Living in the shadow of Final Fantasy VI, yet never as good as it
The second installment in any Final Fantasy “trilogy” always happens to be the odd one out. Often times, it will try to do something completely different from its predecessors, expand on a concept previously touched upon in earlier installments, or both. However, the tragedy is that in doing so, the game ends up average; not quite as good as the first in the trifecta, and definitely below the standards of the Final Fantasy to follow. Final Fantasy VIII, unfortunately, follows suit, but it a unique way. The game tries to live in the shadow of Final Fantasy VI, yet never really manages to be as stellar as the SNES classic.
Unlike previous installments, Final Fantasy VIII goes for a more realistic feel, opposed to a sci-fi world, steam punk atmosphere, or a purely pseudo-medieval setting. Nowhere is this reflected more than the graphics. Character models abandon the dark look of its predecessor and instead opt for a sensible representation of the heroes. In fact, the graphics are generally much better than Final Fantasy VII, which featured blocky non-battle characters and more detailed battle ones. VIII rectifies this by not only making the characters more realistic (as mentioned before), but also adding a cleaner presentation and consistency between the battlefield and wherever your protagonists may be. Both the fighters AND the combat zone are the same between battle and exploration to the extent that PS1 graphics will permit. However, the original Playstation didn’t permit as much as Square would like, and this is fairly evident when you look at the game. Many of the characters and backgrounds suffer from “dirty textures” which make things look pixilated and messy. This is probably due to the fact that Square Ltd. wanted to utilize the higher resolutions CD format would allow, or an attempt to make things as detailed as possible. Whatever the reason, the game looks sloppy and unpolished, like many Playstation games that looked “good” (Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy IX, Metal Gear Solid, etc.).
In the same fashion, the story seems to have a firmer grounding in reality than other RPG’s (or as firm grounding as a fantasy game can gain). Rather than joining a rebel group to take down an ambiguously evil empire, your characters start off in some mercenary high school, training for their SeeD exams and worrying about normal teenage problems. It isn’t until a bit later that your squad is hired to the rebel group taking down an ambiguously evil empire. That wording may be a bit misleading, as the game does do things differently from other RPGs. Mainly, two things: portraying an epic romance story and telling a lot more of the story through the character’s thoughts. Both of these aspects seem to bring their fair share of problems. The romance between Squall and Rinoa (inarguably the two protagonists) only builds up to epic romance around Disc 3, when at least half the game has flown by. Until then, it seems like they share a typical teenage relationship, Squall being an aloof and somewhat callous introvert and Rinoa trying to convince him to act otherwise. The focus on a romantic story also leads to a drop in the average number of events in the storyline, although this is compensated for by having some of the best character development in the series.
The second unique quality of the story, a larger focus on internal monologues, while with good intentions, also has it is setbacks. Sure, it may reveal more of what the character is like, but it leads to logical problems in the narrative, like when Squall does not want “anyone to talk about me in the past tense.” And some of the time, it just confirms what the player already knows or has seen coming. In fact, the only thing that it really does that is innovative is the random dream sequences that put your characters in the role of three Galbadian soldiers: Laguna, Kiros and Ward. You get to see their own little mini-drama play out at certain intervals throughout the game, the whole thing eventually tying itself into the main story. They give a fresh perspective and keep things from getting stale and predictable.
The music also manages to stay clear of trite and banal. Being made for the PS1 on a CD format, Final Fantasy VIII takes advantage of that format by having a fully orchestrated soundtrack. That would logically explain why the game has a weird obsession with sticking the Latin lyrics from the opening theme (Liberi Fatali) into a considerable number of songs and things that technically qualify as sound effects. As for the rest of the soundtrack, it is generally better than other entries in the series, but fails in key areas. The overworld music seems to be the weirdest one in all of Final Fantasy and the battle theme doesn’t exactly get one pumped up for battle against the monsters of the world. This is oddly sad, as they had a perfectly good battle theme in the form of The Man with the Machine Gun, only played during the Laguna dream sequences. The boss battle theme, Force your Way, is the sole exception, being just as good as other boss battle themes in the series, like Still More Fighting, Decisive Battle and Clash on the Big Bridge.
However, the main idea behind gaming is that all the previously described aspects are merely secondary compared to gameplay. Final Fantasy VIII, like the previous 4 installments in the series, uses the Active Time Battle system of combat, wherein you wait until a bar fills up for a specific character to initiate action for them, enemies being able to make their own moves in between. The system has worked well for quite some time, and this game is no exception. Then again, the system has not really changed since VI, so it is easy to see why it still works. However, Active Time Battle is about the only thing it directly shares with other Final Fantasies. The main system that affects battle and character stats is the Junction system. Much like the Esper system of Final Fantasy VI, you assign Guardian Forces (this game’s version of summons) to several characters. Each Guardian Force comes with their own set of abilities, some exclusive to that Guardian Force. For example, Shiva is the only Guardian Force that can use the Doom ability, while Eden is the only one who grants the user the Devour command. But there is one ability shared amongst almost all Guardians Forces, and that is the Boost ability. It allows you to, when summoned, increase the damage they do in battle. The intention is to add interactivity to what would otherwise be a movie of your beast dealing 9999 damage to the enemy. You boost your GF by mashing the Square button when prompted, the prompts switching places between summonings, a love/hate attribute that can vary from player to player. There’s also a compatibility feature that determines which GFs work better with which characters, but it does not affect gameplay as much as it should, only increasing the speed at which your summon arrives.
Guardian Forces also allow you to junction magic to your stats for upgrades and elemental bonuses. While this does compensate for the fact that your only piece of equipment throughout the entire game, the fact that you can automatically switch junctions between characters and they essentially receive the exact same stats of the character with whom they switched removes the feeling of individuality that each character carries. The developers tried to balance this by giving each character Limit Breaks that function differently. Like the main battle system, Limit Breaks and how they function change between installments, and Final Fantasy VIII seems to model its Limit Breaks after much of what Final Fantasy VI did with its specific character actions (along with how they are activated). This is clearly evident with the characters of Rinoa and Zell, both of their Limit Breaks being based off what Shadow and Sabin did in battle, respectively. But others, like Squall and Irvine have their own unique versions not found in other installments. Squall, using his gunsword, slashes at the enemy while the player times button presses to get the most damage; Irvine blasts enemies with his gun, players being prompted to mash the R1 button until time runs out. However, Selphie’s Limit Break is fairly cheap, as it allows you to cast any spell up to three times, along with some exclusive to the move. With Aura cast on her, she can become a powerful foe in certain boss battles.
Magic also receives a change, something that is not done very often within the series. Rather than buying it in shops, learning it through leveling, or learning it through Espers, magic is drawn from enemies or draw points on the world map or in towns/dungeons. When drawn from enemies, it can either be stocked for later use or thrown right back at the enemy. Stocking it for later is almost like stealing items from enemies, as magic is treated as an item in this game; you only get a limited amount of times to cast it before you run out. While this may sound like it would lead to spells frequently running out mid-battle, it does not happen often (rare spells like Ultima and Triple excluded, unless the player travels the world and raids every draw point thrice).
Intelligent readers may have already noticed an unusually high amount of comparisons to Final Fantasy VI by now, and this is not without merit. Final Fantasy VIII tries in many ways to copy the success of Final Fantasy VI, but for every feature it copies, it does not manage to surpass or even match Final Fantasy VI. For example, both games have a creepy, magically powerful villain who takes power by force and wears gaudy make up. However, whereas Kefka was a delightfully callous man who refused to be pushed around and eventually gained the power of a god, Edea turns out to be possessed by a sorceress from the future in a deus ex machina type of way, dampening the maliciousness of both antagonists. The group must eventually invade the true villain’s castle, splitting up into two groups to solve puzzles and reach the final boss. But when Final Fantasy VI split your characters up into 3 groups who were all of equal importance, Final Fantasy VIII allows you to let one group sit around while the other (most likely the powerhouse group) does all the work and fights all the bosses, possible by the fact that you can reset all the puzzles (but keep all the rewards gained) by exiting the castle and healing at the nearby save point. Eventually, your group reaches the true antagonist; you fight through multiple forms, dead characters permanently being pushed aside so that others can join in the fray. But while the final boss was mildly challenging in VI and allowed you to choose the order in which your characters cycled, VIII’s bosses range wildly from infuriatingly hard to stupidly easy, characters being chosen at random (meaning you have to kill off the weak ones in order to bring in your powerhouse).
But the similarities are not just limited to the ending or the antagonists. The Esper system was interwoven superbly into the story of Final Fantasy VI, and allowed you to customize your characters without them feeling too similar; the Guardian Force system runs the risk of making the only unique trait about the characters being their looks, and the only way it affects the story is that they make your memory worse the longer you use them. Final Fantasy VI gave every character time in the spotlight and manages to not have a clear main character; VIII tries this, and admittedly blends individual character development points in the game seamlessly, but it is hard to care about them when it is incredibly obvious that the two main characters are Squall and Rinoa.
However, Final Fantasy VIII does not fail in every aspect when trying to copy VI. The consistent (albeit junky) graphics are just as good between the two, and both games have excellent music that clearly separates itself from predecessors. Final Fantasy VIII even does some things better than VI, like longer length and more unique side quests. Nevertheless, when you compare the two games side by side, Final Fantasy VI still comes out on top.In fact, that statement seems to represent the entirety of the game. In trying to become the next Final Fantasy VI, it fall short of all the aspects that made it good, like story, battle, magic, music and general quality. While not necessarily a bad RPG, it is a fairly average Final Fantasy. The standards for the series, however, are far from average, advertising itself as excellent and epic.