Redefining the Enemy Encounter: Battles in Final Fantasy VIII

I thought that I would take a stab at defining what it is that I love about my favorite combat system of all time, the battle system in Final Fantasy VIII, with the hopes that I can convince some people to look back on this classic game (available on PS1 Classics!) and perhaps hear some of your favorite combat systems.

What I think makes this game so unique is its redefinition of the role of enemies and combat, specifically its use of the draw, junction, and item refinement systems in conjunction with scaling enemies. The enemy scaling in Final Fantasy VIII scales enemy’s stats and abilities based on the average level of the player’s party. Enemy stats scale proportionally based on level, but enemy abilities make abrupt jumps in power at levels 20 and 30. As a result, enemies are hardly a threat while the main party’s average level is lower than 30, but they can become a handful when they pass that threshold. This is doubly true if you try to grind out levels, since the junction system makes character level almost completely unrelated to character power. By tying character power to items and magic, rather than level, Final Fantasy VIII begs you to find a way to cheat the system and min max every encounter.

Fortunately the game gives you a ton of ways of extracting resources from combat without killing any enemies (and accruing exp in the process). In any given battle you can extract resources by: 1.drawing magic 2. stealing items 3. turning enemies into cards 4. eating enemies. On top of those options you can always actually win a battle and in the process win items and ap, which are way more important than exp. Each of these options allow you to either convert items into magic (which you then junction) or, in the case of eating enemies, receive direct stat boosts. Also when you win battles and gain ap, your gfs (magical creatures that power your characters like a battery) gain new abilities, many of which are super useful.

By having all of these ways to goose the system and a scaling enemy system, the game incentivizes the player to milk every fight for all its worth, rather than plow through enemies and get levels and money; this is fundamentally different from most systems which make enemies an obstacle that the player must overcome, which is what makes me love this system so much.

So what are your favorite combat systems and do you know of any systems that are similar to FFVIII that I should try?

Edit: Thinking about the combat system a little further, by tying draw points and monsters to particular locations on the map the combat system also incentivizes the player to explore the world map more than a conventional combat system. The three best examples of this are the islands closest to heaven and hell and cactuar island. The islands closest to heaven and hell contain draw points for the best spells in the game and each of those draw points have very fast regen rates, allowing the player to quickly stock up on the best spells in the game without fighting. Both of those islands are not pointed out to the player in any way, thus their bounties reward layers for exploring the world map. Cactuar island is similar in that it contains high ap, low exp cactuars as well as a boss cactuar that the player can fight. By confining these prime targets to an otherwise unremarkable island the game again incentivizes the player to explore and find these unique grinding spots.

Edit: I did not expect to see this kind of response to this blog post, so it got me thinking: would anyone like to see more posts like this looking at different combat systems in a similar way? I have a deep love for these kinds of systems and would be happy to write more about them.

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Posted by Veektarius

I never much cared for the draw system in FFVIII. It essentially discouraged you from using magic because it simultaneously depleted your weapons to do, which in turn necessitated more grinding to draw more magic. Maybe I was doing it wrong, though, I was just a kid and definitely never min-maxed to the point that the game was trivial. II also didn't particularly like it. I quit during the final dungeon when I decided I just didn't care how it ended.

Posted by thatpinguino

@veektarius: Yeah the story is kind of meh, and I found it completely incomprehensible when I was little. The trick to min maxing is that items in the game can be refined into magic, and they usually refine into 20 uses of a spell. Since items in that game are so easy to come by with mugging and card refining I never cared about using magic, as I could always replenish. Also with my play style I always try to max my speed and strength so that I never have to use spells anyway.

Posted by mwng

While I did enjoy the systems in VIII, they were a little open to abuse, meaning you could trivialize the game if you wanted to. Though I suppose the "if you wanted to" is the important part.

Having to swap around party members constantly made junctioning a bit of a pain at times too. And because the enemies leveled up with you, if someone fell behind in terms of levels, they were often doomed. Didn't really enjoy the counter to this either, with so many enemies casting demi and other hp % based attacks, totally negating any reason to up the hp stat.

And like the other guy said, the game punishes you for using magic and GFs. Pushing the optimal way of playing to be; give squall a good weapon and cast aura on him all the time.

Reading this back makes it sound like I didn't like it at all, but I really did...

Posted by thatpinguino

@mwng: I would say the optimal way of playing is to have Quistis or Selphie at 1 hp and have them use black hole or The End every fight. How there is a game with 2 characters with repeatable instant kills I don't know.

Posted by Slag

I didn't care for the junction system much. It made for the grindiest FF I can ever remember. Swapping characters in and out to draw 3 Ultima spells per draw was insanely time consuming and super annoying.

I didn't like that it basically penalized you for ever casting spells. Which is interesting in theory but a lot of the enemies in teh game still were prone to the old rock paper scissor elemental weaknesses if memory serves...

Edited by thatpinguino

@slag: Oh god, I never went so far as to try to level everyone up, I always picked three characters and just stuck with them for the whole game, I also concentrated all of my gfs on those three characters so they were all super overpowered.

The elemental stuff was totally there, but I didn't find that I needed to worry about it too much because my physical attacks just did so much damage that doubling the damage did not really matter.

It is interesting that you found it grindy because the only time I grind when playing it is to kill cactuars , since they gave 20 ap and like 5 exp so you could get abilities for your gfs without leveling up your characters.

Edited by Canteu

It's too bad you love a wholly broken, easily exploitable, intensely limiting combat system.

Attack your way to the end. Fun, tons of it...

I do love me some FF8, but the junction system is probably the worst entry in the series.

Each to their own, however.

Edited by thatpinguino

@canteu: How can it be easily exploitable and intensely limiting? I find it to be one of the most open in the series, any character can do pretty much anything. Really the only unique thing to each character is their limit break.

Edited by Canteu

@thatpinguino: There is one command in that game, other than draw. Attack.

edit: Actually, there's 3! Magic>Meltdown>Aura and Limit Break.

All your characters are the same.

Weapon upgrades are literally useless. Other than the Lionheart, for the limitbreak, so you can 2 shot the last boss.

That is how it's intensely limiting.

It's easily exploitable because, you can get 255 strength and 9999hp on both Quistis and Squall before fighting Ifrit, and it takes about 2 hours.

Posted by thatpinguino

@canteu: I found the blank slate characters to be fun because of how weird the gf abilities were that you could give them, like mad rush and devour. It felt like you could make characters that played exactly how you wanted with minimal effort. Though I do agree that the game is easily breakable, it is that break-ability that I really enjoy.

Edited by Canteu

@thatpinguino: But there is literally no strategy to the combat. All you need to do is junction and attack. That's it. You win.

Your characters can't do anything, simply because they can do everything, so everyone can only do one thing, namely the most OP thing you can build, which is always the same on every character.

No specialization makes for very boring gameplay. This is why the earlier games (6 and below), 9 (and 10 to a lesser extent) are way better in terms of mechanics.

7 is the same. Every character only does the most OP thing you can build, which is always the same on every character.

Edited by thatpinguino

@canteu:You can specialize characters, even though the game does not give you much impetus to do so. I always try to specialize my characters so that they are not just copies of each other, though I do make sure that they are all doing there damage by attacking, since that is the only way to avoid the painfully long animations that the game is full of. But, every character does have their own set of secondary abilities that are unique. Also because I hate grinding I am never able to max out everyone in everything, which may make the game more balanced when I play through.

Edited by Canteu

@thatpinguino: Specialise them to do what exactly? Rinoa only casts white magic? Quistis only casts useless blue magic? Selphie only summons?

The game simply isn't built for that. They make it so it's essentially pointless to cast any magic, other than a very select few.

Hell, haste is even useless in 8 and that's just sad.

Alright, sure I specialise, Zell is specialised at casting meltdown, Irvine is specialised at casting Aura and Squall is specialised at using Renzokuken.

When I play, I draw what I need. Turn on enc. none and then fight bosses.

When I want to not do an RPG's only (not including Triple Triad) gameplay, that is a failure in my eyes.

Posted by thatpinguino

@canteu: Rinoa has recover and treatment, quistis has revive and level dn, and squall has mug (cause lets be honest he only needs to attack). The three of them also have draw. Though this doesn't make them radically different it, it does change what their roles at times. This is especially true early in the game, before I can fight cactuars to level up all of my gfs and before I have enough gfs to round every character out. I think the key difference is that I just break the game enough for it to be fun in a stat nerdy kind of way without making it completely trivial.

Edited by Canteu

@thatpinguino: Breaking the game is one thing, but it's fundamentally trivial from the get go simply through the way it's designed. Perhaps it wouldn't be as bad if enemies didn't scale, making fighting detrimental to progression is a very poor design choice.

Posted by thatpinguino

@canteu:I think that that decision is what allows it to be unique and really what allows it to reshape the goal of combat. The goal is not to progress through grindy battles, progress comes by finding ways to exploit the system.

Edited by Canteu

@thatpinguino: Ok, that's fine designing to eliminate the grind, but there is only one way to min/max in this instance, which is draw and junction, which doesn't involve playing the game. Not even necessarily abusing the system, just simply using it makes your party an invincible destruction monster, using two commands.

I reiterate; making me actively not want to participate in the game's interactions due to it being detrimental to character building, active story progress and end game goals is very, very poor game design.

Maybe it's just that I find the combat boring and restrictive, since I min/max in almost every game that allows it, it feels stifling that there's only one way to do this, and it's not even clever. It's just using the system as designed. There's no challenge overall even if you don't know how to use junction to it's fullest.

I would agree with you about the blank characters, since I love to theoreycraft and build characters, but when the outcome is always the same from the blank slate, it brings any fun out of trying new things, since there's literally nothing else to try.

Like I said earlier, I like FF8, it just has the worst combat in the series by a great margin.

Edited by thatpinguino

@canteu: Maybe it is just that I love having all of those options, even if they aren't the most efficient. For example in FFIX my final team always has the same general configuration regardless of how I want to play. If I want to use Steiner, my end game version of Steiner will be the same as everyone else's version of Steiner. I get to pick four characters but how the four play will be the same whether I want them to be or not. In VIII if I want to have a party full of characters that only win battles by turning creatures into cards I can, if I want to delevel my enemies into oblivion I can. It feels to me like FFVIII gave me debug mode and let me play around with the systems. If I want to play FFVIII as a story only game I can by turning off encounters, no matter what I do in FF VI I do not have that option.

Posted by Hunter5024

I think it's an insanely interesting system at the very least, though as witnessed by several people in this thread, you can kind of ruin the combat for yourself if you know what you're doing. Still I wouldn't say that's an inherent flaw of the system, I think it's just in need of some balancing. I would totally play another game with the Junction system.

Edited by Nodima

I knew that going in, but I think of the 13+ times I beat this game as a kid (there was a lot of finishing the game and immediately starting again going on) I probably didn't at least get to level 60 with my characters more than two times. Gaming the card and alchemy systems just felt like too much brain power or planning for me beyond getting the loot necessary to upgrade weapons. Plus, as is generally the case with games I play considering I'm rooted in sports games, the great reward of RPGs is almost ALWAYS the numbers that represent lost HP getting bigger and bigger for the bad guys, smaller and smaller for me. FFVIII kind of inverts that, but the increase in difficulty of the game is a little overblown, too. (Though you definitely had to watch for those Marlboros in Esthar, they are NO joke if you walk into a post-Pandora world in the 50s, 60s or 70s).

Also, I'm rarely a magic user in RPGs anyway, I tend to brute force my way through them other than enemies that can't be phased physically. So the draw system was sort of perfect for me in that sense because the only spells I've ever truly valued in JRPGs have been Cures, Lifes and in this case Aura.

Posted by Slag

@thatpinguino

@slag: Oh god, I never went so far as to try to level everyone up, I always picked three characters and just stuck with them for the whole game, I also concentrated all of my gfs on those three characters so they were all super overpowered.

The elemental stuff was totally there, but I didn't find that I needed to worry about it too much because my physical attacks just did so much damage that doubling the damage did not really matter.

It is interesting that you found it grindy because the only time I grind when playing it is to kill cactuars , since they gave 20 ap and like 5 exp so you could get abilities for your gfs without leveling up your characters.

I freely admit it was partially my problem. I played Viii at release as I had played every final fantasy up till that point, and like I did with every final fantasy game up till that point, I tried to max everything out because I liked what people call today S-ranking games. So certainly I didn't need to get 99 Ultimas for every party member, but it was the sort of thing I used to like to do.

I think you played the game a smarter way, but you also played it a way I wouldn't have enjoyed.

I guess at a fundamental level, the thing I hate most in games is losing progression. And that's basically kind of what the junction is like in a way, everytime you cast you lose some progression. I think that's what bothers me about it. Maybe it shouldn't but I think that's why it does.

Posted by thatpinguino

@hunter5024:I would love to see the system as is, but with a more challenging set of enemies and with the limit break system either removed or toned down. I think the real problem with the balance comes from your characters being able to use their strongest attacks every turn until the enemy is dead with no restriction. So if you make the enemies a little more thought intensive (and also remove the vitality =0 stat that basically makes attacking unstoppable) you would force players to really explore all that the system allows.

Posted by thatpinguino

@slag: That is definitely an issue with the system, I wish you could carry a surplus of magic that is just for casting, so you don't mess with your stats when casting.

Edited by Hunter5024

@thatpinguino: Yeah the limit system is specifically what I feels needs to be balanced. I mean some of the characters aren't so bad, but being able to so easily trigger Renzokuken is a tad ridiculous (it's also a tad radical.)

Posted by Cyrus_Saren

Like some of the people in this thread have said, I am also not a fan of the Junction system. Having to draw magic was tedious and then being able to Junction magic to your stats made it so that you were wary to cast anything.

Posted by thatpinguino

@hunter5024: No to mention the king of all over powered limit breaks: The End. It one hit kills any non-zombie enemy in the game including bosses.

Edited by Hunter5024

@thatpinguino: Don't you have to randomly click through a giant list of spells in the hopes that that will appear though? Or was I just doing it wrong?

Posted by thatpinguino

@hunter5024: You do, but those rolls are governed by your luck stat and that luck stat can be increased with good junctioning and additional abilities. Also there are a number of ways to become straight up invincible in that game so you can spend as much time as you want waiting for The End.

Posted by EXTomar

I have always thought that FF8 was reaction to the criticisms of FF7 taken the wrong way. It is like they took to heart "there is too much grinding to get powerful in FF7" and messed it up with Draw and the scaling monster strength. The only way the player can lose is if against a few monsters (bosses mostly) they end up randomly executing their big attacks back to back. Otherwise any player with any set of characters with any level and gear can win.

Edited by thatpinguino

@extomar: I never found VII to be that grindy, was that really a major complaint?

Edited by KoolAid

Yeah man! I totally get you! FFVIII was min/max heaven. It's pretty ridiculous that system even exists, it was super abstract for what was a "mainstream" game at the time, but gave you so much control. I wrote a short paper on it for a game design class years ago... I wanna see if I can dig it up.

Posted by Fredchuckdave

8 had a good combat system, so did 4 5 6 7 9 10 12 and 13; if there's one thing that's reliably solid and decently varied in Final Fantasy it's the combat; storylines don't hold up very well in retrospect but the games are generally a lot of fun to just play; provided you have something to do during extended summon sequences.

Posted by Zero_

I enjoyed VIII's system but understood that it had INCREDIBLE flaws - the fact that magic is treated as items, and that magic ALSO buffs you is crazy because it ended up with you sitting in fights extracting magic from monsters until you hit 100 magic so your character was buff, which then led to you never using any magic with fear of debuffing your characters.

Personally, the best combat system in an RPG is Grandia. It's hard to explain without playing, but it has an excellent feeling of control and excitement.

Edited by RecSpec

I enjoyed breaking the hell out of FF8 with the junction system. I remember playing triple triad all the time to get cards to turn into more magic.

Posted by WolfHazard

The fact that anyone could like FF8 in any way is kind of mindbogglingly.

Edited by PixelPrinny

Not sure what game you were playing, but the enemy scaling has hard caps. If you grind to the point where you can drain spells like Blizzaga and Haste from the enemies right outside of the first school, you can literally one-shot bosses for most of the game. Trash mobs offer little more than that in the way of resistance.

Don't get me wrong -- I enjoyed the combat system, but it was broken as all hell in the way it could be exploited so easily and so early. I think the greatest drawback the draw system had, in my view, was that it actively punishes you for using the good spells. By that I mean, why use a spell that you've attached to a stat when it means you'll take a hit to said stat unless you go and draw more of that spell again. Besides, when you had those good spells bound to attack damage, there was little reason to use anything besides auto-attacks. And I'm fairly certain no one will contend the fact that -- whether you enjoy it or not -- drawing 100 of a spell is pure busy work and could have been implemented better.

If you're looking for another unique and enjoyable turn-based combat system, I'd suggest giving Mana Khemia (or Mana Khemia 2) a go. Super niche title that most have probably never heard of, let alone played, but the system feels almost akin to Marvel vs Capcom fighting games in a way, where you build up meter and then unleash super combos and then do tag in hyper combos which can then lead into full team combos. It always felt incredibly gratifying and fun.

Posted by Adaurin

I never liked the Draw system or the story so it led to FF8 being the only PS1 era Final Fantasy I never finished. My favorite combat system was the Capsule system from Chrono Cross specifically because for the most part all spells and abilities could only be used once per battle, so boss battles became more intense and not the usually Final Fantasy route of casts Ultima or Knights of the Round as many times as you can.

Posted by thebunnyhunter

Fuck it I Love FF8 and its magic junction system. I found it interesting to min max every character with the right combo of GF and magic, magic felt so plenty with so many ways to collect more i didnt care about using my junction magics. Also i love the fact the wen Squall swings his sword to attack you could press R1 to fire a bullet for extra damage.

But my favorite combat system in a jrpg has to be Legend of the Dragoon, that addition system made up for lackluster magic and dragon forms

Edited by HerbieBug

I hated the draw system. That is the most backwards implementation of magic system in any game, regardless of genre, I have ever played. To tie your offensive ability to a finite resource that can only be replenished by fighting specific monsters or visiting very specific locations, the game is actively encouraging you not to use the rarer abilities for fear that you will run out of them and lose access to them and the buffs they grant indefinitely. Which really fucking sucks.

Posted by Triforceowner

So, is leveling up a bad thing in this game if enemies become harder but your power isn't related? How do the characters grow if they do not grow in power with their level?

Edited by Daneian

The most tactile and satisfying part of 8's combat is pulling R1 to trigger the gunblade.

Posted by mwng

@triforceowner said:

So, is leveling up a bad thing in this game if enemies become harder but your power isn't related? How do the characters grow if they do not grow in power with their level?

Stuff like Attack/HP is governed by the magic "Junctioned" to it. You draw this magic from monsters during battles or from points across the world. So you can boost these stats without leveling up. Though leveling isn't TOTALLY detrimental.

Edited by StriderNo9

I agree, I really loved FF8's combat system, it felt so fresh, actually it still does. I loved the draw system and was addicted to it. And yeah pressing R1 at just the right time with the gunblade was always super satisfying.

Edited by EXTomar

As an aside, I can't figure out why people love this system where at the time and looking back through the lens of history. It seemed be too simplified and was highly abusable in trivial ways (as opposed to clever or extending) where it was much worse upon reflection. What was so satisfying about it? To put it another way, the player was rarely asked to "work" for power which is unsatisfying.

Edited by vikingdeath1

I AGREE WITH YOU SO MUCH!!

...... I love Final fantasy 8 as well :D

I abused the Shit outta that Junction system, and once I could turn enemies into cards? psshhh, game was pretty much over. Just farm a buncha cards, turn the cards into magic, junction (or transmute into other magic) that magic and then be awesome.

God damn I love that game. Thank you for speaking my thoughts more coherently

Posted by Evercaptor

No battle system will ever be worth making me run up 15 identical floors (which might as well have been 999 floors) of a desert prison just to run back down it again.
For my two cents, I'm not a fan of scaling enemies (read; punishments for playing it in the way it asks you to play it), punishments for using my fundamental abilities, like magic, and punishing me for exploring via both of the above, which is both how you describe it and how I experienced the first disc-or-so. It's the same reason I "completed" Dark Souls by ringing the first bell; I've accomplished as much as I'm inclined to as I don't see any thrill in being beaten down (Give me Super Meat Boy or VVVVVV any day of the week, however, and I'll snap it out of your fingers!)

Edited by TechHits

Well this seems as good as place as any. FFVIII is my favorite FF game. Just wanted to get that out there.

Edited by beard_of_zeus

@thatpinguino:

I have no experience with FF8, but...

Grandia II is still my favorite RPG battle system of all time; it's so good I even played through Grandia Xtreme - which is just a straight dungeon crawler, and Grandia III - which had a pretty lackluster story (but the battle system remained essentially the same through those games, luckily).

No random battles (which was pretty awesome when it came out on the Dreamcast in 2000), and the combat system is quite dynamic; a nice mix of turn-based and real-time with some strategic elements. The GB wiki actually has a pretty decent description:

"The gameplay is unique from a typical turn-based RPG. It combines elements of real-time fighting and turn-base attacks. This allows battles to be faster paced while adding another level of complexity to the fight. Grandia II employs a bar to show how long the character has to wait before making an attack, while allowing the player limited movement during the battle.

Since there is real-time and turn-based elements in the fighting it also means that there are more stats to grow on your character. For example, there are two forms of speed in the game, how fast you can attack, and physically moving to the enemy and hitting them. The time in which it takes a character friend or foe to perform their attack is called the "act".

The ability to cancel an enemy's attack can be used to great advantage, but the key is timing and being able to figure what special attack is about to be done, how long it takes, and if your character can physically make to the enemy and hit them in time.

Strategy comes into play as a player has to decide which attack to use to best time his attack hitting the enemy within that short "act" period. By doing so the enemy's attack will be canceled or delayed, allowing more characters to attack the enemy and cause greater damage.

Later in the game, as you level up your skills, the ability to instantly perform attacks adds greater emphasis on delaying attacks, as most Boss battles become more difficult."

The battle system in action!

If you check out the screenshot there, the bar at the bottom-right is the crux of the battle system. Basically, character/enemy portraits move left to right along the bar, and when you get to "COM", you input the command you want to do.

Based on the action you choose (magic and some skills generally take longer) and your character's stats, your portrait will move at a particular speed towards the "ACT" icon and then you start performing your action when the icon gets there. If you are doing something like a weapon attack, that itself takes time for your character to perform via them physically moving to the enemy (which is where positioning can come into play).

So! The trick is that if you hit an enemy with your cancel action while they are in between the "COM" and "ACT" portions, or in the middle of their action once they hit "ACT", it cancels their attack! Carefully planning out all your characters' moves to cancel half a dozen boss attacks in a row is the best feeling in the world...and becomes necessary as the game gets more difficult and they have ridiculously powerful attacks (that take a while to get to the "ACT" state).

It's really phenomenal, all-around. And luckily Grandia II has a fairly interesting story and some cool characters...so it's definitely one of my favorite RPGs still to this day.

Posted by probablytuna

I remember the good old days of spending 20 minutes in a fight with ordinary enemies just to draw magic. Those days were awesome. I love the battle system in Final Fantasy VIII!

Posted by floomp

@veektarius: Yeah the story is kind of meh, and I found it completely incomprehensible when I was little.

My opinion is the exact opposite. I think the battle system is meh but the story is fantastic. It's over the top ridiculous in all the right ways, and constantly keeps you guessing about what'll happen next. And it has some pretty interesting and well-developed characters like Squall, Rinoa and Laguna that take part in some touching moments.

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