Final Fantasy VIII
Based on: Yet another Final Fantasy -- this time with extra-weird character building!
Clichés. Like this article, video games are full of them.
One genre that is particularly ravaged by clichés are RPGs. You know the drill: screw around your village until the evil empire/magical mist threatens and/or destroys it, then get advice from the chief/elder/mayor/king, who then tells you of the ubiquitous elemental crystals or powerful sword left behind from your legendary hero father, an adventurin' badass from back in the day, who may also be from the moon or the last in the line of an ancient race.
The clichés don't end at the presentation of trite narratives, but in fact spread right down to the very core of the gameplay -- you walk around in an overworld field, stumble into random encounters, enter your commands one at a time, earn gold or potch or whatever, and walk away a little richer in experience points. Repeat ad nauseum until you are strong enough to reach the next plot point or boss encounter. RPGs have more or less been the same game repackaged since the beginning -- from Dragon Quest to, uh, well, Dragon Quest VIII.
RPG players demand no more than this formula from their games and are in fact quite hostile to the tiniest modicum of change. Back when Final Fantasy VII first arrived, the RPG OGs bemoaned its lack of happy-go-lucky heroes and the co-opted D&D stylings of yore. And more recently, when the Final Fantasy XII demo was shipped as a bonus with DQVIII, people lamented the new Gambit system...despite the fact it had much in common with a similar system seen in BioWare's much lauded Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Detractors claimed that these sort of (needed) innovations could be in games that were not Final Fantasy, thank you very much, and that these additions marked the point at which Square had finally decided to remove the last vestiges of player interaction and turn their games into true interactive movies. Many gamers snidely argued that DQVIII proved that basic turn-based fighting and hard-earned level-grinding was still deeply intriguing.
Balamb girls gone wild.
But really now, that's just silly. Square has done a sterling job with keeping things fresh lo these many years with the Final Fantasy series, introducing new gameplay systems where most RPGs were content to follow in DQs footprints. In fact, the unpredictable shake-ups of gameplay mechanics from one game to the next is perhaps the defining hallmark of the series. Final Fantasy had a four-member party with player's choice of skill classes and streamlined interaction with the "A" button -- a welcome change from DQ and its reliance on specific menu commands to do everything from talking to NPCs to searching the ground to opening doors. Final Fantasy II dropped the classes and allowed characters to specialize in the actions they performed most frequently in battle. Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy V, and Final Fantasy Tactics? featured the ever-malleable Job System, allowing for a combination of regimented limitations and player-determined flexibility. Final Fantasy IV, despite being perhaps the most straightforward game in the series, introduced Active Time Battles. Final Fantasy VI made spell-learning a player-directed activity rather than something bought or learned at set experience intervals, as well as an almost completely open second half of the quest. Cloud's much-maligned and even more overrated adventure had the Materia system -- all skills could be equipped by any character, but the skills rather than the characters retained their potency when unequipped.
But some radical and fundamental changes came with Final Fantasy VIII, a game that negated most of the clichés and gameplay contrivances that RPGs in general and Final Fantasy in particular were known for. And then starting a few entirely new clichés for the future. Surly, saturnine protagonists, anyone?
The first thing a Final Fantasy VIII player will notice is that the game takes place in a world that could be roughly equated to our modern world, or one maybe a few decades into the future. Gone are the castles and kings in red cloaks, shuffling forever in their thrones; in their place are elected presidents, cars, television stations, and satellites. And no, these aren't the remnants of some lost civilization where the technology is mistaken by the heroes as magic as the game winks to the player with talk of the "ancients." Even the steampunk trappings of the series's previous two installments are sidelined for this perhaps more mundane setting.
The narrative follows graduates of a training school for mercenaries, who naturally become swept up in world events and save the world -- old habits die hard, it seems, even when reinventing the wheel. The school looks like a community college with its cafeteria, library, and lecture halls. The headmaster is a guy named (of course) Cid, who looks like a cross between Robin Williams and Mr. Belvedere and sports a totally sexy (yet distinguished!) sweater-vest. Also: copious mention of hot dogs, which has got to be some sort of RPG first. These details may not seem completely groundbreaking, especially considering that Persona was released domestically in 1996 and centered around Japanese high school students. But this is about bucking tradition! And there's far more to FFVIII than just hot dogs and sweater-vests.
The end of disc 4.
As previously mentioned, RPGs require players to fight copiously in order to gain the experience necessary to learn skills and earn the currency necessary to buy new equipment. In FFVIII, however, merely fighting will gain you very little. You get experience, sure, but it just allows for minor stat upgrades, and the enemies keep pace with you –- the higher your level, the higher their level. More to the point, winning battles actually nets you no currency whatsoever; for once, someone stopped to consider the fact that most monsters probably aren't toting an abundance of pocket change. Instead, your party is paid a salary by their mercenary guild, and Gil is deposited into your account at regular intervals. Your salary level is increased or decreased by your performance in battle and game events. You can also take a series of tests to increase your ranking and salary up to its maximum.
Of course, later in the game, when Squall becomes leader of the school, you will not automatically get an awesome salary, which is BS. But that's a video game for ya. Link is always trying to save Hyrule, and everyone is always screwing him on bomb bags. Not enough rupees? Listen, buddy, I hope this angry moon crashes into this town and wipes your wretched line off the face of the earth.
Anyway! This Gil is great for items and all, but you do not buy weapons or armor. As a matter of fact, there are no equippable items for your characters. At all. Weapon upgrades are obtained by finding rare items listed in weapon magazines and using them to have guys at random weapon improvement kiosks glue them to your blade or whatever to make them better. Most of these items are drops, some of which are extremely hard to obtain...but when you do, the resultant increase in your power is substantial. The weapons are then equipped automatically, so you can't switch back to an older weapon. In the case of main guy Squall, each new Gunblade (it's a blade with a gun trigger attached, see) also equips him with a new possible Limit Break, those ultimate moves that served as the only distinguishing difference between party members in FFVII. They work differently in FFVIII: they're most likely to become available in desperation situations, unless you manage to induce them with a hard-to-come-by spell.
But what about armor? Defense and attack bonuses are gained by equipping through the game's central system, junctioning -- which is in fact the real way to level characters in FFVIII. Those stats and numbers are just a smokescreen.
While in combat, it's possible to use a command called "Draw" rather than simply attacking enemies. This allows you to suck out a somewhat random instances of a given magic spell. You can stock up to 100 uses of each spell, and there are no MP. It's kind of like the original Final Fantasy spell-pool system, except you can max out a bunch of magic before you even tackle the first dungeon. Once drawn, a spell may then be used in the usual fashion or can be junctioned to your various attributes to transform your characters into Galbadian-destroying hard-asses.
The type of magic you junction, and the statistic to which you apply it, determines its bonuses. If you junction Cure to your HP stat, you will get an HP boost -- and the more Cure you apply, the greater the boost. Use Curaga instead of the lower-level Cure, and the boost will be greater still. Putting Fire on defense will increase your resistance to fire-based attacks; with a larger stock and more potent fire spell, you may gain invulnerability against that element -- you could even gain HP from fire attacks. Conversely, your weapons do not have any elemental attributes or special abilities in and of themselves. But junctioning to attack is where some of the most interesting possibilities are -- if you have maximum Death spells junctioned to your attack stat, you then have a 100-percent chance of causing Death against any enemy not immune to instant-kill attacks. And unlike Final Fantasy X?, not every enemy is immune to all status ailments and instant kills, so this strategy is definitely not a waste of time.
Two minutes for high-sticking.
The game naturally controls how much you are able to do and when -- the most potent spells aren't available until fairly late in the game. Furthermore, you can't just junction anything at will; to boost your stats, you need Guardian Forces, FFVIII's summon spells. Each GF allows for junctioning to specific stats or stat sets, and each can only be equipped to one party member at a time. Most GFs are found in the normal course of plot progression, but some are found by drawing from bosses and can be missed entirely until the final disc where strays can be collected in the castle of villainess Ultimecia. Besides junctioning and summon attacks, equipped GFs let you learn new abilities, much like the spells in FFVI. Some of these abilities are menu commands like Defend, while others are more interesting -- a command to turn the cards won from the card game into rare items, for instance, some of which are used to complete ultimate weapons.
Many have criticized FFVIII for being completely reliant on summons to do damage, as the regular attacks do so little. To hear them tell it, this breaks the game because the lengthy call animations make the action drag.
These people, to put it bluntly, are doing it wrong.
With proper junctioning, your normal attacks will put to shame most summon attacks, and will play out far faster, to boot. In fact, the flip side of the "boo hoo summons" criticism is that junctioning breaks the game, as your characters can be made to be too powerful. This is a good problem to have, though -- by properly employing the system and cleverly using your resources, you can essentially create an unstoppable party.
It won't come by constant fighting alone. We've all been there -- Cecil and buds go into that dwarf castle and get routed by that damned Calbrena doll. What do you do? Maybe you have a little leeway with equipment -- but generally you go outside and fight those fire iguanas until you can hack it. FFVIII introduced a new way of buffing your characters with considerably more player input and control; if only Cecil had Cura junctioned to his HP, maybe he could have withstood all those attacks when the doll split into six.
Men: this line works everytime.
Everything was fresh in FFVIII. People may argue that "fresh" wasn't necessarily better, but when your game series is reaching those upper-single-digits and beyond, you really have to shake it up a little. Hitting "A" or "X" to try to speed through your ten-billionth battle may not cut it anymore. And the controlled customization introduced by FFVIII continues to be an element in most of its sequels; sure, Final Fantasy IX? reined it in a bit with a more conservative and traditional character system. But X? and X-2 featured two different takes on the tractable Sphere Grid system, and most recently, XII offered a completely open and fluid system to level your characters and the abilities and equipment they could use. Even their behaviours can be customized.
We still can't seem to shake those random battles, though. At least they're meeting us halfway...
Final Fantasy VIII images courtesy of the mirror of the long dead GIA