace or fluency. This problem was more understandable in FFVII, as it was the series's first entry on the PS platform. The whole game was unpolished, from the low quality midi to the blocky characters to the awkward translation. By FFVIII, Square should have been able to apply polish to all those areas. The graphics and sound were improved, but the quality of the script had remained totally stagnant. This makes the script stand out as a glaring shortcoming in what was supposed to be a refined experience. Seeing the realistic characters spew such lousy dialogue is far more jarring than seeing lego-like characters doing the same thing. The execution of the writing almost totally undermines the mature atmosphere of the game, and makes it difficult to take seriously. If the rest of the game hadn't tried to be so realistic, this would not have been as big of a problem. The reason why the scripts worked better in VII and IX is precisely because the aesthetics of those games didn't try to be so serious.
In addition to general shoddiness, another problem with the story of FFVIII is that some of the plot points are positively idiotic. Probably the best example is the plot-twist that the writers pulled straight out of their rears. I'm not going to spoil anything, but I can guarantee that this particular revelation will come entirely unexpected to a new player, as there is absolutely nothing building up to it. The whole scene appeared out of thin air in a cliche-filled mess. The worst part is that this was supposed to be one of the most important parts of the story.
Also, the "plan" that brings you to the last dungeon is completely, inexcusably absurd. It's like this: Villain wants to do A. We do not want Villain to do A, because A would be bad. In order to kill Villain to prevent Villain from doing A, we are going to help Villain do A. It makes just as much sense in the actual game. FFVIII is riddled with this kind of poor storytelling, making the solid premise seem like wasted potential.
Another thing that can't be left unsaid is how thoroughly obnoxious the protagonist is. Unlike Cloud, who turned out to be a nice guy and was just brain-addled and confused, Squall rarely stops being a jerk. It's a wonder that everyone in the game seems to love him, because he's a totally unlikable person. He's almost like Raymond Shaw in the Manchurian Candidate, except that everyone likes him without the assistance of brainwashing. Although occasionally Squall will say something genuinely interesting in his head, most of the time the player will be treated to his intolerable attitude. He rivals Simon in "Simon the Sorcerer 2" in terms of jerkiness.
If I sound like I'm nitpicking, it's because I am. The thing about FFVIII is that it has an endless number of nits to pick, and I've only scratched the surface. There are an ungodly number of annoyances that you will have to train yourself to ignore in order to enjoy this game. Many times while playing I have thrown down the controller and decided that FFVIII is simply more trouble than it's worth, resolving not to waste any more of my time with it.
The Bottom LineIn the end, though, I keep coming back to FFVIII because there is something undeniably appealing about it. Despite its numerous flaws, the things it does well are done so well that the experience is unforgettable. If there's one game that I wish would be remade, it is this one. Underneath the frustrating gameplay and lousy writing is a great game that is begging for an overhaul. With a major rewrite and a junction system redesigned with the player in mind, FFVIII could become the best game of all time.
I will never badmouth someone for saying that they hate FFVIII, because there is a lot to hate about it. In the end, though, I still love it because of all the wonderful things that it has going for it.
If you're willing to try something wonderfully different, if miserably flawed, you won't find anything better than Final Fantasy VIII.