The World of Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy VIII
Two years after "Final Fantasy VII" conquered the terrain of Playstation RPGs, Square released their next Final Fantasy. "Final Fantasy VIII" enjoyed excellent publicity during the development time, and when the much anticipated title finally appeared, it was not met with joy by all the fans of the series. "Final Fantasy VIII" is a game that almost abandons the style and feel of original Final Fantasy, and of all the games of the series, it is the least typical and the most daring one.
Already "Final Fantasy VII" departed from medieval fantasy setting and created a new futuristic world. At a certain point, "Final Fantasy VIII" also sends it heroes to a standard sci-fi city, with advanced technology and weird machines, but for the most part of the game, the feeling is that of a "retro" ambience. It would be possible to place "Final Fantasy VIII" somewhere in Europe or America of the sixties, with its "free-thinking" teenagers performing rock concerts, its old trains and buses, and war playing an important role in its story. If "Final Fantasy VII" was still epic, at least seen from outside, "Final Fantasy VIII" belongs to a totally different style - namely the melodrama. Its atmosphere, its design, its characters belong already to a different epoch. Although there are sorceresses and other magic creatures in the game, the common impression is that they were put into it mainly as a tribute to older Final Fantasies, rather than as an inseparable part of setting and plot. Of all Final Fantasies, "Final Fantasy VIII" is the closest one to our time.
The story of "Final Fantasy VIII" is perhaps the most complex of all Final Fantasies, although in later parts of the game it has been drastically reduced to a standard showdown between the party of world-saviors and the ultimate evil. But the largest part of the game deals with different matters. Its core is not, unlike all previous Final Fantasies, liberating the world and defeating the external evil or the evil within, but a way more personal and trivial subject - love. "Final Fantasy VI" introduced romantic love for the first time. "Final Fantasy VII" made love important, but not essential to the storyline. In "Final Fantasy VIII", love is the principal force behind the actions of the main heroes, and the actual content of the game. But together with romantic love, plenty of other common human feelings appear in "Final Fantasy VIII", that fascinate and touch the player much more than its formal storyline.
A group of mercenaries called SeeD is prepared to take an action against one of the sides involved in a prolonged war. During this action, the group experiences a strange flashback, a mysterious connection with three soldiers, whom they don't know and who seem to dwell in the past. Through this connection, the mercenaries discover the truth about an evil sorceress who plans to compress time and to conquer the world. On his quest to save the world, the young SeeD member Squall discovers for himself not only the basics of friendship and trust between comrades, but also an emotion unknown to him before - love, that ultimately drives him forward and changes him entirely.
This is just a brief summary of the main plot, which has many sub-plots and which presents lots of different characters. However, all those sub-plots concern, in this way or another, the relationship between people, and the complexity of their mutual feelings. Beside the main theme - love between Squall and Rinoa - the game also analyses the feelings of Laguna, the mysterious "flashback soldier", and his love to Julia. Both love stories are presented extremely realistically and without any unnecessary sentimentality, with the typically Japanese melancholy and sadness. Beside love, the phenomenon of friendship and comradeship occupies a large portion of the game. This is visible from the emphasis on the relationship between Squall and his antagonist Seifer. The game captures precisely the typical teenage immature emotion of admiration toward an older comrade, which is answered with despise, envy, and hatred. Jealousy is also thrown into their relationship, and the development of their feelings becomes one of the most convincing and realistically portrayed in any Final Fantasy game ever.
The main character Squall belongs to the most disliked characters of Final Fantasy series, being a complexed, unfriendly teenager, seemingly unsuitable for the role of a world-savior. Following the tradition started by "Final Fantasy IV", Squall also has to "discover" himself, but unlike the heroes of the previous games, he does not do it on his own, but only after his love to Rinoa changes for him everything. Seifer, with his inner battle between the good and the evil, also fits perfectly into the tradition of similar Final Fantasy heroes. The kind and caring Laguna seems to be the exact opposite of Squall, yet it becomes evident later in the game that his connection to Squall is anything but a coincidence. Only the actual villains of the game lack the dramatic presentation and the complexity of other evil characters of Final Fantasy.
Even more revolutionary than its story and setting were the gameplay mechanics of "Final Fantasy VIII". It has one of the most original and unusual role-playing systems ever employed in a console-style RPG, a system that neglects so many trusted elements of the genre, that an unprepared player might get confused by it. The first thing that strikes the player is the lack of random money gained after battles. Since all playable characters of the game are mercenaries, they get paid after completing their assignments. Another drastic change is the total lack of treasures to find (unless draw points for magic can be considered an equivalent of treasure chests). Money can be obtained exclusively as payment; weapons can be only upgraded at special stores, but never replaced; as for armor, it does not exist at all. The equipment and the ability system of "Final Fantasy VIII" is perhaps its most revolutionary aspect. The entire equipment consists of magic spells. Those spells can be "junctioned" to the characters' stats, increasing or decreasing them. Each magic has unique influence on different stats, and the amount of magic spells (up to a total of hundred) also matters: the more spells are junctioned to a stat, the more they boost it. Magic can't be bought, but instead can be "drawn" at draw points, or - more frequently - from a monster, using the "draw" command in a battle. Magic can also be used in a battle, and its usage doesn't require mana points, but wastes one entity of the stored spells instead. All the battle menu commands, the ability to junction magic, as well as support abilities - everything depends on the main junction: that of a Guardian Force, or GF. Guardian Forces are in fact monster summons, but in "Final Fantasy VIII", they work as the base for the entire equipment system. Every GF allows a character to junction magic to particular stats, and has its own special support abilities or battle commands. GFs can be also summoned in battles an unlimited amount of times, and exchanged freely between party members, which are now entirely class-less. It is possible to locate faint traces of a class by certain characters (such as the usage of blue magic by Quistis), but with all abilities and stats transportable, the party of "Final Fantasy VIII" should be customized by the player himself. This open-ended and flexible system baffled many fans of the series and was one of the main causes for their dislike toward the game. It is not hard to trace certain resemblances of the gameplay system of "Final Fantasy VIII" to those of earlier Final Fantasies, in particular of "Final Fantasy V", where the player could choose a limited amount of command and support abilities from many available, and "Final Fantasy VI", where the Espers determined the bonuses by level up of the characters. However, as a whole, the system of "Final Fantasy VIII" is entirely original.
Graphically, "Final Fantasy VIII" also managed to shock their fans: instead of the cute deformed characters typical for the series, the game designers created realistically looking human beings with proportional body parts. The 3D models of "Final Fantasy VIII" are among the best ever created for Playstation, and the gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds and CG movies make even "Final Fantasy VII" pale in comparison. Certain scenes from "Final Fantasy VIII" belong to the most cinematic experiences in any video game ever, such as the famous dance scene or the ending animation. The music of the game is largely based on "Eyes On Me", a song written by Nobuo Uematsu and performed by the Chinese singer Faye Wong. The wonderful melody accompanies the entire game, and for the first time in the series, there is a song with words sang by a human voice.
Many fans overlooked the fact that despite being so different, "Final Fantasy VIII" maintained plenty of genuine Final Fantasy spirit, and was true to the main "commandment" of the series since "Final Fantasy IV": combine a rich, emotional story with memorable cast of characters and fascinating gameplay. References to common mythology, recurring characters, magic spells, main gameplay mechanics, story details, etc., everything here is hundred per cent Final Fantasy, although it is served in a disguise of a "retro"-melodrama with atypical character management system.
No other Final Fantasy game evoked so many controversial reactions as "Final Fantasy VIII". While some people considered it a new step in console RPG development, a cinematic experience, a revolution, many others - among those many fans of Final Fantasy series - dismissed this game as a pretentious soap-opera with shallow gameplay, an insolent attempt to break the tradition of a great series. As in every art, there are great products among video games which are accepted immediately and unanimously, and there are other great works which first cause a chaotic whirlpool of disagreement and misunderstanding, fully and properly understood only by a handful of admirers. "Final Fantasy VIII" belongs to such great works. It is a daring, groundbreaking game, an experience so unique even ardent fans of Final Fantasy would not recognize it as one belonging to their idolized series. "Final Fantasy VIII" is not an attempt to change something; it is the change itself. It is decidedly the most original console-style RPG ever created, which boldly eliminates such trusted concepts of the genre as random money, treasures, mana points, and armor, but, more importantly, says farewell to the obligatory epic style and presents a breathtaking, monumental, deeply touching game based on a simple melodrama. With its class-less gameplay, realistic character graphics, unique equipment system, retro-futuristic setting, and a storyline dedicated almost entirely to teenage complexes and immature love, it was a one of a kind game, that could not have spawned a true follower, and symbolized a culmination in the development of the series, but at the same time a certain dead end, after which only regress was possible. But as much as it was revolutionary, and as much as the fans of the series did not wish to accept it, it is still a true Final Fantasy in every aspect, having the same personal approach, brilliant gameplay, and world-embracing story as all other past-NES games of the series.
"Final Fantasy VIII" was the second Final Fantasy to be ported to the PC. The PC version is inferior to the Playstation one in virtually every aspect, and fails to exploit the superior capabilities of the PC. This unsuccessful port lead to even more severe criticisms against the game, and the brief alliance between Final Fantasy and PC was interrupted for a long time.
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