Review by: Jason Purdy
Published: September 21, 1999
When I first filled out my official Avault biography, introducing myself both to the staff and to the general readership at large, I included a line that I was afraid I would catch a bit of flak for. In the section outlining my likes and dislikes, bravely facing the cries of favoritism I was quite sure were headed my way, I quite brazenly admitted to being in love with SquareSoft. Much to my surprise, not once in the eleven months that that bio has been up has anyone said a single word to me about it. It seems that mine is a love that is shared by gamers the world over, born of Square’s honestly earned reputation for talent, creativity, and solid games. There are very few gaming companies out there who have managed to deliver smash hit after smash hit in quite the same way that SquareSoft has, and so it should come as no surprise to anyone that the latest installation of their classic Final Fantasy series not only lives up to all expectations, but surpasses them, handily raising the bar for all console RPG’s that will come after it.
Final Fantasy VIII is easily Square’s most ambitious project to date. It spans four CDs, several eras, and an epic storyline that rivals anything we’ve seen come out of Hollywood in years. You step into the shoes of an overly moody youngster named Squall, who is the stereotypical loner with a dark and mysterious past, and when I say that I’m not just throwing words around. One of the most impressive things about Final Fantasy VIII is how completely fleshed out all of the characters are. They each have their own detailed pasts, wrought with intrigue and mystery, and their own stakes in the events that make up the game’s drama. Squall is backed up by a scintillating supporting cast led up by Quistis Trepe, a gorgeous child prodigy who has just recently grown into her intellect, and Rinoa Heartlilly, a hopeless romantic who is the daughter of a prominent military official, the leader of an underground rebellion, and a great dancer and love interest all rolled into one. Also along for the ride is Zell, a hyperactive martial artist with a passion for limitless power and hot dogs, Selphie, an over-enthusiastic young lady who’s desire to be in the midst of the action often gets her nearly killed, and Irvine, a sharpshooting ladies man who waxes romantically about the solitary life of the sniper, but nearly always chokes under pressure. This mismatched group of adventurers is shuffled around like a deck of cards through the course of your adventure, and often you will be forced to split them into separate groups in order to pursue simultaneous goals. If this sounds like typical Final Fantasy fare, it’s because it is. It also works spectacularly well.
While discussing the many, many facets of this game that work spectacularly well, something would be terribly amiss if I neglected to mention the entirely revamped magic system that is completely unlike any of the previous titles in the series. It is incredibly flexible and allows you to customize your party and its individual members to an unparalleled degree. First of all, instead of each character having their own set of spells which they can cast at will, you are started off into the world without a drop of magic to your name. Each and every spell that you cast in Final Fantasy 8 must first be drawn out of an adversary using the “Draw” command. This ability allows you to steal spells from your opponents, and either cast them back in their faces or stockpile them for a rainy day. This adds an entirely new dimension to combat, as you will often find yourself trying to keep your enemies alive and incapacitated long enough to stock up on useful spells. Once drawn, spells can be freely exchanged among all of the members of your party, allowing you to make sure that everyone has all of the power they need at any given time. The spells themselves, however, are good for much more than simply being cast. Depending on which Guardian Forces (GF) you have equipped (More on these later…) you can junction your spells to your personal attributes. You can watch your hit points skyrocket when you junction a few Ultimas to them, or if you expect to be fighting fiery monsters, attaching a few Blizzard spells to your weapon might just give you the extra edge you need to succeed, while assigning Fire magics to your armor will allow you to absorb damage from heat based attacks. These are exactly the kinds of minute details that hardcore RPG fans love to obsess over, and as complicated as the system can get at times it is simply unrivaled in its flexibility.
If your regular arsenal of spells isn’t enough to get you out of a jam, though, you can always call on your Guardian Forces themselves to come in and strike a few blows for your cause. These GFs are similar to the summon spells in previous Final Fantasy games in that you can call them up in a pinch to have them do huge amounts of damage to the most heavily armored opponents, but they are far more than simple damage dealers. They are also your most valuable equipment, in that the GFs that you have equipped determine what abilities you will be able to make use of in combat. One GF might allow you to junction status affecting magics to your attacks, while another might give you bonuses to your strength, vitality, or agility attributes. Balancing these abilities among your team members is one of the game’s greatest challenges, and is something you’ll probably spend a great deal of time doing. Of course, if you’re not a detail-oriented kind of person you can always simply have the computer assign them for you based on whether you want to focus on power, defense, or magic.