I haven’t played Final Fantasy VIII since soon after it was released. Or at least, soon after it was released on PC. That said, it is still a game that means a whole lot to me. FF8, along with Pokemon Gold and Silver, was on of the first games that I closely followed prior to release.
I was a Final Fantasy fan before FF8. I had read about Final Fantasy 2 (4) in Nintendo Power and searched it out, but instead found the original Final Fantasy for NES in a Wal-Mart bargain bin. I played and loved that, but I didn’t have a SNES and did end up upgrading for some time. Still, I managed to experience Final Fantasy 3 on the SNES before that by playing it at a friends house. I ended up being obsessed with the game for several years, paying an exorbitant amount to get a used copy from Funcoland once I finally did get an SNES. That same friend also showed me the PC port of FF7, which gave me a chance to experience some of that game long before I got a Playstation.
It is a time that is hard to imagine now, but in 1998 my family did not have a computer. Not one capable of accessing the internet, at least. My ability to follow the pre-release hype of Final Fantasy VIII was limited to biking up to the public library for 1 hour of dial up internet access a day or for a few minutes at the school computer lab after school got out, as well as whatever I could find in EGM or Game Informer.
I followed it obsessively anyway. The scattered updates of grainy shots from E3 and the like. Text descriptions of cutscenes. Releases of character art that let me imagine who those characters might be. Then it was released to solid reviews, though with undercurrents of disappointment about how different it was from Final Fantasy VII.
I got it when it was released for P.C. My family had a modern (1999-era modern) that was not quite up to the task, but it worked well enough. I never truly grasped the junction system, appear to have straight up missed swathes of the story and gave up on the game not too far before the final dungeon. I still liked it well enough, but I was put off by the technical problems enough that I never reinstalled the game when my family upgraded our computer and when I finally got a Playstation, I moved on to games like Suikoden 2, Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy 9.
Something about the remastered release drew me, though. For some reason I really wanted to play the game again. I am glad I did. I understand how the game works much better now and I am still a fan of the look of the world.
The junction system has always been strange, but it is a flexible and interesting character building system. It kind of turns the characters into blank slates for the player to completely remake into whatever image desired. The only combat function that you have to have available is attack. Whatever other skills you want to use are up to you. It lets you summon your guardian forces whenever you want, but it turns out that they are much more situational in usefulness that I thought years ago. The big change is turning magic into a consumable resource and letting the player junction magic to stats, attaching the magic to that stat and increasing it by a not particularly obvious formula. One part that is clear is that the more of the magic you have, the greater the effect on your stats.
So casting magic is not generally a great idea, but instead conserving to make your stats better. Junctioning a strong magic to Squall’s strength is generally enough to handle most of the game, as it makes him so much stronger than everyone else.
I don’t know that I want to get into all the other changes: drawing magic, triple triad, enemy levels, guardian forces in general, how the game handles weapons. The game is strange, but all of its strangeness kind of works when put together.
I do want to comment on the story. For one big complaint, the back half of the story seems rushed and maybe unfinished. It spends a lot of time really building up the characters and the party, then as it seems to shift into high gear the end appears. When I gave up on the game way back when, I had no idea how close I was to the end of the game, I was thinking I was closer to the three quarter mark.
When I first played this game, I thought the cast was cool. I still think that about the designs are cool, but these characters as a bunch of dorks. I don’t mean that as a criticism; I think they work exactly as intended. When I was a teenager, I saw cool teenagers. As an adult, I see a bunch of stupid kids. I think I was right both times. Squall worked really well for me this time. His friends see a taciturn badass, but his being closed off is out of fear, not for any other reason. Irvine and Zell are projecting different kinds of cool, but it is clear how much they are faking it. Quistis attempts some maturity, but that is as much a projection as the boy’s attempted coolness. What all of them want is to know that other people like them, but none of them really think that is the case. The only one that seems to avoid that is Rinoa, and she has her own problems. Selphie seems to have come up with a genuine way of dealing with her emotions, with her happiness seeming to be less of a front than the others.
It contrasts nicely with the more adult Laguna, who still has his own problems. I feel like the game could have done a better job of fleshing that part of the game out, but it mostly works. I don’t know that the Edea and Cid stuff does; I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around what is going on there.
The big tragedy of the game is Seifer, but in the intended story and the execution. He is just like the other party members, but he ends up on the other side of the conflict, sticking with the Sorceress that they have a childhood connections with. He is delinquent and a jerk, but he wants to be loved as much as the others. He thinks he is the hero of this story, but it is hard to tell exactly what he is doing because the game doesn’t give the player enough information about what Seifer knows. It is still touching at the end when his cronies finally convince him to abandon his quest.
Final Fantasy VIII is not my favorite Final Fantasy game. In fact, I would probably put it in the lower half. But playing a game like this, that I don’t exactly love, reminds me of why I was and am such a big Final Fantasy fan. Games like FF8, or 10 or 13 or 4 , game that I like but I think are flawed, may outnumber the ones that I do absolutely love. But they are all so interesting and generally enjoyable that I can’t help but want to play them. I guess that means I should get back to Final Fantasy XV.