A Final Fantasy Retrospective: Final Fantasy VIII (PlayStation)

SPOILERS ahead. Be warned.

So. Final Fantasy VII. The game that made Square a household name. The game that sold the Playstation. The game that redefined the Western world’s conception of an RPG. The game that heralded a million appraisals, condemnations, critical evaluations, theses and reactionary splurging on GameFAQs message boards. The culminating triumph of a studio that, only ten years earlier, had teetered on the brink of untimely liquidation. The catalyst for uncountable instances of ecclesiastic hyperbole. In the words of one magazine: “The greatest game ever made”.

Square was faced with the daunting prospect of succeeding one of history’s most important video games. They understood the ramifications of failure; though their finances were a long way from the dire straits of 1987, they knew that a failed, blockbuster sequel to FFVII could spell the disaster that had been so narrowly averted a decade prior. Critical and fan base expectations were at fever-pitch, the months dragged on, and the world waited for Square to release the mother lode. (Many even bought Brave Fencer Musashi, another Square release, just to play a truncated, confusing demo.)

It’s easy to imagine director Yoshinori Kitase, a Final Fantasy veteran by this point, tearing his hair out over which direction to take. The reality is, surprisingly, rather straightforward. Work began on FFVIII during the localisation process for the seventh game in mid-1997, when Kitase and character designer Tetsuya Nomura hit upon the concept of a military academy training its students to become mercenaries. Armed with the knowledge of 3D and FMV technology gained from FFVII’s development, Kitase and his team delivered their baby in the millennium’s finale of 1999.

Somewhere down the line, they went a bit mad.

This goes without saying, but first impressions are critical toward understanding the impact of a given form of media. We can chart FFVIII’s eventual reception by comparing its introduction to FFVII’s. The first thing we see when we select New Game in FFVII is a sea of stars, a flower girl’s face and the imposing nightmare of Midgar, encapsulating the game’s themes and prefiguring its narrative in a single, beautiful stroke. There’s uncertainty, there’s mystery and, underneath it all, is quiet self-assurance.

FFVIII‘s intro is anything but quiet. That sprawl of silent stars is replaced by swirling landscapes, extreme close-ups and eerie chanting. Locations and faces blur together in montage, much resembling a film trailer, as Latin choirs quiver to the orchestral cries of ‘Liberi Fatali’ – the fated children. Two men battle with storm clouds overhead. A woman in a black dress walks through a wall. Another woman turns a petal into a feather. SQUARESOFT. PRESENTS. FINAL FANTASY VIII. “Look upon our works,” sayeth Squaresoft, “And despair.”

Much like VII, Final Fantasy VIII’s introductory cutscene encapsulates everything about the game to come: A disorienting melange of characters and scenes, presented with minimum context for maximum effect, revolving around the pairing of its cover stars: Squall and Rinoa. If VII was Square’s attempt to keep Final Fantasy relevant in a shifting industry, VIII’s objective was nothing less than crafting the greatest story ever told in this or any other medium. This might also seem obvious, but it did not succeed.

FFVIII has a lot of faults, but being ambitious certainly isn’t one of them. It remains the most divisive entry in the series to this day, largely because a game had never been so brazen in its strive for significance or been so emphatic in distancing itself from what had come before. In order to tell their story, Square implemented realistic character proportions for the first time, placing enormous emphasis on the characters’ ability to express themselves through gestures in silence.

VII achieved some success with this approach, but VIII is a huge step forward. Vast swathes of dialogue scenes are carried on the strength of the character models’ expressiveness alone. Where the writing falters or obfuscates, a party member’s body language speaks volumes about their character. It also sidesteps the dissonance between the detailed battle models and chunky, super-deformed field models of VII’s cast; there’s no distinction between the two in VIII, which goes a long way toward preserving its visual consistency.

Where VII was dark, VIII is light. Inspired by the architecture of European and African cities, VIII’s world is uniformly clean and airy, free from the cyberpunk oppression of VII’s planet. It’s paradisaical in comparison, invoking an atmosphere of “shadows in light” as opposed to the inverse of Midgar et al. It’s a unique, vast, mysterious world that’s also rather sparse in the number of locales it has to offer.

Providing an enthralling world, however, is not on FFVIII’s list of priorities. There are certainly memorable locations – Balamb Garden, Ultimecia’s Castle, Fisherman’s Horizon, the futurist paradise of Esthar – but they’re window dressing to the character-centric melodrama that drives the narrative. If VII skewed the series’ balance between gameplay and story toward the latter, VIII doubles down until the random battles are entirely secondary to the non-interactive scenes they interrupt.

With Cloud, Kitase and Kazuhige Nojima, the latter of whom exclusively penned VIII’s scenario, had made a compelling hero but we were rarely, if ever, privy to his innermost thoughts. With Squall, VIII’s emotionally-crippled protagonist, Nojima grants unprecedented access to our hero’s feelings on every imaginable situation. Most of the time it boils down to, “…Whatever,” but never before, or indeed since, has our understanding of a Final Fantasy protagonist been fleshed out to such an extensive degree.

How players react to FFVIII is bundled up with how they react to Squall. He is the absolute focal point, the eyes through which we see everything, and it’s not surprising to find that players who relate to Squall have fonder impressions of the game as a whole. It’s easy to characterise Squall as a remorseless arse with arrested development, but that would be ignoring the lengths the game goes to in fleshing out who he is and how he changes as the game progresses.

This approach is also remarkable for how effectively we’re placed in his shoes. Initially, his reluctance to verbally express himself seems off-putting and, at points, downright hostile, especially when his silence regularly prompts his peers to question what he’s thinking about. The long pauses in the dialogue scenes can get rather grating but they, along with Squall’s running commentary, provide valuable insight into his actions. In another game, his progression from lone wolf grunt to reluctant leader to romantic saviour might seem like a bland formality, but it’s thanks to our understanding of Squall’s character that it appears fresh and engaging.

The plot, meanwhile, is a train-wreck. What starts out as relatively standard fare for a Final Fantasy game – help a ragtag group of rebels overthrow an oppressive Empire – slowly morphs into a time-travelling, moon-hopping nightmare of creative contrivance. It’s actually impressive how bonkers FFVIII gets in some places, and that’s discounting the motorcycle cannons of Galbadia’s military. The thing goes mad halfway through Disc 3, repeatedly snapping the player’s suspension of disbelief in half with gleeful abandon, introducing plot device after plot device with little to no explanation whatsoever. This prodigious arse-pulling reaches its zenith in a moment where a character literally says, “Believe in the power of your friends and you’ll be fine!”

Or perhaps it’s before then, when one of the characters casually reveals, near the end of Disc 2 (around 20 hours in) that the entire party grew up in the same orphanage; they just forgot about it. (The explanation is foreshadowed by exactly one NPC in a nondescript town, in a random house, on another continent, 18 hours earlier.) Or maybe it’s when Ellone, a young woman who happens to be Squall and co’s adoptive sister from the orphanage, is revealed to possess the entirely unexplained power to send one’s consciousness back in time to anyone she vaguely knows. FFVIII constantly strives for ‘realism’ and a new standard of videogame storytelling, but in many ways it still relies on that stalwart hand-wave: “It’s magic! We don’t have to explain anything!”

Despite this, the game tries very hard to flesh out its world by giving almost every NPC something worthwhile to say. It’s a completionist’s nightmare; an exorbitant amount of information and lore can be gleaned from random citizens on difficult-to-access screens, which considerably adds detail to the world’s history in a way that the main plot fails to manage. It rewards perceptive, exploratory players, and the attention to detail is admirable, but when it comes at the expense of clarifying crucial details in the narrative it points to a lack of priorities.

One aspect where it definitely succeeds, however, comes in the form of Laguna, Kiros and Ward. During these scenes, where the party is thrust into the minds of this plucky trio, it’s as if Sakaguchi himself decided to shunt Kitase aside and just make FFV again. Laguna is a lovable goof with a heart of gold à la Bartz or Locke, and his comedic misadventures provide welcome levity to the navel-gazing dissonance of Squall. These flashbacks are all wonderful, invoking the spirit of the older games without compromising the game at hand. If we could have had more of these flashbacks and less D-District Prison, I’d be a very happy man.

Nonetheless, the plot is broken. It’s a jumbled mess of too many ideas that lack appropriate execution, especially when the love story is haphazardly bundled into the beginning of Disc 3. I never used Rinoa in battle before this playthrough, so Squall’s sudden and inexplicable passion for her felt incredibly jarring. But even when I used her as much as possible, it was still a record-scratch moment. I was hoping for a turnaround as drastic as Aeris, whom I grew to genuinely like and depend upon in battle, but Rinoa remains uninteresting no matter how often she’s in the party.

The contrivances reach critical mass as the love story takes centre stage, presumably because Nojima thought we’d be so swept along with the romance we’d fail to notice the glaring issues with the writing around it. This is the point where FFVIII really jumps the shark, and a game already plagued with pacing problems loses its mind with extended space-walking sequences and deus ex airship conveniences.

A prime example of all these convoluted ideas is how the game treats its antagonists. Initially, Sorceress Edea is presented as the villain and she’s a cunning, honey-tongued seductress who bends lesser mortals to her will with ease. (Side-note: ‘Sorceress’ is changed from the Japanese, which translates more closely to ‘Witch’, which would likely bear more significance for a Western audience.)

Once she’s beaten, it’s revealed that the real threat is Sorceress Ultimecia, who possessed Edea the whole time from her castle in the future. Ultimecia wants Ellone to achieve “that ever-elusive Time Kompression,” – the reduction of time/space to a singularity which she would then absorb, becoming the only being in existence and able to re-shape reality – but she also wants Sorceress Adel (who gets about four lines of dialogue), the previous, tyrannical ruler of Esthar who… you see? All this stuff is frantically introduced throughout Disc 3 of 4, after two straight Discs of building up Edea, and even that ultimately plays second fiddle to the love story.

Caught in the middle of the idea shuffle is Seifer, Squall’s nemesis and polar opposite, who acts somewhat as the Sephiroth to Squall’s Cloud. Their rivalry is long, deep and well-written, and we learn the most about Seifer in comparison to the other villains. Unfortunately, his role as the Sorceress’ lackey gradually diminishes his impact, as he turns from a deranged subversion of the romantic hero trope to a barely mentioned hurdle on the road to Time Compression.

So the plot is broken, sure, but it’s at least consistent with the gameplay. FFVIII is notable for changing almost everything from its predecessors, perhaps more closely resembling the experimental second instalment than any other game in the series. Magic Points are gone; magic is now its own separate inventory, with individual spells ‘drawn’ from enemies or refined from items. Levelling is no longer the primary method of raising stats; characters level up as usual, but there is a flat rate of 1000 Exp per level and enemies level alongside you regardless. Instead, stats are dictated by which spells you ‘junction’, or equip, to each stat, e.g. 57 Death spells to Strength.

This is the core principle of the Junction system. Designed by battle system genius Hiroyuki Ito, the Junction system involves ‘junctioning’ Guardian Forces (GF) – VIII’s version of Summon monsters – to each party member, providing them with battle commands, stat boosts and the ability to use magic. They can also learn their own Abilities, gained by defeating enemies and acquiring AP (Ability Points). It’s actually impossible to use any commands other than Attack without junctioning a GF. Quite extreme, but it’s actually a brilliant system designed to be eminently customisable.

For all intents and purposes it’s a difficulty slider, granting the player total freedom over how powerful they want a character to be. Conversely, it destroys character individuality. It’s the polar opposite of the Job system or the classes of regular RPGs; the player is free to swap Junction set-ups between characters on a whim (which also becomes a nuisance when the game necessitates party-swapping), meaning the only distinction between characters is their Limit Break.

Unlike VII, where Limit Breaks had distinct animations but were functionally very similar, FFVIII delineates each character’s limit rather well. Quistis uses Blue Magic; Selphie has Slots; Zell has Duel, utilising fighting game-style button combos, etc. Here’s the problem: Squall and Zell’s Limit Breaks make the game trivial. Unlike VII, the Limit Break option has a chance to appear when a character is at low health (or Aura’d).

Junction Quake or, later, Meteor to Squall’s Strength, make sure he’s at low HP, and spam the character switch button until the Limit Break prompt appears. Use Renzokuken. If the enemy survives, repeat. The game is effectively over once you realise this. Combined with Zell’s Duel, even the mightiest of the game’s super-bosses, Omega Weapon, is disappointingly trivialised. This is a shame since the battle system, spearheaded by the Active Time Battle stalwart, is rather robust when you aren’t snapping it over your knee with magic refinement or Limit Breaks.

While the gameplay and story vary in quality, the presentation always impresses. The pre-rendered backgrounds are more beautiful than ever, as the brighter lighting really wrings the very best out of Square’s artists. The numerous FMV sequences, especially when you’re controlling the characters, are breath-taking to this day, with Kitase deploying his film school education to profound effect. The flavour of each location is clear, and the realistic proportions of the characters are a god-send compared to the Duplo nightmare of VII’s field models.

And then there’s the music. If FFVI represented the moment Final Fantasy became operatic, FFVIII is the moment it became symphonic. Nobuo Uematsu’s score is reliably superb, but this time it’s even more resonant as thematic motifs converge and re-capitulate throughout the game. The melody in the spectacular bombast of ‘Liberi Fatali’, for instance, re-appears in ‘Fithos Luscec Wecos Vinosec’, ‘The Landing’, ‘Premonition’ and ‘The Extreme’, forming the drive of these tracks’ thrilling strings and keys.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about FFVIII’s soundtrack without discussing ‘Eyes on Me’. The series’ first vocal theme, sung by Faye Wong, is either a beautiful, transcendent ballad or a saccharine, nauseating Celine Dion rip-off, depending on who you ask. For me, it’s the former, and it makes me bawl my eyes out whenever I hear it. Taken together, Uematsu’s soundtrack conveys what the writing often fails to do – for my money, it’s an underrated entry in a series of stellar scores.

But where does this leave us? Final Fantasy VIII is divisive precisely because of its strengths and weaknesses. The battle system is strong and deep, but it’s absurdly easy to break if you know what you’re doing and too menu-driven. Squall is superbly-written and a lesson for aspiring RPG scribes, but 90% of the other characters are one-note. The plot becomes nonsensical after the high point of Disc 2. The visuals and scenarios are stunning but offer limited interactivity. The Laguna sections are wonderful but almost seem out of place with the self-seriousness of the present-day adventure. For every compelling idea there is another that failed to work as intended.

And yet, for all this, Final Fantasy VIII is no aberration. If anything, it’s exactly in keeping with the spirit of the series as a whole, even as it often fails to resemble it: The desire to re-invent both itself and the RPG wheel. It doesn’t always succeed – in fact, it regularly falls short – but the effort, and the confidence behind it, is both fascinating and commendable.

Next time, Final Fantasy pens a love letter. The addressee? Itself: Final Fantasy IX.

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