Review: Final Fantasy VIII (Playstation)

In this review, we junction our magic in the Playstation game Final Fantasy VIII. We find out how well this RPG game plays.

This game was released in 1999 and is, as the title suggests, the eighth instalment for the main series (spin-off series and games aside of course).

We are quite familiar with this franchise. We even played one spin-off game while playing this. That, of course, is Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. That game earned a great score.

Beyond that, we stuck to the main original series starting with the original Final Fantasy. That game got a pretty mediocre score. Next up was Final Fantasy II. That game wound up getting a great score all around. After that was Final Fantasy III which is the most recent game we played. That one wound up being fairly mediocre again. After that came Final Fantasy IV. Also known as Final Fantasy II for SNES fans, that game got a pretty solid score.

Moving up in chronological order, we also played Final Fantasy V. That game also got a very solid score. Next up is Final Fantasy VI. Known as Final Fantasy III for SNES fans, this game managed to do what only one other game on this site ever did: earn a perfect score. Naturally, we became very excited knowing the reputation of the next game in the series. So, we forged ahead and played Final Fantasy VII. to our shock, it wound up being the worst game in the franchise that we played so far. So, we decided to play the next game in the series hoping something turns around for this series.

You play as the character Squall. The game opens up with Squall fighting Seifer, one of the games antagonists. Squall ultimately loses and winds up in the infirmary with a permanent scar on his face. When he comes to, he realizes he needs to complete is SeeD training. After his next class, he learns that he is missing one last objective to complete his training. He needs to complete the fire cavern training mission in order to complete his training. He ultimately takes his trainer along and heads for the cave.

If you are familiar with RPG games, you might think you have all the knowledge in the world to play yet another game in this franchise. In this case, you’d be wrong. You can take a large chunk of what you know about RPG games and throw it right out the window because this game does a lot of things seemingly backwards or completely differently altogether.

The first thing you need to know is that although you gain experience and level up, in this game, this can wind up being one of the last things you want to do. This is because as you level up your character, enemies simply level up with you. Reportedly, this makes the game harder, so for our run, we did everything we could to avoid levelling up.

You’ll also notice that there is very little you can do in battles except attack. This is because you need to equip a “GF”. Each GF permits characters the use of magic and other abilities. Equip one as your Junction and you’ll gain access to other in-battle abilities including a summon (GF), cast magic, draw, and use an item (for reasons that are completely beyond my comprehension, you need to equip a GF to use an item during battle).

In addition to gaining abilities, you can also equip stat raising abilities along side of the regular abilities. This doesn’t really happen much until you execute a fair amount of learning, so you won’t really get a chance to use this feature right away.

From there, you can equip magic spells. If your GF allows it, you can equip any stat with a magic spell. This raises that stat a certain amount depending on the spell. Alternatively, you can simply auto-equip based on whether you are focused on physical attacks, physical defence, or you want to increase your magical capabilities. How powerful it is depends on how many “spells” you manage to equip.

If you thumb through the menus further, you’ll notice that it is possible to equip spells on magical attack, magical defence, status attack and status defence. Again, assuming your GF allows it, you can equip spells on this to increase damage, defence, cause status effects on enemies, or protect your character from status effects. Again, the power largely depends on how many “spells” you have accumulated.

Now, if you are used to the idea of just accumulating magic points of some kind, this, again, is largely thrown out the window in this game. Instead, you gain magic either through the draw command or draw points. Draw points can be found throughout the world and permits you to pick up an extra small number of spells. This is denoted by the pink thick lines popping up from the ground. Once you draw it, the draw point will be depleted for a while. These draw points do eventually replenish themselves, but chances are, you are coming back to that area in a later part of the game to collect by the time that happens.

Drawing form enemies is probably the most efficient way of filling up certain spells. In battle, you can execute a “draw” command if you have it equipped. When you cast, you can either “stock” the spell or “cast” it. If you choose to cast a spell through the draw command, then you wont use up any of your spells in stock. Just know that results to vary quite a bit through this command, so there are drawbacks. Alternatively, you can simply stock it. While it uses up a turn and doesn’t cause an enemy any damage, you can fill your stock of that spell quite quickly. You can stock a maximum of 100 of each spell. If you max out, the “stock” option will be greyed out.

What you can draw from enemies depends on the enemy. Some enemies might have fire while others have blizzard. Some may have scan while others may have shell. Up to three spells are available for drawing and the list is fixed for each enemy. On occasion, you’ll encounter a boss and you might see a fourth spell. More often then not, this is a new GF. It is, for obvious reasons, highly recommended that you draw this as quickly as possible so you can increase your GF capabilities. If a draw shows as “?????”, then it is basically a spell not yet in your inventory. As soon as you draw it for the first time, then the actual spell name will be revealed from that point on.

GF learning is definitely important in this game. As you fight different battles, you’ll gain special AP points. Each GF will learn different capabilities as you earn these. The more you earn on this side of thing, the more capabilities your GFs will have. Of course, there are efficient ways of learning as well. In the GF menu, you can select an individual GF and use the learn command. You’ll be given a list of different capabilities to learn. Some require more points than others. By default, the game will push learning onto improving the health and power of the GF, but you’ll likely want to learn other things long before you get all of those stats boosted.

An example of an ability you’ll want to learn quickly is “card”. This amazingly useful command will turn enemies into cards after you deal some damage (I found that the more damage you deal without killing an enemy, the more likely your card command will work.) What’s especially useful about this is that you can earn all the items and AP in a battle without taking experience points. If you are playing a low experience run in this game, this can allow you to make it very far into the game without levelling up too much. I personally never got to level 20 throughout my entire run in this game and I know I made it quite far into the game (see below the “Overall” part of this review to see just how far I got).

Now, you might wonder what the point of cards are in this game. This game features a “mini” game called Triple Triad. While you can speak to people normally with the cross button you might want to default to square for a while. If you can play cards with a character, you’ll find out very quickly. If you can’t, you’ll get the normal dialogue. This game offers a very long and detailed guide on what this game is about, though you’ll likely get lost in the details. It’s generally much easier to just play a round or two and you’ll learn the basics very quickly.

If you’ve ever played Reversy, Attaxx, or Spot: The Video Game, you’ll already have a pretty good idea of some of the basics. In this game, you are playing on a 3 by 3 grid. If your opponent has a few cards on the board, you can take them back by placing your own card next to them. Of course, this game does add a few complications to this basic concept.

First of all, you need 5 cards to play. Each card features four different numbers: a north number, east number, south number, and west number. The higher the number, the better your chances of flipping an opponents card over. If you place a card with a 6 on the east to the left of your opponents card, then your opponents card must have a number less than 6 on the west side in order to take it over. Otherwise, you won’t be able to take it over.

In terms of numbers, 1 is the weakest, 9 is the second most powerful, and “A” is the most powerful. At the beginning, you’ll likely have mostly low level cards, so you can get used to seeing cards with “1”s in them somewhere. The higher the tiers of cards, the more powerful the numbers. Note that it is also possible to flip more than one card in a single move.

Scoring is also a bit interesting in this game. Each player starts with 5 points. If you flip one of your opponents cards, then you both gain a point and your opponent will lose a point. Once every space is filled, then the player with the highest number of points wins the match.

With a game with this many aspects, you can bet there are certain strategies you can employ. A strategy that works for me is keeping your lineup as even as possible. If you have two cards with a high east number, you might want to consider having two cards with a high west number. Some cards are powerful on more than one side as well. So, as long as you keep your lineup both as strong as possible and as balanced as possible, you can easily win a lot of matches.

The person that goes first is randomly selected. If you go first, then you can set yourself up for a number of different strategies. You can go for a more offensive strategy by intentionally covering up the middle square. I personally frequently use the Minimog card for this strategy. This card features a 9 for both north and south, but has weak east and west numbers. If the opponent captures this card, it should be trivial to take this card back on the very next move. Because of this, your score not only remains even, but you largely block the north and south square from attack. Thanks to this, the computer opponent is immediately reduced to four viable places to play their card and they get the next move.

Alternatively, you can play defensively. If you are in an earlier part of the game, one defensive play if you choose to go first is to place a TriFace card on the north square. This renders the weak north side protected and leaves 5’s on every direction. In order for the computer player to take this card right away, the computer player must use up a powerful card up early on. This generally drains not only the opponents capabilities, but also limits the options by the end of the game. If the opponent only has the south east spot left and has a card that is weak both on the north and west side of the card, then the opponent is ultimately screwed if he or she wishes to earn any additional points late in the game.

If your opponent goes first, then your strategies can revolve around what your opponent does first. You can either try and take the first card the opponent plays for an early lead or you can simply place your card somewhere else on the board for better board control. Both strategies do work, but it also depends on your deck.

For instance, if your opponent plays a card on the north west corner, then you can see if you have a card that takes it out. If you have plenty of cards with a strong west side, then it might make sense to just flip the card on the north side and force the opponent to play catch up early on. Alternatively, if you only have one card with a strong west side, it may not be the smartest to burn that card off so early on in the match because you’ll have a few less options late in the game. It might be better to see if it’s better to attack on the west space or not at all.

Ultimately, you want to think both board control and aggressiveness in this game. You may not win every match, but a draw also tends to mean you are losing fewer cards.

Of course, this game isn’t so simple. There is also a whole host of other rules that can change. Chances are, you’ll find yourself starting off with an open one card trade rule. This is idea for beginners because you can see your opponents cards and there is a smaller risk. With the ability to see your opponents cards, you can gain a huge advantage because you can study those cards and figure out the best way to drain your opponents options and retain as much control of the board as possible.

Most rules, however, feature a non-open rule which means your opponents cards are hidden. This, of course, makes you play more towards increasing your odds of success than anything else because you simply do not know what your opponents have until after the match is played.

Also, the one card trade rule means that the winner gets to select one of the losers cards to keep. If, however, you play with the “Diff” trade rule, then the number of cards you can gain depends on how much you beat your opponent by. If you beat your opponent 7 to 3, then you get to claim 4 out of the 5 cards your opponent used. While there is big risk, there is also big rewards involved too.

You might also wind up playing a random draw game. This means the computer randomly selects the cards to play and you are stuck with whatever you get. This adds a lot of challenge to forming strategies.

That, of course, is just a small number of rule variations. There are plenty of other rule variations found in this game. Just remember that if you play a character that plays by a different set of rules within the region, then it’s possible that the rule will spread throughout the region. This can be both good and bad. If you like the “diff” rule, then you’ll want to find someone that plays by that rule. If you really don’t like the random rule, then don’t play anyone wanting to play by that rule. So, it pays to be finicky whenever someone notes that you don’t play by their rules.

One last note about these card games: Balamb does feature special characters you can play against. Win 15 times and you’ll be given the opportunity to play against the elite players in the garden. Just note that the game can be finicky about allowing you to play them for the first time.

Now, besides winning more cards in these card games, what use does winning card games serve you? Some players will offer special prizes for winning. I was only able to find one, but they are out there.

Additionally, if you learn the “Card-Mod” ability, you can actually refine your cards into special items. This is very useful if you have a bunch of extra copies of the same card that you won’t be using. You can earn various items depending on which card you wish to refine. Just note that you may not want to refine unique or rare cards because you might not get them back.

In addition to cards, you can also refine magic and items. M-Stones can be refined into low end spells for instance. Again, these abilities come from learning these abilities from your GFs. Definitely useful to read the description of each capability. The refinement system ends up being a very complex one once you get most of the abilities.

Some items are used to create upgrades. You first learn about the upgrades by reading the weapons magazines. However, once you enter a weapon shop, you are required to have a certain number of “ingredients” to upgrade your weapon. You’ll also be charged a small fee to upgrade your weapon. The benefits of upgrades can be small, but it’s better then nothing, right?

In addition to this is the gil system. Like a lot of other systems, this system has been completely reworked. Instead of earning gil for each battle, you earn it through your SeeD ranking. Every so often, you’ll gain an additional amount of gil. Whether it’s through footsteps or time, I was never really sure what triggers it. Either way, the higher your ranking, the more gil you earn per payment. This system does loosely resemble the payment system found in Earthbound, but the resemblances are vague.

Now, this explanation of the game isn’t even getting into the status effects or characters, but since we’ve already gone at length with some of the more dramatic changes, let’s just say that if you’ve played previous Final Fantasy games, a lot of the items and status effects really won’t come as a surprise. Additionally, the characters strengths and weaknesses are almost completely non-existent because all that matters is junctioning in this game to sculpt and shape your characters. Most, if not all, the differences between the characters remain largely superficial for the most part. The only real differences revolve around the limit breaks.

As you can tell, I am definitely glossing over a lot of aspects of the game largely because this review is already well over 3,000 words long at this point. Just know that a lot of what is left out really isn’t anything surprising or shocking if you’ve played previous Final Fantasy games.

This game is, without a doubt, controversial for a lot of players. A large number of players who came into this game came in with experience fro the previous game in the series and little else. So the fact that it is so wildly different simply didn’t sit too well with a lot of players. The thing is, if you’ve played a much larger number of games in this series, you’ll likely know that this series is no stranger to experimentation.

A shining example of this series deviating substantially from your standard Final Fantasy format is Final Fantasy II where you are actually levelling up individual skills based purely on use. Want to get good with swords? Use swords a lot. Want to be a master of curing magic? Cure your characters a lot.

In a lot of respects, this game does represent that experimental nature that crops up in this series from time to time. Unfortunately, a lot of fans seem to come into this game expecting a game very similar to Final Fantasy VII and found the rather rude surprise that this game is wildly different. From a developers perspective, introducing something wildly different might seem like a move that is both risky, but also rather rewarding because you are introducing a nice novel experience.

In this case, it fell flat for a lot of fans who went on to say that they didn’t like it because it was so different. It’s a bit like taking a drink expecting chocolate milk and winding up drinking apple juice. It’s an unpleasant shock.

Others, however, don’t mind it simply because it’s a Final Fantasy game. So, for some, they will like a game simply because it has “Final Fantasy” branded on the side of the CD case.

Finally, you’ll have people who simply enter into this game with the usual variety of expectations and experience to fill in the rest. So, I can definitely see why there is such a split of opinion.

From my perspective, I go into this game with no real expectations other than knowledge of what previous games in the series have done and what some of the other games are doing at the time as well as what other games have done in the past in general. So, my expectations remain relatively neutral in this whole thing even though, yes, I thought the previous game was terrible which is, yes, against a lot of what other gamers felt about that game.

Now, with all of that said, I have to say, I wasn’t a big fan of this particular game. I kept an open mind throughout and tried to find the different ways to enjoy this one, but it ultimately proved to be a game that is not for me.

The first problem with this game is that a vast majority of the first disc basically takes the thrill of reading textbooks and transplants it into a game. You’ll have in-game manuals and long-winded explanations not only for all the new systems, but also individual one time use missions as well. You have the terminal that explains menus and the card game. From there, you have the long explanation of the train plot. After that, you are treated to a massive explanation of an assassination attempt (most of which gets thrown out the window anyway when you actually try to carry it out). In this case, I would say that there is something to be said about show, don’t tell. Yes, it gets better by disc 2, but I’ve already grown tired of the reading long before that.

The next problem this game has is the extremely steep learning curve. I’ve played a lot of RPG games. I’ve played action RPG games, turn based RPGs, and tactical RPGs. So, you’d think someone like me would have at least a leg up on understanding how this whole game plays. I felt completely lost in all the explanations. If it weren’t for the surprising amount of coaching and reading various guides just to get the basics, I’m not sure I would have even gotten close to understanding half of how this game works. With all the different strategies, junctioning styles, card game strategies, experience, menu systems, sub-menu systems, and sub-sub menu systems, it’s extremely daunting to even attempt this one.

A lot of the games I’ve thoroughly enjoyed were easy to understand. There was either minimal or virtually no lesson involved in understanding the game. That helps get players into the game easily. When you throw a bunch of small textbooks at the player, that doesn’t exactly tell me this game is inviting by any means.

Having said that, it is more than possible to get a complex game to have an easy learning curve. Generally, it involves just dropping bits of complexity throughout the game. An example of this is Super Mario World. By the end of the game, it’s actually a pretty complex game. However, it never actually feels that way because the game gradually introduces new ideas as you go along. I think this kind of thinking could have very easily benefited this game substantially.

One of the criticisms I’ve heard about this game is that this is a game where the developers felt that anything could be pushed out the door. So, they just shoved out some random garbage expecting it to sell. This is a criticism I disagree with because the amount of planning and balancing needed to make this system work to a reasonable state does not strike me as just “shoving something out the door”. A whole lot more would have to be broken and a whole lot more would have to be much more simple if this was shovelware.

Still, what I wound up getting in this game is a game of “how many times can you cast draw before you are bored out of your skill?” As I saw more spells, I knew that casting this a lot to collect as much magic as possible is going to be crucial for success, but at the same time, constantly casting this just got more and more boring.

Additionally, the loading time for the card game is painfully long. While 10 seconds doesn’t seem like much, I actually thought the game somehow froze on me while I was loading it. Luckily, the music varied before I went to restart the system. When you factor in the fact that you play dozens of matches, you are now entering burning several minutes just in loading times alone. After a while, it felt like the card game was nothing more than a way to artificially increase the length of the game.

Some might say that this game is ground breaking in that it incorporates a novel card game in the first place. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t true. In the same year, the game Might and Magic VII – For Blood and Honor incorporated its own novel card game within the RPG environment. This is known as Arcomage. I have to admit, I found Arcomage to be a bit better than this. So, I wouldn’t call this a novel new innovation by any means. Unusual? Perhaps, but not exactly novel either.

The writing was something I criticized in the previous game. In this game, it is only mildly better. There are stronger points then others, but some places seemed quite weak. I think this game featured the most inefficient jail breaks I have ever seen in a game. It did gradually get better, but I was already growing tired of the repetition by the time I got there.

The level designs sometimes left a bit to be desired. A lot of the dungeons wound up being extremely simple. The Kings Tomb, for me, was extremely dead simple. The only mild challenge is that you don’t get told where on the map you are. However, because the pattern of the maze is so, well, predictable, I had no problem navigating my way through the whole thing. The mines in the dream sequence was probably the most complex and almost every path led to the exit.

An improvement over the previous game is the fact that attack sequences and basic magic sequences have been improved (shortened). Unfortunately, summons can take forever to animate their way out. The first few summons is OK, but after a while, I found myself twiddling my thumbs after working my way through the remaining commands for the fight.

Generally speaking, this game does feature some small improvements. The writing has some mild improvements. Also, the animation sequences for attacks are also improved. Unfortunately, this game still carries a lot of pitfalls. This includes an extremely steep learning curve, excessive text and explanation at the beginning, still weak writing, and overly complex systems that you have to micromanage. The grind of casting draw all day long as well as the long loading times for the card game really suck the enjoyment out of the game after a while. So, a game that just isn’t for me.

Graphically, this game does feature improvements over the previous game. Still, a lot of it is simply pre-rendered pictures overlayed on a simple path. The models are improved, but are far behind other games released at the time. The special effects and textures are quite grainy even though they are improved. Some of this seems to just be a case where the system just isn’t powerful enough to handle a game on the graphics side of things. I actually struggled to find an N64 game that is comparable to this, but BattleTanx from the previous year does come somewhat close. Even then, I thought Battletanx was better in this department.

Meanwhile, the audio is pretty hit and miss. Some of the music is reasonable, but other tracks in the game are largely forgettable. One point of criticism that I do agree with is the fact that there is a lack of voice acting. On this front, the console should have been more than capable of handling it. Even games like Destruction Derby 64 had a nice amount of voice acting. What this games excuse is, considering the hardware, remains a mystery to me. The sound effects are reasonable, however.

Overall, this game leaves a bit to be desired. It’s good that there is an effort to make something that is totally different and novel. Unfortunately, this is probably the biggest experimental flops I’ve seen in this franchise. The junction system is overly complex and the card minigame suffers a similar problem on this front, though at least you could more or less learn on your own. The summons take too long, the writing leaves a bit to be desired, and the level design isn’t all that great half the time. With long rounds of grinding and the bizarre penalty of levelling up, this game winds up being a swing and a miss.

Furthest point in game: Defeated Fujin and Raijin, so near the end of disc 2.

General gameplay: 12/25
Replay value: 3/10
Graphics: 5/10
Audio: 3/5

Overall rating: 46%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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