William Matheson (nova_one) wrote,
William Matheson
nova_one

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RetroReview: Final Fantasy VIII

As one possessed of an English degree, it’s imperative that at some point I get on my keister and do some writing. Hardly being one to keep up with the cutting edge (this requires more money and more willingness to follow the crowds than I possess), I’ve “decided”* to start writing RetroReviews.

* - Like how in Grade 2, I “decided” I was going to become a medical doctor, though now I have a lot less of an eye towards the remunerative side of things.

You’ve already got your sources of information for the latest movies or the latest episodes of your favourite TV shows. There are also numerous websites devoted to reviewing games, though the game reviews I’ve read are usually not of the same literary quality as their music, motion picture, literary, and other “old media” counterparts. (Usually, but not always: I used to religiously read the RPG Critic reviews on Working Design’s website and Happy Puppy’s reviews were always of high quality – unfortunately, the companies behind both are defunct, but the reviews can be found on the Internet Archive if you know where to look.)

My self-imposed task will not be to keep up with the latest and greatest. Instead, I’ll be reviewing things you might regard as “classic” – things you have either checked out already, or were planning to.

Topically, I’ll be following the Whatever I Feel Like™ method of posting. Generally, the reviews will have no specific order, except to follow the Golden Rule of workflow – getting the easiest things done first. (Try it for yourself!)

Final Fantasy VIII
A: 1999 PlayStation game
By: Square

Introduction

It was Final Fantasy VII that set the gold standard for modern console role-playing games. Along with other hot tiles like Tomb Raider, Gran Turismo, Crash Bandicoot, and – well, forgive me if I’m forgetting your favourite title – the PlayStation started to appear in the living rooms and bedrooms of every kind of gamer. Concurrent with Sega’s failure to market the Saturn and Dreamcast* adequately, and the memory limitations of the cartridge-based Nintendo 64 (this was long before you could buy a 1GB pen drive from your lunch money), the PlayStation had the name**, marketing, and software support to fill the void.

* - The Dreamcast is actually considered a sixth-generation console, as it was technically more comparable to the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube than the PlayStation and Nintendo 64.

** - I read somewhere that they licence the name from Yamaha. I can’t confirm this at present, though. Treat this as an urban legend.

Still, the PlayStation’s late-90’s ascendancy might have been surprising to those who tried out the system when it launched in 1995. I remember my cousin telling me his family rented one for a week but sometimes couldn’t even get it to work, on top of their being generally disappointed with the games. Accustomed to the good old Super Nintendo, we looked at the number of buttons on the PlayStation controller and laughed – why would you need four shoulder buttons?

The PlayStation offered features like a multitap (for using more than two controllers – it only had two ports) and system link (seemingly ideal for first-person shooters and football so that you can’t gain advantage from surreptitiously monitoring your opponent’s portion of the screen – but this feature required you to have two PlayStations, two televisions, and two copies of the game!), but in terms of multiplayer games it offered nothing that compared with the Nintendo 64’s must-own multiplayer games: GoldenEye 007, and Mario Kart 64. The N64 also had four controller ports and lightning-quick load times.

However, a console RPG benefits greatly from copious storage, as that gives you space to tell a story, maybe have some full-motion video in places, and – this is one thing that classic cartridge RPGs lack – present varied environments. You’ve all seen the games where all the towns and all the dungeons look the same, except maybe for a color change. Even in Final Fantasy VI, almost all towns (except the opening town and a rainy town overrun with thieves) look the same.

The proof is in the pudding. With one exception, I struggle to think of a single significant N64 RPG, outside of the Zelda games, which are probably better classified as action-adventure. Paper Mario is the only turn-based RPG worth playing for the entire console. If you see it, buy it.

Meanwhile, the PlayStation became the must-have console for RPG fans. Outside of Phantasy Star and Paper Mario, all the major franchises eventually got there – sometimes for a one-off appearance, but often for extended stays: Chrono. Final Fantasy. Dragon Quest. Breath of Fire. Mana. What do these series have in common? They all migrated from Nintendo’s Super Nintendo to the Sony PlayStation.

Final Fantasy VII was the great shot across the bow, heralding the maturation of the CD-ROM RPG for those that missed Lunar and Phantasy Star on the various Sega systems. The case quotes the now-defunct GameFan Magazine: “…quite possibly the greatest game ever made.”

I wish I could find the full review somewhere, but it’s plainly evident that it’s not hyperbole. In all but around-the-edges completeness, difficulty (it can get to be too easy when you know what you’re doing), and a sometimes-sloppy script (somewhat corrected in the difficult-to-run PC version), it’s a five-star game. I actually prefer it to Final Fantasy VI as the battle system is less buggy, you don’t have to worry about setting up for level bonuses (a seemingly good, but in my opinion vile feature, because to max out your characters’ statistics you have to avoid fighting until you acquire the items / equipment / abilities that let you access the bonuses), things are more transparent, the towns don’t all look the same, and you can be endlessly creative about the way you set up your characters thanks to the extreme flexibility of the materia system.

I told you all that to ask you this: Can you imagine the hype for Final Fantasy VIII?

Even people who weren’t really into RPGs were waiting for this with the eagerness of mainstream female teens waiting for a 1999 Backstreet Boys concert. It helped that Final Fantasy VIII screenshots showed a meticulously and painstakingly realistic, stylish, and lush world with beautiful people and that the battle screenshots did away with all those nerdy RPG things like magic points and character classes. Aurally, you could play some scenes of the game with your window open and not be able to tell the difference between the birds in the game and the birds outside.

The demand for this game was so extreme that in the spring of 1999 I was approached at my high school and asked if 1) I had a PlayStation and 2) if my PlayStation was modified* (i.e.: to play imports or copies).

* - There are ways to play imports, copies (and copies of imports) without having to modify the innards your PlayStation. The safest is to acquire a Pro Action Replay, a GameShark-like device that plugs into the parallel port on the rear of some models of the console and a sturdy spring. You put in a standard game from your region, then start the console. The disc pre-loads and the console beeps, indicating that the lockout has been cleared. The PAR allows the disc to stop, so you can then open the lid (with the spring holding down the little inner button so that the console thinks it’s still closed) and swap it with the disc you want to play without damaging your console. Then you close the lid again, select “Start Game”, and off you go. I’ve successfully used this method to play a patched version of Xenogears.

I told him that mine was unmodified, but that I was in my own way capable of playing imports. He then offered to sell me a copy of the Japanese release of Final Fantasy VIII, as the North American release wasn’t to come until September. Of course, the catch was that the Japanese release was actually in Japanese. To understand the game, you had to download, and print, and refer to, a fan translation of the script. In retrospect, it’s easy to lament the plight of such a gamer when the plot of the game is barely comprehensible the first time through in English.

Anyway, that was far more trouble than I was willing to engage in just to be a couple of months ahead. I politely declined. He walked away showing his frustration. His scheme may not have been working out as well as he hoped.

So, then, did the game live up to the hype?

I contend no. But nothing could. It wasn’t a Star Wars Episode I kind of letdown (also from 1999!), but a letdown nonetheless. Why? Well, in one sentence, it’s not very much fun. The graphics and music are first-rate. The gameplay, though, is often tedious and frustrating. That is my thesis. Here follow some of the details.

Review

The problem with Final Fantasy VIII is not that it’s not a good game. If it weren’t a good game, I wouldn’t have given it nearly so much time and attention: I’ve played through it about three times. If it weren’t a very good game, I certainly wouldn’t be bothering to write this review.

As I see it, the problem with Final Fantasy VIII is that it’s a good (even a great) game that has the conceit that it’s a masterpiece. Even the almost-adequate official game guide, complete with advertisements from the likes of Toyota and General Mills, has the tagline “The Ultimate Guide for the Ultimate Game”.

And it wasn’t just going to end with the main game, the soundtrack, the figurines – oh, no! You could even take Final Fantasy VIII on the bus with you! Chocobo* World on the PocketStation was just part of an entire ecosystem that Square envisioned around this game. (Still, had you heard about the Chocobo World craze sweeping Japan? Me neither. Square came too late to the Tamagotchi party.)

* - Chocobos are yellow birds found throughout the Final Fantasy series that can be ridden for transportation, bred, raised, raced, used to store superfluous items – they’re extremely versatile!

Let me digress. Chocobo World is worth checking out, especially since you can buy a PocketStation for peanuts in virtually any Japanese junk shop (e.g.: Hard-Off). In fact, buying a PocketStation would actually be cheaper than buying a regular official Sony memory card, so even if you don’t have Final Fantasy VIII or one of the very few other compatible games, it’s still worth getting.

Tip: Do not purchase those 32-in-1 “mega memory” cards. After loading them to 7 of 32 whole-card-blocks, they freeze on that block and you’re left with the equivalent of a regular memory card – hope you didn’t have anything important on those other card-blocks! If you have access to a computer with a serial port, get a DexDrive instead. They’re super-duper cheap now.

Anyway, back to the game being a pseudo-masterpiece. The makers were drunk on their own megalixir and tacitly assumed that everybody would not only be purchasing PocketStations but would be taking their Chocobos head to head, because (surprise!) most people have an inherently low “rank” based on their PocketStation IDs, and the only way to improve it is by winning head-to-head contests with people of higher rank. Presumably, anyway. I’m a little foggy on the details, and it’s not like Greater Halifax is crawling with Chocobo World players. (If any are reading this, drop me a message or comment.)

Why do you need a higher rank? Well, if you want to actually get game-changingly useful items from Chocobo World, you need to have a high rank. This is especially maddening when you consider than an important Final Fantasy staple is buried as a high-rank item in Chocobo World: the Ribbon! It* protects you from most “status ailments” that limit the performance of or outright imperil your characters.

* - Since this game doesn’t have equipment in the usual sense, it’s an item that teaches the “Ribbon” ability rather than the headpiece or accessory that it is in most of the other games in the series.

Have fun fighting Malboros in this game, that’s all I can say. They’re another Final Fantasy staple – they have a “Bad Breath” attack that inflicts all of the status ailments on all of your characters. Without Ribbons, there’s no way to adequately protect yourself except by “junctioning” (we’ll get to that straight away) status-defense against berserk (so you can still control your character) on someone who has the Treatment command or the Item command for using Remedy items. And you pretty much have to fight Malboros if you want the items necessary to learn a spell, acquire a “guardian force” (hold on, that’s coming too), and make a powerful weapon.

Junctioning, junctioning, junctioning. Hardly anything else matters in this game – if you’re just playing to get through it, all you need to do is draw 100 spells (instead of using magic points like many other games, here the magic itself is consumable) of every new spell you encounter to each character, then auto-junction up to your choice of strength, magic, or HP. You can also junction spells to elemental attack and defense (to inflict or get immunity from, say, fire-based attacks), and, as just mentioned, status attack and defense (to inflict or get immunity from status ailments). There is no equipment in the traditional sense – for example, there is no armor and no final “defence” statistic – there is only a “vitality” statistic. (There should have been an option to auto-junction to vitality, but you can prioritize any stat, element, or status manually without too much trouble.)

When I say nothing matters but junctioning, I mean that, and it’s to the point of absurdity. One of the supporting characters is a beefy guy with a harpoon for a weapon. It’s a seriously hefty instrument – we’re talking about something you might see mounted on the deck of a whaling vessel. But if you don’t have a strong spell junctioned to his strength statistic (again, there’s no separate or calculated “attack” stat), he might as well be a kitten. I know that in RPGs we suspend our disbelief to allow for things like levelling-up and turn-based combat. This, though, goes a little too far – probably because the image of someone throwing a giant harpoon at a weak enemy and causing only a few points of damage just doesn’t compute. It offends our sense of physics.

Okay, so you can upgrade your weapons, as I hinted before when talking about the Malboros. But they’re basically tied to the character – you can’t unequip it or buy a better one. Instead, you visit a junk shop (a nod to Japan’s numerous second-hand stores at which you can buy all kinds of neat stuff, including the $10 PocketStation I used with this game) and “remodel”. There’s a tiny little catch, though: You have to find the remodelling items yourself – in one instance, by fighting those Malboros that you can’t adequately defend yourself against, because you don’t have a Ribbon, because you don’t own a PocketStation, because they were never sold in North America.

Chrono Cross was made at the same time as Final Fantasy VIII and had a similar methodology for weapon upgrades, but it wasn’t implemented quite so poorly. The necessary items were always easy to get, or there was a clear method for obtaining them. You could also equip and un-equip (and even disassemble!) the manufactured products, and sometimes you’d just find them ready-made in dungeon chests anyway. You also didn’t have to worry about missing a narrow window of opportunity for grinding. None of this is true of Final Fantasy VIII’s upgrade system.

In FFVIII, if you are in the wrong place, at too high a level, and have not yet / can not yet acquire an ability that lets you adjust the level of your enemies (how ridiculously complex does a game have to be in order for there to be a legitimate use for such an ability?), you’re basically screwed. You can also unwittingly screw yourself out of opportunities to get spell-learning and ability-learning items, too. There’s nothing like spending a few hours grinding for 100 Curse Spikes from Forbidden enemies which only drop 1-3 at a time, because you defeated a boss and thus eliminated a guaranteed encounter point with a more generous enemy. Oh, and your “Siren” guardian force has to be at level 100 (!!) to refine those 100 Curse Spikes into the Dark Matter item that you need to teach the spell-learning character a useful multi-target 10,000+ damage spell. Need I mention that this Dark Matter is also a high-rank PocketStation item? (Sigh.)

I realize that any non-trivial RPG is going to have some missable things, but FFVIII raises this idea to an art form. This simile isn’t mine, but it’s apt: missability as an “art form”, for me feels how it would if I were a vegan being asked to comment on the aesthetics of the kitsch in the local steakhouse.

Now, about those “guardian forces” (abbreviated to “GF”). They are the be-all and end-all of the game, as without guardian forces, you cannot junction magic or use commands besides “Attack”. Even the Item command is locked up unless you equip a GF. The GFs differ among themselves in three important ways: 1) The thing they do when they are summoned 2) The statistics they allow you to junction magic to and 3) The commands they allow you to use.

So just equip a GF, right? The more the merrier! Well, the problem is that GFs don’t come in a powerful form right out of the bag. You have to level them up much like you do characters, like how I just talked about getting Siren to Level 100. That would be fine, except for the tyrannical detail that experience points are split among GFs. If you have fewer GFs junctioned to a character, they’ll level up faster, but that character will also be weaker because they probably won’t be able to junction to all of their important stats.

You can make or buy items that teach GFs to junction to other stats in addition to the ones they are set up for by default, but then you have to make the GF forget a different ability because the space for abilities is frustratingly limited. You have to be very careful doing this – you don’t want to waste items or accidentally forget an irreplaceable ability. Good abilities to forget are things like “Status Defence x2” when you have “Status Defence x4” – it’s safe to forget x2 because the x4 completely makes up for it. (Sorry, you can’t combine them and junction six or eight spells to your status defense! For that kind of protection, you need the Ribbo- augh.)

As you might guess, distributing GFs among your characters (to minimize ability redundancy) is an art in itself, and entire manuals have been written about it. I suppose it’s like distributing materia, only without the ease, fun, or flexibility. And ordinarily, I care much much more about junctioning than summoning, so I really shouldn’t care too much – but remember that you need to get Siren to Level 100 to refine the Dark Matter? At least you get Siren early in the game but only a repeat player would think to only have two or three total GFs on the character equipping Siren.

Then there’s getting around in the game. The locations are expansive, beautiful, and rich in detail. Seeing them will fill you with awe-struck wonder the first and maybe the second time you visit. But maybe not the seventeenth and one-hundred-fifteenth times. And you spend a lot of time walking around.

You start the game in a richly detailed military academy. There is a classroom, complete with computer consoles. You can actually sign in and visit the school festival committee “webpage”. The school has an elevator, corridors, library, cafeteria, nurse’s station, front gate, parking… sounds almost like your high school, right?

Yet we don’t expect Citadel High School to come out next month on PlayStation 3. “Gameplay” would involve walking to your locker, walking to the administration office for a late slip (do they still have those?), walking to the guidance office to register for a course, walking to your homeroom, walking to your lunch-time hangout to play cards with your friends… Yawn! FFVIII regularly descends to these levels of tedium.

The cities and towns outside the academy aren’t much better. Let’s compare. Think of a village like Kalm in Final Fantasy VII. By no means is it as rich or detailed as any habitation in Final Fantasy VIII. But Kalm is convenient: every building is accessible from one central screen. If Kalm were rendered in Final Fantasy VIII, they’d have changed it so that it had zero, one, or two buildings per street screen. Exploring the whole town, considering the barely-tolerable load times inherent in CD games of yore, might take the better part of an hour instead of five-to-ten minutes. That’s good if the town is particularly interesting and you only have to walk across it once or twice. Unfortunately, those conditions are rarely satisfied, and – pardon the minor spoiler – at the end of the game, it comes as a relief when you get locked out of all of the towns, and the game hardly suffers for it being so.

Some of these towns are gorgeous and captivating (again, the first few times you visit). Prime example: a little place called Fisherman’s Horizon. Too bad your vehicle is a two-to-three minute trek from all the things that you need to do there, and the town itself is frustratingly linear. It’s even worse when you leave, because you have to work your way up through your vehicle again to get back to the helm.

This game could really have used a few shortcuts. Remember how Final Fantasy VII’s Junon, a big sprawling town, had a helicopter you could take to fly out of the city if you arrived by boat? This game needed way, way more of that. The military academy, to its credit, has a building directory that can be used as a shortcut to its various sections. Unfortunately, it’s one-way, and halfway though the game it stops working without explanation.

Maybe the designers thought we’d love lots of walking? After all, you learn new desperation attacks for a character and even get paid your salary by… you guessed it, walking! I can’t make this stuff up.

Okay, so getting around on foot is troublesome, though a taking a lot of steps is how you get paid. But the world map is easy, right? You get an airship, right?

Well, your “airship”, if you can call it that, has the speed, manoeuvrability, grace, and even the appearance of a giant flying turkey. I must admit, though, the game redeems itself when two of these turkeys come together, generating a scene with rocket-powered motorcycles that makes you drop your controller and shout “Yes!” with both fists raised in the air. (You’ll eventually get a better airship, but this will happen very close to the end of the game.)

Of course there are also Chocobos, and they also tried valiantly to implement trains as a method of travel. Unfortunately, the plot constraints make the trains nearly useless – more often than not, the trains are simply shut down so that you won’t get to places you’re not supposed to go. It’s also absurdly expensive for a ticket, unless you think 100 Gil (the game currency) equals $1. Perhaps it’s inspired by the Japanese yen, where ¥100 gives you about $1 of purchasing power.

You can also rent a car, which is cheap enough, but you have to supply your own fuel after the first tank, and the fuel is expensive. But you don’t actually need to rent a car: with the exception of the large eastern continent, there are paved roads connecting most of the cities and towns. Simply walk on the roads, and you will not face any random enemy encounters.

That’s a convenient segue (I suppose those will appear in Final Fantasy XXVIII…) – let’s talk about the battles. Battles are usually slow-placed, and I suspect this is by necessity because 1) you probably won’t be able to junction magic to “speed” until the end of the game (though you can get Auto-Haste on the first disc if you’re willing to modify a rare card (see below) to get it and you play all the prerequisite games to create the card in the first place) and 2) you must draw-grind – you’re expected to spend turn after turn after turn in battle just stocking up magic.

If your characters could taunt their enemies, they’d say something like, “After I finish draw-grinding off of you, you’re history!” If you’re good, this will be the case – your stats will be well-junctioned and you’ll be knocking off bosses with just a couple of whacks. It’s actually too easy to inadvertently kill enemies and bosses before you’re finished stealing / drawing from them. Until you near the end of the game and pretty much have all of the spells, you’ll spend far more time drawing than you will attacking.

It’s rather mind-numbing, and I hope your TV set has cable so that you’ve got something else to watch while holding down the action button on your PlayStation controller for the five minutes that it takes for all three of your party members to each stock 100 of the spell (that 5:00 figure is assuming they have magic junctioned to “magic” and are consistently drawing 8 or 9 of the spell at a time instead of 1 or 2 or just simply failing to draw). The bosses are generally soft – very few of them actually put you in any danger. Sure, you can’t sit back and draw Ultima (just about the best spell in the game) from a Weapon-grade boss (the hardest monsters in the game) while watching TV, but that’s almost the only exception. I can tell you from experience that Final Fantasy VIII draw-grinding and the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs aren’t such a bad mix.

No review of Final Fantasy VIII would be complete without mention of the card game, Triple Triad. Never before have the random selections of a game inspired such tremendous controller-smashing screaming fits of rage. I’m exaggerating – I usually settled for swearing and an occasional fist-into-pillow.

The hardest part of Triple Triad is manipulating the rules in order to keep the game transparent, controllable, and simple. There’s a rhyme and reason to it – if you know what you’re doing, rule manipulation can be rather painless (though it will require a great deal of resetting – I nominate FFVIII as the All-Time King of Soft Reset*), but I contend that something is wrong if you spend almost as much time manipulating rules as you do playing. Also, if you’re going to play FFVIII, start the Triple Triad sidequest early. I once left it to the end of the game, thinking I’d enjoy the convenience of a better airship. But faced with having to go through all the rule manipulation at once, I choked – I abandoned my save and haven’t come back to it.

* - “Software reset”, i.e. restarting a program or operating system instead of pushing the reset button on the computer / console and actually interrupting power to the main chip. That requires getting up whereas a soft reset can be performed on your PlayStation controller. It’s like the difference between using Ctrl+Alt+Delete and the RESET button on your Windows computer.

Rule manipulation isn’t the only arcane and frustrating thing you’ll face, if I haven’t made that clear in the preceding paragraphs. Even just advancing scenes is unnecessarily difficult – sometimes you have to talk to everyone, sometimes you have to leave a room, sometimes you have to follow a teeny-tiny NPC through a distant, wide-angle view of a humongous crowd at a parade. The problem is not that these things have to be done, it’s that it’s rarely obvious what to do. In a CD-based game where long load times between field screens are the norm, frequent wild-goose-chases are not much fun. One wonders if the makers of Final Fantasy VIII realized this, or felt that their game was so good that every microsecond was captivatingly enthralling.

The plot of the game isn’t as bad as it could be, but it is kind of dreary. If you’re expecting a long, thoughtful, emotionally-challenging story (like that of Xenogears or even Final Fantasy VII), you’ll want to look elsewhere. That’s not to say that this game doesn’t pull at the heartstrings in places. But it’s mostly because of the characters being their endearing selves rather than anything I can really credit to the plot.

The characterization is excellent, really. Squall, who is more or less the main character, has been dismissed as a “brooding jerk”, but if you actually follow what he’s thinking and think about it yourself, there’s almost always a compelling logic to follow. I can also say that Squall improves very much upon repeat playthoughs of this game as you learn how to read between the scanlines, so to speak. His unique brand of bluntness should make you laugh out loud – early on he famously advises a woman who asks for his ear to “go talk to a wall”. As extremely off-putting as that sounds (and you feel for the poor woman!), when you see the situation you’ll understand perfectly why he says that.

There’s also the adorable Selphie (whose desperation attack is invaluable in the early parts of the game, especially for a miserly gamer like me who hates using consumable spells or items), and Zell provides adequate comic relief.

But they’re stuck in a plot that, well, doesn’t make any sense until you’ve played the game at least twice, and isn’t really all that compelling as it unfolds. Here’s what you’re told on the back of the game’s jewelcase:

“A member of an elite military team, Squall is forced into a conflict beyond imagination.”

No, not really. Beyond imagination would be the Galactic Civil War in Star Wars, or perhaps the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in Return of the King. This ain’t that. And keep in mind the frequent stops to manipulate the rules of Triple Triad. I didn’t see much of that in Star Wars or LotR.

“To survive, he must contend with a desperate rival, a powerful sorceress, and his own mysterious dreams.”

Ooooooh! A desperate rival! Is this the Harlequin Book of the Month?

“An epic story based on the theme of love, set in a massive new world.”

Oh, no! It is the Harlequin Book of the Month!

Yes, lamentably it is a love story as much as it is a “getting things done, building powerful characters, and blowing things up” story. When I first encountered this game in my returning grad year of high school, I was very much interested in a “true love” story. At the time I believed in true love and soulmates and all kinds of ridiculous things.

I’ll leave my “soulmates are made, not born” argument for another time. But let me propose this: Let’s say you have a somewhat more pragmatic attitude towards relationships than the “OMG it was destiny, our love forever written in the stars OMG OMG!! U had me @ hello!” attitude. If that’s the case, you are going to be frustrated by this game.

The game forces you into a romance with Rinoa. That’s not a spoiler – she’s the girl on the box and in the game’s logo. She has her strong points, sure. I rather like how she continually teases Squall. Let’s call her “enternoying.”

But if I had my druthers, I’d go for Quistis. No contest! She carries a whip. And you should see her work a cannon at the end of the Field Exam scene. My, my.

The Squall-Rinoa romance, once you understand the story, makes the most sense to the plot. It brings closure to something from the past. And I certainly wouldn’t turn away a girl like her. But, still, I wanted Quistis. Final Fantasy VII would have accommodated this to some extent – in fact, you can go on a date with your choice of four characters, though you have to understand how the behind-the-scenes mechanics work and make the correct choices / talk to the correct people as you go. It’s a bit disappointing that this kind of complexity was present in FFVII but seems to be absent in VIII.

It’s funny I should say that, as Final Fantasy VIII is probably one of the most complex games on the PlayStation platform. In its way, it does to the console RPG what Sabermetrics does for baseball. Even strategy titles like Final Fantasy Tactics are more facile in principle than FFVIII. Look at how long this review is! I couldn’t give the game its due with anything shorter, yet I’m sure I could sum up the major points from any other pre-PS2 Final Fantasy game in half this length. The serious guides to this game on GameFAQs are well over a megabyte. (I like Absolute Steve’s.) Also, I think it’s fair to say that if you have to have in-game tests on how your battle system works, and having played the game three times I still have to think about the answers – it might be a little too complex.

Still, it’s a complexity that is, in its way, addictive. You wake up in the morning and look around, wondering what happened to all the magic you were drawing and stocking in your dreams. You sit on the bus and wonder about how you’re going to spread the Triple Triad rules you like to a new location where you’re going to win a new rare card. Meanwhile, you’re busting your thumbs on your PocketStation playing Chocobo World, and once in a while your Cactuar finds you an item. Say what I will about this game, it certainly kept me coming back. You’re intended to spend months playing this game, not days.

There is a payoff at the end, too. The final dungeon is one of the most interesting in video games, and the ending – well, except for one part where it drags – improves on subsequent playthroughs. I warn you – it’s not an explicit, explicatory ending, and it’s essentially wordless – you have to really have paid attention to get everything out of it that you’re supposed to. For this reason, it brought a tear to my eye on this playthough that I didn’t have the first time. They spared no expense.

But, in terseness, Final Fantasy VIII can have its complexity and expense. I found VII and IX to be less complex, but more enjoyable. Yet Final Fantasy VIII is such a monumental game that it cannot be flippantly dismissed – it deserves consideration – a frustrating, brooding consideration. Enjoy it at your own risk.

Miscellaneous Tips:

Magic: Forget it. I mean casting it. You could - and I very nearly did - get through the whole game without using stocked magic. Just junction a full 100 of the good stuff to your stats. You can get by almost entirely on physical attacks, commands, GFs, and the odd item. But that's just the way I play. Since magic is consumable, I never want to cast it, and since the good stuff is junctioned, casting it means your stats will go down in battle. You don’t want that.

Aura stones: If you've visited all the shops and have Tonberry's suite of shopping-related abilities and the appropriate refinement abilities, it's trivial to make Aura Stones. Give someone the item command and use the stones, then unleash your limit breaks to overpower your enemies – this is great near the end of the game! (Don't use Aura spells - they're probably better for junctioning.)

Omega Weapon: If your level is a multiple of 5, junction 100 Death spells to each party member’s Status Defense. Junction your best spells to strength and vitality. If you have Doomtrain and Tonberry, make some elixirs and megalixirs. Also grab some protect stones any way you can, like from card modding (or simply cast protect if you’re not junctioning it to something important, but I hate casting stocked magic) and aura stones (like the elixirs and megalixirs, these can be made with the appropriate GF abilities – again, you could cast aura, but the stones are so easy to get and you might have aura junctioned to a stat). Finally, boost strength and vitality with your GF character abilities, and leave your elemental attack unjunctioned since Omega absorbs everything. It may take you a few tries, but if you stay on your toes and get, say, Squall’s Lionheart limit break or Rinoa’s Wishing Star a few times each, you’ll take down Omega.

Card modification: I was unwilling to, but if you’re willing to modify certain rare cards (make sure you don’t mod one that will make you unable to complete your collection – follow the guides closely), you can get some really useful items. You can even win the cards back again at the end of the game provided that you beat a certain group of players at the military academy you start in. I beat the players, but I never used them to re-harvest rare cards. You could, though. I just wanted to have the complete collection of cards as early as possible and didn’t want to have to face the hassle of playing again and again until my modded card resurfaced.

The official guide: I wish this game had an equivalent of Casey Loe’s excellent Completely Unauthorized Final Fantasy VII Ultimate Guide. A large part of my enjoyment of that game comes from his precise and humorous writing and useful insights. Here you pretty much have to make do with the official guide, and though it is a huge improvement from the official FFVII guide, it is a little lax in detail. It’s handy to have, but you can’t rely on it as your sole source of information. For instance, you most certainly do not need to wait until Disc Three to start the Triple Triad sidequest!

Selphie: I said in my notes for this review that she is “rather fetchingly attractive”. This means I’ve probably played this game one too many times. Will you play zero times, once, twice, or thrice? That’s up to you.

Second and Third Opinions: (both from defunct websites, no less!)

Happy Puppy: 7/10

RPG Critic: 9/10
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