torstai 19. elokuuta 2010

REVIEW - Final Fantasy VIII (1999)

Genre(s): RPG
Released: 1999
Available on: PC, PS1, PSN
Developer(s): Square
Publisher(s): Square
Players: 1

Us Europeans had hardly recovered from the arrival of the finest video game masterpiece of all time, Final Fantasy VII, when Square already published the first screenshots of an upcoming title in the now legendary series. Final Fantasy VIII became the fastest-selling Final Fantasy game of all time, which wasn’t surprising at all – the previous game had finally brought the long-running franchise to Europe and gloriously at that, it was a breakthrough in every sense for Square itself, as well as critics and gamers alike. However, Final Fantasy VIII is also perhaps the most debated game in the history of the whole franchise, which spans nearly 25 years. While some people were intrigued by the game’s realistic style, the experimental methods of character development and loose, secondary plot, some were actually offended if someone dared to praise the game over its few superior predecessors and even deem a divine game like Final Fantasy VII “primitive” as opposed to the realism and visual design of the newer title. I’m one of the latter; I always kept VII in much higher regard, ‘cause it is a better game, no matter what it looks like in comparison to this 4-disc mammoth. All grudges aside, 11 years after the game’s release I must say Final Fantasy VIII is a great game in itself. Not a great Final Fantasy installment in the traditional sense, but a damn fine J-RPG that has stood the test of time well.

Obnoxious teens with growing pains meet dungeons and dragons

Garden is a military organization which trains young elite forces, dubbed SeeDs, to handle different affairs between nations and preserve peace. Squall Leonhart is a 17-year old SeeD candidate suffering from a total lack of social skills and the mere ability to show emotion, but when it comes to combat, he’s one of the most promising candidates studying at Balamb Garden. Squall’s inevitable life as a SeeD takes him on an unexpectedly long journey on which he finally comes to understand the meaning of love and friendship, but also faces shocking revelations and impossible decisions.

Back in the day, the Resident Evil franchise was the hottest shit in the world of video games. Square went along with the times – first, they produced Parasite Eve, their own survival horror game which incorporated strong RPG elements. Then, they decided to stir things up a bit, I’ll bet they knew they’d end up provoking a lot of people, with Final Fantasy VIII. Pre-rendered backgrounds, full-sized characters, realistic movement. You might remember that in the previous game, the characters were small, blocky sprites that magically grew to full proportions during cutscenes while the (also pre-rendered) backgrounds stayed pretty much the same. OK, so the previous game wasn’t visual perfection, but it IS pretty damn near perfection in every other sense. And, it looks like a Final Fantasy game should. Final Fantasy VIII looks good, from a technical standpoint. Very nice, in fact... just not like a traditional Final Fantasy game. Square went on to maximize the potential of all this realism fused with traditional Final Fantasy quite a while later, but at this time, VIII was quite of a shock, a case of too much too soon. This is my opinion as a critic.

Yuck. How cute.
As a gamer, I’m quite fine with the graphical style. It’s different, and I kinda like it. Saying that the cutscenes were impressive back in ’99, is probably the understatement of all ages. They made your jaw drop through the floor, all the way to the Earth’s core, and they still manage to bring the glory. The ballroom scene and the very intro of the game still manage to stun me on some level after all these years. I guess a lot of it has to do with the music and overall feel thanks to the brilliant job by the directors of the game, but really, they still look almost as great graphically as they did when the game came out. I’m sure that it’s “almost”, ‘cause I no longer shit my pants when seeing Squall and Rinoa do their famous dance.

Nobuo Uematsu hardly ever misses the mark, and Final Fantasy VIII’s soundtrack does have its fine, fair share of stellar tunes. The massive “Liberi Fatali” (the intro music) is amazing, one of my favourite video game pieces of all time. Also, "The Landing" is downright awesome, an absolute favourite. However, a bulk of the soundtrack is extremely disappointing. The battle theme isn’t nearly as catchy and intense as the one in the previous game and the boss theme’s fine, but it starts off really whack; I miss the all-out guitar riff that gloriously marked the boss battles in VII. The main problem with the soundtrack is that there are far too many ballads, repetitive ones at that. They’re everywhere from the Garden – where you’ll be spending a LOT of time in – to the towns. And, as you probably know, Final Fantasy VIII was the first game in the series to include a lead vocal track. “Eyes on Me”... a love ballad overrated to hell and back just because at the time, it was so God damn amazing to hear any Uematsu piece with vocals. As if the game didn’t scream out “teen romance” enough without this song in it.

OK, like I said, Final Fantasy VIII is a great role playing game, but a great Final Fantasy game, at least at that time... nah. There are so many things for me to complain about that I honestly don’t know where to begin – however, I find myself periodically fascinated with the game’s universe and in another honest opinion of mine, I think the game has aged so gracefully that it’s actually better today than it was back when it came out. I’ll start with the complaints. First, and foremost, the characters and the storyline in general. The lead character Squall is awesome up until the point his “fuck you all” attitude proven all but fake by his constant thoughts, and annoying gestures become the definition of the whole character. Besides Squall at his best, Irvine is the only playable character I really like. Seriously. Rinoa is a touching character and all, but what I would have liked to see from her is a bit more of true spunk. The loud Zell and the, God I hate these types, happy-go-lucky little brat Selphie are both the kind of annoying naive teens that might even both surpass Yuffie from the previous game when it comes to being plain annoying, and not much else. Quistis is OK at first, but then she moves on to her sulking, philosophical, self-searching and partly self-loathing phase. Irvine is cool. He also has his crappy moments (“I can’t do it!”), he blurts out the game’s most ridiculous plot twist and I really don’t understand his romantic infatuation with Selphie, but for most of the time, this cross between Vincent Valentine in look and Edgar Figaro in personality works. The developers simply didn’t pay enough attention to the characters, or the storyline at that. The story turns unbelievably bland along the way after a sufficing start; it feels like it was puzzled together from bits and pieces of ideas that weren’t good enough for the previous game. Let’s put it this way: remember fighting Kefka and Sephiroth? Remember the epic culminations of life and death, your hunger for vengeance for all their wrongs? Kefka was prime evil that you couldn’t wait to punish, whereas Sephiroth felt like a brother or comrade, who was lied to and betrayed from his own point of view and simply needed to be stopped for the good of the planet. I don’t know about you, but the first time I beat Final Fantasy VII, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears, because the storyline had made Sephiroth somewhat of a tragic character – you loved to hate him, and hated to love him. Well, these kind of emotions or thoughts are easily avoided playing Final Fantasy VIII. The plot twists and turns until it’s formless; you end up fighting someone/something without even necessarily having a clue what the hell is happening, and who or what the hell it is you’re fighting. What bothers me most is the more than subliminal teen romance going on between Squall and Rinoa, which is pretty much the storyline’s main focus. Come on! This is Final Fantasy, not Gilmore Girls! ...I like that show, though.

The graphics still ain't bad, especially those
of the rendered cutscenes.
What also messes up the story a bit is a periodical dream sequence which first occurs about six or seven hours into the game. In this sequence, Squall and his two companions at the moment travel 20 years into the past and see themselves as a group of three Galbadian soldiers led by a guy named Laguna. This “alternative reality” is a crucial part of the game, and its storyline. It kind of reminds me of the “Cloud’s Past” flashback sequence in Final Fantasy VII, the main difference being that during all of these sequences, you’ll actually be able to do something and not just watch some superman doing all the work for you. The dreams are basically cool, they’re like a game of their own, but the way they tie to the main storyline is very predictable and clichéd. You’ll probably get the connection after the third sequence in the beginning of the second disc, if you have any sense for drama. The last thing I’ll point out regarding the dramatic presentation is the rhythm of the dialogue throughout the whole game. It’ll drive you crazy at some point, probably very early on. You can’t escape the slow dialogue; the dramatic expressions, moves and gestures, especially on Squall and Quistis’ part, slow it down even more. Customizing the field message speed doesn’t help, either. I understand the intent of realism, but I really don’t understand why they had to stretch the scenes THIS much.

To the real deal then, huh? The first thing you’ll probably notice is that you have no chance to equip armour, and that there’s no MP meter. The stores all sell the same basic stuff: Potions, Phoenix Downs, ammo for Irvine, fuel for your occasional rental car etc.. Yes, this also means that weapons can’t be bought from regular stores – but more about that in a jiffy. First, about the magic and “armour”. New features called drawing (not such a great idea) and junctioning (pretty much the same as always, with a different name and structure) dictate most part of the gameplay. You get all of your mana by drawing spells from enemies during battles, or from draw points found around the world, and creating spells yourself using the abilities bestowed upon you by your Guardian Forces – this game’s equivalent of summonable creatures. GF’s also enable you to use the drawn mana as a natural armour, and give you different buffs when developed enough. Let’s see... if Squall has junctioned the GF Ifrit – yes, the classic Ifrit, and in his best form here – he can shield or otherwise buff himself utilizing talents and skills Ifrit has learned along the way via Ability Points, which are acquired from battles along with the standard EXP. EXP can’t be earned from boss fights, but AP is delivered in heaps. The idea of GF’s learning skills and buffs for their host to use is basically fantastic, but constantly going through the menus to manually set the abilities and junctioning back and forth, especially between characters as your party grows larger, isn’t very fun; the simple materia system was so much better. All you needed was that one menu to make everything work. The idea of the whole drawing system simply sucks, and I won’t even begin to, nor do I even have to, explain the hundred reasons why. I think stopping the flow of battle for several minutes to keep your mana list in check, and extremely limited use of magic are enough of reasons. Oh, and guess what? Each character has a limit to how much magic they can “carry”. An inventory limit for mana?! Give me a break!

The battles are slow, awkward and anti-climactic,
but some of them look really grand.
Items, especially rare ones, are a very crucial part of the game. You need different tools to create your own weapons, for example. That’s right, you still buy new weapons, but to buy them, you also need a weapon magazine with the instructions for remodelling, AND the right kind of items and tools to remodel your weapon, which are usually very scarce. Long time fans of the franchise are surely surprised and disappointed of the fact that there are absolutely no treasure chests in the game. There’s only a handful of items you can find lying around, both on the world map and in different areas. Money is gained via salary, once you make SeeD. The amount of your salary, which is paid randomly one to three times per hour, is decided according to your SeeD level. You can level up by behaving in a certain way becoming to a SeeD, and by doing tests based on multiple choice, with the questions regarding gameplay, in the main menu. Nevertheless, it’s almost impossible to run out of money in the game; you don’t even need it most of the time. Most of the items in the game are acquired by killing enemies, and it’s really a drag when you’re trying to find something specific and constantly spammed with random encounters. Remember what I said about the rhythm of the dialogue? Well, the battles in the game are just as slow. Unless you have appropriate buffs, your attack power is pretty much the same at Level 14 as it is at Level 40. More often than you should, you find yourself counting on GF’s and their boosted powers to do your job. That brings out yet another problem! Let’s say you’re fighting a boss weak against ice. Blizzard spells (Blizzard – Blizzara – Blizzaga) only do moderate damage. Eventually you’ll see you must resort to spamming the boss with Shiva’s Diamond Dust. You’ll have to use it several times during one battle, and it really gets boring to watch the same GF animation over, and over, and over again, even if you’re spending most of that time boosting the GF’s attack power by rapidly hitting the square button. What I do like about the GF’s, on the other hand, is that they provide their hosts cover for the time it takes to summon them in battle, which means that their personal HP meter replaces the host’s for the time being. GF’s are useable as many times as you wish in a single battle, as long as they stay alive.

The Limit Breaks return a little different, as a kind of a mix between the previous system and Final Fantasy VI’s Desperation Attacks. Limit Breaks randomly become available once the character is in critical condition. If the option to use a Limit Break doesn’t pop up, you very often don’t need to do more than close the battle menu and let it open again, and there it is. You can use these as many times as you are willing to keep a character holding on to dear life. Again, I think the previous game’s Limit Break system was better and certainly more climactic.

Triple Triad; I don't remember spending as
much time with any other minigame.
I nearly forgot a very important part of the game, which might not strike casual players as much more than a minigame: Triple Triad. At first it is indeed just a minigame, and one of the best minigames ever, at that. It’s a trading card game in the vein of Magic the Gathering, which you can play against several NPC’s, and a certain member of your party much later on in the game. Every playable character, and nearly every enemy, boss and GF have their own cards. The enemy and some boss cards are a-plenty, while there’s only one card in the world for each character and GF. The cards are in the possession of certain NPC’s and the GF’s themselves. Triple Triad starts out really simple, but the rules change for the better as well as for worse during the course of the game. Some people might disregard Triple Triad – but it’s their loss, they miss out on the fun... and I’m also willing to bet they won’t do too great in the whole game. Once the GF Quezacotl learns the Card Mod ability, you can craft all kinds of items using the cards and it’s probably needless to say that the rare cards can be crafted into awesome items that will be of crucial help even in the most crucial battles of the game. For example, you simply can’t find a great item like Holy War, which renders your whole party temporarily invisible and immune to ALL attacks.

Moogles and Chocobos are virtually non-existent in the game’s universe, although they come along in one certain sidequest, which can’t be fully completed before the final disc. It’s totally fine by me, I never liked neither. Cid is in, this time as the Garden headmaster who strikes me as a sad, middle-aged perv; where the hell is Captain Highwind?! Biggs and Wedge show up as a couple of fumbling Galbadian soldiers. Well, these five stalwarts of the series, as well as some classic enemies and summonable creatures are there to remind us that despite of everything that makes the fact quite unbelievable, this is still a Final Fantasy game and not some loose spin-off. If it’s not a true Final Fantasy installment in your books, then you must admit that it’s still an RPG to watch out for, and one that you’ll just keep returning to for one reason or another.

Sorceress Edea. As hot as she is dangerous.
Final Fantasy VIII is probably the most difficult middle-school Final Fantasy title, especially if you’re going for full completion. You are quite free to roam in a surprisingly early stage in the game (about 10 hours or so into it) and you might get into some really tough battles if you follow your own route instead of the storyline’s forceful input, usually on the hunt for some rare items. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but since you already know there’s going to be an airship – well, there are a couple of them, actually – I guess I can reveal that you acquire the first one in a quite early phase in the game. That’s when even more freedom comes your way, and I must warn you. Don’t you feel too free or you’ll suffer the consequences. The main quest isn’t that bad... with the exception of the grand finale, if you don’t go prepared.

The game is not bad by any possible measure; only a very disappointing “sequel” to what is the best video game of all time in my books. What makes it feel more like a stand-alone Square RPG than a part of the Final Fantasy series, is of course the extreme difference in style, but also the bland storyline, which is as complex as ever but doesn’t really offer up any climaxes, only disappointments. I’ll give the game this much: after X, XII and XIII have since repeated the more realistic Final Fantasy formula (and romantic, in the case of X) but with a touch traditional enough to make the grade, and with more familiar and comfortable gameplay, VIII has begun to feel a bit better and closer to home than it originally did. It does indeed deserve more credit than it gets from some of the most pissed off fans of the franchise.

Graphics : 9.3
Sound : 8.6
Playability : 8.3
Challenge : 9.3
Overall : 8.5


GameRankings: 79.50% (PC), 89.57% (PS1)

The game’s development began while Final Fantasy VII was still being translated to English.

The first Final Fantasy game to feature vocal tracks: “Liberi Fatali” (the intro music with a sampled choir) and “Eyes on Me” (the game’s love theme, sung by Faye Wong).

One of the two Final Fantasy games in which the character of Cid has no engineering skills or scientific aptitude.

In the original script, Rinoa was named Lenore.

The famous ballroom scene from the first quarter of the game was recreated for the PS2 before its launch to demonstrate the graphical efficiency of the console.

Irvine Kinneas is the only playable character in the game who never changes his attire.

A shop in Esthar is called Cloud’s Shop; this is an obvious reference to Final Fantasy VII’s protagonist Cloud Strife.

Squall Leonhart makes an appearance in the Kingdom Hearts series, as the leader of a resistance group, and uses the name “Leon”. Selphie Tilmitt and Zell Dincht also make cameos. Seifer Almasy, accompanied by his henchmen Fujin and Raijin, is one of the antagonists in the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II.

Squall Leonhart and Ultimecia appear in Dissidia – Final Fantasy as a rivaling pair of characters.

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