In previous weeks for Back(log) to the Front, I have written about games I had never experienced before or, at the very least, games that had added content since I last played. This week will be an exception.
You see, I bought and played Final Fantasy VIII Remastered. I have purchased and finished this game a number of times and it ranks as one of my personal favorites. So I am working around my initial guidelines of these pieces, but I love the game and wanted to replay it with the perks of a remaster. Plus, these are my damn articles, so in the words of Eric Cartman: “Whatever, I do what I want”.
Meaning this week will be different in that I’m not really giving quick impressions as opposed to doing a deep dive about why I love Final Fantasy VIII. I know it’s the divisive PlayStation 1 Final Fantasy title, but hopefully you stick through what I have to say about it.
The first thing I’ll remark on is the remastering itself. The most obvious update is in regards to the updated visuals. No longer do characters look like horrid polygonal nightmares and instead appear as polished as one could hope in a PlayStation remaster. The pre-rendered backgrounds are hit or miss though. At times, the backgrounds look as blurry and low-res as they did with the original release. Other times they had some sort of work done on them to stand out a little better and usually depended on the importance of the scenery, the amount of detail in it, or maybe it was done at random.
The cutscenes received a similar fate. Most of the time everything looks smooth and crisp to go along with the somewhat awkward and stiff movements. Things in the foreground or larger pieces of the background received the most treatment, but there are moments where it’s clear they weren’t worked up from scratch. I’m sure it’s difficult to knock-out a perfect looking game considering the original tech, scope and methods behind Final Fantasy VIII, so I can’t knock the game too much since I’m not a developer myself.
Then there are the cheats. I have zero qualms about using these. I was once asked why I would use them and it’s simple: I’ve already played through the game, I just want to experience the story and world again. The 3X speed increases the frame-rate while maintaining the music and countdown timers at a normal speed. I remember this being a problem with the PC port of Final Fantasy IX, but was mostly fixed here. The speed does cause a problem with certain hitboxes such as climbing ladders or finding objects, so I had to turn it off in certain situations while thankfully not posing a problem with Limit Breaks for the most part. Certain spells or limit break sound effects would also catch up well after they were finished. More humorous than anything there.
The No Encounter mode and limited God mode features work as expected. The former treats the game like Diablos’ “Enc-None” ability eliminating all random encounters. However, there are still moments in the game where it won’t work such as the Deep Sea Research Center where you’ll still get encounters because the game forces you too. The God mode keeps health full and Limit Breaks always available making battles quick and painless especially when linked with the boosted speed. There is a limitation there as well though as one hit KO’s are still a thing. Certain enemies such as the Ruby Dragon or Tonberry were able to one-shot me, so don’t expect this perk to walk you to the end casually though it comes pretty darn close.
So with the remastered business out of the way, let me gush about Final Fantasy VIII.
This game is a trip in the best and worst ways. After the resounding success of Final Fantasy VII, it would have been easy to go back to the well and do more of the same. Instead what they did was shake things up even more (for better or for worse) and made arguably one of the ballsiest games in the franchise with a beloved card game in Triple Triad, a system that breaks the difficulty, a convoluted story that blossomed fan theories, a limit break system that engaged players and so much more.
Let’s start with the music though. I absolutely adore the soundtrack to Final Fantasy VIII. The music begins as epically as Final Fantasy VII ended with a Latin choral piece reminiscent of “One-Winged Angel” entitled “Liberi Fatali”. The theme is so dope that the melody bleeds into other songs as well. As good as that tune is, Final Fantasy VIII doesn’t rely only on that though as the calmness of “Balamb GARDEN”, the innocence of “Fragments of Memories” or the eeriness of “Lunatic Pandora” all round out an amazing soundtrack.
One major criticism to this game are the battle mechanics. More specifically the Draw and Junction systems. For those who haven’t played the game, Draw is a battle command (and sometimes in the world itself) that allows you to pull magic out of enemies. This magic can not only be used in battle but also attached to character stat slots (Junction). The more of one magic you store and link to a stat, the more potent it will be. This means stats like strength or evasion can improve with these magics connected, but also elemental or status boosts can happen too. Equipping sleep magic to your Status Attack modifier can put enemies vulnerable to that magic to sleep with normal physical attacks for instance while attaching it to your Stat Defense prevents you falling asleep. Similarly, elemental magic attached to attack or defense can create more damage depending on the affinity of the monster or heal you if enemies attack you with the element.
Long story short – more magic makes things easier. But the ease of battle doesn’t stop there. The summons called Guardian Forces (GF) have abilities that can be equipped to refine magic from items, bump up stats as well, Boost their damage during the summon animations and more. Certain magics (or being low on health) create opportunities to use the powerful character Limit Breaks which means people will purposely go into a major fight with low health to better the odds of inflicting damage. Levelling up is mostly pointless since enemies level with your team average. So overall, Final Fantasy VIII gives you all the tools to succeed in this game and some people really dislike that.
I, on the other hand, absolutely love it. The Draw system in particular hits an itch as I want to see what monsters have what magic (or GFs in some cases) and draw what I can from them. Besides that, I don’t see the problem with Final Fantasy VIII allowing you to break it. If you don’t want to do it….then don’t do it. The game essentially allows the player to dictate their playstyle and strategy using these various mechanics. It fits perfectly with the debate in the video game community that constantly comes up about “easy mode”. Final Fantasy VIII doesn’t have difficulty toggles. The player though has the ability to alter it behind the scenes and creates a game where people can willingly breeze through the game or make it Bloodborne levels of difficulty by not junctioning anything. I love it.
The story. Oh my lord the story. Where do I even begin with that convoluted and patchwork disasterpiece?
The world of Final Fantasy VIII has a number of schools called “Gardens”. The ultimate goal is to defend the world in case a sorceress goes bad and needs to be eliminated. However, they also take up special missions from outside parties that may require them to do the bidding of clients. It eventually snowballs from there as any Final Fantasy does, true foes are revealed, political clashes and more.
That’s the quick summary.
Within the story itself are mashed together pieces of plot which can turn out nonsensical or eventually written out. Take for example Squalls’ fate at the end of disc one. It spawned the “Squall is dead” theory (I’ll leave that to you for research) because of what happened and how they quickly moved past it within the first two sentences of Squall regaining consciousness and never bringing it up again. The much hated orphanage scene is an example of a scenario that feels like it was thrown in as an “a-ha!” moment to explain certain parts of the plot that is barely referenced prior and making the characters “destined” to reunite. Even something as fleeting as NORG comes and goes without much effort put behind it at all to tie heavily into the story and is more or less a zip tie to piece things together.
All that said, there are aspects of the story I love. I am a sucker for time travel and Final Fantasy VIII is ripe with it. It isn’t done spectacularly and the ending is sure to leave you stumped the first time you see it, but I respect it for trying something that is difficult to nail in the first place. There are also subtle nods in the story for things left to interpretation. Kiros knows Squall’s dad but the game never explicitly says who. Laguna stars in a movie as a knight and has a gunblade pose which mirrors Seifer’s motivation and stance. Selphie junctioned a GF as a kid on a field trip but can’t remember which GF but noting in her journal a field trip to Centra Ruins. For as much criticism one could lob at the overall plot and storytelling, there are plenty of nuances that I personally admire.
There is one moment in particular I want to bring up because it’s one of my favorites in all of video games: Galbadia Garden vs Balamb Garden. The sense of urgency, the music, the cutscenes, the grand scale of it all…it puts a smile on my face every time. Squall comes into the leadership role here in a way he hadn’t previously and doing so under the hectic nature of the scenario makes him shine that much more. No matter how I try to describe it, all I want to do is call it “epic” because that is exactly what it is. Everything that happens then leads up to the faceoff with Seifer and Edea, and the outcome there is one of the major shifts in the story. If you have no intention of playing Final Fantasy VIII, please at least watch gameplay of that clash between the Gardens. It’s well worth it.
There are so many other things I love that I’m not going to deep dive into. So let me do little bulletpoints:
- You earn money by doing your job as a SeeD. It never made sense why random monsters carry money in JRPGs and Final Fantasy VIII found an in-universe explanation for being paid.
- The last area in Ultimecia’s Castle is pretty damn cool. Having your abilities and equipment stripped from you and the option (not necessary) to get them back through battles was unexpected. This is where reliance in the battle system can bite you in the butt.
- Enemy variety is huge. Lots of different creatures often found in certain regions.
- Ragnarok is a fantastic ship in both design and name. No other method of transport comes close in Final Fantasy games.
- Summons are fantastic. Both the design of the GFs and their animations are wonderful.
- I always hated certain powerful weapons being located in different parts of the world in JRPGs. Here, you don’t buy weapons, you upgrade them after finding magazines detailing what items you need to do so. Better weapons = better Limit Breaks!
- Triple Triad is a legit great card game that is easy to understand. Except for some of the rules like “Random” that just suck. Ugh.
- As much as I like staying active during Limit Breaks, making them “automatic” is good sometimes too.
- I like the gunblade. You should be ashamed if you don’t.
- The section in space is a wonderful moment for the relationship between Rinoa and Squall. In fact, I would rank it as my next favorite part of the game after the Garden battle.
I could keep going, but for your sanity and mine, I think I’ll start wrapping up.
For the longest time I’ve ranked Final Fantasy VII above its successor. After playing through Final Fantasy VIII again…I’m not sure why outside of nostalgia. I think I like almost everything more about Final Fantasy VIII even if one could argue it fails more often. I think this is the moment after typing this all up – Final Fantasy VIII is my favorite Final Fantasy game of all time. Who knows, maybe that changes a week from now and maybe it doesn’t. Right now though as I’m nearing a platinum trophy on the PlayStation 4 (an easy one mostly!) I think I’m comfortable in saying that.