Final Fantasy VIII is good, but not great

Final Fantasy VIII
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I so wanted Final Fantasy VIII to be the be-all-end-all of gaming experiences. I so wanted to be able to say that this was the greastest game I’ve ever played. Unfortunately, after all the hype, all the hope, and almost 60 hours of playing and completing Square’s latest offering in the signature series of RPG’s, I’m almost heartbroken to say that the game doesn’t bring home the goods.

To be fair, I, much like the rest of the gaming world, had enormous expectations. I half expected the characters in the game to jump out of my television and finish doing my laundry for me. Also, FF games are the most critically judged in all the land, so being the sheep that I am, I followed the herd and took an extra tough eye to the game.

Don’t get me wrong, this game is good. It is real good, but it’s just not the FF fare we’re all used to getting. Speaking as one who feels that FF VII is one of, if not, the greatest game I’ve ever played, FF VIII doesn’t measure up to its immediate predecessor.

First, the good. The graphics are breathtaking. The cut screens are unbelievable. My mouth hit the floor on numerous occasions as I saw my PlayStation do things I’ve never even seen on a PC. The graphics for the Guardian Forces are very well done and far superior to the Summon monsters from FF VII.

The decision to do away with the deformed type of characters and move to a more realistic looking set of characters was an excellent one. Also, when talking to non-playable characters or others within your party, your characters don’t just stand there as you read the text on the screen, they actually act. They move around, throw up their hands, stomp their feet and all sorts of other emotional responses. A nice change of pace indeed.

Secondly, Square bucks quite a few RPG traditions with this game. Number one, there’s no real use of money in the game. ‘What no money,’ the never-bending RPG purists say, ‘but that would mean…’ That’s right, there are no stronger weapons to buy. Stronger weapons are fashioned by obtaining rare items and finding a junk shop to remodel your weapon.

But what about armor? As the New York mob would say, fuggetabouttit. No armor exists at all. There’s also no real "leveling up" in the game. That’s right, no dominating those enemies back at the beginning of the game after you’ve been playing for 50 hours. All of your opponents improve along with you and gain new abilities. There is also so set number of Magic Points. Instead, all of the spells you get, you steal from your enemies using the Draw ability. The more spells you have the more powerful you can make your character in FF VIII’s Junction system.

The Junction system does allow you to customize your characters fairly well and contains a huge amount of variety. The combinations are nearly endless, but the constant drawing of spells from enemies can get a little tedious and boring. Of course it’s no different than fighting the same enemies over and over to raise your levels like in most other RPGs.

The story and characters themselves I have to say fall in between the bad and the good. (Which is why they are in this part of the review) The overall story is good, but it starts off incredibly slow. The first disk is almost painful in terms of pace. And the second disk might even be worse. It’s not until Disk three that the plot really starts to take off and by then you’ve already been playing for 35-40 hours. The twists the plot takes are interesting and there are some lingering mysteries through the game which are done nicely. However, the story doesn’t seem to expand from a central point. In FF VII, the story seemed to constantly get bigger and bigger, but while that attempt was made in FF VIII, it seemed like the story just followed a straight line and veered off onto a totally different straight line.

The characters in the game are far from cardboard cutouts. The six primary characters are differentiated well, although I found no real redeeming quality for Quistis except her name and that pink instructor’s outfit.

I must say though that at the beginning I didn’t find Squall very appealing, and given that he was me, I was a tad bothered by that. I’m supposed to like me after all. I’m supposed to want me to succeed. Thankfully, it turns out I’m not such a bad main character after all and Squall won me over by the end of the game. The love story that centers around Squall and the character of Rinoa is well-done. It is a much more mature theme than is found in most games. Kidde-fare this game is not.

Rinoa is also a fabulous character. Selphie and Irvine are also likeable, and even though there wasn’t really too much to him, I liked Zell because he became my most powerful character for beating my enemies senseless with physical attacks.

Now, onto the bad. Most glaringly, there is no kick-ass-make-you-quake-in-your-boots final adversary. In FF VII, you eventually learn that Sepiroth is your final target, and quite frankly Sepiroth kicked ass. He had me shakin’ and a quakin’ so bad that the last thing I wanted to do at the end of the game was fight him. I’m really trying not to give any spoilers away, but you think you might have a Sepiroth-type in this game, but you don’t. You get fooled and I didn’t like the deception. Plus the excuse for the plot twist is really lame.

The music in the game is good, but not nearly as good as some of the music from previous FF games. Again, FF VIII suffers from having to live up to it’s own glorious past. The music would be spectacular for almost any other offering, but for an FF game, it ranks just above average.

Finally, I must get to what an RPG really needs in order to be successful — it’s emotional impact. Quite honestly, the game never really grabs you and refuses to let go. While there are some scenes of true suspense and impact, they are few and far between. The ending though, does leave you satisfied, however, no scene leaves you anywhere near as scarred as the scene in FF VII when Sepiroth ‘kills’ Aeris. I literally could not go to my 6:30 night class that evening at college because I was so depressed. No part of FF VIII hit me like that did.

Originally I was going to give FF VIII 4 GiN Gems, but looking back at my review for Lunar: SCCC, I saw that I gave Lunar: SCCC 4 GiN Gems. I didn’t get nearly as emotionally involved with FF VIII as I did with Lunar: SCCC, so it would have been unfair to give both the same score.

Ultimately, the game is a worth your money. I don’t think anyone, absent the most virulent RPG purist, would not enjoy this game. In and of itself this would be among the best games of the year, but when compared to the FFs that have come before it, the game just doesn’t cut it. Let the countdown begin for FF IX and let’s all hope for something a little bit better.

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