Final Fantasy VIII

A great story-driven fantasy game, with cutesy Japanese overtones and stats.

13_1Final Fantasy 8, a much lauded release of the long-running Japanese console series, is a wonderful, engrossing, story-oriented game with memorable characters and timeless themes. Fans of the series will know not to expect a traditional, PC-style role-playing game with an open-ended gameworld, plenty of character customization, and an emphasis on advancement through the manipulation and practice of a series of stats and skills. This game is a JRPG through and through, with an emphasis on that particular genre’s visual style and storytelling.

Gameplay in Final Fantasy 8 follows the standard Squaresoft model—your first few quests are pretty much a “railroad,” where you’ll learn how to use all the basic controls, master the intricacies of combat and the magic system, and get to know the background of the gameworld. After this “warming up” period, new areas of exploration will be added one at a time, constrained by geographical and logical boundaries. Eventually, as the plot progresses, you’ll be able to access more and more regions until finally, at the end, air transportation is available and you’ll have free run of the entire map.

Final Fantasy VIII is the story of Squall Leonhart, an orphaned, emo teen who is in the final stages of his education at Balamb Garden, the world’s finest training center for soldiers. As the game begins, Squall is preparing for his final exam, a sort of “trial by fire” to determine top students’ suitability for SeeD, the Garden’s elite mercenary force. Also undergoing the exam (a strike operation to liberate the populace of a nearby city from the planet’s military bullies, the Galbadian army) are Zell and Selphie, two students who will eventually become Squall’s teammates and friends, and Seifer Almasy, who is Squall’s rival in every respect. The exam (and its immediate aftermath) acts as sort of a tutorial for the game’s control, combat, and magic systems. The plot doesn’t thicken until Squall dons his spiffy new SeeD uniform for the graduation party and meets the beautiful and mysterious Rinoa Heartilly.

Soon, he and his small team are off on their first real assignment, to assist in the liberation of another city from Galbadian military rule, and of course one thing leads to another until they’re thrown into a desperate bid to save the world from an evil sorceress. (There’s no point in going on an adventure if it isn’t a big, dangerous, eventful one, right?) Now add some bizarre dreams in which Squall and company experience life as a threesome of Galbadian soldiers named Laguna, Ward, and Kiros, the discovery of Squall’s hidden past, plus a very strong undercurrent of romance and redemption, and you’ve got an epic tale worthy of the big screen.

Most of the plot is carried out through interaction with NPCs, exploration of the various locations, and party dialogue. But what’s an epic without battles? So Final Fantasy VIII contains more than a generous share of combat, and an extensive magic system to help in enemy elimination.

SeeDs, as it happens, have one major advantage over the ordinary soldiers of their world, the Guardian Forces. These magical entities are attached (or “Junctioned”) to a SeeD, and lend their considerable powers in combat. The primary function of a Guardian Force (GF) is to allow accumulated magic spells to be junctioned to various character stats (such as attack strength or hit points) to make them more powerful. A GF can also be directly summoned in battle, and will take any damage aimed at the character for a short time, after which it will unleash a powerful assault on the enemy. As the GF gains in level and training, it will offer even more assistance, allowing characters to attack with elemental or status-changing effects, and providing extremely useful non-combat skills such as the ability to refine items into spells.

17_1Now, the magic system in this game is really slow and annoying at first, but as the game progresses it becomes more powerful. Rather than using mana or daily memorized spells, as many other RPGs do, Final Fantasy VIII portrays magic almost like physical items, in that each character can carry up to 100 stored units of each spell. Spells can be obtained either at magical “draw points” around the world, or by “drawing” them from opponents during battle. Each enemy carries an unlimited supply of one or more spells, and characters can sacrifice a round of attacks to siphon some of this magic into their own reservoir.

The advantage? With spells such as Cure (healing) and Esuna (status curing) available for free on various monsters, you’ll never have to shop for potions again. The downfall? Interminable combats whenever you discover a new spell and have to spend ten minutes drawing batch after batch until all three active characters are full up. This is a very boring and repetitive aspect of the game.

Final Fantasy VIII uses a sort of a hybrid of turn-based and real-time combat. Each character (and enemy) has an action bar which fills up over time. When the bar is full, that character can attack, draw or cast a spell, or take some other action. Weapons can be upgraded over the course of the game by visiting one of the world’s many weaponsmith shops. This advancement is accomplished in the time-honored adventure fashion of “tasking” -— in order to upgrade weapons, you’ll need to go out into the world and find the various items needed for the process, then bring them back to the weaponsmith.

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Final Fantasy VIII’s similarity to a traditional adventure game is also reflected in its graphics, including the so so backdrops and character models (the rendered cutscenes look excellent, however). There’s also that old drawback of saving points. You’ll be able to save your game only at one of these special locations or anywhere on the outdoor world map. And speaking of the world map, it’s odd to note that movement there is fairly slow, even more so than in the Playstation version of the game.

One thing the Final Fantasy series is known for is its inclusion of fun, usually optional mini-games. Final Fantasy VIII continues this tradition with two engrossing puzzlers, Triple Triad and Chocobo World. Neither one is necessary to finish the game, but each provides a definite “edge” in extra items and features. The story quests for the game is huge in itself – you’ll need days, even weeks to complete the game, even if that’s unfortunately counting all of the busywork inherent in drawing magic. Still, considering the magnitude and scope of the final package, it’s a forgivable blunder.

The gameplay mechanics in Final Fantasy 8 won’t feel too familiar to fans of RPGs such as Ultima and the Might and Magic, but the game does many things right and is an excellent iteration of a classic JRPG line of games. And this is the heart of Final Fantasy, an adventure-style experience in tight leather, RPG clothing.

System Requirements: Pentium 90 MHz, 16 MB RAM, DOS

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