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CONSOLE: PlayStation DEVELOPER: Squaresoft PUBLISHER: Squaresoft
RELEASE DATE (NA): September 7, 1999 GENRE: RPG
// review by SoyBomb

Trying something new to top the seemingly untoppable.

About twelve years ago (at least, that's my count as of this writing), Final Fantasy VII wasn't putting a dent on the map. It was pretty much tearing giant holes right through it. The original PlayStation was devouring huge chunks from the video game market at the time, and thus, it was a great time for many people, especially North Americans, to get a taste of the RPG genre that they may have missed during the previous gaming era. Previous Final Fantasy games (released on Nintendo's consoles before making the jump to Sony... ooooo!) were not exactly million-sellers Stateside, but they held their own, particularly Final Fantasy III (SNES), which sold about 870,000 copies in North America. But with the widespread fame of the PlayStation, Final Fantasy VII was ready to pounce on everyone, and pounce it did. People shouted from the rooftops about its sheer awesomeness; babies were named after main characters (although little Cloud Smith was later teased and stoned at his elementary school seven years later). It was one of the first -- if not THE first -- RPG to include full-motion video cutscenes to enhance the storytelling. Granted, they weren't always consistent (sometime the characters were cartoony, other times realistic), but they served their purpose. And the gameplay felt fresh to many, even though it really wasn't. Final Fantasy VII sold over 3 million copies in North America -- a fairly difficult feat overall -- so it was deemed an overwhelming success. Squaresoft, in its infinite wisdom, knew that they had to figure out how to top this behemoth of a game. In steps Final Fantasy VIII, the successor. Final Fantasy VIII took what Final Fantasy VII had done so well, and... um... threw it to the ground and did the Mexican Hat Dance around it. That's not to say that FFVIII is in any way horrible, but it's definitely not like the Final Fantasy games of olde.

Final Fantasy VIII takes a more "everyman" kind of stance when it comes to storyline. There is fantasy elements indeed, but you are no longer anyone particularly noble, such as a knight or even, dare I say it, a Black Mage. You take the reigns of Squall Lionheart, a student at Balamb Garden, who is training to become a SeeD alongside his "friends". Squall's quite the loner, and clearly lacks any good-natured social skills, as you'll come to discover (and become frequently annoyed with). After successfully becoming a SeeD, he and his fellow SeeDs are sent out on a mission to defeat the sorceress Edea, who is controlling the nasty Galbadian army and attempting to rule over all. Squall and party meet up with several new faces, including Rinoa Heartilly, who is cheery and peppy, unlike himself, yet strangely enough, they are drawn to each other by some mysterious force. Let's call it l... nah. I don't want to spoil much more for those who have yet to experience the inner and lengthy details of FFVIII, but needless to say, their coup against Edea fails and eventually leads them down a path that pits them against powers even higher than Edea. As another spoiler, you spend about a whole disc of gameplay working toward the sole goal of reviving Rinoa from a possession-induced coma. (Alright, that's the last spoiler for sure.) You also get to play as a second party when Squall and company hear a high-pitched noise and are put to sleep, thus sending them into a dream world and allowing them to take over the bodies of Laguna, Kiros, and Ward, who seem to have a story all their own but within the same world. What connection does Squall have with Laguna? That is to be determined... but do not fret: the storyline DOES give you a firm response, even if it is a tad confusing, except to sci-fi buffs and horlogists. The storyline is ultimately very deep and worthy of gloating the Final Fantasy title. The characters are also fairly well developed, although the translation still leaves something to be desired. I tend to feel like there are things in the Japanese version that remain unclear in the English edition; that's the case for many RPGs of this era and earlier. Did I miss something?

This game is a tad unusual in that it differs somewhat from the typical formula of "go out and level up, then kill a huge monster, then go out and level up some more, then kill a more powerful huge monster". There is indeed the opportunity to fight monsters out in the field for experience points (bosses don't give you any, sadly), it's really not all that useful, for a couple of important reasons. First of all, enemies and bosses are only powerful relative to the current average level of your party's members. So if everyone in your selected party is at Level 20, your foes will also comply with that level. This also means that their HP (hit point) count will also increase, requiring more damage to defeat them. Secondly, the overall statistical increases (attacks, defense, etc.) you get from leveling up are so insignificant that you'd probably not notice them. And oddly enough, you only need 1000 experience points to go up one level, as opposed to the incremental scale imposed by other FF games. So what good is fighting in the field? I'll explain momentarily, but I'm sure you're wondering how you can possibly improve your own skills if leveling up fails in this department. That's where the designers of Final Fantasy VIII decided to branch off into new territory. You can improve your skills through a system known as "Junctioning".

I'll level with you: I didn't precisely understand the concept of Junctioning for the longest time. In fact, it wasn't until near the end of the game that at least SOME things clicked in my brain. Admittedly, it feels unnecessary, but please allow me to explain and then we can judge for ourselves. First, let's talk about Magic (and how it relates to everything). You no longer learn spells in FFVIII, nor are there Magic Points (MP) to expend. Instead, you can draw magic spells from enemies; various enemies hold various spells, including typical ones like Fire, Thunder, Blizzard (at three different levels of power, attributing the suffixes -ara and -aga to indicate higher potency levels), Cure, Dispel, Blind... you name it, it just might be here, with the exception of the elusive "Tofu" spell. Thank goodness. Anyway, each character can hold up to 100 instances of each spell that they can cast. These spells are not only useful during battles, but they also can be junctioned to certain character statistics, such as HP, Strength, Vitality, and Evasion, to give them higher levels overall. For example, attaching the spell Curaga, the most powerful basic curing spell, to your HP will give you a higher amount of hit points than if you were to junction Thunder. The more instances of a spell you have, the greater the effects. In fact, you can even junction them to your direct attack and defense, giving you more offense with, and defense from, specific spell types. Are you with me so far? Good, let's continue.

Next, let's get into Guardian Forces, which are also integral to the Junctioning system. Alternatively known as Summons, Espers, Eidolons, or Aeons (and possibly some other things I don't know about), these are monsters that you can summon for the purposes of attacking enemies or blessing your party with a special status. But that's just one of their functions. You can also use them for the sake of improving your character. All Guardian Forces (henceforth known as GFs) can be leveled up via Ability Points, which are earned at the end of battles -- and that's why field battling might be considered useful. The statistics for each party member that can actually be junctioned with magic is dependent upon which GFs are junctioned. Different GFs allow for different statistics (HP, Strength, Spirit, etc.) to be improved, so choose well! Additionally, using those Ability Points, you can have the GF learn special skills a character can use (such as "Mad Rush", which simultaneously casts casts Berserk, Protect, Haste, and Shell on all your characters. It's pretty much increases their defense and lets them fight under their own influence, not yours. Use Mad Rush and sit back, baby! GF can also learn percentage improvements for some stats, such as HP+20% (increasing your HP by 20%) and Str+40%, things like that. Sadly, you can only "equip" three commands and two or three additional stat boosters to each character, even if your GFs have learned many more, so again, choose well! Also, during battle sequences, you can only use GF that you have junctioned, so junctioning them definitely helps. Ultimately, it is the effective combination of junctioning magic and GFs on each character that will prove how strong or weak they are. Personally, I prefer the simpler systems of olde, where you fight and as you get more experience, your levels increase, as do your stats. But that's just my opinion; many people will defend this system unto their grave. Not me, however. As an added Reebok to the groin, this Junctioning system replaces the need to purchase weapons or armor to better strengthen yourself. That's sad; I miss buying Mythril Shields. But all in all, you really need to understand this fairly well in order to succeed in this game. Without the proper junctioning of spells, particularly for defense purposes, you will likely die a few horrible deaths too many. In fact, the final bosses (the last of which is still giving me grief to this very day) require an astute understanding of what to junction and when, lest you wish to perish.

One other saving grace in battle, should your junctioning be less than perfect, are Limit Breaks. Under a couple of conditions -- usually when your character has less than 32% of their total health remaining, or when Aura is cast upon them -- a character can perform a Limit Break, which is a powerful attack unique to that person. Typically, you'll also be required to undergo a button-pressing sequence to determine how much damage you do; the more agile you are at pressing buttons quickly, the more damage you can deal. The main character, Squall, as an example, can perform Renzokuken, a sword attack. By pressing buttons at precisely the right moments as a meter runs at the bottom of the screen, you can strike more frequently. It's a nice system, but unlike previous games, they are only available for use more by chance than by any particular method of gaining the ability to use them. Also featured in this game is Triple Triad, a card-based mini-game that can be played with various non-playable characters throughout the game. If it serves any purposes, it would be to give some relief from the fighting, and also, certain GFs can convert cards you win into rare items. Honestly, I never tried it, and I think there are enough items in the game as it is. I'm not too concerned about cards in a Final Fantasy game, either. Consider this the FFVIII equivalent of Blitzball from FFX, except less annoying.

Final Fantasy VIII is the first game in the series to actually use characters that are proportionate to actual people, thus devoting a sense of realism to the game. It's not complete realism, considering that you can cast magic and a dog can be used as a bazooka, but it's a start. Much attention was paid to the details of the Guardian Forces and their pictoresque attack sequences as well, which, although pretty, tend to take far too long for the amount of damage they deliver. The biggest change I noted was not only the mixture of pre-rendered backgrounds and polygonal characters, but the fact that your characters can actually be transposed into full-motion video. There could be things crashing behind you in pre-rendered cinematics, and you still have to move your characters away from the damage. Now that's cool, and it looks like it would have taken some serious work to program that. Kudos to Square on that one. Unfortunately, the menus have never looked so drab. Who ever thought gray was a delightful colour? I suppose it represents the inner melancholy felt by the protagonist, but c'mon, lighten up. The music, composed by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu, is also proposed with finesse here, although there is a stronger sense of minimalism sometimes than I'm used to from an RPG. However, of the melodies that are upfront and readily available, they are quite nice. I didn't use my CD player to replace the tunes which playing FFVIII, which is surprising, considering how often I do that.

But overall, with its rather unconventional method for strengthening and customizing your party, Final Fantasy VIII will likely polarize opinions of the Final Fantasy fanbase. Some will adore the new changes and embrace them with open arms, while others will shun the game for its confusing nature. I myself am not quite sure which way to lean on this issue. I really hated the new system at first, but I trekked on and eventually became more comfortable with it. But I still don't fully understand it yet, and I would have preferred a more traditional style of gameplay. It was very risky to make such a grandiose change to their top-selling franchise, but Squaresoft is all about taking risks, and they usually end up paying off in the long run. FFVIII sold very well, so they must have done something right. As for me, it will never be my favourite Final Fantasy game, but the journey itself was one worth taking.

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