So, in short, I really, really like this one.
As is the case with any RPG, the best place to start with FFVIII is its storyline. As I'd mentioned in my previous review of FFVII, I still consider that to be, overall, the best story in the series. The pacing is just right, the big moments happen just when you least expect them, and the leap from the dark 'young adult' story of FFVI into a full-blown science fiction blockbuster was performed with almost frightening precision. Keeping that in mind, Final Fantasy VIII still gives its immediate predecessor a great run for its money. While chapter seven was focused on a maniacal egomaniac and his plans to destroy the world through the use of magic and spirituality alone, chapter eight concerns itself more with the political and technological necessities of performing such a feat. Not quite as exciting material at a glance, but twice as realistic. Sorceress Edea, the main protagonist of the story, sets about on her aspirations by overthrowing the government of the largest military power in the world, brainwashing its citizens through the use of the media, invading and obliterating everyone in her path, and manipulating her underlings to the point where she has their complete support without even expanding upon her motivations. Where the glam and glitter of Cloud and Sephiroth's tale has become legendary, the struggles of Squall and Rinoa against their oppressors feel much more weighty and, god help me, believable.
Likewise, the central characters in and around your party are much more relatable and varied than those in VII. Where Tifa and Aerith, the previous female leads, were generally one-dimensional and cartoony, spitting incredible dialog despite their shortcomings, VIII's female leads each have elaborate personalities, perks, downfalls and tendencies. Rinoa talks big, heading up an underground resistance movement aiming to change the world, but when it comes time for action, she's constantly second-guessing herself. Quistis is a perfectionist, probably the most intelligent character in the series, but lacks self-esteem and feels completely isolated from her peers, much in the way an honor student would feel out of place amidst the jocks in physical education. And that's not an observation limited to the female leads. Though he's initially far less charismatic and appealing than Cloud, his immediate predecessor, Squall is a tremendously complex, well-rounded lead character with an established psychological excuse for his aggrivatingly anti-social nature. Zell is brash and genuinely skilled in battle, but his comrades treat him like a joke. Every individual character has a story all his or her own, a strength, a weakness and a skeleton in the closet. Even the villains are exhaustively developed, with an equal amount of redeemable qualities tossed in to keep their more prominent negative characteristics in check. You're never faced with a simple, black and white boss fight, as you were in previous chapters... there's always something about the person you're battling that you can relate to. Even the final battle against the sorceress, with the future of the world at stake, ties back to her own loneliness and desire for solitude. You form such an incredible bond to the characters in your party that the final cinema is a truly emotional experience, one of the most rewarding and worthwhile conclusions I've ever experienced in gaming.
Where every previous chapter in the Final Fantasy story had basically opened with the lead characters already trained and experienced in their professions, FF8 is the first to tell the story of how these characters were first educated as super-soldiers, which natural reservations they had with their chosen role, and just how awkward their first steps as pros really were. In a way, this story is half Platoon and half Breakfast Club. The characters form a bond under extreme circumstances, both with each other and with the player, and develop into skilled fighters before they're even comfortable talking openly about their feelings. When something happens that shakes the planet to its core, the aftereffects linger on throughout the rest of the story and actually affect the way you play the game from that point forward. On the large, there's a unanimous lack of glittery cutscenes with lots of flash but little substance; the game is filled with true world-shaping experiences that allow the gameplay itself to evolve to new heights.
As with nearly every new chapter in Square's load-bearing dynasty, the gameplay of Final Fantasy VIII offered a new tweak to the existing formula, this time in the form of the somewhat controversial "magic drawing and junctioning" system. Put simply, this setup maintains that every creature in the game has anywhere from one to four pools of magic within their body, from which the controllable characters can drain and add to their own personal inventory of spells. Magic can be drawn either in the heat of the battle, (where you're given the option to either add the magic to your stock, up to nine castings at a time, or cast it directly in the fight, without diminishing your own stockade of the spell) or from one of the hundreds of available "draw points" both on the world map and in towns or dungeons. Each character can only hold 100 castings of each spell, and is limited to 64 different spells at any one time. Got all that? Good, because here's where it becomes tricky. Once you throw "GF" characters into the mix, you can begin junctioning your drawn magic to your various attacks, defenses and attributes. "GFs," or "Guardian Forces," represent the summon monsters of FFVIII, and each come with a vast array of special abilities and bonuses to go along with their more traditional in-battle attacks. Similar to Final Fantasy VII, where a character would need to equip that particular summon materia to his or her weapon to utilize the creature, only one member of your active, three-member party can put an individual GF (and its special abilities) to use at any one time. As the magic in your stockade becomes more and more powerful, so do the individual attacks, defenses and abilities you've associated with it. For instance, by associating 100 "Blind" spells to a character's defense, that character would be effectively immune to blindness. Junctioning 100 "Sleep" spells to a character's attack would give each of his/her physical attacks the added benefit of putting your enemy to sleep. Yes, it's finally possible to turn the tables on those cheap, status-inflicting enemies of the past in FF8. Still bitter over the time those zombies paralyzed and slowly chipped away at your party in FF1? It's time to pay that defeat back with interest by junctioning "Death" to your attack and obliterating your weaker opponents with a single swipe.
Junctioning can get a bit overwhelming and detail-heavy, (as you've no doubt surmised) which can be seen as either a positive or a negative, depending upon the player's own personality. If you're heavy on strategy, minute details and efficiency almost to a fault, (as I am) you'll adore the draw/junction system. If you prefer immediate action, quick results and the use of MP, you'll hate it... and you'll become very friendly with the simple "Auto-Junction" feature, which optimizes each character based off of the different spells in his or her inventory. It's impossible to fully prepare your party for each environment, battle and opportunity without getting to know the junction system intimately, but the practice of slowly drawing magic from an enemy can admittedly grow a bit tedious when you're already thirty hours into the game and want to get the story rolling again. The endless in-battle drawing made necessary by this system is surprisingly reminiscent of the ceaseless experience-gaining necessary in the very first Final Fantasy, way back on the NES. It's just something for the die-hard fanatics to fiddle with from here until eternity, and something for the more uninvolved players to cast aside and take for granted. You can finish this game without paying the first bit of attention to your junctioned magic, but your battles will be twice as difficult.
Another system that was introduced, seemingly to keep things interesting for both inexperienced players and seasoned veterans is the practice of leveling up in-game enemies. No single creature in the game, save perhaps the final boss herself, has a set amount of HP, a limited offensive potential, or a decreasing level of difficulty. As your party gains experience and becomes a more formidable cluster of war machines, so do your opponents. The bosses are almost guaranteed to be as proportionately challenging to players fighting them at level twelve as they are to those who have taken the time to reach level thirty. It's a nice little function that's easily overlooked, but works marvelously in action.
If you found yourself unhappy with the way any other Final Fantasy in existence today has controlled, you won't be swayed by FF8. This is still a turn-based RPG at heart; you're still telling your characters when to attack, when to parry, when to summon a GF and when to use a magical spell. By the time this one was released, most of the tweaks of that old system had been fully beaten into submission, and the end result is just the next in a long line of polished, unremarkable repetitions of a perfected theme. Squaresoft introduced a few minor tweaks to this system in the form of mildly interactive critical hits (pulling the right trigger at the precise moment Squall strikes an enemy activates the revolver in his "gunblade" and inflicts additional damage) and "boostable" summon magic, (where your GFs' attacks can be similarly amplified by pounding the square button throughout their unique attack animation) and both were welcome shifts that don't get in the way of more inexperienced players. There's also the slight added challenge of protecting your GFs when summoned, as they each take some time to appear and can be physically attacked and even incapacitated by your opponents during that time, but that's such a minor turn from the existing status quo that it's barely worth mentioning.
Visually, FF8 was and still is an unbelievable sight. The photorealistic characters, settings and effects all but set the stage for the picturesque beauty of Final Fantasy X, the cutscenes remain an almost speechless affair, and the character designs and overall visual theme of the game itself are just breathtaking. This is a game I'd die to see simply reproduced in high definition at some point in the near future, as it pushed the old PSone above and beyond the limits of its hardware. The cinemas are occasionally marred by some artifacts caused by the necessary compression to fit this onto four discs, and the in-game visuals just scream for the power to deliver what they're so obviously capable of. This is a completely different world from the blocky characters, constantly changing visual style and overall imperfections of FF7, it's an impressive example of a fully realized world, taking advantage of every single tool at its disposal. The cinematic motifs toyed with in the previous title were taken to the next step with style here, and the result isn't just a game mocking the style and effects of a movie... it's a new beast entirely unto itself. The visual accomplishments of this game are just staggering, and the final cinematic caught me off-guard yet again by just blowing away the modern competition. This game was produced in 1999, and for its opening and closing cutscenes to tear apart their modern contemporaries more than a half decade later should say more than a few things about how awe-inspiring these graphics truly are.
And, equally complimenting the humongous strides in the visual department is what I'd loudly proclaim to be the best soundtrack of the series. As was becoming the norm by this point, each character, vehicle, town and dungeon has its own accompanying theme song, but never before had the tunes been so closely intertwined and related as they are here. The softly plucked strings of the Balamb Garden, your base of operations for the majority of the game, are touched upon and mentioned throughout nearly the entire soundtrack, bringing the entire experience full-circle and tethering it to what's quickly identified by both story and player alike as your home. The sinister, impending doom-themed overture "Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec," (which my fiancee and I translated as "Evil... Music... Evil... Killyourself") is the game's other significant main score, and predates John Williams' similar Latin-chorus score for Star Wars: Episode I by nearly a full year. Even the overly sappy J-Pop love ballad, "Eyes on You," which is possibly one of the more annoying things I've ever heard on its own, fits in amazingly when surrounded by the rest of this impressive score. Nobuo Uematsu has never produced finer, nor more immediately recognizable and emotional work. It successfully runs the gamut of emotions from lightheartedness to drama, pain to elation, and perfectly accents every single aspect of the game it accompanies. It's the perfect blend between subtle background music and scene-stealing foreground power.
No matter what I say, I can never feel as though I'm doing this game justice. It's a masterwork, the greatest end product to ever emerge from the renowned studios of Squaresoft. Its concentration on the organization, application and implementation of magic into each character's physical attributes appealed to the anal-retentive librarian in me, while the epic storyline, unimaginably cool cutscenes and untouchable characters swept me off my feet. I have my doubts about Square's ability to recapture this past glory, considering the slow downward slope they've presented with each new chapter of the Final Fantasy series since the turn of the millennium, but that can't drag down my utter devotion to the perfection of this title. I can't recommend a game any more strongly, and it seems destined to occupy the #2 slot in my list of favorite games for years to come. As of this writing, FFVIII is six years old, and I'd still consider it to be a masterpiece if it were released today.
Overall Score: 10