The main story follows Squall as he graduates from school, joins the army, slowly recovers his memories from his childhood, falls in love, and saves the world from an evil witch, but not the one you think it is.
The side plots include the story how Squall’s father, Laguna (a soldier), and Rinoa (Squall’s love interest)’s mother, Julia never get together and how he ends up in a small town and gets a girl (Raine) pregnant before leaving her to be the head of a weird commune of lion creatures. There’s also the story of the almost main baddie, Edea, who gets (I think) controlled by an uberwitch from the end of time into abandoning her wards at the orphanage (where all of the main characters grew up), and her husband to Take Over The World!
Yes, FF8 was the start of Square, and later Square Enix’s decent into the land of Emo. While personally I find Emo interesting (a good chunk of my bookshelf is young adult, because I do like the angsty stories) I can understand why a lot of the series’ fans felt a little betrayed by this direction. Squall is an incredibly depressed introvert. His “whatever” to everything does get really repetitive, and you have to wonder what Rinoa actually saw in the guy. However, I was just coming out of a very rough time in high school, and the young adult girl in me really connected with this feeling. And let’s face it, most gamers, especially ones in the late 90s, before gaming really got “cool,” usually had difficulty speaking and communicating well. Nerds have a reputation for a reason, and if you don’t believe me, go to open gaming at Dragon*Con. Bring air freshner. (I’ll be the one down there in the corset, probably playing Arkham Horror.) So I understand what the developers were going for—make a character that the otaku (a Japanese derogatory term for ubernerds who don’t have lives and never leave their obsession to go out and live a life) gamers can relate to. Especially the younger crowd.
However, as much as I enjoyed this aspect of Squall’s character on my first 3-4 times, as I grew older, I did get more and more tired of it. I began to look at his character more critically and had more trouble connecting with him and his feelings. While I understand what they were going for, and it worked for me, I know that it didn’t work for a lot of the gamers out there. Especially after such strong main characters such as Cloud, Locke, and Terra (among many others). I think it would have been better if they’d found a way to make him more accessible to the audience, as opposed to always “whatever”ing. At least they could have given us a deeper inner monologue.
Japanese Story Telling
Now let’s talk about something that is getting more and more prevalent in the FF series. Japanese story telling is a culturally based style of story telling where it doesn’t matter why. In Japanese culture, people are much more likely to be told something and to agree that that is the way the world is. There is much less focus on the individual, and therefore critical thinking, and much more focus on being that brick in the wall, unity. Because of this, in many Japanese books, stories, anime, movies, and video games, the writers just don’t feel the same pressure to be able to explain “Why?”
So, bringing this back to FF8. Rinoa is a witch. Why? How? Doesn’t matter. The characters are all loosing their memories of childhood due to use of the Guardian Forces? Uh, okay? Wait, you expect me to believe that this exact group of children just happened to be from the same orphanage? And why are they flashing back and forth threw time? And that the headmaster of the main school, (which about half of the characters attend) is the husband of the main baddie? And then out of nowhere it turns out that the main baddie isn’t really the main baddie but there’s an uber witch from the end of time? I’m sorry. If I turned that in as my senior portfolio, my Creative Writing professor would have probably just shot me at that point. One of my biggest gripes with stories is when I don’t understand why by the end of the story. Not understanding in the middle of the action? Sure, that’s fine, but to never explain why other than “coincidence?” That’s pretty lame to me. But then, I’m an aMERican, not Japanese. My culture is different. And while I won’t knock the Japanese for having a different culture, I will say, they might have wanted to make different choices if they really wanted to branch out to so many more people in the US market.
What really gets me is that in the old skool FFs they did explain why. In FF6, they explained what Terra was, why she had powers, how she got to be where she was. They explained the connection between Sabin and Edgar, the choices they made because of it. The only thing they didn’t explain is why Kefka was crazy and wanted to destroy the world, but by the end of the story you realize, nope, he’s just plain crazy. And I mean get out the straight jacket, he’s gonna hurt somebody nuts. Which, while kind of weak, is an explanation in and of itself.
This is actually where I feel they started going down hill with the FF series, as we’ll talk about, especially with FF13—they don’t explain enough for a modern day American audience and they force you to take so much on faith that while you are screaming, “Why?!?!” at the screen, you are distracted from the game play.
Again, with having a new and different world with each installment of the series, you have to come up with some way to keep making Fighter, Black Mage, and White Mage interesting. I get that, and starting with FF6 they hit the steampunk stage of history, they had the industrial revolution (and genetic experimentation) in FF7, so FF8 should move through modern into futuristic magical technology, right? Except that’s not what the public wanted to see. It worked for me, but then again, this was my first introduction to the series. It wasn’t a change for me.
Around the same time, Square USA produced and released a movie called Final Fantasy: Spirits Within, which was so Final Scifi that it was actually set on Earth (yes, actually our Earth) in the very near future (the movie actually states a year, which I think is 2060ish? Ridiculously close to the present day. Lame.). The futuristic angle was the one they were going for. I get that. However, they got so much backlash that FF9 was thrown back into feudal times—for a reason. Final Fantasy fans didn’t like this lack of fantasy. Just because you have magic does not a fantasy make.
For example, if I want to play a fantasy tabletop RPG, I play D&D (3.5 is my personal favorite). If I want something set in the future, I play Shadow Run or Dark Heresy and call them science fiction. All of the science and technology involved makes them scifi to me—just because they have dragons and elves doesn’t make them “fantasy.” There are fantastical elements, sure, but the overall genre of fantasy takes more than just a little magic.
Unfortunately Square still seems to not have gotten this, “the reason the fans are upset with the games is the direction that you are trying to force on us.” They keep putting out games that deal with the future, high levels of technology, travels into space, extremely emo/pretty boy characters, and tons of stupid side games (give me a minute, I’ll get back to this). While this hits home with some newer players, especially the young Japanese crowd, I really wish they’d stop. I’d really like Square Enix to take the FF series back to it’s roots and continue to make fantasy games that threaten the survival of the world. Where the highest level of technology is architecture (arches, they’re awesome). Where the world runs on magic, or is scared of magic, and either way the game revolves around magic. I don’t need technology to make it interesting to me. If I did, I’d play Mass Effect. Or Dead Space. Or Portal. I don’t mind if there is a bit of technology mixed in, like the mechsuits in 6, or the cloning in 7, but that’s the closest to the line I’d like the series to go. I don’t need future-tech in my Final Fantasy.
Now we’re gonna talk a bit about the actual gameplay, starting with: Leveling up
I hated the way this game levels. Okay, this had standard fight to level game play, with only 3 characters active and capable of being leveled at one time. Standard for the time and made sense, right? Except you can’t take Squall out of your party. You have to have him in the party (except when you didn’t have a choice about not having him in your party), eating up the XP, so that he was bounds ahead of everyone else, and you had to deal with him. And since you only had 3 people in your party, you had to juggle the other 5 main characters around to keep them level consistent. But wait, there’s more.
For the first time, the bad guys leveled up with you. This was a big problem for me. As I said before, at the time I was playing this game, I was not extremely well versed in gaming in general. A successful strategy to combat this is to spend a ton of time leveling up so that you are stronger than the baddies you come across, so that even if you’re just hitting “Fight” a lot, you still win the battle. Strategy need not apply. However! This game had the baddies level on a tiered system so that once you hit a certain level, all of the baddies level up with you.
One the one hand, this is good because theoretically you could go through this game extremely quickly, without a ton of battles, and, again, theoretically, beat the game at a fairly low level.
On the other hand, this is lame. The reason people play these long long long RPGs is to have touting rights to say they leveled up their party to level 99, that they hit quad 9s with each hit and they have the special weapon that lets them hit twice in a go. Look at my Mog, he is the BOMB! My Lulu kicks so much ass! Bow down and kneel before Zod! When you take away this aspect of the game, I feel like the whole game suffers. I would much prefer, even with the less time I have with the Real Job, to have an old skool RPG where leveling is a long process, but the fighting is fun enough to make the grinding interesting. Like leveling up Lulu and double casting Ultima, only to have Riku copycat, and then Yuna cast Holy. Boom.
The most frustrating thing about the leveling system is that you didn’t really have to try to level, until you hit the next tier. Suddenly baddies you were smoking 5 seconds ago are now kinda handing you your butt and you suddenly have to spend a least some time leveling up. Even if you hit that tier in a completely inconvenient place to do your leveling. It adds an element of hard that is just so arbitrary—especially if you’re playing without a strategy guide (shocking, I know, but some people still do that). By the end of the game, a typical player will probably get to all level 99s anyway, so why try to revolutionize this aspect of game play when you’re changing so much in the game already. You’ve already changed the time period, the technology, the magic…
Speaking of: The Magic
The magic system in this game introduced a very interesting, very innovative, and apparently very hated system of junctioning magic to each character’s stats. This was intriguing because you didn’t have mana or MP, you had to draw each spell you wanted to either junction or cast on a one-to-one basis. For one, this meant that you too could have incredibly high stats very early in the game if you cast “Sleep” on a monster, then drew a spell 300 times from that one monster.
Personally I liked this idea. As a first time player, it wasn’t “new” to me, any more than the rest of the game was “new” to me. I thought it was cool to try to figure out the best combination of what I wanted to do with my 3 characters (because it didn’t really matter what you had on the off characters—you could literally switch everything that was on one character to another character—suddenly you have Insta-Clone!). Figuring out “Fire” worked for pretty heavy damage when junctioned to your attack, only to replace that with Pain, Death, and Blind as soon as possible. (Seriously, as soon as you have 100 pain, death, and blind spells, go to the Island Closest to Hell, junction them to your attack and one hit kill you some T-Rexes. Level 99 the easy way.)
The problem with this junction system is that I had to seriously think every time I thought about using magic. Did I really want to lower my stats for every spell I cast? The answer usually was, “nope” (until I found the beauty that was Aura). Therefore, for most of the game I just “Attacked.” Which definitely took away from the magic, and therefore fantasy aspect of the game (not to mention much of the strategy—if I used magic, I typically only used magic that I could draw from whatever I was fighting at the time). While at the time I thought this system was cool, having this be the only way to use magic was not. I wish they’d found a different way to handle the junction system that had to do with leveling up your spells, but not a one-to-one lock.
Junction to Unlock
Speaking of locking, in this game they also did a throw back to a different kind of leveling up where you learn specific (in this case) abilities by keeping certain Guardian Forces (summons) junctioned to the character who needs to learn a thing. This, I will say, worked. Especially since you can junction more than one Guardian Force to a character at a time! Therefore, unlike in FF9, if I need a character to have a particular skill or junction stat, I just junction a GF that has that function, but it doesn’t limit me to only the functions of that GF. This is much better than having to equip a sword that is about 15 levels too low for the baddies I’m fighting just so that I can learn Darkside.
However, there are downsides to this system as well. It completely removes the collecting and buying more powerful equipment from the game. This, I did not appreciate. Personally I think it’s fun every time you find an awesome weapon that a baddie has dropped, or save up to buy that fire ring from the store so you can go into the desert and be immune to fire effects. Even better when they give you 2 or 3 slots for protective equipment. Or, like in FF7, where you equipped magic spheres to your gear, and the more powerful the gear, the more magic you could put in it, in your own personal, diverse way. Again, junctioning magic was cool, but it took away from many of the other elements of game play that were so much fun in prior games.
I think that the junctioning of Guardian Forces system would have worked better as some kind of happy medium—honestly, like they had in FF6. You learned magic from having a particular summon equipped. After you learned that magic, that magic was yours forever. I think it would have been better to have you learn something from junctioning a Guardian Force, but not to necessarily have this remove the variety of weapons and gear from the games.
The Stupid Stupid Card Game
Square. Please keep your stupid card games and stupid repetitive side games (because they’re not quests when you have to dodge lighting 200 times or race/dig with a chocobo or play underwater lame soccer) out of my strategy RPGs. And if you MUST include these stupid and pointless side games, don’t force me to play them in order to get the good weapons. Definitely don’t make me play them to advance the plot. If I wanted to play a racing game, I would have bought a racing game. If I wanted to play a card game, I would have bought a card game. These RPGs would be so much better if these pointless games were left out completely, or at the least, completely optional. But I’d much rather you spend your time and money making the best RPG you can.
Yes, I could sit here and talk about so much more, but I don’t really want to go into this game more than this. Like I said, while I can definitely see room for improvement, I did really like this game. A lot of what they put into the game play worked, especially the innovative (for the time) graphics, the music, the idea of the story (not the story itself, not how they presented it, but the idea of the story). They tried a new thing in the junctioning system that honestly made it super easy for a new gamer like me to identify with and understand (the automatic junction is your friend). The fight system was a standard, turn based system where everyone has a turn (some more quickly than others) and you selected your type of action and who you wished it to effect. Classic and good. I could nitpick more, but I don’t think it’s necessary. It was enjoyable to play, multiple times through, and it was playable—which as we will see, starts to be an issue with later Final Fantasies.