Final Fantasy VIII
Final Fantasy VIII is a game that has sparked a large amount of controversy. From those that consider it the sparkling pinnacle of the established series, to those that loathe it intently, it is clear that a game of this ilk must have some strong characteristics at the heart of it.
Arguably the core component of the role-playing genre, a good story has been a staple tradition of the series, and you won't be left disappointed. Through the eyes of protagonist Squall Leonhart, a mercenary in training, the game takes you on a tense and exciting adventure; like some sort of crazy, colourful fairground ride, with Chocobos. At its heart it is essentially a story based upon romance, but do not let that put you off. On the contrary, it adds excellent character development and incredible depth to the game, instigating a human element that we can all relate to, in a story that could have quite easily alienated us. All of the characters are interesting, but vastly different; coy, arrogant Seifer juxtaposed against the cute, bubbly Selphie is a good example of this.
Despite having simple and archetypal personalities, it serves the game well, as it has done throughout the series. The characters appear more realistic than in previous games, they effectively convey emotion, important in a game so focused upon its story. Moreover, it ensures that the experience never ventures into the blank voids and dull expanses that punctuate the plots of a great deal of lesser RPGs. In Final Fantasy VIII you are never unsure of where you are going, or what you are setting out to achieve. The story is fused so tightly with the gameplay; play for a couple of hours and you can't help but feel some attachment towards it. It draws the gamer in and connects with them on multiple levels, absorbing them into the action in the true Final Fantasy fashion.
Because the characters develop as you play the game (you are not watching a movie or reading a novel, waiting for the events to unfold in front of you), it becomes a much more engaging experience. You witness first-hand Squall's growing infatuation with Rinoa for example, but instead of feeling separated from the events, you feel that you somehow played a part in it. This is a concept unique to videogames, and Final Fantasy VIII executes it perfectly. You train your characters up from weak feeble rookies to strong and mighty warriors, and whilst it does involve a lot of mindless level-grinding to get there, you feel as if you have accomplished something great when you do. This is a concept that is not unique; it could be said about many games. The point is that with such a strong story, Final Fantasy VIII makes this component seem all the more important. It adds depth to the game, unlike anything you will have experienced before.
Another criteria on which the game excels is the sheer scope for exploration that is offered to you. Part of the magic of the game is that you are given ample opportunity to explore, be it tracking down new monsters to kill, levelling up your party, or just exercising plain curiosity. It is nice to see a game that throws linear aspects out the window. You are not walked through this game by any means; it is very much your own adventure. All of the action takes place on an unnamed world, home to a vast array of secret areas and tasks that you can complete. The world is just as imaginative as its predecessors; from the futuristic metropolis of Esthar to the quiet country village of Winhill, the sheer polarity of locations means that every hour in-game is an hour well spent. Vast amounts of time and effort have been spent on crafting this world, and it shows. Final Fantasy VIII certainly lives up to the high standards of the series, and even manages to surpass it in areas such as this.
A number of different gameplay elements have been introduced that loyal fans of the series need to be wary of. The first is the great emphasis placed on Guardian Forces (powerful monsters that you assign to an individual character for them to summon in battle). With previous games having less of a need for the use of GFs, and relying more upon casting magic or simply attacking with individual characters, it may seem a difficult concept to get adjusted to, but in order to understand Final Fantasy VIII you have to accept that GFs form a major part of the battle system. Part of the game's charm is that it throws particular conventions out the window (this is a prime example), and instead adopts its own unique spin on the series, solely intent on delivering the best gaming experience possible, indifferent as to whether it rattles a few cages along the way.
A further potential criticism of the game is raised by the introduction of the Draw System for magic, and the Junction System that is used alongside this. Gone are the days of the MP bar, that steadfast tradition of the genre. In its place is a new system that allows you to assign, or 'junction' types of magic to certain attributes (such as strength and HP), to maximise their performance. Magic is 'drawn' from monsters in battle, constituting one move for a particular character. Magic is much more useful when used in conjunction with the Junction System than it is to simply cast in battle. Weaker forms of magic, such as Fire, only improve skills a minuscule amount, whereas powerful magic can be of incredible benefit to your character. With a critical eye this system could be seen as needlessly complicated, and fans of the genre will obviously share some sentimental feelings towards the forgotten MP bar. So it seems the Draw system has a lot stacked against it. If you take a neutral standpoint, it places much more emphasis on a tactical style of play; hunting for the stronger types of magic becomes a key gameplay element. Optimising the attributes of a weaker character allows them level up on monsters that would otherwise have killed them, keeping pace with the other characters. Hunting down rare creatures for the different types of magic they may contain becomes a fun and worthwhile side-quest. If you take the time to learn how the system works, it rewards you in abundance as you progress.
The trading card system, known as Triple Triad, that the game introduces could be considered a game in itself. While you may care little about this feature during your first run through the game, it adds greatly to the longevity factor. Collecting all the cards becomes a manic obsession that will take over your life. Characters and creatures from the game form the theme for the cards, and whilst the battles themselves aren't hugely enthralling (at least not compared with the real battles within the game), the idea of a clever minigame such as this gives the gamer a nice break from the politics and conflict of Squall's world.
The graphics were top of the range upon release, and this notion is easily lost when viewing from a modern day perspective. Although the cinematic FMV sequences that have been integrated into the gameplay are breathtaking, other aspects, such as the character models, have aged less well. Clashing horribly with the smooth, beautiful landscapes, the pixelated forms make the game seem awfully dated, but any misgivings about this aspect soon melt away once you get started. The gameplay and story more than make up for it. When compared with Final Fantasy VII, you can clearly see the major developments that the series undertook, simply in the short transition between these two games. Revolutionary is Final Fantasy VIII's middle name.
If you're looking for a continuation of Final Fantasy VII, and play the game with this in mind; it will do nothing but disappoint you. This is not because it lacks quality, by any means, but more that it is so different, in so many respects, you would be forgiven for thinking they do not belong to the same series. If you pick up this game with an open mind, and appreciate it for what it is, expect one of the most memorable gaming experiences of your life. In the quagmire of stale releases, games that are 'all flash no substance', it is clear to see why videogames are seen as inferior to works of literacy, music and film. Final Fantasy VIII (alongside much of the series) does a great deal to reverse this trend; it is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is more than just a game, it is art.