Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PC, PS
Unlike previous instalments in the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy VIII did not pique my interest in the least. Back in 1999, when the game first came out, I was busy playing EverQuest and looking forward to another title, Diablo II, which had been delayed for what seemed like an eternity. Still, based solely on the strength of the franchise, I ended up picking up Squall Leonhart’s convoluted tale of love and lunar cries.
Final Fantasy VIII begins with a spectacular clip depicting a fight between our hero and his rival, Seifer. Then the graphics’ quality drops drastically for the gameplay section. This is something I’ve always found weird. Why do developers insist on creating cut scenes that look so different from the rest of the game? These scenes only end up distracting you from the main quest, or, worse, they make the rest of the game feel lacklustre by comparison. Having mentioned this, the look of the characters here is markedly improved from that of Final Fantasy VII, which, lest we forget, came out just two years prior.
What hasn’t got better is our protagonist’s personality. Squall is a lone wolf who doesn’t talk much, although we’re privy to his thoughts. His standoffish attitude is amusing at first but quickly gets tiresome, perhaps because his enemies give him little from which to bounce off. Seifer, his initial rival, can’t help but underwhelm, what with his losing every single fight. Eventually, by which I mean really late in Final Fantasy VIII, our hero is confronted with the sorceresses, but you get to know so little about them that they never become compelling.
I mention the sorceresses’ late introduction because the story of Final Fantasy VIII is, as usual, a complete mess. You start off as a mercenary trainee in Balam Garden. After you graduate, you’re sent on your first mission, which goes awry. You’re quickly propelled into a plot to assassinate the current sorceress, about whom you know absolutely nothing, but it turns out she was being manipulated by another sorceress from the future, and then some stuff happens with time compression. The plot gets confusing as hell by the end, especially in light of such a simple beginning.
On to the gameplay then. Final Fantasy VIII introduces a new mechanic called the Guardian Force or GF for short. The GF consists of monsters that you capture along the way or find on rare enemies. Equip them, and they’ll give you special abilities, gaining levels as you do. You can even summon the critters in combat, which results in spectacular visuals at first, though the lengthy animation quickly becomes tedious and repetitive. You’ll be tempted to go through the game without their assistance, but then you’d end up with really hard boss fights.
In fact, combat eventually becomes too difficult in Final Fantasy VIII with or without GFs. At this point, you’ll start relying on limit breaks: desperate attacks that you can perform when you’re low on health to inflict huge damage. Although previous Final Fantasy games have featured the mechanic, this is the first time it can be exploited to kill bosses in a few minutes. Like the GFs, limit breaks have to be mastered. Otherwise, the game is just a pain.
As is tradition in the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy VIII overhauls the magic system. This time, if you wish to cast a spell, you have to drain it from an enemy first. It’s an interesting way of doing things, but the ability to tie your magic to specific attributes, like strength, tends to lock spells in a state of limbo. After all, the more spells you cast, the lower your tied attribute gets. As a result, you’re likely to forego using any magic in order to keep your characters strong.
Despite its problems, I generally enjoyed Final Fantasy VIII, though I found little in terms of replay value. Unfortunately, I got tired enough of this bloated RPG that I ended up skipping every subsequent entry in the Final Fantasy franchise. I did hear good things about Final Fantasy IX, but, by then, Diablo II had finally come out, and my friends and I were having so much fun playing online that it seemed no other game existed or mattered.