GameSpite Journal 11 | Final Fantasy VIII

Squaresoft/Sony | PlayStation | Sept. 9, 1999

Much like many other AAA releases by major publishers, Final Fantasy VIII’s initial reception was overwhelmingly positive. Critics and fans alike praised its breathtaking (for 1999) graphics, which for the first time in a Final Fantasy title utilized realistically proportioned characters, as well as its complex, involved narrative that placed a particular emphasis on developing the relationship between its two leads. But as the initial shine wore off, as shines are wont to do, folks began to realize something: This game was weird. Equipping summoned monsters and spells instead of armor? Scaled enemy encounters? Time Kompression? Seriously, Final Fantasy VIII, what the hell?

While the runaway success of Final Fantasy VII (followed by a string of moderate hits) had convinced most late-’90s gamers that Square could do no wrong, I found initial reports about the game’s development troubling. To me, Final Fantasy had always been about, well, fantasy: Swords and sorcery, dragons, black knights, rescuing princesses, and so forth. Final Fantasy VII’s Midgar had already pushed at the bounds of what I felt was acceptable science fiction in a Final Fantasy game, so tales of VIII’s teen soldiers wielding gun-swords and traveling around in their high-tech high school sounded like it crossed a line. My efforts to play the game frequently stalled out early on, occasionally after a couple hands of Triple Triad before even leaving the game’s opening areas. It just never clicked with me. When I eventually saw a friend play through a couple of mid-game sections, I was further put off by the plodding pace of combat, which seemed to involve summoning monsters (always accompanied by a lengthy animation) to accomplish much of anything. I therefore felt validated when, as time went by, the gaming community at large turned against Final Fantasy VIII, classifying it as a weird aberration between the perfect Final Fantasy VII and the pleasant, if unspectacular, Final Fantasy IX.

Years later, having completed literally every other numbered Final Fantasy (except for XI because, c’mon, I’m not that crazy) and most of the spinoffs, I began to seriously take another look at VIII. Former GameSpite contributor Kat Bailey had written a number of interesting pieces about it for 1UP, and there had been a general attitude shift in the gaming community regarding the game, with the consensus seeming to be that VIII might not be great, but if engaged on its own terms, it was at least a quirky and unique game. Plus, with the context that it now represents the midpoint of the series, many of the elements that once seemed so un-Final Fantasy to me came across as much less jarring. So with an effort to keep an open mind I decided I’d take another whack at Final Fantasy VIII.

What I realized almost immediately is that you can’t play Final Fantasy VIII like it’s a typical console RPG. If you try, you’re setting yourself up for hours of tedium. This is probably why so many people have held such negative opinions about the game over the years. Being the sequel to the game that defined the modern console RPG, it’s understandable that folks would try to play it like, well, a modern console RPG. But doing so they quickly found their attacks inflicting insignificant damage against most enemies, and any attempts to improve the situation by grinding levels just made things worse. The only way they seemed capable of slaying foes was by calling in their summons, which quickly brought progress to a crawl. Of course, they really have no one to blame but themselves, as the game makes it abundantly clear that you absolutely must delve into the Junction system to get anywhere.

The characters in Final Fantasy VIII have no defensive equipment, and new weapons are obtained very sporadically. Instead, your characters equip Guardian Forces (the typical Final Fantasy summon monsters) who in turn allow them to “junction” different magic spells to their various statistics. As spells in Final Fantasy VIII function like typical RPG consumables, the greater amount of a powerful spell the user junctions to a particular statistic, the bigger the boost conferred upon that statistic. And since enemies level up with the player, junctioning increasingly larger amounts of increasingly stronger spells to their stats is really the only way to grow functionally stronger in the game. Since this is a pretty unusual character growth system, the game understands that it might be kind of confusing and gives you plenty of tutorials and suggestions for how to best utilize it. The folks who spent all their time in battle constantly summoning are those who never bothered to understand the Junction system, and thus their best bet was to rely on GFs to do damage, as GFs do kind of level up separately from both the player and enemy monsters. Yet standard physical attacks are capable of out-damaging GF attacks by far, provided the player obtains the right kind of magic.

Of course, acquiring magic can be more easily said than done. Unlike in previous Final Fantasy games, where magic was either learned through leveling or purchased in stores, magic in Final Fantasy VIII is obtained in three ways: Finding draw points scattered about the world, drawing it from enemies, or refining it from items. Taking magic from draw points is the most obvious way, as you simply walk up to any point and press the action button to retrieve a certain number of a specific spell. You can even leave the area and come back to get more of that particular spell. However, draw points are fairly rare, and you don’t typically find ones for the better spells.

Drawing magic from enemies is probably the most common way of obtaining spells. Most enemies possess a handful of magic spells that a player character can siphon off using the “Draw” command in battle, and with few exceptions, the enemy never runs out of these spells. So, if your team needs some Firaga, you just kill every other enemy on the battlefield and then make everybody draw Firaga from the enemy that has it until you’ve got enough. Making sure that everybody draws off a lot of the best spells from the enemies in any given area is a pretty good way to stay ahead of the strength curve throughout the game. Of course, even for a character who is capable of drawing large amounts of a spell at a time, this can become really tedious. The only other option is to refine spells using various GF abilities. Refining is far more efficient time-wise than drawing, and early in the game canny players can turn a few rare Triple Triad cards into a host of powerful spells and items, making the rest of the game essentially a breeze. Of course, that requires knowing who to play in Triple Triad, then playing them numerous times to get them to use their rare cards, then defeating them while they’re using their rare cards. It’s not exactly intuitive.

And that’s really the biggest problem with Final Fantasy VIII’s gameplay system. While I applaud the designers for being willing to shake things up, and I never pass over an opportunity to break a game over my knee, a lot of the differences in Final Fantasy VIII seem to be implemented purely for the sake of being different. In order to become stronger in Final Fantasy VIII, players have to spend time drawing spells from enemies, playing Triple Triad to obtain cards to refine into spells, leveling up their GFs so that they learn the necessary abilities, and figuring out what spells to junction to which statistics for maximum effect. In almost every other RPG, all a player character has to do is defeat enemies or complete quests to level up, at which point he or she either learns abilities automatically or gains a number of points he or she can allocate to boost abilities or statistics as desired. It’s hard to see any real advantages the Final Fantasy VIII method gains for all the layers of complexity it adds. Sure, it does a decent job explaining most of its systems (except for refining), but it never really justifies their existence. Perfectly embodied by the hero’s sword that is also a gun, Final Fantasy VIII frequently makes the mistake of assuming that adding more to simple concepts always results in them being better. Unfortunately, added complexity is not the same thing as depth. On my most recent play through, I did enjoy messing around with the Junction system due to how different and quirky it was, but I admit I’ll be happy if I never see it again.

The narrative is the other big sticking area a lot of people have with Final Fantasy VIII, and just like the gameplay systems, I found it a double- edged sword. The developers of Final Fantasy VIII liked to describe it as the first videogame love story, and thus claimed special emphasis was placed on depicting its characters as real people. To an extent they succeeded. Moreso than most other games I’ve played, Final Fantasy VIII’s cast of playable characters come across as real teenagers. Just like real teens, they strive to be mature adults in order to achieve adult goals but are frequently prone to fits of childishness. And just like real teens, I’m not sure I really wanted to spend 40 hours with them.

The game makers and localizers did a really fantastic job nailing down the idiosyncratic behaviors of typical teens: Rinoa’s resistance movement comes across more like some high school club than a military organization. Irvine acts like a slick badass, but totally chokes in the way only a poser teenager can when he actually has to do something difficult. Zel seems genuinely dumbstruck when a problem arises that can’t be solved by violence or hotdogs. And, of course, the one thing everybody mentions is that Squall spends a substantive chunk of the game sulking in his room. Oh yeah, that’s a teenager. The problem is that typical teenage behavior is pretty exhausting to be around, even for other teenagers. Teenagers are moody, inconsistent, and self-involved because they’re suddenly required to navigate a host of complex social situations while simultaneously figuring out who they really are. It’s a taxing, difficult time that no one really enjoys (those folks who do look back on it fondly are usually romanticizing it because their current lives have become stagnant and meaningless). And observing the character interactions hour after hour in Final Fantasy VIII is akin to being stuck driving a host of teens cross country in a car that’s a bit too small. Much like with the Junction System, the makers of Final Fantasy VIII clearly succeeded in achieving their goal, but the question they should have asked themselves is whether that goal was worthwhile in the first place.

Nothing represents this better than the game’s much-touted love story. Squall and Rinoa’s relationship is a perfect depiction of the kind of high school relationship we all remember having or observing: It’s based on nothing more than the fact that the two have been in close proximity for a significant length of time, and yet it’s extremely emotionally charged. The two have absolutely nothing in common apart from being similar ages and being essentially tasked with the same job. Squall is moody, withdrawn, and inclined towards over thinking things. Despite his reputation in gamer circles as being a whiny jerk, he’s actually a very hard worker and treats his job with maturity that belies his age.

Unlike most of the other characters, Squall does the lion’s share of his bitching and moaning off the clock or in his own head. Conversely, Rinoa is outgoing, bubbly, and prone to rash, poorly thought-out actions. She’s clearly been spoiled by her privileged upbringing as she seems to have a hard time understanding why things don’t always immediately work out for her. Looking at things this way, she actually seems a much better match for Squall’s foil, Seifer (whom she is apparently dating at the beginning of the game), as he demonstrates a similar propensity for always seeking the quick fix and instantly becoming frustrated when he doesn’t get what he wants. While we all know one or two couples who seem to have a stable relationship despite being polar opposites, the statistical reality is that relationships tend to last when they’re between people with a lot in common. But despite their major personality conflict, by the end of the game the two claim to be passionately in love. Squall even goes so far as to thoughtlessly risk the safety of the world just to be with Rinoa, a shockingly out of character action for someone who has been so calculating and methodical throughout the rest of the game. Everything about it just seems so painfully high school that it’s really impossible to take it seriously. When the two shared their first kiss at the tail end of the game’s final scene I found myself thinking, “Ten bucks says they break up in the first month of college.” From a purely technical standpoint, I suppose it’s interesting that Square managed to so realistically depict a high school relationship in a videogame, but the reality is that the only people who think that a high school relationship has the emotional weight to serve as the backbone of a 40-hour fantasy epic are either in high school or deeply emotionally troubled.

And yet, there were times when I couldn’t help but enjoy the antics of my little group of awkward adolescents, although perhaps not with the sense of gravitas the game’s makers had intended. There are some particular moments of adolescence that even the most cynical of us remember warmly; driving alone for the first time, getting to slow dance with the object of a crush, etc. And while I would never endure the entirety of my teenage years again just to relive those special moments, experiencing some of them vicariously through a videogame avatar isn’t altogether unpleasant. Sure, as an adult I can laugh at the emotional weight teenagers give to realistically meaningless events or activities, but I can also appreciate their passion in a world that tries to drain it all away from us so we make better cogs in corporate machines. Squall’s slow dance with Rinoa might have been cheesy, but I couldn’t help but smile at the tiny cracks they produced in his detached façade. And despite the dire implications it had for the planet, I did find myself rooting for Squall during his attempt to rescue Rinoa from Esthar towards the end of the game.

Of course, the rest of the plot, with its Time Kompression, various overlapping sorceresses, and painfully convenient amnesia, is pretty much complete crap. Oh well.

So at the end of the day I find that my opinion on Final Fantasy VIII has shifted. It’s definitely a weird, weird game, what with its bizarre gameplay mechanics and painfully realistic teenage cast, but taken on its own merits its actually pretty fun. As a long-time fan of Final Fantasy’s more technical titles (i.e. V and Tactics), I can’t help but appreciate a game that gives the player so many opportunities to create wildly overpowered characters that rampage through its universe like whiny, teenage demigods. During my final confrontation with Ultimecia, Irvine was capable of dealing nearly a dozen 9,999 damage strikes per turn, and achieving that required next-to-no grinding. And even though VIII’s story is kind of a mess and began the trend of JRPG heroes always being gloomy, self-involved jerks, I definitely consider it more an ambitious failure than a failure of ambition. Plus it gave the world Selphie and her amazing train song, so it’s got that going for it. Oh, and that scene at the end where everyone is with the person they love, and it shows Zel just sitting there with a huge goddamn pile of hotdogs? Brilliant. VIII may not be my favorite Final Fantasy, or even in my top five, but I can appreciate its willingness to try something wild and different. It’s hard to imagine Square, or frankly almost any developer, being willing to take that kind of a risk today.

By Mike Zeller? | June 9, 2012 | Previous: Final Fantasy VII | Next: Golgo-13