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Boy, You're Gonna Carry That Weight
Throughout history the advent of change has always been initially opposed, only to be accepted years and years later. This lesson teaches us that just because something is different—just because it goes against the conventional norms—does not automatically make it ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. Many use that argument in defense of the subject of this review; and throughout the course of this review I will attempt to analyze whether or not this notion is sound.
It is safe to say that no other game polarizes the RPG community—whether strictly Final Fantasy or otherwise—like Final Fantasy VIII has. There are formally two schools of thought when it comes to this subject: one that subscribes strictly to the ‘old-school’ style of the first six games in the series, and vehemently opposes the more modernized ideals of the ‘new-school’; and both schools often get into heated debates and discussions over this title. This is definitely the most controversial Final Fantasy title to date; though I will interject here that the changes present in this game are not of the caliber of those discussed in the first paragraph.
I’m going to start with the biggest and most controversial change of all: the battle system. As with all titles in the series, Final Fantasy VIII features a wholly new system, dubbed the Junction/Draw System; which is one of the worst ideas ever implemented—not just in a Final Fantasy title, not just in an RPG—but in the history of videogames. The premise of this insidious system sees the end of conventional MP, as the player instead ‘draws’ spells from enemies in battle or designated places on the map. The player then takes these stocked spells and ‘junctions’ them to particular stats, thus boosting them. Sounds easy enough, right? NO! This basically renders the actual USE of these spells obsolete, because every use of a particular spell would consequently LOWER the stat it was junctioned to. If you WERE to use a spell to the extent that the characters’ stats really began to suffer, the option of re-stocking the spell is slim because the monsters you’re fighting at the present time may not carry it at all, or the field draw point may be out of your way (who wants to travel half-way around the world JUST to re-stock 6 issues of a spell?). The notion is so plain and true that it bears repetition: this is the WORST battle system in the entire series.
Compounding this already ugly debacle is the fact that the menu system is the worse in the series since the NES installments. Granted, there is unlimited item space; but when you look through the menus, say, forty hours into the game and realize an option or ability that you had since the tenth hour (and would have helped you out greatly at the time, at that), then you know something is amiss. It is hard enough that you have to keep track of who has what junctioned where; and the hassle involved with switching junctions among characters and allowing the computer to auto-junction is not worth the mess that you must clean up afterwards ANYWAY! Yes, Final Fantasy VII’s Materia menus were not perfect, but that was just time consuming: this game’s interface almost makes you want to forget about drawing and junctioning magic altogether, and just focus on the Guardian Forces (which, when playing the game, you will be depending on religiously anyway).
As horrible as the battle system and interaction are, the game is not unplayable; it is comparably above some of the more tortuously designed games out there—just that most of those games were released on far inferior technologies, and thus cannot be faulted TOO much for it. This is almost unforgivable, though it does add a tainted hint of originality. As a thought for those who view this as what makes the game so ‘great’; changes, especially radical ones, are not readily express vehicles to greatness.
In an effort to salvage what respectability this game could have left, I will say that the graphics are nice, even comparable to some of the later games on the system (especially the FMV’s). I’m not going to get into all of that technical stuff such as anti-aliasing and jaggies because quite frankly, I don’t care—and if they are in the game, they didn’t detract anything from the experience for me. Also the soundtrack is…decent; in the words of a Led Zeppelin song, there are ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ where the soundtrack really shines (Liberi Fatali, The Castle, Fisherman’s Horizon, Balamb Garden, Eyes On Me PIANO VERSION!) and those that are absolutely abysmal (the world map theme Blue Fields, the song that plays in Timber).
If you’re looking to find any more unadulterated kind praises for Final Fantasy VIII past the preceding paragraph, then your search is a fruitless one. Because now it is time for me to write on the most important aspect of an RPG: the story, plot, and characters. Of course, this game delivers fully on none of these. Beginning with the characters: *Surprise!* Squall is actually one of the most logically well-developed characters in the series! Laguna also receives a fair bit of development as a character. Although the game decides to present Rinoa as a focal character and she receives ample screen time, this does not equate with fair development. The rest of the characters do even bare mentioning, as they receive no development after the second disc (no lie—I FORGOT that Quistis and Selphie were party members, because I never, ever used them in battle). As a matter of fact that is where the whole came falls apart anyway, because the first two discs actually weave together an almost cohesive and mildly interesting plot. However in disc three, one of the most ill-conceived plot devices EVER magically links all of the focal characters together, and whole-handedly (not single-handedly—there was a process in the making) destroys whatever integrity Final Fantasy VIII, as far as plot is concerned, had. Finally as for the story itself, nothing much can be said because nothing much is learned until the END, when the mysterious ‘kulprit’ is revealed, along with one of the most ridiculous motives even for an RPG villain. This truly is the biggest disappointment, even moreso than the battle system; Final Fantasy games are heavily revered for their storylines.
I am sure some may read this review and shudder, muttering “must every reviewer analyze Final Fantasy VIII in the context of the other games—it’s a different game, they just don’t understand.” This sounds like a potent stance but there is one fatal flaw. Since this game carries the distinction of being a Final Fantasy title, certain standards are expected. Whether this is fair is not the point; the point remains that this precedent is unavoidable. Now those who subscribe to the aforementioned argument may scoff in rebuttal, “you people are just against change.” To the which I would point them to Final Fantasy VI, VII, and X, each of which represented major evolutionary strides for the series and consistently enjoy high public standing. No, the things that we as fans of Final Fantasy games EXPECT are dramatic, involved storylines; likeable and endearing characters; enjoyable battle systems; sweeping musical scores; and gorgeous graphics, to name a few. If the game delivers in most or all of these areas, it does not really matter how ‘different’ it is, or what deviations from the norm it implements—yet the fact remains that Final Fantasy VIII delivers fully on almost none of these fronts.
It is both ironic and interesting how reviews for more flawed games may end up drastically longer than for those with fewer, as is the plight I am in with this review. In this case however, the flaws are so plentiful that they warranted appropriate wordage. It may not be fair to compare the earlier games with the more recent ones—in an effort, some may argue, to impose their nature upon them—because the times and standards have changed. There are some things that can be done now that can be done now that could not be done, and were not even thought of, in the heyday of the, say, NES games. Final Fantasy VIII is not the worst game of all time, and does not wholly fail as an RPG; it is heavily bogged down by its reputable name. To this end however, Final Fantasy VIII must be labeled as one of the most disappointing entries in the series, because first and foremost it fails unto itself.
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