We’re gonna end 2011 in style: with an extra Throwback Thursday. Today, I have the unique pleasure of writing about one of my favorite games that I’ve ever had the joy of playing: Final Fantasy VIII. Now, there’s an old saying that gets bandied about plenty by gamers: you always love your first Final Fantasy the most. That’s definitely true for me, and I’m very defensive of FF8. I remember playing FF8 shortly after its release. It was among the first serious RPGs I ever encountered, and it stays with me to this day. Really, there’s so much to love in Final Fantasy VIII: stunning visuals, a gorgeous soundtrack, a variety of characters, an intuitive combat and statistic system, and a dynamic, captivating story. So, while other FF games have done some things better than FF8, I would argue that no single FF game can stand up to the masterpiece that is Final Fantasy VIII.
Plot & Characters
Spanning four Playstation discs, FF8‘s story is massive. For the most part, the player controls Squall Leonheart, a brooding loner studying at the Balamb Garden, a military academy that prepares students to join the SeeD military force. The game begins as Squall is preparing to take his final exam before joining SeeD. After completing the exam, Squall joins SeeD and his squad is hired by a bunch of rebels, led by Rinoa, hoping to free the city of Timber from the control of the evil Galbadian Army. In doing so, Squall is ordered to assassinate Sorceress Edea, the leader of the Galbadian forces. Squall and his companions initially fail and are imprisoned by Edea. After their escape, they must part ways while they attempt to save Balamb Garden from retaliation by Edea and her Galbadian Garden. I won’t go much further, but the game’s fantastic story explores a wide variety of elements: a burgeoning romance between Squall and Rinoa, a mysterious past seemingly shared by some of the controllable characters all centered around a Galbadian soldier named Laguna, and complex time travel elements. The story has stuck with me for years afterwards.
The characters are all mostly enjoyable. Squall’s brooding nature is offset by the chipper Quistis, Zell, Rinoa, Selphie, and Irvine (the other main, playable characters). Each brings their own distinct flavor to the plot, and they’re all fairly well integrated. They all work together very well and have lots of hilarious interchange. Some other supporting characters, like Laguna, Seifer, Squall’s rival at Balamb Garden, and Edea, al bring a lot of diversity to a very large cast of characters. There’s bound to be a character that everyone can enjoy in this game. The dialogue, though not voice-acted, is hilarious and inviting.
It has been eleven years since the first time I played this game, and I can still remember most of the game’s soundtrack vividly. Created by legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu, the soundtrack has become one of the series most widely-beloved. Many of FF8′s songs are featured frequently in medleys and both Final Fantasy and game-soundtrack concerts. With such a diverse, dynamic story, Uematsu had a difficult task of creating a soundtrack that could help the player become immersed in the wide variety of emotional responses the game attempted to elicit. His soundtrack was a resounding success in this regard. Even the most “forgettable” pieces (background music in towns/zones) is thoughtfully crafted and wonderfully reflective of the environment. There are some fantastic, pulse-pounding tunes that helped increase the drama of the game’s most action-packed sequences; there are songs that strike the deepest, most profound emotional chords. Each song in this game reflects one moment or idea, and Uematsu’s attempt to create a dynamic unit of music to match an equally dynamic story paid off beautifully. Here’s one of my favorite songs from the game, “Love Grows,” performed by the Distant Worlds Orchestra:
When I try and tell people about moments that make me happy to be a gamer, I always come back to the story of the first time I booted up FF8. Eleven years later, I can still remember watching the opening cinematic for the first time. I watched as a camera soared across a beautiful ocean and exploded into a colorful, vibrant field of flowers. The visual standard established by the opening scene was never lowered during the game. Unlike its predecessor, this game had the same visuals both in and out of combat. Cutscenes were beautifully animated, and the game has an overall realistic (relative to 1999 at least) visual atmosphere. Spell effects were wonderfully detailed, as were the characters’ “Limit Breaks” (this game’s equivalent of the “Overdrive Attack”). This entry’s adaptation of the summons, Guardian Forces (GFs), each had a unique summoning animation that really pushed the limits of what we could expect from a Playstation game.
Here’s the aforementioned opening scene. I’m willing to say that even now, eleven years later, these visuals still look pretty darn good:
Okay, here’s where fans can become bitterly divided: The Junction System. Each FF title has a unique combat/power-up system that really differentiates it from its siblings. Junctioning, arguably, is one of the most complicated systems. There is no “mana” in this game; instead, players “draw” spells from creatures and have a limited number of uses of that spell (e.g., you draw 5 “Fire” from one enemy, and then you can use those 5 yourself). You can then assign those drawn spells to certain attributes to help boost your stats. Initially, you only have access to basic spells like “Fire,” which just provides raw stat gain; however, as you encounter more diverse spells, you can assign them to all kinds of different categories, which are unlocked by leveling up your summoned GFs. For example, you can add a poison-based spell to your weapon in order to poison enemies on contact. As you max out your GFs’ levels, you gain a bunch of different stat conversion and assignment tools that provide for an unbelievable amount of customization. Yes, Junctioning is incredibly complicated. It takes a long time to learn the intricacies of the system; however, once you get the hang of it, you can do some really neat stuff to your characters and their stats.
Combat was turn-based, and pretty similar to FF7. The main difference is that characters’ Limit Breaks don’t slowly fill; instead, a character’s Limit Break unlocks when they reach the bottom 10% of their HP. Each character, arguably, has a class. They’re all very different, and most variations lie in their weapons and limit breaks. Quistis, for example, is a Blue Mage (i.e., she uses enemy spells for her limit breaks). It takes a lot of effort to acquire all of a character’s weapons and limit breaks (as it should), but in the end, you wind up with some very powerful characters that each fill a different role. Here’s the boss fight against the game’s toughest foe: the Omega Weapon. Don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers (this is an optional boss fight that rewards you with some high-level weapons and items).
The last notable gameplay element that demands mentioning is Triple Triad, FF8‘s insanely addictive card game. FF8 is one of the only games I have ever 100% completed, and the madness I experienced while becoming a master of Triple Triad is something I will never forget. The premise is simple: on a nine-box grid, you and an opponent compete to take over each other’s cards, which have one stats in each of the cardinal directions. There is a card for basically every creature and playable character in the game; obviously, the cards for playable characters, bosses, and GFs are the best. Cards can also be converted into rare items if you have a GF with that ability. Some of the side quests for pursuing even one card are so insanely difficult and time-consuming that I’m wondering how twelve-year-old Kyle had the patience to do all of that. There are wide variety of rules that change based on when and where you play the game. The Card Club Group and Queen of Cards side-quests haunt me to this day. Players have been demanding a proper, real-life Triple Triad for years. In fact, Triple Triad is so popular that you have to go to the fifth result on Google to access that previously-linked encyclopedia entry because of all the online TT simulators.
See, FF8 brings a lot to the table, and there’s so much more that I’m forgetting. There are a bunch of side missions and subplots that only obsessive completionists would even think of attempting. The main story is a beautiful, if not complex, testament to the power of storytelling in gaming. The characters all have unique personalities and mesh together quite well. The game’s soundtrack is a further testament to the serious artistic potential that this form of entertainment possesses. The astounding visuals pushed the envelope for what we could expect from the Playstation. The variety of different gameplay elements, though maddening and perhaps needlessly intricate, invite many different types of gamers to explore this fantastic RPG. Give FF8 a chance if you never have – I think you’ll be pleased.