Do Over: Final Fantasy VIII
After there was Final Fantasy VII and before there was Final Fantasy IX, there was Final Fantasy VIII. Yes, that’s one fuck of a long string of stand-alone epic RPGs, but there you have it. We are now straining towards the dizzying heights of XV; Final Fantasy, as a series, has pedigree.
A varied pedigree, mind. VII, the breakthrough Western hit, is rather like the series’ rough collie: beautiful, functional, beloved. X is the miniature poodle: pretty, but prone to bursts of yapping that go on for bloody ever. XIII is the Afghan Hound: stunning, but too simple to take seriously. And then VIII is the Pit Bull: maligned, misunderstood, and a lot smarter than it looks. Poor, poor Final Fantasy VIII.
It’d be great to segue here into a statement that VIII’s premise is simple, but it isn’t. It’s practically brain surgery.
In a post-war world where bolero jackets never went out of fashion, a bunch of supernaturally powerful child soldiers take on an evil sorceress, except she’s not an evil sorceress, only a good sorceress who’s been possessed by a much-more-evil-than-first-assumed sorceress, who wants to compress time into a singularity because she fucking can. This main story is intertwined with the hapless adventures of a soldier of the world’s foremost superpower, whose military ineptitude makes Zapp Brannigan look like Napoleon Bonaparte. Somehow this lands him the presidency of the most technologically advanced nation on the planet, which cloaks itself from the world because it fucking can. Also, monsters fall from the moon.
Does any of that make sense? No? That’s ok; it usually takes 60+ hours to soak it all up and even then, 85% of all gamers who finished Final Fantasy VIII still have no idea what the hell they just accomplished. Cue hatred, confusion, and a mass exodus to first person shooters which don’t require players to have obtained advanced diplomas in paradox theory before they pick up their joypads.
Your protagonist for 90% of those 60+ hours is a seventeen-year-old mercenary called Squall Leonhart, who is without doubt the most magnificent bastard to take on the romantic hero mantle since Heathcliff stalked the moors. Squall suffers with abandonment issues – like most of his fellow juvenile combatants, he lost his parents in the last world war – made much worse by his dependence on using the phenomenal power of Guardian Forces, which have drained his memories and left him an emotional husk, albeit a super hot one. He’s obnoxiously rude towards his instructor, dismissive of his right hand man, and in general about as warm as a dead polar bear. He does, however, do a mean foxtrot, so there’s that.
Assigned to the service of a small resistance faction by his academy headmaster, who is, for some reason, Robin Williams, Squall finds himself locking horns with and getting the horn for one Rinoa Heartilly, upper middle class revolutionary manic pixie dream girl extraordinaire. They fight, she teases, he gets angry and confused, and eventually they fall in love, but only after she’s possessed, put in a coma, and launched into space. Boys do like the thrill of pursuit.
Squall and Rinoa’s team include Zell, a happy-go-lucky beefcake obsessed with the world’s rarest hotdogs; Irvine, a pervert in chaps; Quistis, a schoolmarm blonde brandishing a bullwhip; and Selphie, an achingly cute psychopath. Together they save the goddamn world, of course, because that’s what Final Fantasy characters do. Squall learns to open his heart and Rinoa learns to shut her mouth, which is awesome all ’round. The audience learns that Squall looks like his mother, which is heartbreaking all ’round. By the time gamers get to the 20-minute-long closing FMV, universes have swollen and burst in their hearts and their tear ducts will be set to ‘tsunami’. And the ‘secret’ ending, rewarding the gamer who sits to the end of the credits, will assure you that not only has our sulky protagonist a fulfilling and very possibly ride-filled future ahead of him, but he’s got a beeee-autiful smile. Aww.
Final Fantasy VIII was the series’ millennium game, and at the time of its release, it was so beautiful it made cynics go fucking blind. Of course, that was back in the days of the PS1, and it doesn’t look quite so astounding now, but even after the initial shock of your returning to 32 bit graphics, it still holds its own in a retro kind of way. Its FMVs are still astounding, cinematic swoops and crescendos that in many cases blend seamlessly into the action. And its soundtrack? Ominous, orchestral gorgeousness.
In direct contrast with the plot, the gameplay is simple. On release, many new gamers – those who had been converted to Japanese RPGs by VII – complained that VIII’s Junction system, in which its characters’ entire battle options were based on the Guardian Forces they used, was overly-complicated. That magic stocks had to be drawn from hot spots around the world map or from creatures your party encountered did not go down well, with many gamers resenting the forced frugality and tactical clarity that managing of these magic stocks entailed. It was giving gamers a whole new world of wonder and telling them they had to micro manage the fun: a nifty little system for strategic types, but a confounding process for adrenaline junkies.
The over-reliance on the Guardian Forces for powerful attacks and the non-skippable summoning scenes also did in more heads than the entire cast of Jersey Shore, and the fact that the over-reliance was a major plot point and the non-skippable summoning scenes made for an interactive mini-game (and, happily, a pretty gorgeous visual experience) was lost on the series’ more impatient fans.
The most basic management of the Junction system (which in any case could have been set to automatic, for particularly lazy/stupid people) means that VIII becomes almost comically easy, with no real challenging monsters popping their slobbering heads up until the third and fourth discs, where dragons, chimeras, and vicious overgrown cabbages become available to give your party a run for its gil. Optional bosses also include the Ultima and Omega Weapons, the former which offered your arse on a platter, the latter which offered your regurgitated arse and the arses of your immediate family on a platter made of the ribcage of your one true love. It is next to impossible to acquire the Proof of Omega without utilising invincibility items, so if you’ve done it, go have yourself a victory wank. You’ve earned it.
The dialogue is occasionally clunky, for which we can blame its text-based format and associated word count restriction, but it’s also got moments of high hilarity and surreal humour and a healthy smattering of the minor swear words. The characters are well fleshed out and all have their own emotional arc, which admittedly is nothing new for a Japanese RPG. You’ll read plenty of sneering commentary from American fifteen-year-olds that denounce Squall as ‘emo’, but you may safely consign such criticism to the Character Assassination pile; Squall, who’s so taciturn he’s practically Victorian, only voices his feelings to himself, coming across to his team as either a ruthless tactician or a party guest so cold they likely make him sit on the tinnies. After his confusing (or is it…?) promotion, his squad throw him a celebratory concert, which he ruins by being an uptight, uncommunicative dickhead. He’s about as emo as a mechanised turret.
It must also be noted that VIII includes one of the most addictive minigames ever in Triple Triad, an arithmetic-based card game with an exhausting but fulfilling learning curve. That, mixed with the plethora of sidequests, hidden Guardian Forces and rock-hard weapons upgrading, means that it’s easy to carve an extra 40 hours out of the game; this gamer has managed to eke out a total of 108 in one playthrough, which might not stand up to Skyrim but was certainly very respectable back in the year 2000.
The aforementioned complicated plot never really lets up and will require honed attention throughout, with time travel, ethereal powers, routine sorceress possession and a lot of playable flashbacks taxing gamers who like their stories short, sharp and to-the-point. It’s all ultimately satisfying, though, with all apparent plot holes filled in and red herrings grilled as brain food, provided your head hasn’t already exploded trying to circumnavigate potential paradoxes. Squall, the eye-rolling, self-determining pragmatist, consistently objects to the destiny his elders keep placing before him, but in the end fulfils it because (in a glorious final twist), it really couldn’t have gone any other way. It’s one of the most gratifying sucker punches ever delivered in gaming.
So, in today’s Bethesda-dominated RPG landscape, can Final Fantasy VIII hold its own? Short answer: yes. Whilst initially quite visually jarring – like following up The Tree Of Life with a game of Pong – its storyline remains compelling, its protagonist delightfully up his own hole, and its gameplay rewarding in a way that Western RPGs, with their open-ended style, rarely deliver. And it still has the best ending scene of any game, ever. Our advice? Get your retro on. Also maybe your statistician’s hat.