Published in The National on June 29, 2001

Return to Final Fantasy

By Daniel Lam
For the purpose of this review, I played SquareSoft's Final Fantasy VIII (FF8) again recently. The first time I played it was in June last year, and many hours' worth of sleep was lost over it. The effect FF8 had on me hadn't changed. 

What do you need
According to the system specs, you need a computer with at least a Pentium II 266Mhz, 64MB RAM, a sound card, and 400MB hard disk space. A decent 3D graphics accelerator is highly recommended, because I tried running FF8 on a PII 350 with 64MB RAM and an 8MB video card and the game crashed regularly. It ran fine on my game machine.

A tale of love, betrayal, and time travel
FF8 tells the tale of young Squall Leonhart, a teenager with a major attitude problem. He only speaks when spoken to, and even then he turns away and mutters "Whatever" or "I don't want to talk about it". Don't worry, as the game progresses, you find out more about why he is the way he is and how he becomes a more likable, noble-hearted and lion-hearted (heh-heh) bloke in the end. The game begins (after the most beautiful intro movie I have ever seen in any PC game) with Squall (I renamed him Dunael) about to take part in a field test.

You see, Squall is training/studying to be a member of SeeD, an elite mercenary corps who hang out in a school known as Garden (don't ask me why). 

Once he becomes a full-fledged SeeD, he is engaged by pretty Rinoa Heartilly (renamed Lena in my game), along with fellow Garden graduates Zell and Selphie - you don't get to rename these guys - to help out with a freedom fighter group. 

The initial big bad guy in FF8 is the Galbadia empire, and Rinoa is trying to liberate the town of Timber. 

Along the way the heroes discover that even the events that occurred in their field test was part of a plot to conquer the world (isn't it always?).
At the heart of this plot seems to be Sorceress Edea. A plan is hatched to assassinate her, and Squall and Co get to do the dirty work. As the story line develops further, the complexity of the plot becomes even more so. It turns out that Edea is being used as a willing pawn by Sorceress Ultimecia, who is reaching across time to get her hands on Ellone, a girl with the power to send one's consciousness to the past (Ultimecia can do that too, but Ellone's more powerful). Squall and Co turn out to be former orphanage mates and their matron, Edea.
And the headmaster of Squall's school is Edea husband, Cid Kramer. Ellone was also a former charge of Edea's. Edea allowed herself to be used as Ultimecia's pawn so that Ellone could be spared. Later, we find that even Rinoa became Ultimecia's pawn. 

The SeeD, we discover later, was conceived by Edea and Cid to prepare her charges to fight her and travel to the future to destroy Ultimecia. Did I mention we also get to know Squall's father, Laguna, who happens to have had the hots for Rinoa's mum? And that due to unforeseen circumstances involving one Sorceress Adel and Ellone, Laguna never saw Squall as a kid? 

Complicated? Indeed. Add to the mix the developing romance between Squall and Rinoa, and you have one helluva story for a PC game!

Like Final Fantasy VII, each hero has his or her own weapon. Unlike FF7, you don't get new weapons as you go along ... you upgrade your present one at junk shops. Squall is armed with a gunblade, a cool sword/shotgun combo. Also, like FF7, battles in FF8 take place in real-time although the action is turn-based. You can only have three heroes in a battle at any one time.

All combatants have an action gauge (you only get to see your heroes') which fill up over time (the higher the hero's Speed score, the faster the gauge refills). Once the gauge is full, the hero can take one action. That' about where the similarities with FF7 end. 

For one thing, FF8 introduces the concept of Junctions and Guardian Forces (GF). Guardian Forces are like the entities you got to summon in FF7, except that these can be summoned as many times as you want.  The only drawback is that summoning a GF takes time, during which the hero, and the GF, is vulnerable to attack. 

Guardian Forces inflict lots of damage on your enemies, and sometimes causes ill effects on them too (causing the monsters to fall asleep, for example ... never a good thing to do in a battle!). GFs need to be equipped for individual heroes, so that the hero gains whatever abilities the entity grants, and can summon it when necessary.

Guardian Forces are also essential because without them, your heroes cannot do anything in battle except to Attack!
Yes, combat actions like using Items, using Magic and so on are only available if the hero has a GF with those abilities equipped.
One such GF-enabled ability is Draw, and that is where the magic system in FF8 comes in.
Unlike FF7, where spells are available if you equip the necessary spell materia (magic stones), spells in FF8 are mainly derived from your enemies, using the action Draw.
Basically, your hero stands there until his/her turn comes, then you Draw the magic spells from the enemy, somewhat in a vampiric manner.
Each hero can stock 100 units of any spell, so many a battle that could have been over in a couple of rounds last much longer as the player tries to maximise the spell count by letting the enemy live until the hero's Drawn all that he can Draw!
Junctioning is another matter. Guardian Forces come with certain abilities, like the ability to  Junction with Magic, Speed, etc. If a GF equipped comes with the ability to Junction with, say, Speed, then the hero can link magic spells to the Speed statistic, boosting it beyond mortal levels. 

Some GFs will allow the hero to Junction to attacks, so what we have may well be a hero who deals fire damage with each hit, or even cause ill effects! If the GF and Junction system sound complicated, don't worry, it is until you get the hang of it. Me, the first time I played FF8, I didn't realise how it was done until the middle of the game. 

By then I knew I had missed out on a lot (the battles I fought would have been easier), so I simply started from scratch.

FF8 suffers from the same problem as FF7 ... too many battles. The game is all about fighting, and if not for the storyline, well, I wouldn't be playing it. And the battles either take longer when you try to Draw magic spells, or become very short when you use your GFs to full effect.

The movie sequences and the graphics
Simply gorgeous. Case in point - my significant other, who does not normally batter an eyelid when it came to my games, remarked: "That is beautiful!" And she was just referring to the intro.

In FF8 SquareSoft has managed to integrate gameplay seamlessly into some of the movie sequences, which make for pretty impressive effects. What this means is that in some movie sequences, your 3D-rendered heroes would actually be able to move about, right in the middle of the action! And SquareSoft did it so well that there are no visible interruptions to the movie or to your gameplay. Well done, I must say. 

Also, where in FF7 the movie sequences look terrible on the PC (due to low resolutions more suitable for TV screens), FF8 sequences look great at a resolution of 640x480 (the game's default resolution). Real actors were used in the production of the movies, and it shows - we are talking lifelike movements and all. In fact, I daresay I have never seen better movie sequences in any PC game. 

The backgrounds during gameplay are slightly better than that in FF7, but not impressive. What is impressive is what you get to see during battles. The characters are 3D-rendered, and done pretty well, too. When a hero summons a Guardian Force, take time off to enjoy the visuals (although it gets repetitive after the umpteenth summoning).

And the music
SquareSoft put in a lot of money into FF8. The music is great, although some are simply improved versions of the scores in FF7, and they even got Hong Kong diva Faye Wong to sing the theme song, Eyes on Me. The lyrics, however, sound like they are translated word for word from Japanese (the use of words is a bit off). And the sound effects, well, sound better than in FF7 (the whiplashes sound painful!).

The minigames
Like FF7, FF8 has minigames, too. First is the addictive Triple Triad, a card game. In the process of saving the world, discovering more about his personality flaws and getting to love Rinoa more and more, Squall can challenge people to Triple Triad card games. Win a game, and you win cards (lose and, well...). When one of you GF gains the Card Mod ability, you can convert cards into items, a very useful thing indeed. Then is Chocobo World, which is played OUTSIDE of FF8. Confused? Never mind, I didn't play it anyway.

Great story (if a mite mushy), great movie sequences, great graphics, but lousy, tedious and complicated gameplay.
If you have the time to play this huge five CD (one installation CD and four game CDs), by all means do so. I mean, I've played the game from start to finish twice, and the story and sequences still bring cheer and tears. If you can appreciate that in a game (and if your loved ones can handle your nigh-obsession to the game), I wholeheartedly recommend this game.

Final Fantasy VIII
Publisher: Square Electronic Arts
Developer: SquareSoft 

Why Final Fantasy?
The "Final Fantasy" name was chosen when Square (as SquareSoft was known then) was facing desperate days as a small, unknown game developer. Now with its ninth installment (FF9), it seems to be nothing less than a misnomer. This is all the more so since with every Final Fantasy game Square chose to start afresh in terms of background story and gaming world. That means the "sequels" are really not sequels. Oh well.