Final Fantasy VIII Review
by Jason Venter
The Final Fantasy series wasn't always as famous as it is now. Back before Final Fantasy VII, the series enjoyed a relative lack of fame. Back before Final Fantasy VII, some would say, the series was actually fun to play. I would disagree with that statement, on the grounds that it makes Final Fantasy VII sound rather lame. That's not true. If you want to call Final Fantasy VIII lame, though, go right ahead. I'll help you in the task. Because let's face it; Final Fantasy VIII is a Final Fantasy game that is less worthy of the title than the oft-despised SNES release, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest.
I'll start with my positive comments, as there are fewer of those than there are the negative ones.
On the positive side, Final Fantasy VIII features a rather large map. Unlike many recent titles in the series, you're not going to see that map hideously disfigured to give you more space to wander, and you're not going to blast off to another planet for more exploration. Not really, anyway (I've got you curious now, I bet). While it's certainly true that this map is about as memorable and thrilling as the millionth trip to grandma's house, at least it's large and self-contained.
Then there's the fact that, yes, you will be watching a story unfold that can only be described as epic. After all, you and your friends are doing nothing less than save the world from a deranged sorceress who hops through time and dimensions, using bodies as taxi cabs. That's quite cool.
Also, there's a fair amount of innovation in this title. These changes are new to the series, and they come across as quite interesting. Instead of purchasing spells at shops and what have you, your characters will draw them from special draw points throughout the game, or from various enemies who happen to be carrying them. In this way, magic spells become rather similar to items. You can really stock up and unleash your attacks in battle without worrying about running out of MP.
Another change is the lack of armor and weapons. You basically have one weapon for each character, then level it up as you progress through the game.
Also, of course, I need to mention that this is the best looking Final Fantasy title to date. That's most obvious when you're watching the FMV's (they're leaps and bounds ahead of anything you saw in Final Fantasy VII). However, the beauty doesn't stop there. Pre-rendered backgrounds look their best, and the characters are alive with little animations. They'll gesture away all day if you let them, and they look almost... human. If you hated the deformed look so typical of the genre, you'll be pleased to know that it isn't contained within Final Fantasy VIII.
Okay, that got the positive stuff out of the way. And it would be wrong of me not to mention it, because there really is a lot about this game that's positive. Unfortunately, though, there's at least as much that's negative. Even worse, a lot of the game's most disgustingly awful attributes are closely related to its strong points. The result, then, is that this is a painfully innovative title.
The most noticeable problem is in the storyline. Yes, I said it's epic. But if you look at Final Fantasy VIII, I believe you'll see the ultimate example of how not to create an epic story. The game's first scenes are quite dull. In fact, the only reason I ever got through them was that I knew the game would probably get better later on. And it does. But the beginning is enough to turn many gamers away. I have met a lot of people online who loved previous Final Fantasy titles, but couldn't force themselves past a certain point on one of the first two discs. There are, in fact, several such locations. In fact, the game feels like it was extended just to give the player more playing time, when really the story could have been told much more quickly.
Another problem with the story is that you never really get a sense for the villain. A strong point of Final Fantasy VII, many will agree, was the development of Sephiroth. You loved him or you hated him, or perhaps you felt neutral. But no matter what you felt, you felt something. In Final Fantasy VIII, the villain appears out of a hat, so to speak. The boss is almost an anti-deus ex machina, if you can believe it. Even if you think back to the original Final Fantasy game on the NES, you'll see a villain more developed than the final boss of this title.
Also, the storyline is based on romance between the characters. And did I mention the characters suck? Well, they really do. The protagonist, Squall, is worst of all. When the game opens up, he comes across as about as personable as a block of ice. By the time you get to the closing scenes, he's melted enough that maybe you have a glass of water sitting next to, well, a block of ice. This might not be so bad, except he's the guy you have to tolerate the most. Oh, and the girl at his side just falls for him no matter what he does. Her name is Rinoa, and I can't help but think that Squall could kill her and she would still want to sneak a fast kiss. It's that bad, that ridiculous. Sure, Squall has reasons to be a jerk. But do you really want to play through 40 hours to find out what they are?
Well, then, that's enough about the storyline (which, as I mentioned near the start of the review, has its moments). How about the magic system? Earlier in the review I talked about how the magic system--the draw system--is a bit like turning magic into items. That's definitely one of the game's biggest problems. You'll soon find that you have to conserve your magic strictly for boss battles, or you'll run out and end up nearly defenseless. Of course, you can continually draw new spells from the enemies, but this grows dull, even if you do it through each battle. When you get through the game, there's a fair chance you've spent at least 10% of your time drawing from the enemies. That's as bad as raising Chocobos in Final Fantasy VII, except now it's required!
There are other problems with the battles. Besides the fact that they're drawn out because of the necessity of using only physical attacks the majority of the time, the battles often seem unbalanced. This is most noticeable in boss encounters, which are nothing more than an exercise in having someone heal your party while the others sit back and use their GF's. For those who haven't heard, a GF is essentially a summoning monster. In Final Fantasy VIII, you can build the levels of that monster. It grows to like certain party members, and it can do more damage if used frequently. Also, the GF will take damage for you if you receive a hit while summoning it. This is a fantastic way to avoid being wiped out by an enemy, though the GF isn't entirely fond of the whole situation. Anyway, this ends up feeling a lot like an experimentation from Square to see if they can mix Pokemon with Final Fantasy. Admittedly, it's rather successful. But when you're fighting a boss and the only way to do real damage is to use a GF or wait for a limit break to become available, it's rather a drag. What's really depressing is that each time you summon those necessary GF's, you have to sit through a terribly long animation. It's true that you can press buttons to make the attack do more damage a good way through the animation, but that just seems a cheap trick on Square's part, and isn't overwhelmingly useful.
My final gripe is with the weapons system. Call me a weirdo, but I rather like large inventories. That's not the real issue, though. The real problem is that near the end of the game, you'll have to go on ridiculous treasure quests to find the best weapons. Without those best weapons, it's nearly impossible to defeat the game's boss. So you have to go on the treasure hunts to see how the game ends. The bad news is that it's really hard to figure out where to go for what. And once you know, you're still going to be gathering up weapons, all so you can learn new glitzy attacks for your characters.
In the end, then, Final Fantasy VIII is a glitzy successor to Final Fantasy VII that took nearly all the flaws of its predecessors and magnified them tenfold. Amidst that chaos, there's some really cool innovation. And if it weren't for those innovations, I would be hard-pressed to recommend picking this title up at all, even for rental. Fortunately, those who do buy the game now will only have to pay the $20 for a greatest hits package. That seems about like the right price.
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