Ask any seasoned JRPG fan and they’ll tell you that the genre’s juggernaut brand, Final Fantasy, had its golden age during the PS1 era. At that time, the publisher formerly known as Squaresoft could do no wrong. Between the god tier of Final Fantasy 7 and 9, the much respected Final Fantasy Tactics and their strategy of throwing every other game in the series as re-releases to reach the biggest demographic as possible, Final Fantasy was riding high as the kings of the JRPG genre.
However, throughout this flurry of releases, there was one title that fans have been clamouring for, but was also seen as the dark horse of the golden era: Final Fantasy VIII. While not an awful game and certainly not the worst in the entire series (take a bow, XIII) Final Fantasy VIII boasted a complete overhaul to the series’ inner workings and mechanics, achieving mixed results. Just in time for its 20th Anniversary, Square Enix decided to release its HD remaster, so if nothing else, we can finally answer the question: did FF8 deserve to be overlooked? If so, why?
One possible theory could be its overwhelmingly complicated narrative. You take control of a young recruit known as Squall Leonhart, the introverted and often frustratingly unlikeable protagonist. It’s a mystery why Japanese developers feel that the silent, moody trope makes for a relatable character, but usually there’s always an event that makes said protagonist change their ways. That doesn’t really happen with Squall; he comes across as reluctant and arrogant at the beginning of the game and towards the end is selfish and foolhardy. Squall isn’t the broken soul FF8 tries to portray. To put it bluntly, he’s a bit of a careless idiot.
As a member of the private militia SeeD, Squall and his gang of Zell, Selphie, Quisits and Irvine are thrown into various, often tumultuous scenarios. This includes the ongoing civil war between the Balamb and Galbadian army, protecting the resistance fighter and main female protagonist Rinoa Heartilly from, well, everything it seems, and engaging with the maddened sorceress Edea, who may not be what she appears.
All the while you’re warding off a sorceress knight, Squall’s bitter rival Seifer and you’re also having trippy dream sequences involving 3 completely different characters that somehow interlink everything together. Say what you want, Final Fantasy 8 is definitely spinning a lot of plates.
The more hardened FF8 fans will know that description is a gross oversimplification of the events of the game, but if I was to get into the meat of the narrative, this review would need to come in 2 parts. I also know what you’re thinking: Square Enix and complicated narratives go about as well as cheese and pickle, but this was late 1990’s Squaresoft, and their narratives weren’t as complicated.
While FF7 and FF9 had their convoluted plot points, the overall themes of both games were easy to digest and accessible. FF7 was a chilling note on the ravages of corporate industrialization and the scarcity of the planet’s resources, while FF9 left a poignant message of identity and wanting to be accepted. FF8 message is meant to be about the importance of teamwork and comradery, but this moral is often muddied with other themes that aren’t fully fleshed out, making FF8 one of the more baffling Final Fantasy experiences.
Final Fantasy games have always been held in high regard for their presentation style and FF8 was no exception. Even after 20 years, most of the visuals hold up tremendously well. Although it was only the main character models getting a HD revamp, the pre-rendered backdrops and its FMV’s are still a joy to behold, all while only running at 240p.
However, there were a few instances where some character models were not properly rendered and, if played on a smaller television, looked ghastly. This is really the only time where the ball was dropped and more care should have gone into the development process, much like 7 and 9’s remasters. Still, for a game from the PS1 era, it is awe inspiring just how well this game has aged.
Another element of FF8 worth commending is its innovative battle mechanics. To start with, you have your regular active time battle mechanics, where you take turns with your chosen party members, using basic commands such as attack, magic or the draw ability. Square could have just incorporated similar mechanics to FF7, made a few tweaks and it still would have been fun. However, what we got instead was a system built from the ground up that, with a bit of practise, can work to your advantage: The Junction System.
The Junction System works around summons, known as Guardian Forces. As you level up your GF, so can potentially your stats. Bringing up your overall strength or HP stats, for example, can be done by drawing magic from the regular monsters dotted all over the world map. GF’s are easy enough to find, especially with a handy guide and maybe the odd bit of grinding needed to beat some of the trickier GF’s available towards the end of the game, but without GF’s you cannot access any abilities.
This is particularly important as the more powerful your magic is, the more powerful your fighter becomes. FF8 does feature a Junction Exchange, which means that any characters that need swapping out – and trust us there are a few scenarios involving that – don’t need to spend hours grinding away to level up their base stats. You can just swap junctions and get through the various monsters and bosses with relative ease.
While the Junction System will be tricky to master for newcomers and confusing to understand, it can be rewarding when done correctly. You can switch it to auto and trust the game to give you the best combination of magic and stats, but it’s much more fun to mix and match the countless possibilities on offer.
Another interesting mechanic is the overhauled weapons system. Rather than just buying improved weapons as the game progresses, FF8 has ‘Weapons Monthly’ magazines dotted around various locations, which give you articles based on new weapons that are available to you and what materials you will need to obtain them. These materials can also be received by, you guessed it, grinding against monsters found all over the world map.
While this is all well and good, this actually limits the amount of weapons you can purchase, as well as needing to be more eagle eyed to find some of the magazines that give you access to the more powerful weapons. It’s an idea with good intentions, but just isn’t as fleshed out as other FF Weapon systems.
The only real difference between the HD remaster and its original counterpart, aside from the graphics, are the options that turn the game into a casual mode and experience the story quicker. There’s the battle booster which starts you off with each character’s limit break, allowing you to tear through enemies in mere seconds – after you’ve spent 5 minutes drawing all their magic anyway. The three times speed booster makes the gameplay faster, which is handy for all the grinders among us that want to get everyone to level 100 in the quickest time possible, or finding that one mesmerize blade for Squall’s gunblade upgrade.
Nostalgic value aside, if you are a newcomer to the Final Fantasy franchise wanting to play every game on offer, our advice would be to take heed with FF8 and have a bit of patience with it. FF8 is not an awful game by any leaps of the imagination and, if anything, you would be playing this title for its unique battle mechanics and the addictive card mini game. FF8 is often overlooked during the franchise’s golden era and for good reason. On the overall spectrum of FF titles, while not the worst, FF8 is neatly placed in the middle — some great ideas, but at the cost of a confusing tale.
A code was supplied by Square Enix for the purposes of this review
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You will only need to play Final Fantasy VIII for its innovative battle system. Though a HD remaster worthy of your time, its confusing, messy narrative may drive away some players looking to get into the Final Fantasy franchise where far better examples exist.