It's 1999 and Square is hard at work on Final Fantasy VIII. It’s been two years since the company changed gaming forever. Can you feel the hype? Can you even begin to understand the hype? If you weren’t around back then, it may be hard to even comprehend. It’s fair to say that hype for Final Fantasy VIII back then is comparable to the hype for the Final Fantasy VII Remake when it was first revealed.
This is part of a continuous series. Please be sure to check out other entries in the Year of Final Fantasy!
Little did people know, the game they would get would be extremely different from the previous entry. Final Fantasy VIII was another entry in the series quick to divide people. Some liked the various changes, while an overwhelming majority decried the game for not following in the footsteps of its predecessor.
After my time holding my flame shield strong with VII, I feel like I can take on anything. What do you have for me this time, Square?
Final Fantasy VIII - February 11, 1999 (PS1, PC)
Platform used for review: Steam port, 2013
“I’ll be here. I’ll be waiting for you. If you come here, you’ll find me. I promise.”
Final Fantasy VIII starts off with one of my favorite openings in video games. It’s so epic and gives you tingles down your spine. It doesn’t let on much of what’s to come, but it does give a few snapshots of the story. We start on a beach before the camera soars over the open waters. It leads to an enormous meadow, with a black-haired woman running about. So far, so good. Pretty mysterious.
Right after that, we see two men on a battlefield, viciously attacking one another with some sweet-looking blades. The two trade blows for a bit until they end up slicing open each others’ faces, scarring both of them.
After this harrowing intro, one of the men wakes up in an infirmary. It turns out that this is our protagonist, Squall Leonheart. Squall is training to be a SeeD, an elite soldier at Balamb Garden, a military academy. We quickly learn that Squall is a bit of a … what’s a nice way to put it … douchebag. He has a very bad boy attitude, even around his teacher Quistis Trepe and his classmate Zell Dincht.
The man he was fighting is Seifer Almasy, his rival in Balamb Garden, and their spar has left them with matching scars. Subtle.
The recruits are put through the paces, learning how to fight via a training course. They must fight through a cave and face off against Ifrit to gain his power as a Guardian Force. Guardian Forces are this world’s version of summons and are extremely handy! However, that’s for the gameplay section, so moving on for now!
Squall eventually ends up on a mission from his school to go into battle in a nearby town. With Seifer as their team leader, they begin to help out the locals of Dollet by fighting the invading Galbadian Army. He ends up meeting a soldier named Selphie Tilmitt, a ditzy soldier from another academy. Together, their group manages to repel these forces and soon find out that something far more devious is at play.
A terrible sorceress named Edea is setting her sights on ruling the world. Seems basic enough. Squall and his team are sent to assist a rebellious young woman named Rinoa Heartilly, and their paths eventually intersect in an interesting way. Rinoa’s father is helping set up Edea’s assassination during her appearance at a parade. The idea is to snipe her with a neighboring academy’s crack shot, Irvine Kinneas.
While this is happening, something extremely odd begins to happen. During a train ride, Squall and his party mates fall unconscious and we’re introduced to another strange man in what appears to be a dream sequence. Laguna Loire and his two friends are Galbadian soldiers, and we see into their lives at certain points in the game. These events feel completely unrelated, but we’ll be getting to all that when things get really weird. Which is right about now!
Major plot spoilers for the game follow! Skip to the next bolded text if you don’t want the story to be spoiled!
So, seeing that the assassination attempt on Edea takes place on the first of four discs, you can guess how that goes. Irvine starts to panic and doubt his aim, which leaves Squall to take action. Jumping onto her parade float, Squall and the party engage her directly. This leaves Squall with a nice icicle in his chest, and when he wakes up he’s in a prison.
After a prison break frees him and his friends, they continue to plot Edea’s demise. Things go severely haywire though, as not too long after Selphie’s military academy gets nuked out of existence. The Galbadian Army decimates her school and sets their sights on Balamb Garden. Squall and his team immediately come to defend their academy, only to find something shocking. When it seems like they won’t be able to stop the army, the headmaster has them activate a hidden function. The entire academy begins to levitate, flying into the air to escape the army! What is happening?!
From there on, we discover that a whooooole bunch of insanity is happening. It’s hard to go into too much detail because it’d be pages upon pages of exposition, so I’ll try to keep it short and sort of in order.
As it turns out, Edea is Headmaster Cid’s wife. She’s being controlled by a terrible sorceress named Ultimecia. Ultimecia’s goal isn’t to rule the world, it’s to rule time. She plans on doing this via the art of time compression. Time compression is exactly what it sounds like: taking every moment of past, present and future, and mashing them into one. When this happens, anyone too weak to withstand being in every single moment ever disappears, leaving Ultimecia the sole ruler. She needs a powerful source of magic to accomplish this, which turns out to be a sorceress in cryostasis named Adel.
Meanwhile, we learn of Laguna’s past some more. He falls in love with a kind woman, Julia Heartilly (Rinoa’s mother) but circumstances keep them apart. Laguna is gravely injured and nursed back to health over many months by a woman named Raine. When he’s fully recovered, he finds out that Julia has married another man after her “true love” never came back to her from war. He falls for Raine much to the excitement of her adopted daughter Ellone, but soon Ellone is kidnapped by the aforementioned Sorceress Adel. This is because of Ellone’s interesting ability to send a person’s consciousness back in time to experience prior events. Hmmmm….
Laguna goes to fight Adel with his friends, but realizes that if they kill her, she’ll only transfer her powers to someone else. They hatch a plan to contain her, which is why she’s put in cryostasis. This rebellion against Adel puts Laguna in the city of Esthar, and soon he becomes the city’s president. He sends Ellone back home, but Raine gives birth to her and Laguna’s son and passes away soon after. Ellone and this child are sent to an orphanage … owned by Edea Kramer.
So, this orphanage is one of the dumbest moments of storytelling history in my opinion. During the course of the game, Squall and his party (Rinoa, Irvine, Zell, Selphie and Quistis) visit this orphanage. Then they find out that, surprise, everyone but Rinoa knows each other! They all grew up together in this very orphanage, as did Seifer! That doesn’t make any sense, right? Of course if they grew up together they’d recognize each other! Well well well, do I have an explanation for you!
See, when you use the Guardian Forces I mentioned above, you do so by “junctioning” them to you. Essentially, you’re equipping them by bonding to them. However, overuse can cause memory loss, because … reasons? So, apparently, everyone used too many GFs in training and forgot that they all know each other for no reason at all! Except for Irvine, who looks at everyone like they’re dumb and says that “of course we all know each other, duh…”
What pisses me off, though, is that he says stuff like that at the orphanage. However, when you first meet him in the game, he casually introduces himself and says he’s happy to meet everyone. He never once hints that he knows who they are. Why didn’t he recognize them?! And if he did recognize them as he says at the orphanage, why did he not say anything when he realized nobody recognized him? What was the point of this stupid coincidence?!
It’s so dumb it makes the rest of this convoluted story seem perfectly normal by comparison! There’s no reason for this sudden twist, and it’s never mentioned again. It doesn’t play into the story in any meaningful way, either. It’s just … there. There is an actual plotline that weaves into the orphanage later on that I mentioned above, but it never actually has to do with anyone other than Squall. Everyone else being there is just a twist for the sake of having a twist.
Of course, as soon as this happens, Seifer (who works for Ultimecia now) mentions casually about their past together when they next meet. Except … Seifer clearly didn’t remember either earlier on in the game, and he never got the same information dump that Squall’s party did. So how did he know the dumb twist? It’s a stupid coincidence that’s shoved into the game half-assed and to me, and seriously brings the story down for a bit. The thought of summons causing amnesia over time could’ve been explored so much more in-depth and been far more interesting than what Final Fantasy VIII shoves at us.
Anyway, sorry. I got sidetracked. Long story short: Ultimecia activates time compression, his friends kill her, and they save the day. Everything returns back to normal, and Rinoa and Squall fall in love. Also, it’s heavily hinted that Squall is Laguna’s son who went to the orphanage in the first place. Phew, did I get everything? I can't believe it topped Final Fantasy VII with its absurd plot convenience at times.
Spoilers end here! You can continue reading below!
Okay, sorry about all that. Final Fantasy VIII has a hugely in-depth story that makes it really hard to summarize. A lot of it is incredibly interesting, playing with several themes of love, betrayal, friendship, loneliness, and more. Squall comes off as a complete jerk for a vast majority of the game, but we see Rinoa very slowly chip away at his outer shell. It’s not until the final cutscene that we see him fully embrace friends and love, but the journey there is fun to watch.
By comparison, a lot of the story is a bit convoluted, and some parts like the whole orphanage debacle are just outright stupid. There is no reason for that whole plot twist to exist, and it really brings my immersion to a screeching halt every time I see it.
That’s the long and … well, long of it. Final Fantasy VIII has an interesting story with lots of great characters, but certain moments feel too complex for the sake of complexity and others are just bad writing at its worst.
“You’re the best looking guy here.”
This is one category where Final Fantasy VIII undoubtedly steps its game up over VII. The graphics may look fairly ugly today, but back then they really stood out. Characters are fully proportioned at all times, unlike the blocky chibi characters outside of battle in VII. In addition, they have more detail to their models overall, which is a nice upgrade. Summons all look much better in my opinion, as do most of the spells, which you might expect from a game like this.
The environments are equally gorgeous, filled with detail much like the prerendered backgrounds of Final Fantasy VII. Instead of that game’s focus on big industrial cities, Final Fantasy VIII focuses on a more modern fantasy setting. It’s sort of similar to Final Fantasy XV’s aesthetic, and it feels similar to our own world as well.
The one thing about Final Fantasy VIII’s graphics that isn’t great is that, like all the 3D Final Fantasy games, it renders at 30fps. It really isn’t an issue as it runs smoothly, but it’s still worth mentioning for people.
To be honest, that’s all I really have to say about the graphics. Everything is a step up in this category from Final Fantasy VII in my opinion. However, I can understand someone who may prefer the more fantastical world in that game. While just about everything else is unequivocally better, I’d say that the world design is more of a matter of taste.
“I want everyone to listen to me...”
I really didn’t think Nobuo Uematsu could top the last three soundtracks he’d done by this point in the series. After seven straight games ranging from “above average” to “excellent” it’d be hard to keep steam in the engine. However, once again, Uematsu stepped up to the challenge and succeeded spectacularly.
This soundtrack is an absolute joy to experience. The love themes are sweet and romantic, and are a major part of enjoying the budding relationship between Rinoa and Squall.
The battle themes are much faster-paced and energetic this time around, with themes such as the intense Force Your Way:
While every game seems to have its most famous track, Final Fantasy VIII has several. However, of them all, I would say that title goes to the excellent The Man With a Machine Gun. This is Laguna’s battle theme, and I found myself grinding a little as Laguna for no other reason than to hear his battle music. It’s more synth-based than rock-based, and it is so good to listen to.
The various tracks surrounding team missions give off an air of urgency to keep you moving. They’re more like a ceaseless marching tune, pushing our heroes forward.
I struggle a lot with whether I like One Winged Angel or The Extreme more as a final boss theme. Both are amazing pieces and serve different purposes. One Winged Angel exists purely to display how imposing Sephiroth can be. The Extreme is much faster-paced and works towards the goal of sounding empowering to the player.
There are so many great themes for towns and dungeons and I want to share them all, but I would just fill the article with links worse than I already have. I’m absolutely in love with this soundtrack and I recommend it even to people who don’t like the game. It’s one of Uematsu’s best works and certainly his best one thus far in the Year of Final Fantasy I would say. I’ll let the music speak for itself!
Okay, fine. One more song.
“You’re-going-to-like-me! You’re-going-to-like-me! Did it work?”
This is where all the debates boil down to when it comes to Final Fantasy VIII. In true Squaresoft fashion, they decided not to rest on their laurels. With the massive success of Final Fantasy VII, clearly the smartest option was to eschew most of the mechanics in favor of other stuff entirely.
Stuff that has stayed the same from VII includes the three-person party, as opposed to four or more from previous entries. ATB continues its streak, returning yet again. Limit breaks come back but aren’t activated the same as VII.
... Oh, were you expecting that list to be longer? Because more or less everything is different this time. The magic system is all-new, there’s weapon upgrading, the Limit system has been tweaked, the summon system is totally different and, oh yeah, there’s some mechanic called the Junction system now.
Let’s start off slow. First, you can upgrade your weapons. In fact, it’s actually the only way to get everyone’s ultimate weapons! It’s a simple upgrade system, and it works just fine. However, it can easily be abused early on if you know what to do in order to get some ultimate weapons incredibly fast.
On top of that, the Limit Break system is a little different. It actually works more like Final Fantasy VI’s Desperation Attacks in execution. Instead of filling a Limit bar like in Final Fantasy VII, Limits are activated once a character is low on HP. The Limit option appears at random when it comes to the character’s turn. To mitigate this, you can simply press Triangle to switch to the next character ready. If that character is the only one, all you have to do is keep pressing it until the Limit option shows up. Then, you can choose your Limit.
Everyone has a special Limit Break like any other game. Squall’s starts off the same every time: You have to time button presses to sword slashes on-screen. When you finish, a random finisher will be chosen. The ultimate finisher is Lionheart, which is essentially Super Omnislash as it does more damage.
Zell’s Limit Break sees him channeling his inner Sabin. Several button combos appear on screen and you have a limited time to input one and do an attack. Time pauses during the attack, and you have to input another attack when the clock starts again. This is honestly really easy to abuse and makes his Limit almost as good as Squall’s, if not better. If you’re fast enough, you can make his combos last for an exorbitant amount of time.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with Limits! They’re all different and all fun to mess around with. Actually, speaking of Squall’s, you can practice his during any battle. For Squall only, if you press R1 at the moment he does a normal attack, you’ll do 50% more damage with him. Also, for some reason, Squaresoft made his base accuracy 255%. Final Fantasy purists may recognize this as a maxed-out stat, meaning that Squall can never miss a physical attack. Impressive!
A few other sections of the battle system are drastically different as well. Chief among them is that Final Fantasy VIII runs on Oblivion enemy levels. That is to say, all enemies scale to your level throughout the entire game. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how I feel about a system such as this. On the one hand, it makes sure you always have a challenge at any level. On the other, you never get to feel ultra-powerful as the more work you put into the game, the stronger enemies become to counter that.
However, Final Fantasy VIII is by far one of the easiest entries to break in the entire series. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to learn about the Junction system!
The Junction system encapsulates magic and summons both. For summons, you essentially equip one or more Guardian Forces to a character. Each GF has a giant list of abilities it can learn, and these are hugely important. You choose what skill you want it to learn at any given time, and over many battles you accrue Ability Points to learn those abilities. This is the easy part of the Junction system.
Another minor note about summons: there’s a cool system in place called the Boost system. During summon animations, you can press a button to boost a number in the corner of the screen. Do it at the right time and you’ll raise the damage of the summon’s attack! However, do it at the wrong time and the damage resets to normal and you have to redo it. This is a very cool way to engage the player during the sometimes-lengthy animations!
Anyway, the harder half of Junctioning is the magic system. In Final Fantasy VIII, spells don’t require MP or anything of the sort. Instead, you acquire spells in your inventory like usable items. You can get these spells in several different ways. The easy way is to find what are called Draw Points on the map. These are little fountains of spells you can find in certain areas. When you activate them, they will give the party member of your choosing a certain number of a certain spell. Then they must recharge before you can Draw from them again.
The second way is perhaps the most involved way, but yields heavy-hitting spells the easiest. Using skills acquired by GFs, you can turn enemies into cards for the in-game card game, Triple Triad. You can then “deconstruct” these cards into usable spells, depending on the card you use.
Finally, perhaps one of the worst decisions in series history, is the third main way. Much like when you draw from a draw point, you can draw spells from enemies in battle. Sounds simple, right? It is! If an enemy has usable spells (or sometimes even Guardian Forces), you can draw them out and add them to your inventory. The issue here is the complete tediousness of the task. Most good spells will only be added to your inventory one at a time, meaning you will be drawing so many times to get 100 Ultimas.
“Why would you need that many copies of the spell? Surely if the game is so easy to break, you’ll only need a few to get through the game!” I hear your poor, naive self saying. You need all those spell copies in order to break the game’s difficulty. Why? Because like GFs, you junction magic spells to each individual stat that you have.
In theory, I love this idea. Depending on the power of the spell and the number of copies of that spell you have, you can create superhuman-level stats. 100 Ultimas on your attack stat? Goodbye challenge. 100 Tornadoes on your Vitality? You’re virtually unstoppable. It’s incredibly unique, and I can’t honestly say I’ve seen anyone else attempt it since Final Fantasy VIII.
This extends to elemental defenses, status effects and immunities as well. Equipping a bunch of Firagas on your sword will make it incredibly effective against enemies weak to fire. About to go into an ice monster area? Junction a bunch of Blizzaras or Blizzagas to you in order to negate or even absorb such damage.
However, there are a few reasons nobody has really tried the Junction system since. While it sounds good on paper, this system is flawed to the core in execution. Unless you take the time to grind out cards for spells, you’re gonna be Drawing spells from enemies. As I mentioned above, this takes forever and you have to do it for each individual spell. On top of that, the enemies with the best spells are heavy hitters. Good luck sucking Ultimas out of Ultima Weapon while he constantly barrages you with annihilation.
Another major problem you may have already figured out by this point: as it is, this system demands you ignore magic entirely. Since you’re using spells to boost your stats, it means you should reserve as many spells as possible. If you use them, you’re only making your stats worse. Who on earth thought this was a good idea?! Go home, Final Fantasy VIII, you're drunk.
I still don’t hate the Junction system in Final Fantasy VIII. I really like its unique take on stat gains and wish someone else would revisit it. However, it has several serious flaws that severely cripple it. The reliance on hoarding magic really brings down the game’s creativity. It’s unfortunate, because the actual system itself is definitely worth revisiting with improvements.
“Squall! You big stud! This is all for you! Congratulations! Enjoy the show! Rinoa, don’t let him get away!”
It wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy game without a ton of side stuff to do! Final Fantasy VIII continues this long tradition. The most major side activity is Triple Triad, a card game that you just started humming the theme to.
This in-depth card game uses a 3x3 grid and cards collected in a wide number of ways. You can win a card from every player you beat in the game, as well as turn monsters into their respective cards as mentioned above. In fact, to get some of the best cards, you must go on a huge sidequest involving tons of chance. It’s long and tedious and I didn’t even try to attempt it, to be honest. That being said, the game itself is fun!
There’s plenty of other stuff, as well. There are several extra Guardian Forces to obtain, such as the Giant Cactuar, Alexander, Odin, or the almighty Eden.
Each of these GFs has some sort of optional fight, dungeon, or sidequest to get it. To get Alexander, for example, you have to draw him from a boss during battle. You have to explore a dungeon and fight Odin within a time limit, you have to fight the Giant Cactuar and in Eden’s case, you must draw it from Ultima Weapon.
By the way, Ultima Weapon is a jerk and is mildly difficult to defeat. That being said, I was victorious and acquired the only summon able to break the 9999 damage limit. Also, did I mention Eden’s summon animation is about a minute and a half long? Lots of time to build up that damage more!
However, Ultima Weapon is not the … ultimate … weapon. False advertising! No, the ultimate superboss is actually found in the final dungeon. This horrifying, awful, terrible, vile monster is Omega Weapon. He’s so annoying that you basically need items that give you invulnerability to survive some of his attacks. Surely that’s not awful in any way!
However, I’m rather proud to say I finally bested this beast. It took me several days of trying, but I was determined to crush a super superboss in a Final Fantasy game, and since Final Fantasy VIII is the easiest game to break, I decided to really give it a go. Omega Weapon, down for the count! What do you get for beating him? Well … bragging rights, mainly. But hey, this is me exercising those rights!
Anyway, the sidequesting and extras are pretty standard fare for Final Fantasy. Optional summons, a minigame, some superbosses, and a few optional items to get as well. Nothing too special, except for Triple Triad. Definitely play that if you play this. Or get it on the Final Fantasy Portal app. Or play it in Final Fantasy XIV. Just play it!
The Final Word
“Wow… Completely different...”
Final Fantasy VIII is a very balanced game. Balanced, that is, in the sense that for every good thing it brings to the table, it brings something equally baffling or bad. The Junction system is, in theory, an extremely unique way to do RPG stats. However, the system is flawed to its core by essentially rendering magic useless.
The story is interesting and the characters are all fun to watch interact with one another. However, some twists fall so flat it almost physically hurts. The most shocking part is that some of these twists have no place in the story. They don’t add anything to the plot and end up bringing the entire story to a screeching halt for no reason.
The only thing without some Yang to its Yin are the graphics and sound, which are nothing short of excellent. The graphics, for the hardware, are amazing. The soundtrack is a world above Uematsu’s previous works in my opinion. While other tracks may be at the top of his repertoire, I feel that Final Fantasy VIII’s is the most consistently awe-inducing.
For all the hate that this game gets, I really did enjoy Final Fantasy VIII. Was it hugely different from VII? Absolutely. Is that a bad thing? That’s for you to decide. For me, though, I’m gonna step on a few toes when I say this.
I liked replaying through Final Fantasy VIII more than Final Fantasy VII.