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Final Fantasy VIII
When a new game in the Final Fantasy series is released, the gaming world takes notice. In fact, it's usually the biggest release of the year. Unfortunately for Square, Sega's Dreamcast has stolen just about every bit of hype that would usually surround a Final Fantasy release. It's a shame. Final Fantasy VIII is one of the best games I've played this year and unlike FFVII, FFVIII deserves every bit of hype.
I got about halfway through the first disc of Final Fantasy VII before boredom set in. In fact, I got so fed up that it took me another six months to pick up the game again and finally get through it. I'm not sure if it was the departure from the Final Fantasy I was used to, or perhaps the dull, confusing storyline (likely the latter). Either way, I wasn't happy. I've always thought of Final Fantasy VII as a very average RPG wrapped up in pretty clothes, so needless to say, I didn't have high hopes for FFVIII when I first laid my eyes on it. Now after playing through this eighth game in the Final Fantasy series, I'm happy to say that this is one of the best games I've ever played.
When Square announced that FFVIII's characters would be modeled more realistically, as opposed to being more cartoony and super deformed, I was skeptical. To me, the Final Fantasy series had always been about cartoon-like characters, and I wasn't sure how a transition to life-like characters would fare. Luckily, it came across unbelievably well. Not only do the more realistic designs help you relate better with the game's characters, but they also allow the characters to convey emotions much more dramatically. I found myself laughing, many times, at just the body language the characters use while conversing - not the actual dialogue.
Graphically, Square has beefed up the engine and created a plethora of beautiful prerendered backgrounds - even prettier than FFVII's if you can imagine. While the characters themselves do have rough edges (remember, this is Playstation), you'll hardly notice as you're drawn into their world through the rest of the solid visuals - the most amazing of which are the Guardian Forces. Basically, during battle (if you have one junctioned to your character) you can summon a GF to lend a hand. Well, if you thought FFVII's summons were impressive, just wait until you see the GF's in action. I really can't do them justice by describing them in mere words, as they have to be seen to be truly appreciated. I'm not one to usually get hung up on graphics, but the GF's really make wonder what other surprises this Playstation hardware has in store for us.
Aside from the true graphics engine, Square has gone above and beyond the call of duty with FFVIII's Full Motion Video sequences. The CG's quality is unmatched. I'm not sure I've ever seen better use of CG in a Playstation game. Not only do they seem to show up at the perfect times to help move the story along, but they also serve to get you back into the game after slow points. The way FMV is intertwined with the game engine will shock you at various points throughout the game ( get to the end of disc 1 and you'll see what I mean). It's going to be difficult to play other games which contain FMV as, right now, this is the high-water mark. Yet another department where FFVIII excels over FFVII.
Unfortunately, the music in FFVIII is hardly a step up from VII's. I was really hoping for something along the lines of Final Fantasy Tactics' soundtrack, but instead midi reigns supreme. It's not horrible, by any means. In fact, it's pretty good for what it is. You'll just find yourself wondering what the game could have been, had more attention been paid to the soundtrack.
Final Fantasy VIII's gameplay is quite a bit different than any previous Final Fantasy. The most obvious change is the use of Guardian Forces (as I mentioned a bit earlier). Basically, once you find a GF you have to junction it to your character to be able to do anything besides a basic attack. Use of Magic, Items and the new Draw command are all done through your GF(s). Gone are Magic Points - Instead, you have to Draw (basically steal) spells from your enemies. Once they're drawn, you can use them until the number to the right runs down to zero. The Draw technique may sound weird to people so used to the older FF's, but once you give it a try and get the hang of it, you'll find yourself liking it more and more. My only gripe with the Draw system is having to sit in battle for hours just drawing spells from enemies. Many times I found myself in the same battle for forty-five minutes just because I wanted to max out the spells a certain enemy was handing over.
Besides allowing you to use magic and items, GF's can be summoned during battle. While they're incredible to watch once or twice, you'll find yourself soon becoming tired of the animations. If there was a way to skip them, this might not have been such a major flaw, but later on in the game, when you're using a GF five or more times in a battle, it gets quite annoying. Another thing I should mention is that GF's have their own Hit Points. When you choose to use one in battle, you're put under your GF's protection until it's finally summoned. However, if your GF loses all of its HP's, it's rendered useless. Until it does lose all of its HP's, however, you can use it as many times as you'd like. This raises a few balance issues, since you can basically use it unlimited times against enemies who won't do much damage. However, I suppose if you want to sit through the animation over and over just to get easy wins on fairly simple enemies, you've got other issues at hand. GF's have quite a few more useful features, but this review would be immense if I went over everything. Think of them as your life source. Without the proper understanding of the GF's, you'll get nowhere in the game.
FFVII had quite a few mini-games, but most of them were shallow arcade games. Instead of taking that route, FFVIII has only one. The one game, though, is more indepth than any seen in FFVII. It is, at its root, a collectible card game. Each boss and major character has his/her own card which can be found throughout the game. From time to time you'll meet characters who you can compete against in a winner-takes-all match up. Finding the best cards can be mighty addicting, so be prepared to spend quite a few (read: a ton of) hours running around completing your collection.
Finally, the heart of any RPG - the story. In this aspect, FFVIII completely demolishes its predecessor. As I stated earlier, I didn't find FFVII's story at all engaging or interesting. It was more or less dull and forgettable. This is not the case with Final Fantasy VIII. From the beginning you're immersed in their world and given a highly entertaining and engrossing story. While the heart of the story is Love, there's certainly no shortage of the stuff Final Fantasy fans have come to expect from each title in the series - Action, Mystery, Plot Twists and Turns, etc. I seriously haven't been this hooked on a game in quite a while. Six hour sessions were the norm for the almost two weeks it took me to complete FFVIII.
So with all of these changes to the magic system and the addition of so much FMV, is this still a true Final Fantasy game? I have to admit that while playing this, I never really pictured that I was playing a game only two removed from Final Fantasy VI (probably my favorite game of all time). While the game is still an RPG, it's beginning to blur the line between RPG and Interactive Movie. I'm hoping FFIX comes a little closer to the Role Playing side of that line, as I'm afraid soon we'll be given RPG's with so few actual RPG elements it will be just like watching a movie.
Despite a few minor flaws, Final Fantasy VIII is one of the best games to be released this year. The story is so compelling, and all of the new gameplay aspects (Junctioning, The Card Game, etc.) make this a very deep Role Playing Adventure. If you're a fan of RPG's in general, I suggest rushing out and purchasing this game as soon as you can. However, let me warn you. If you didn't like FFVII because it wasn't enough like the previous FF's, then you'll more than likely dislike FFVIII. I suggest having an open mind, though, and giving this a shot no matter what. Even people who aren't fans of RPG's may get hooked enough on the story to keep going.
-- Bob McTague
Sony PlayStation Developer
4 CD-ROMs Players