Top 100 PS1 Review: #18 – Final Fantasy VIII (1999)

So Conflicting.

A convoluted, mish-mashed story with amazing moments nestled in a beautiful world full of culture which has a completely broken fighting system that is also immensely addicting… this game is nothing but contradictions. 

Final Fantasy VIII Title ScreenApe’s Ranking: #18/100
My Rating: StarStarStar

Final Fantasy VIII is such a hard game for me to unravel. It’s full of problems start to finish, but I can’t untangle that from the peaks of sweet experiences and nostalgia. The only way I felt like I could address this was by presenting all the problems alongside a twenty year perspective from three different vantage points: 2000, 2010, and 2020. These were the three times when I beat this game, and while Final Fantasy VIII might not have changed in those 20 years, I sure have.

There are amazing moments in this game, exquisite experiences where we feel it in our gut. It’s the reason we are willing to toil for a 40 hour adventures: the sense of wonder and connection that FF8 occasional provides. So no matter how silly and broken everything becomes, there are still pieces and parts that propel it forward.

[2000 – MIDDLE SCHOOL]

A memory seared into my mind.

It’s after 10:00pm, a time that I am now beginning to stay up till as a middle schooler. My skin feels electric. I’m full of tense energy.

My mission to assassinate the sorceress might have ended in failure, but it was a pure thrill. I sat in my basement enthralled by what occurred: with each passing step, the story writers swept me away and kept pushing me forward.

With clear derivatives from leadership, we were supposed to split into two groups: a sniper and gate team. The sniper team would get in position for a clear shot on the sorceress while the gate team would trap her along the parade route so she couldn’t escape. Then….BANG.

It quickly fell apart, however.

First, the gate team got out of position and locked in a room away from their designated area. Second, a teammate went rouge and began to be assaulted by monsters. Third, the sniper began to have a nervous breakdown. It all swirled about me as I hustled trying to keep this mission together. The music kept me moving forward as I rode the wave of every twist and turn.

It stuck with me the entire weekend. Come Monday, I tried to discuss it with anyone who was willing to listen on Bus #22, but no one out in rural Virginia gave a damn about my RPG exploits.

[THE JUNCTION SYSTEM]

What makes FF8 Tricky is that everything is tied together; talking about one thing, no matter how much you hate or love it, flows into everything else. The way FF8 approaches building your characters has its hands in absolutely everything you do from choices in battle, managing inventory, reluctance to use spells, and motivation to play an optional card game for hours.

It’s both broken and beautiful.

In FF8, you are able to assign magic you have accrued into certain stat lines (the game refers to this as junctioning). If you want to have mega health, picking up lots of restorative spells (cure, life, etc.) and assigning it to HP will give you a huge boost in hit points.

Final Fantasy VIII Junctioning
Equipping Haste to speed creates quite the advantage.

You can’t just assign whatever you want to a particular stat, however. Guardian Forces (otherwise known as Espers or Summons) are equipped by characters. These Guardian Forces (GF for short) unlock specific stats allowed for junctioning. They also power up as the game goes along, unlocking more ways to accrue magic, skills such as steal and cover, and more stats to unlock for magic assigning purposes.

It’s a wild ride unlike any other.

Final Fantasy 8 FF8 GF
Of course, Shiva is in this game.

Leveling up, the traditional way of progressing through an RPG, is an afterthought. Actually, it’s worse than that in FF8: leveling up is counter productive. That’s because enemies within the game SCALE with you. You want to do whatever you can to avoid gaining levels while still progressing your GFs and getting magic. The game offers a variety of outlets to do this.

The most maligned aspect of FF8 is the Draw system and rightfully so. One way to procure magic is to draw it from enemies who always carry around a specific set of spells. Drawing is repetitive, tedious, and ridiculous. You usually draw any where from 0-9 spells of a particular type. With 100 being the cap, that leads to anywhere from 10-30 actions of draw to max out a particular spell type. Since you have three people in your party, this increases the repetition by a factor of three leading to you getting quite tired of the animation that accompanies draw.

Final Fantasy VIII FF8 Draw System
This gets old quick.

This segues nicely into the problems with the animation: they are LONG. This summon alone takes almost 90 seconds of gameplay:

You begin making choices not based off strategy but rather time. Every GF animation is around 60 seconds. Being frozen for multiple minutes a battle in an RPG adds up very quickly. It’s a shame because of how beautiful and intricate some of the design work is (I find most of FF8 artistically amazing), but I can’t justify wasting hours of gameplay on repeated animations.

This isn’t the only outside pressure that forces your decision making. Given how intricate magic is to your stats and how hard you grind to get it, you never, and I mean NEVER, use it in battle. The way to become over-powered is by hoarding your magic, not using it. By the time you get a hold of some spell that grossly increases your strength or health, you won’t need to do anything else either; you’ll be too powerful with just basic attacks and your limit breaks.

[LIMIT BREAKS]

Another oddly broken mechanic is how FF8 manages special attacks. Every game has gone about it differently; in FF9 it was called “trance” and tied to how much damage you took; in FF10 it was referred to as “overdrive” and similarly tied to damage received. In FF8, it is tied to your health.

Limit Break FF8
Squall’s Limit Break is a series of supercharged melee attacks with a grand finale that does even more damage.

When you drop below 25% of your health, your HP turns yellow and your limit break might appear. These attacks, along with the required lengthy and bloated animations, are viciously strong. The chance of this attack appearing increases the lower your health gets as a % of your total HP.

This would all be fine and dandy if it weren’t for two things: you can re-roll your chance to get it;  you can manipulate the junction system that you are always at critical health, but not in danger of dying.

Pressing the O button automatically goes to the next character who is ready attack. This is an anodyne feature of any RPG; if you want to tier your attacks appropriately, you might want to switch which character goes first. This would be okay if it didn’t also re-roll the chance for you to get your limit break. Once a character gets below 25% health, you can keep pressing O until you get it and then unleash complete destruction.

All GFs have the ability to convert items in to magic. Once learned, you are able to turn potions, materials, and other inventory items into spells to be functioned to available stats. The ubiquitous item tent is an early way to break the junctioning system. While only 1000 Gil, it offers 10 Curagas (the highest cure spell) per tent. A measly 10Gs garner you 100 Curagas and easily +3000HP when assigned to health. That means a character who is keeping their levels relatively low can be in a state of critical health but never at risk of dying.

It’s complete insanity.

[2010 – End of College]

What happened?

For two discs, there was a cohesive theme of Garden versus Sorceress. This tit for tat matchup led to victories and defeats. It felt connected and wholesome.

I was spending time replaying through my childhood favorites. Frustrated by the PS2s inconsistent ability to read discs, I purchased PS1 and was building a decent library of classics. Having just finished Chrono Cross, I decided to keep it within house with another Square classic — FF8. Things started out good.

Charging Galbadia’s garden was another high from the story. The CGI of running through the grounds of the campus with the electric sound of metal clings from nearby melee combat made me feel like I was right in the middle of it.

FF8 Galbadia Battle
A sweet moment from FF8.

Then, it spirals out of control. It gets bad. Real bad.

The game already was expecting too much of me. Somehow, all the characters had grown up together but developed amnesia. It’s because they use Guardian Forces that are scientifically proven to steal memories (and the moment turns into a little bit of a PSA about a story prop). To make matters more cringe worthy, they were raised by the very antagonist they were aiming to kill.

Final Fantasy VIII GF Critics
This is such a wacky moment you think it’s a joke.

The story spirals out of control as plot holes are filled like a street-corner magician pulling out an endless hanker-chief.  The story twists keep coming and coming, but they were making less and less sense.

This was just one of many, many detached and uncredible story arcs that get folded in at an alarming rate. While disc 2 started the trend and left us on very shaky grounds, Disc 3 lit that shit with rocket fuel. I recently learned the phrase Deux Ex Machina in class; I would begin to understand the literary device very well as I continued to play.

Final Fantasy 8 Disc Change
This should have come with a warning.

One moment we are floating in space about to die, but luckily an abandoned spacecraft is twirling towards us so we can grab it, go inside, activate it, and head back down to the planet. Thank god for this hitherto unmentioned important plot device or the two main leads would have died from no oxygen in space.

Final Fantasy 8 Dues Ex Machina
This still shot does not due justice to how ridiculous this crazy plot device is introduced: with a panned camera shot from a different vantage point revealing it’s existence.

That got me to thinking: how did I end up in space? Well, I was trying to get a hold of Ellone due to her psychic abilities to help my comatose girlfriend. The main point of this space station is to keep a dead sorceress in hibernation. But why not just kill the sorceress instead of keeping her alive in space station? Seems all very expensive even for a technologically advanced civilization such as Esthar that we don’t even really find out about until disc 3, no? But wait, what is Ellone even doing on the space station?

At some point, a device connected to this hibernated sorceress comes out of the Ocean and calls monsters down from the moon. As they travel between the two celestial bodies, I began to think: this is awful.

It keeps getting worse though. The ultimate Villain is actually someone from the future trying to get to the past and needs to use Ellone’s abilities to be spent even further into the past to do something called “Time Compression” that…destroys everything?

At least we had fun for the first two CDs.

[TRIPLE TRIAD]

This is probably the best mini-game of all time. In some ways, it’s better than the actual game — consistent, challenging, motivating. It’s also directly linked into the broken junctioning system giving you a way to not only get magic but avoid gaining levels.

Triple Triad is simple. It’s a card game played on a 3×3 table. Each card has numbers to the north, east, south, and west. If you place a card next to an opponents and your opposing number is higher, it “flips.” The person with the most “flipped” cards win and gets to keep one card out of the losers deck.

Final Fantasy VIII Triple Triad

It’s simple and ingenious. You’ll be racking your brain as you begin to build your stack.

There are rare cards with very powerful numbers (these represent the playable characters and bosses).  Almost the entire world plays this game, so you’ll be challenging everyone to get as many cards as possible.

Quezetacolt’s is a GF who has two abilities that are absolute game changers: the ability “card” and the card convertor. The first allows you to turn weakened enemies into cards. Not only do you get the card, but you avoid gaining experience and thus don’t level up which avoids the scaling of enemies. Second, the card convertor turns cards into items. You are then able to turn these items into magic. With this, the junctioning system can be completely cracked open.

Final Fantasy 8 Card

This interplay is amazingly motivating. The card game is not only super fun on its own, it has real world ramifications where your success in garnering cards leads to amazing powers in battle. No matter how broken the fighting system is, seeing your hard work pay off as you annihilate enemies is still supremely enjoyable.

[MUSIC & ART]

FF8 was a big change in tone and feel for the series. While the story becomes super silly, the characters and art are much more lifelike. Gone were the thumbnail depictions of the characters in FF6 or the homunculus like bodies of FF7. FF8 boasts a verisimilitude unseen in an RPG before.

Final Fantasy VIII art direction

The game opens with CGI black and white still shots. It’s gritty and projects that this game is serious and grown up. Then you get the opening cinematic intro:

How can you not love that thumping orchestrated music over latin chants? While the game may have been a let down in story (I mean, does the Seifer story arc make ANY sense? It is an awful waste of a villain when you make him do things no one understands), it keeps carrying through with music and art direction.

This soundtrack might be Nobuo Uematsu’s crowning achievement. It is reminiscent of Yasinour Mitsuadu’s work on Chrono Cross: both games had so many problems but art and music were able to bolster it.

Typical of his powress, Uematsu is able to fit every moment with the appropriate sound. Need your relaxing beach-side town anthem? Got it:

Need some pick me up music to motivate people to complete mission when the story is on shaky scaffolding? Here’s some:

And who could forget their favorite homage to a people who love to relax, a town full of pacifist fisherman?

[2020 – Professional Life]

The most impressive magic trick of all, though, is how the ending somewhat puts it all together again. For all of its ridiculous scheming, FF8 ends on a phantasmagorical high where it hits the right notes and explains just enough to be satisfying.

I’d had enough of the ridiculousness. A game about fighting one sorceress who just happened to raised us but we all forgot due to amnesia was pushing the limits. A game about fighting multiple sorcerers through the span of time and needing to rely on friendship to avoid time paradoxes was vomit-inducing.

And then, it all works out.

Final Fantasy VIII Squall
Completing the full circle on Squall’s character, the only meaningful character in FF8, was special.

Squall returns to the orphanage in a small part of the ending montage. Here, Edea absorbs Ultimecia and Squall tells her that the mission of SeeD has been successful. The catch is Edea doesn’t know what he’s talking about — this is before she comes up with the idea. Thus, it creates this time loop within the game that explains a lot of the story: Squall travels from the future to tell Edea of what she needs to do.

Finally, some closure. Some of the biggest gaps hanging out there was why did any of this happen; it felt like FF8 spiral so far out of control that it forgot its core storyline. In the final moments of the game, things made more sense. Not complete sense, just more.

This left me in a conflicted place. Up until that point, I was ready to bury this game. The arc of this review was supposed to be one of infatuation to disillusionment. Now I had to face the complicated reality of what FF8 is.

Yes, it’s a jumbled story that has too long of a leash, but it’s full of special moments worth experiencing. The story holds together just enough.

Yes, the junctioning system is completely broken and can render all fights meaningless, but finding all the ways to “hack” the system to become super powerful was addicting. There is enough there to enjoy.

Yes, the characters begin as whiny, asshole high schoolers, but they grow on you. Squall is the only character worth knowing, but he might be the most interesting character in Final Fantasy.

Yes, this game is the black sheep, but you know it’s pretty fun.

[CONCLUSION]

This game is still worth it.

Other People’s Takes:

  • RPGs Sucks: “This is a game where you either get it or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re not going to have a good time. If you’re in the camp that does get it, you’re in for a ride.”
  • Retro Dragon: “So the systems are overly complicated, the characters are a bit drab, the love story is somewhat dramatic, the music is excellent and the battle system is still classic. But none of that is reason for this game to accumulate so much hate right? Well, sort of…”
  • Melchior Blade: With this emphasis on change and differentiation comes some good and some bad, but one thing is certain, this is one of the more interesting and unique experiences across RPGs.”

Final Fantasy VIII the end

 

Author: Casual, But Smart

I review books, movies, albums, and games.

5 thoughts on “Top 100 PS1 Review: #18 – Final Fantasy VIII (1999)”

  1. This was the first Final Fantasy game that I didn’t play all the way through. The story and characters are the main reason I usually get invested in these games (as combat is tedious; the whole Draw system exponentially made it worse). And for a while, despite some very stupid moments (seriously, the lone sniper assassin who supposedly assassinates people for a living has a mental breakdown when he’s about to kill someone he has no personal attachments too), I was still on board. Then the convoluted shit in disc 2, as you pointed out, starts to happen. By the time I got to disc 3, it lost me, I didn’t have any investment in the story or characters at that point, and I left it alone unfinished. I had better games to get through, like Final Fantasy IV (the other one where they go to space, to the moon, or something; and did it right).

    While VIII has some great moments (opening cinematic), some of the best music the series has ever gotten (opening aside, the boss battle music is fantastic), and a respectable atmosphere and graphical improvement over VII, they don’t mean much to me in terms of revisiting the game if the story turns to garbage. It also set a precedent that, while IX claimed to address by “going back to the franchise’s roots,” continued on with ending dues ex machinas and last minute “real true villain” introductions and going into space/dimensions. A precedent that is horrible.

    It wasn’t until FFXII where that got rectified. But that turned out to be a one time deal from what I’ve seen lately. Now the only thing I can hope for is that they don’t screw up FFVII Remake. We all know the gameplay is most likely going to be an improvement over the original (just about anything will, especially if it has Kingdom Hearts style combat). But I have concerns about what changes they will make to the story. If they don’t have Cloud dress up as a chick and get gang-banged in a bathhouse, I’m out.

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    1. It’s interesting that you make the comment about the precedent in the storytelling that started with FF8. FF6 is just so well grounded with such fleshed out characters. Why haven’t we gotten that kind of experience again? Why does everything have to be trumped up and crazy doing switcharoos for the final antagonist?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great and in-depth review. I like your how you inject both personal experience and objective critique. I agree with so much of what you say in your review I don’t really have anything to add. It shows that this was the first glimmer of what the FF series would turn into with its inconsistent nature. And it shows that Sakaguchi and other veterans stepped down for the first time and in a substantial way with the development of FF VIII. Overall, it’s a game I really enjoy playing despite its flaws, and it’s got moments that make it all worth it and more. Also, I appreciate the shout-out!

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    1. I’m still not sure what to do with this game. If I just focus on the highlights, I think fondly of an interesting protagonist with plenty of good music and interesting locations. If I really think about it, I’m not sure I could even suggest this game — the junction system is madness.

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