Final Fantasy VIII. The mere mention of the game can quickly divide a room. It is probably the most controversial main series FInal Fantasy title released. Held up against Final Fantasy VII with it’s bullet proof fan-sprung holy light, one would think that VIII is an unplayable mess without a redeeming quality save for the franchise name it carries.
Final Fantasy VIII is either loved or hated by series fans, with almost no middle ground. I am on the “love” side of the argument, and if you give me a couple minutes, I will try and tell you why I love this game and why it was not only the natural progression from Final Fantasy VII, but also why it tops it’s immediate predecessor in every single conceivable way .
The truest statement about Final Fantasy VIII is that while it may demand more of the player, it also rewards that player to a greater extent in terms of a richer, more emotional experience. But why is Final Fantasy VIII so often derided while VII is so universally celebrated? I believe that the answer lies in what VIII did differently, rather than what it took from it’s storied lineage.
Final Fantasy VIII was the first game in the series to ditch the chibi/SD character designs prominent through the first 7 games and keep the characters physically proportionate to actual human beings. This makes sense for a myriad of reasons, chief among them the simple fact that SD designs where brought into the series more out of necessity rather than by design.
The Final Fantasy series started out as an 8-bit Famicom title, and as such had to conform to the limitations of that hardware. Having realistically proportioned characters would have consumed just too much screen room, especially when you look at the way your four party members were stacked one on top of another in the battle screen. The enemy sprites were able to be much larger, but the larger enemies where square sprites (which is even farther from human proportions than SD) and the enemy window also filled up about 70% of the screen.
This design principal was carried over to the Super Famicom for the same sizing reasons, although the power of the SNES allowed for far greater detail in the sprites themselves.
With Final Fantasy VII the freedom afforded by the 3D battle sequences meant that designers no longer had to sandwich all the battle party sprites into a vertical tower and were free to place them in a three dimensional space. It is this reason why the battle sequences in FFVII have characters more closely resembling human proportions,
The SD style was, however, still used on the field map and in some cutscenes in Final Fantasy VII. This is almost certainly a holdover from the over arching style of the first 6 games and less about hardware shortcomings.
The more realistic character designs of Final Fantasy VIII stem from another factor. The design of Final Fantasy VIII seems to be more of a team effort, a team more comfortable with the PS1′s development process, rather than the work of individual artists pasted together.
This team esthetic creates a more consistent experience in VIII, where as in Final Fantasy VII the character designs and renderings vary wildly from one moment to the next and run the gamut from beautiful works of artistry to laughably silly cartoons. If you didn’t know any better it would seem at times that some FMV cutscenes in VII are from two or three completely different games.
Final Fantasy VIII shows a maturity that is not only present in the subject matter of the story itself, but also in the way that the game was designed and executed. Although these improvements serve to be purely cosmetic, they none the less present a more consistent flow which aids in keeping your attention fixed on the narrative.
Final Fantasy VIII also started the trend of main series titles tackling more mature story lines and delicately interweaving characters together with more believable story threads based on interpersonal relationships. VIII’s small cast of playable characters are giving ample time to develop throughout the story. We play through their experiences and see these relationships fully develop, forgoing VII’s unbelievably lazy knack of relaying character motivations via flashbacks whenever it was required to advance the story. Instead, Final Fantasy VIII’s character development and the development of their individual relationships and most importantly their ultimate connection to one and other is the story of Final Fantasy VIII.
You play VII and VIII chiefly though the eyes of Cloud Strife and Squall Leonhart respectively, and although the characters are cut from the same brooding, introverted cloth, the way in which they relate with the characters around them their most important difference. Although you have no control of the overall arc of each protagonist, with Squall you are afforded the luxury of molding the character in your own image. This is achieved through your interactions with your fellow party members. You are almost always given the choice of how to react to any given situation; will you offer enthusiasm, apathy, or silence? While this interesting mechanic mostly has no impact on the game itself, it does shape the way you perceive Squall as you progress through the game. Two players might have completely different impressions of Squall by the time you put in disc 2. Based on my perceptions and the conversational choices I made I might view Squall as a sullen yet sensitive loaner and someone else might view him as a whiny jerk. This mechanic has almost zero effect on the overall story of the game and Squall’s character arc across the story as a whole, but the key difference is that Cloud comes across as a whiney jerk every single time you play Final Fantasy VII.
Another marked improvement over VII, and all previous games in the series is the way you improve your characters stats. Expanding upon VII’s much celebrated Materia system, where skills are learned and developed from Materia found throughout the game and equipped to individual characters, VIII introduces the Draw/Junction system. Foregoing the standard practice of having a set amount of points that are spent using spells and increased as the character gains levels, VIII instead forces you to Draw different magic spells from enemies. This is done through the Draw command. The Draw command allows you either stock the magic, or cast it immediately. Each draw nets you anywhere from 1 to 9 instances of a particular spell, which are stocked like inventory specific to that character, or cast immediately on any enemies on the current battle screen.
The Draw/Junction mechanic is probably the most misunderstood, and by extension, most hated aspects of Final Fantasy VIII.
In order to draw from an enemy, or have any command other than “fight” available in battle you must equip a character with a Guardian Force, or GF. The Guardian Force is VIII’s equivalent of the famous Final Fantasy summon creature. Equipping a GF (Junctioning the GF) allows you to add options to your battle menu such as magic, draw, item, or the summoning of the Guardian Force itself. With the use of Ability Points (AP) won in battle, you can choose the learn a wide variety of extra abilities and stat boosts that remain in effect as long as the GF is Jucntioned to that character. You can further Junction the magic spells collected in a battle to different stat perimeters. For instance, if your GF learns the ability to Junction Magic to HP, then you can equip a stocked spell to your HP stat, thereby bolstering it. If one of these spells are cast in battle, the stat boast is reduced until the magic stock is replenished. Different types of magic give varying results across all stat attributes, so knowing how to customize your character with the right GFs and Junctioning magic correctly is key to mastering this mechanic. You can also Junction magic to elemental attack and elemental defense statistics once the corresponding skill is learned by your Junctioned GF. Also learned from GFs are various general stat boosts that can be equipped in a limited quantity much like the battle menu commands. These include such gains as Strength +20, Magic +40 and so forth.
As perviously mentioned, since Magic is drawn from enemies and different enemies have different spells available to be drawn, it puts an emphasis on conserving magic. If you build your party properly and Junction smartly you should never even have to cast magic on any enemies, except in very specific cases. The fact that the game practically punishes you for casting magic outright, much of the elemental damage you will deal throughout the game will be through you Guardian Forces. Your GFs can be summoned in battle and perform powerful elemental magic attacks. Each GF levels up as you battle which increases their damage and HP. Upon calling GF to battle they must charge before they can perform their attack. In this phase the GFs HP bar replaces the party member who summoned it. During this charging phase the GF can take damage. If a GF falls in battle it can only be revived or healed with specialty items, and only outside of battle. While sleeping at an Inn restores your party members HP, it does not heal or restore your GFs.
Final Fantasy VIII also has the traditional leveling system where the characters collect experience after each battle and gain levels accordingly in order to increase their base stats and HP.
The sheer statistical amount of combinations available because of the Junctioning system provides you with almost limitless possibilities in how to set up your battle party. Using the same set of magic and GFs, a party could be terrible, average, or over powered depending on how much thought, time and creativity you put into setting up your Junctions and developing your GFs.
So much emphasis is placed on improving your stats through Junctioning, that Final Fantasy VIII did completely away with equipping weapons, items and armor. Each character starts with a base weapon which can be upgraded by finding special magazine issues (to learn the formula for the upgrade) and a proper mix of battle spoils. There are only a handful of weapon upgrades for each character, and there is no armor or accessories in the game at all. At first glance this may seem limiting, but the Junction system is so well designed that you hardly notice after about an hour and it actually ends up being quite liberating and serves to all but underscore the importance of mastering the Junction system.
The story of Final Fantasy VIII is at it’s core, a love story. In VIII you play the role of Squall Leonhart, a student attending Ballumb Garden, a kind of military training school. You are on the cusp of graduation into SeeD, which is an elite military group operating as mercenaries for hire. This sets the scene for much of the early portion of game, where you are sent on various missions to aid in everything from fighting-off invading armies to assisting a rebel uprising. You are joined on your journey by fellow SeeD trainees (and eventually, fellow SeeD members) Zell, Selphie, and your former SeeD instructor Qusitis. On a mission to assist the Forest Owls, a resistance group attempt to deride the advances of the invading Galbadian army, you meet Rinoa. Also joining your party along the way is Rinoa Heartilly, a member of the Forest Owls resistance group, as well as fellow SeeD solder (and from a different Garden), the cunning sharpshooter Irvine. After your party is complete you set out to find the roots of the Galbadian army’s unprovoked aggression, discovering the characters in your party and their motivations along the way. A connection which especially detailed and flesh-out is the relationship between between Squall and Rinoa, which is crucial in setting up for one of the best endings in series history.
You eventually discover that the Galbadian army is being controlled by a sorceress named Edea who soon reveals the true motives surrounding her bid for power. Edea reveals she is actually possessed by Ultimecia, an evil sorceress from the distant future. Through the use of a device called the Junction Machine Ellone, she is able to send her conciousnress back through time and inhabit Edea’s body. As Edea, Ultimecia rises to a prominant position of power within Galbadian society and intends to use this newly wrought political power and influence in order to execute her ultimate goal of time compression. Through the use of powerful magic, Ultimecia plans to compress the time between the Squall’s present and her future and absorb all of the knowledge and power into herself, thereby becoming infinitely powerful. As a nasty side effect, it would also destroy the world. Ultimecia’s only foil is the one who comes to be known to future generations as the Legendary SeeD. The future history contends that Ultimecia will invariably be defeated by this SeeD. That Legendary SeeD is, of course, Squall Leonhart. She is indeed defeated by Squall, and her defeat is known in her future. Because of this she is persecuted in her time and keeps sending her consciousness back in time to avenge this persecution. This creates an infinite loop in which she will never succeed, but keeps repeating her actions and is therefore trapped in an eternal holding pattern of revenge and perpetual madness.
The story of Final Fantasy VII is almost exactly the same as VI. You don;t believe me? Check out the image below.
Where Final Fantasy VIII truly transcends it predecessor is not only are all the parts so much better, such as the story, the character development, the battle system, but these pieces together form a sum far greater. It’s as if each element of the game combines and strengthens the others, creating a fabric of excellence that is above and beyond anything the series had seen to that point.