Review: Final Fantasy VIII [1/3]
Taking an ambitious step forward, Final Fantasy VIII ultimately falls flat on its face.
Before there was Final Fantasy XIII for everyone to hate, there was Final Fantasy VIII, a game that helped to renew my interest in the medium and was the target of gamers’ ire for years after its release. Final Fantasy VIII represented a radical departure from the series conventions, even when compared to Final Fantasy VII. At the time, it managed to garner a 90/100 metacritic score. VIII was an ambitious effort that attempted to craft a world of realistic looking people, realistic full motion videos, and a story arc that placed a great deal of emphasis on romance and the mind of the game’s protagonist, Squall Leonhart. How did this game elicit such a bipolar reception? Let’s start at the beginning.
Squall Leonhart, the aforementioned protagonist, is a 17-year-old mercenary in training. He studies at an academy that fosters children and teenagers with the goal of someday shipping them out to clients around the world. It’s a sort of anime-style Hogwarts. VIII takes this opportunity to break you into the game as Squall completes his education. And by “break you into the game,” I mean drown you in menu driven tutorials centering around game mechanics that make little sense. Where VIII deviates from prior games in the series and conventional jRPGs is that your characters are mere vessels for guardian forces: creatures that are equipped to characters that can be summoned during battle. Guardian forces are what the player builds and develops as the game progresses. The characters have levels, stats, and limit breaks but the differences between each of them are superficial. This disconnect between the avatars and the player’s investment is jarring. Guardian forces (GFs) allow characters to collect and use magic as well as utilize special skills and abilities. Magic is collected as expendable items, so if you acquire 6 fire spells you can use fire six times in battle. Spells can also be “junctioned” to the character’s stats (strength, HP, etc.) based upon which GF they have equipped. So when you find 6 fire spells you could augment your strength with them and increase that stat by 6 points (I am making these numbers of up for the sake of simplicity.) It can be difficult to judge when magic should be saved or used and what effect they have in either case.
If you are confused at this point then just be glad I condensed the explanation into a paragraph. The first stretch of the game is difficult to make heads or tails from, but the challenges of VIII are light enough for the player to blindly stumble through relatively unscathed. VIII definitely feels like an experiment of sorts. It is not as tightly designed around its game mechanics as other entries in the series. Squaresoft was clearly interested in trying something new without entirely committing to it. This is by far the worst quality of the game. It is so needlessly complex and impenetrable that it is impossible to meaningfully design levels and challenges for the player to overcome and master. This approach limits the amount of frustration the player experiences as they try to figure out the game mechanics but also robs them of the satisfaction of growing to meet escalating challenges. There is little tension in the game which becomes a blur of min/maxing and hoarding of magic and items. Strategies for effectively playing the game can be devised but are unnecessary. To top it all off, the plot is as nonsensical, if not more nonsensical than the gameplay mechanics. In the span of a week, Squall inexplicably goes from being a student to the leader of the entire academy which, also during the same time span, is tasked with defeating sorceresses across time and space.
Final Fantasy VIII attempts to do so much but still operates in a 16-bit era mindset. This is simultaneously a great flaw and its saving grace. The game system can be grasped and understood. There are opportunities for the player to exploit the system in satisfying and novel ways. And it’s difficult though not impossible to look past some of extremely silly story elements. Final Fantasy VIII still retains the strong game content that the series is known for. There is large world to explore, systems to master, good music to listen to, and vast dungeons to raid. If you can bear with it, VIII is a game that’s capable of keeping you entertained for a good deal of time. And in spite of failed attempts at storytelling and character development, there are still some novel ideas buried in there. Even 12 years later, there are a few moments that still tug at my heart-strings and remind me why I was so invested in the game when it was originally released. It’s not hard to see how gamers of 1999 were so impressed with what Final Fantasy VIII tried to do, but it’s also easy to see how it fails to deliver on its promises.