Final Fantasy VIII
1997 was a very important year for RPGs. Final Fantasy VII landed- no, crashed into the living rooms of video-gamers worldwide and changed the very meaning of interactive cinema. It had an award-winning combination of characters that you would truly admire and care for, and an epic quest spanning dozens of idyllic locales all pre-rendered to near-perfection. The dynamic Active Time Battle system that previous Final Fantasy games had recently made claim and fame to was melded in with a few new twists as well. These qualities, plus more than any review could ever do justice to, made Final Fantasy VII a 3-disc long sublime experience unrivalled by any other RPG of its time. Of course, if anyone had a (slim) chance at bettering it, the creators of Final Fantasy VII themselves would be the punter’s pick. Two years later, Squaresoft themselves brought us the follow-up to their leviathan RPG, aptly titled Final Fantasy VIII. It shared all the same qualities as described for Final Fantasy VII above, throwing into the mix an all-new magic-drawing and junctioning system, as well as more refined and realistic-looking character models. Now encompassing a massive 4 discs, it had everything it needed to conquer the video-gaming world like its prequel did – but Final Fantasy VIII stumbled somewhat as it attempted to tread upon some famously favoured footsteps.
It starts off well enough, with an incredible opening FMV sequence (still one of the best ever) depicting a bitter struggle between two angst teenagers as they attempt to shove swords – gunblades to be precise – down each other’s throats. Within two minutes of booting up the game, you’ll be catching your breath as your heart attempts to deal with the adrenaline rush. You’ve got plenty of time, though. Right after the intense introduction, you take control of your taciturn protagonist, Squall Leonhart, as he is resting his chops in the infirmary; it seems his rival, Seifer Almasy, owned him in the combat training session. The setting is a military academy in the Balamb region where most of the students are young and vivacious (our hero unfortunately falling by the wayside into the troubled and withdrawn category). They are to be the future protectors of the world, the SeeD in Balamb’s Garden. As it turns out, a malicious sorceress named Edea (ooooh, scary!) bent on global domination soon makes an appearance. It looks like the SeeDs have got their work cut out for them. At first, it seems like a simple case of “go find evil woman” followed by “go fight and beat the shit out of evil woman”, but all is not as it seems and with a few incredibly far-fetched plot twists, a time-travelling element is soon forced into place. Needless to say, the storyline isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – disappointing, given the tremendous start which was full of potential.
Living up to their reputation, Squaresoft did manage to pull off some astounding wizardry with respect graphical quality. Remember how Final Fantasy VII’s cast of oddballs had crazy-big boxes for fists? Or how everyone’s favourite RPG hero, Cloud Strife (as voted by god knows how many video-game fan sites), had positively lethal, Mega Man-killing spikes embedded into his large super-deformed head? Well, all that is a thing of the past when it comes to Final Fantasy VIII and its visual fiesta. All the characters are now tall and lean (although, perhaps bordering on anorexic?) and if you can forgive the slight jaggedness of PlayStation One polygons, they look startlingly like real-life people. The pre-rendered backdrops are much more detailed than before, as evidenced when you walk down the pristine hallways to your first class and later trudge deep within a dank, decrepit cavern with burning cinders tossed about you. It makes the transitions to the random battles that much more convincing too; Squall and co. look fantastic both in and out of them.
What hasn’t improved as much is the audio, but c’mon – it’s Final Fantasy, not to mention that it’s Nobuo Uematsu we’re talking about here! It’s got to be good, right?! Despite being less fast-and-furious and more lovey-dovey than its predecessor (I prefer the former), Final Fantasy VIII’s soundtrack still stands as one of video-gaming’s best. The Eyes on Me theme song sung by Faye Wong is a wonderful performance piece with a touching melodic line that convincingly reminds us of Squall’s falling for his sweetheart Rinoa. Squaresoft must have thought so too; the same melody is woven into several BGMs (background music) and together they form the core of what you’ll be listening to over the 4-disc, thirty-something hour period. Ami, great; Love Grows, not bad; Julia’s Theme, okay now you’re pushing it a bit – ad infinitum. The rest of it is generally well composed, albeit with a sense of adventure. (5/4 time for the main battle theme? Nice! But weird…) And the fully orchestrated, chorus chanting Liberi Fatali (heard in the brilliant opening sequence) kicks Final Fantasy VII’s own symphonic masterpiece, One-winged Angel any time of the day.
With so much emphasis placed on superb graphics and sound, it’s hard to imagine that an incredible game lies beneath. Yes, it’s hard to imagine.
Each new entry in the Final Fantasy line brings something new to the table. Sometimes, the tweak, however minor, results in a phenomenon (Final Fantasy III’s job system, further refined in Final Fantasy V). Other times, it may downright break the game (Final Fantasy II’s “hit me to make me stronger” levelling system). Final Fantasy VIII plays similarly to its ancestors in that while you are exploring the neighbourhood, you are met suddenly (but very much expectedly) with a random “whoosh!” signalling the start of battle. As the scene switches to an enclosed arena capable of containing the destruction that is about to occur, your characters typically line up on one end and the enemies on the other. On the lower right hand corner your party’s stats are displayed (HP and the ATB gauge; no MP?! Find out soon…), and on the lower left an action menu will spring up as each character gets their turn (full ATB gauge). All of this is not boxed in like in all Final Fantasy games preceding this one. This gives increased visibility of the on-screen action making all the sword-swinging, gun-toting, S and M whipping (just kidding!) action look better than ever, especially with all the sweeping camera work which takes place.
Once again, you will have to use a combination of brute force and magical prowess to savour the taste of victory. Each character has their own unique weapon along with a corresponding set of special actions. Squall possesses a gunblade (a fusion gun and… blade) that is able to deal out critical hits if you manage to hit R1 just before his downward swing connects. (“Boom!”) He can also engage in a limit break attack (officially introduced in Final Fantasy VII) which involves a barrage of strikes (again, all can be turned into critical hits with precise R1 timing) followed by an awesome finishing move like sending an energy pillar to the heavens and then smashing the weight of it all onto the entire blast radius in front of him. He’s the hero, so he gets to be cool. Supporting members have similarly devastating techniques, from Zell’s quick button-input combos (reminiscent of Final Fantasy VI’s Sabin and his blitz manoeuvres) to Rinoa’s pet dog, Angelo, who can rush attack an enemy multiple times, steal assorted precious/useless items, or even turn your entire party invincible (incredibly CHEAP!).
The true innovation of combat lies with the Junctioning system. And magic. If you recall, I made no mention of MP when describing the battlefield stats. That’s because MP doesn’t exist in Final Fantasy VIII. Instead, magic spells come in units and to obtain them you will have to ‘draw’ them (extract them, suck ’em out, whatever) from the various enemies you will encounter. Each draw will net you anywhere from one to a maximum of nine units of your chosen spell (you can select which ones to aim for), but if it is a rare and powerful one (Aura, Ultima) they will tend towards the lower end of the spectrum. It sounds fair enough, but this means you will need to do a ridiculous amount of drawing. Firstly – to be able to use magic regularly; and secondly – to obtain enough spells to power up your weapons via junctioning. You see, all the magic you draw can be attached to the gunblades, nunchucks and whatnot to imbue the relevant characters with various stat enhancements or elemental/status inflicting/defence attributes. Juntioning fire to your attack stat will cause fire elemental damage with every blow you deliver. Likewise with sleep magic to cause foes to slumber away peacefully while you ravage away at them with a buffet of magic attacks. Need more HP than your current level dictates that you should have? Simply slap on some cure and you’re good to go. It works out very well early on in the game, balancing out strengths and weaknesses whilst challenging the player to focus on whether they want to hit hard, fast, with status-inflicting intent, or else concentrate on boosting their party’s own defence, or lady luck. The more of one type of magic you have in stock, the more powerful the junctioning effect will be. To max out your stats (and who doesn’t?) this means that you will need to draw out enough to obtain 99 of a given spell. It goes without saying that perfection leads to tedium. As you go further in and the bosses start to whoop your ass, it’s back to the “drawing” board.
Drawing and JunctioningWhile the melee combat in FFVIII is as strong and satisfying as ever (it helps that Squall’s gunblade is really cool), the game definitely feels as though it’s missing something in terms of magic use and its interpretation of the powerful godlike entities who you call to your aid in battle, the Guardian Forces (FFVIII’s version of Summons/Espers).
While the idea of Drawing might sound good on paper – largely removing the micro-management of traditional spells – in practice it’s tedious and time-consuming. This is particularly the case in the early parts of the game where you will spend much of literally every encounter trying to Draw spells.
Even more tiresome and needless is the requirement to forms bonds with your Guardian Forces. Remember the Tamagotchi craze that was everywhere in the mid-nineties? Apparently Square were pretty big fans of it, as they’ve included a lot of the same elements into the use of Guardian Forces. Upon Junctioning your GF to a character, you’re encouraged to keep this partnership successful and forge a bond between character and GF. However, trying to build a decent relationship between character and GF is time consuming, and introducing more than one can be a bit sticky, since they get jealous and don’t perform as well in battles. Yes, I did say they get jealous. Nope, you are not playing Nintendogs by accident.
The Materia system in FFVII was nearly perfect – endlessly customisable, simple to use and with plenty of depth. You can appreciate that Square didn’t want to simply roll out the same system again, but the simple fact is that Drawing and Junctioning are not as user-friendly as Materia. Perhaps we should say well done Square for trying something different, but this time it didn’t particularly work. – Terence GageBeing a Final Fantasy game, underneath the new love or hate drawing gimmick there’s still a traditional quasi turn-based battle system that still works as originally prescribed. In addition to all the attacks of both physical and magical nature are spells that summon colossal beasts to your side. They are called Guardian Forces and when called upon they deal out massive amounts of splash damage or immensely buff up your team’s stats. There’s a catch, though. They take at least a minute until their animation’s are over. The almighty Eden takes five. I’ll leave it at that. However, the Guardian Forces are more important outside of fighting. You can junction (there goes the magic word again) them to your party members and they will earn AP (ability points) after every successful brawl. These points contribute to learning a new skill (mug, devour) or further increasing individual stats (HP +20%, MP +…haha, got you!). This secondary means of character growth is quite flexible, yet you will feel very much attached to the pairings you assign. After all, if horny Ifrit sees you favouring the beautiful ice-queen Shiva over his flame-grilled muscles, he won’t be very compliant when you do decide to let him tag along again.
Final Fantasy VIII is thrilling at times, boring at others (some terribly lame plot twists), and pretty darn discombobulating towards the end when the ‘real’ villainess finally reveals herself. It makes for some interesting post-game conversations, but when you play it for the first time it’s nearly as bad as Solid Snake’s escapades. Among the many sidequests and minigames, only one stands out: Triple Triad. It is a card game that features a myriad of Final Fantasy monsters and the heroes and villains themselves, albeit in picture form only. Four numbers are marked on each card denoting a north, south, east and west position. In placing them on a 3×3 game board, the aim is to strategically attack and conquer already set cards, thus turning them over to your side’s colour (which is pink – there’s only one side because there was no multiplayer for it; fans have since created their own MMO version of it!). Of the thirty to fifty hours (depending on how much hardcore drawing you engage in) spent completing this RPG behemoth, no doubt much time will be wasted here on this simple, but damn addictive minigame.
Did Final Fantasy VIII live up to the hype? Not quite, but its prequel left some pretty humongous shoes to fill. Some great eye-candy (at the time) and an aurally pleasing RPG await the brave new traveller, but the battle system is skewered in places that should not have been touched; drawing and junctioning are great ideas that just didn’t turn out to be much fun. Moreover, the focus on a (confusing) friendship-driven story rather than the usual apocalypse now brings the pace of this saga to a crawl at times. I commend Final Fantasy VIII for tinkering with the original recipe to keep things fresh, but it probably bit off more than it could chew. As a result, it’s but a Tonberry to its Bahamut prequels; strikingly different, somewhat inferior, yet not without its own characteristic charm. That aside, there’s still a fair amount of enjoyment to draw out of this sucker.