So, on with the review! Final Fantasy VIII was released back in 1999 on the Playstation, and was ported to the PC the year after. I haven't played the PC version, even though I cough*downloaded it so this review is for the Playstation version. Oh, it also has been put up on the PSN this year, to join a couple of Square's other PS1 RPGs.
[This will possibly contain some spoilers.]
This is the main area which puts people off this game. It has got a LOT of criticism from people over the years, usually the tedious draw system and unusual junction system is what puts most people off. After FFVII, I think they wanted to try something slightly different than the Materia system, and this is quite a bit different, but with some slight similarities.
If you haven't played it this is what it is like briefly. Each character has no set class or job, so in the same way as VII, you can shape the stats and abilities as you wish. The main way in which you can influence your character's stats is the junction system. You can equip or junction GFs(summons) to your characters, which lets you junction magic to that character, based on the abilities that Guardian Force knows. It is the magic that boosts your stats, which is one thing that can be annoying (if your character doesn't have much magic available.) I don't really see why they abbreviated so many of the abilities so strangely. Maybe they had to fit them into the menu screens(which there are a lot of, some of which are quite badly organised.) The abilities, I remember a lot of people didn't understand a lot of the GF's abilities when they played it. Mag+20% raises a character's Magic stat by 20%, but then you have stuff like GFHP+20% and SumMag+10%, which raise that GF's stats, HP and Magic respectively. I dont see why they couldn't use GF or Sum for both, woulda made sense, or just lose the whole abbreviation thing. I am getting into minor annoyances I know... Some other ridiculous named abilities: Expendx2-1 and GFAbl Med-RF. Its not only the names that are odd...some of the Command Abilities like Devour, Darkside etc really aren't explained well. Its kinda hard to tell what some of them do, sure I can look on a guide, but I'd rather be able to tell from within the actual game. I don't think I equipped any of them very often. Anyway, I think that is all the negative stuff I got to say about the Junction system, there are some interesting positive points to it as well. Late on when you get a lot of decent magic you can really boost your stats really effectively. Magics like Quake are pretty good to put junctioned to attack, to do anywhere near decent damage physically. You really need to boost your attack or magic stats if you dont want to rely on spamming GFs every turn against every enemy(which I did for most of the game until I got decent magic) Then you have status magic, like Blind, Berserk etc, these can be junctioned up to St-Def (status defense) or St-Atk, which either give you some resistance from that ailment or a chance of inflicting that status with each physical attack, and the percentages are based on the amount of the magic junctioned, and also the spell equipped. Similarly, you can also put elemental spells to elem-atk and elem-defense to get either resistance from elemental attacks like Firaga, Blizzaga or Thundara or a resistance to the element equipped.
So there are a LOT of customisation options, but I kind of felt that the clunkiness and awkwardness of the junction system was the main flaw in this game, as any time I was struggling with the game, it was usually down to problems stemming from the Junctions; either I didn't have the right spells to junction up to help me, didn't have the right setup, and tweaking it led to me getting past the bit that was giving me problems or the GFs I had equipped didn't give my character the ability I needed. ie. imagine I was going up against enemies that inflict a lot of status ailments, like the Marlboros (which are apparantely one of the strongest enemies in the game.) You would need a couple St.def slots available on each of your characters to protect against Bad Breath, which inflicts all statuses. Now, not all the GFs learn the abilities that give you multiple slots. I can't quite remember if there are items to teach your GFs St.defx3 or the other ones, but this really adds to the challenge, the fact that you might not be able to junction multiple spells to defense. You can equip weapons, but no accessories or armour to help at all, that was one thing I think it coulda used, this game.
The draw system is one thing that really frustrated me in this game. Its not like the other Final Fantasy games where you either learn the spells and have unlimited supplies, based on MP or some such. Each character in FFVIII has their own stock of finite magic, which can be drawn from enemies and Draw Points in the world, or refined from items/cards(which I'll come to later). This actual drawing is done through battle mainly. Each turn your characters can choose to draw a spell from an enemy, and they receieve somewhere between 1 and 11 each time, based on their Mag stats. So to get 100 of each spell on each character, it can be very tedious. You can usually incapacitate the enemies and just keep drawing over and over to max out that spell, perhaps Haste'ing your guys to help out, but I still lost interest after a while, and could have put more time into drawing spells early on. It would have probably helped. Anyway, this is what usually annoys people about this game.
Still, it isn't the only way to get magic in the game, and it perhaps isnt the most efficient either. You can learn some quite helpful abilities from the GFs, in the form of the RF abilities, which refine either items, medicine or spells from items or cards from the Triple Triad minigame. Some of the Rarer cards refine into some really awesome products, like one of the brothers cards, which refines into 100 Dino Bones. Do that and you are pretty much set for 100 Quakes on all your characters if you refine the Dino Bones into magic. Refine cards like Laguna and you get even better results. You can get some really good spells in the game, like Auras and Heros, which is one of those ways of doing the end boss that a lot of people see as 'cheap.' I dunno, its in the game, so you might as well use it if you got it. Meltdown is pretty damn awesome as well. Anyway, I'm basically saying that there are a lot of ways of doing things in this game, a lot of things to exploit or just to make your characters strong. Which is definitely a strength of the gameplay in FFVIII.
So I would say there is a lot to do in terms of customisation and lots of interesting gameplay elements, but I feel that some of them are a bit 'hit or miss', maybe flawed in some aspects.
Gameplay ~ 7/10
Story and Characters
The story follows the characters Squall Leonhart, Zell Dincht, Quistis Trepe and Selphie Tilmitt initially, who are part of Balamb Garden, an institute for SeeDs. From what I can tell, they are essentially mercenaries...but early on, I really didn't like that the SeeDs weren't explained too well. Even by the end, I think they aren't really fleshed out very much. More back story and explanation would have been good there. An example, the SeeDs were formed initially to deal with the sorceresses, thats about as much as you get there. And Ultimecia's motives are never really explained much, even at the end she only has a few nonsensical lines.
But anyway now, the story.
Squall and the others get roped into a few missions near the start, like clearing up problems in the Dollet area. Gradually, more and more responsibility is heaped upon Squall and the others, and they head off to Timber, to help out with a resistance faction, where the party meets Rinoa Heartilly, who will become a central character before long.
The story starts off quite slowly, and really doesn't pick up speed till the later discs I think. One thing that kind of frustrated me initially (but I can see why they did it now that I've beaten the game) was the way they really didn't give an awful lot away at first. There is a lot of mystery, and things to do with the plot are left largely unexplained until later. For example, when you get on the train to Timber (I think), Squall's party fall asleep or unconscious and control is shifted to another group, Laguna and his two friends, Kiros and Ward. The strange thing is, Squall and the others are aware of their actions, and refer to it initially as the dream world. The connection between the two worlds, times, Ellone and the sorceresses is fully explained as you reach the later discs. The mystery really keeps you interested, I found, even though it was quite slow moving.
I like the way that Squall was done. At first, he is your typical brooding, quiet teenager, he sits in his room at Balamb and thinks, but he slowly opens up later on, with the help of Rinoa and the others.
By the end of it, I was quite interested to see what would happen. It starts to get quite confusing with all the talk of time magic, but the story really grew on me right up till the end, by which time I was quite impressed with it. Lots of emotion really pulled the game through, because some of the characters are quite bland and I think could have been better developed.
Story & Characters ~ 7/10
I remember playing this game back nearer the time it came out and being really impressed with it. Especially the summons and cutscenes. Man. The cutscenes in this game are really done well for the most part. Playing it now, it looks a bit dated in places, like the character polygons (or whatever they are...I just wanted to use that word =p) but I still think the graphics hold up today, which is very good considering its more than 10 years old, more than that, I think the graphics are actually better than the next game in the series, Final Fantasy IX (released in 2000.)
Graphics ~ 8/10
The music for me in this game was good, but didn't really seem to have as many really memorable tracks as some of the other games, like Terra's Theme and Darkness and Starlight(the opera theme) from Final Fantasy VI and One Winged Angel from Final Fantasy VII. Thats not to say there aren't any good tracks in the FFVIII soundtrack. The Extreme, which plays at the final stages of the game, is amazing. It kept me on edge throughout.
I really liked the music that played when you were doing the sorceress stages in the game as well, like Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec which plays when you are going to assassinate Sorceress Edea in Deling City, one of the quite dramatic bits of the game. That disc ended quite nicely I thought. Very atmospheric and intense music there.
What else noticeable? I quite liked the strange music you got when you were in control of Laguna et al in the dream world and Lunatic Pandora. It gives it this unusual otherworldly feel I thought. The latter song while not exactly amazing, gave it atmosphere and kind of fit. I think they tried a lot different in this Final Fantasy, some of it worked and some didn't exactly work so much.
These videos are two of my favourite tracks from FFVIII. There are plenty of atmospheric songs in the game.
Audio ~ 7/10
Overall, I enjoyed the game and quite like some aspects of it, like the relationship that forms between Squall and Rinoa and the way the characters grow (if only a little) throughout. The story, by the end of the game, and assuming you understand what is going on, is really quite epic. I love the idea of time compression, and moving through time and space to face Ultimecia at the grand finale, its a brilliant notion.
Overall ~ 7/10