Balamb’s talking ass, part 2

Final Fantasy VIII is a pretty interesting game!

Even if you don’t like it, even if you think it’s awful and broken, you can’t honestly say it’s not interesting. Like I said in last week’s Retronauts, I really admire the creative team behind the game for using the insane success of Final Fantasy VII as a platform to try out new and untested RPG concepts rather than simply say, “Hey dudes, here’s Final Fantasy VII Part 2!” FFVIII was the most different entry in the series since Final Fantasy II (by which I mean the Japanese one on Famicom, not the mislabeled Super NES game, of course). And FFVIII’s wacky new ideas worked out a lot better than FFII’s. But both had a common origin: Taking a logical approach to explaining RPG mechanics — or, if not an expressly logical approach (because how much sense does it make that everyone stands in place until their turn comes up, really?), at least an internally consistent approach. FFVIII’s mechanics were all explained within the the game world, so even when things didn’t work the way your experience with RPGs dictated, they still worked within the context in which they were presented.

That is good game design — or at least, good game design philosophy. I do think FFVIII was bogged down by bad design trends popular at the time — overly lengthy animations, overly linear dungeons, some iffy and generally unfriendly interface design. But I’m willing to forgive a good game despite its contemporary limitations, just like I’m willing to forgive a band I like for throwing in soon-to-be-dated sounds or production values to feel “modern” so long as the underlying music is good. Heck, sometimes those dumb decisions work in their favor: Yes’s Tormato is a generally mediocre album bogged down by the ennui of the late ’70s, but the tremendously dated harmonized bass and offbeat, disco-esque drums make the album’s sole stand-out track, “On the Silent Wings of Freedom,” a uniquely energetic work within the band’s oeuvre.

FFVIII’s use of Guardian Forces — summoned beasts with extremely drawn-out animations and high power — is a bit like those melodic basslines and tense drums. Used improperly, they’re just awful. They drag the game to a halt, turning random encounters into exercises in boredom. But if you don’t take the obvious methods and instead minimize your reliance on GFs in combat, they actually serve to open up the game to a wild number of alternate approaches. Sure, you can play FFVIII like you played FFVII, but it’s probably not going to be very interesting. On the other hand, you can make use of the abilities that the GFs offer behind the scenes — the power to transform enemies into cards, the almost alchemical techniques that let you transmute items into magic or other items, the freedom to apply elemental or status characteristics to your offense and defense — to approach FFVIII in whichever way best suits you. Its Junction System offers a ridiculous amount of freedom.

Unfortunately, JRPG fans are often frozen like deer in headlights when confronted with flexibility and the opportunity to make their own decisions. The genre has long had a habit of railroading you into very specific paths and play patterns, yet FFVIII defies that tendency. As a result, it’s not a game that’s well-suited to people who have to do everything in a game, because there are items that can only be acquired by sacrificing other items, as well as alternate party-building strategies that are mutually exclusive to one another. Casting magic might cause your stats to drop by a point or two, and then you couldn’t have a perfect team! Quel horreur!

My advice: Just relax. FFVIII isn’t perfect. The lead character is a mandatory jerk — the game seems to delight in punishing you for choosing dialogue options that soften his blunt rudeness — and his love interest is about as appealing as waterlogged spongecake. Some of the dungeons are dumb, and the playtime-extending plot devices are even dumber. But it all takes place in a fascinating world whose history is carefully integrated with the play mechanics and the main party’s own stories. Combat can be as energetic or as tedious as you like. And as for completist tendencies, well… just take a roguelike mindset to the game. FFVIII gives you so many different ways to make use of your vast inventory of items and spells, so it’s really sort of missing the point to hoard it all. Chill out, take a casual stroll through the game, refine those rare Triple Triad cards, cast those spells junctioned to your HP stat. It’s all good. Or at the very least, it’s all interesting — and if you approach it with the intent of seeing just how far you can bend the game to your own will, you might just find it’s one of the most appealing and enjoyable games in the Final Fantasy series.

24 thoughts on “Balamb’s talking ass, part 2

  1. FF8 has actually gotten a lot of praise to go along with the backlash. There are many people who swear by it, longtime fans and players who came into the series during the 3d age alike.

    I admired the ambition in the game, but unfortunately I was roped into a huge grind, having spent 40-60 hours by disc 2, only to lose my progress at one point.

  2. Normally I find myself in near-complete agreement with you, Parish. But on your opening point about this game I do not: to me it was dreadfully UNinteresting. I gave up on the game after finishing the first disc and until now have never looked back. Age and your reasoned, even-handed praise though have prompted me to consider revisiting it though, which one could say is a pretty good reflection on your write-up.

  3. This almost makes me want to give it another chance.
    Never finished it the first time, as it was a rental. Right around the time I had to return it was a bit of story that I found unpalatable, so I never bothered to pick it up again.

  4. I’ve got to tell you, I played FF8 for something like eighty-five hours before I finally admitted to myself that I hated it, because I’d been so hyped for it that I didn’t want to even entertain the possibility of disappointment (I was also twelve at the time, and stubborn). In that time, I figured out how to utilize the GFs properly to add bonuses to stats, elemental/status combo effects (zombie+holy/fire) how to get AP and pulse ammo for Irvine so that I could destroy bosses with a single aura cast and minimal effort, and a few other little tricks that basically made the game much more enjoyable for not having to summon every round.

    It’s still a broken bore, and narrative is dreadful, even by nineties JRPG standards.

  5. This is exactly why I like reading your writing, Parish – the way you cut into the gameplay systems of certain games and love them for it is something few people can do. Why, even FF8 doesn’t sound so bad when you’re playing it!

  6. I wish there was an intelligently done and interesting Let’s Play of FFVIII, because it’s a game I’d like to “experience” and “understand” without having to play. Same goes for Vagrant Story. Most of the Let’s Play’s I can find for RPGs in general are either terrible or text only.

  7. To this day, this is the only FF I haven’t completed (well, except III, but I’ve never even played that one, so). I remember getting to the fourth disk, and my save got corrupted somehow and I said forget it and that was around the time it came out. I think that the reason starting again was so daunting was because it seemed like so much happened, like I had come so far and done so much. FFIX’s whimsical nature limited the it’s sense of being a serious undertaking, and X had it’s moments tied up in it’s ring-bearer quest…not until FFXII, I think, did I come close to feeling like I had gone about and done many important things.

    Also, tell me I’m not the only one who, looking back, thinks Squall could actually be quite funny at times in his dry way.

  8. It also has some of the best music of the series. Although I consider FFVIII one of my favorite games and have played it a number of times, I’ve never completed the final disc. Something about the last act leaves me bewildered. It also didn’t help that the last time I played (via PSX disc on PS2), there was a weird glitch at the end where the elevator that takes you into Esthar would continue downward indefinitely.

    TALKING TIME HELP: I’ve registered twice in the past year and each time my account hasn’t been activated. Are the forums permanently locked out to new users or something, because I’d like to become a member and contribute. Any help from admins or Parish would be appreciated.

  9. Happy to see this article. FFVIII was easily the best of the PSX FFs, far more – what’s the word – consistent than FFVII and not nearly as hackneyed as FFIX (which remains the only proper FF – aside from XI – that I haven’t finished. Oh, the shame. Not really.)

  10. I always found it funny that the Final Fantasy game most focused on romance between the two ‘lead’ characters, going so far as to have them embracing as the game’s logo, was the one with the LEAST appealing leads & romance.

    I don’t think I’ve played it since that first time, all those years ago. It really didn’t stick with me the way other games in the series did. But I do agree with you: the Junctioning system is VERY interesting, and I remember spending a great deal of my time OCD-ily messing around with Guardian Forces, magic, items and cards to see how it’d affect me.

  11. Am I the only one who didn’t find Squall unlikable? He was a jerk, but I always understood where he was coming from thanks to his internal monologues. And I did like the romance angle. I’m weird like that.

    I also remember fiding out enemies were leveling up with me and finishing the game with a Lvl 17 Squall. And a underleveled Omega Weapon is no match for a squad with 99 spells junctioned to every stat.

  12. This is exactly what I discovered when I bought the game on PSN the other day. I used to think this was the worst modern FF game back then.. but I realize that I only thought so because I tried to play it like I played FF VII. Now that all these years have past, and that I actually look at what the game has to offer with fresh eyes.. I see much depth that I couldn’t actually see back then!

    I actually feel kinda dumb for not seing this game as it is until years after it’s initial release..

  13. FF8’s mechanics and world are the best things about it. I love ’em. What I can’t stand is the actual battles and the love subplot. Even “Attack” takes way too long to animate. Playing it even far enough to get Diablos’ Encounter-None is a drag. And am I the only one whose PS1 choked 9/10 times during the space sequence?

  14. I’ve played FFVIII twice. The first time it was somewhat FFVII stye, while the second time I made a concerted effort to dive into its uniquely FFVIII-y game mechanics. It had its moments, but it was never quite *fun*.

    You know what epitomizes the game for me? That damn lighthouse where you get Bahamut. I took a long, leisurely trip through it, and got mauled by one of the mini-bosses before my party could even move. Then I took a much quicker Enc-None assisted trip, and was able to beat the mini-boss due to being 10 levels lower. Unless you’re really, really good at junctioning, the game gets harder the more you fight, because enemies almost always get stronger more quickly than you do. It’s like playing a SaGa game without the sense of balance (no, I am not being sarcastic. Most SaGa games handle this kind of thing better than FFVIII does). I hate being punished for not avoiding combat, or for exploring (i.e. the paycheck system).

    I don’t dislike FFVIII, and do appreciate what it tried to do. And I agree broadly with many of Parish’s points. [And I liked Squall quite a bit, actually. But since the “narration” is almost entirely in his head, the other characters… plenty of nothing.] I’m not one of those “Oh noes u cant have a RPG without armor!!!” people. If nothing else, these forays into mild innovation expose what whiny bitches so many JRPG players are.

  15. I have played through the PS1 FFs recently this year, and this is probably the best.

    1. Load times – bad? yes. But not nearly as terrible as those of FFIX. That game (with its slower ATB bar) was a bog.

    2. Junction system – I love it, but it does turn the characters into robots. I always picked mine based on personality and Limit Break Usefulness.

    3. Story and world? Pretty good, despite the melodrama. My main problem was how it really got unfocused towards the end of the game. But still, and while I’m not saying the script is perfect, it TECHNICALLY is the first FF game with a perfect script. Hardly any flaws or obvious Engrish.

  16. I’ve only played the game once (a couple of years ago), but I had some good fun breaking the heck out of the game.


    Learn to refine Life magic. Purchase 10 Tents, and refine 100 Curagas from them. Junction to Squall’s HP, boosting it by a factor of about four. Limit break everything, since he’s in critical HP almost by default.

    I hardly ever used the summon command, outside of that glorious Cerberus.

  17. Out of the PSX Final Fantasy games, this one was my favorite. FFVII was okay, but the plot and characters, for the most part, were dreadful. I’m not sure I ever quite figured out what was going on. Part of that may be terrible localization. It certainly didn’t help to endear the characters to me. FFIX I got tired of very, very quickly. I don’t know why I didn’t enjoy it much, but it seemed to combine the worst elements of VII and VIII (at least for me).

    Is Squall a brooding jerk? Yup. But it didn’t bother me as much as it did some. The story was at least a little more coherent than the previous entry, and while the Draw system could be tedious, junctioning stats was a lot of fun. I found myself using very little in the way of summons, and maybe that’s why the overly-lengthy summon animations never really got to me.

    Anyway, great writeup. It almost makes me want to play it again, but I’ve already gotten such a huge backlog (no thanks to this Christmas!) that I should probably keep rolling in Zelda: Spirit Tracks and Dragon Age: Origins…

  18. Yeah, it’s bothered me for quite some time how nitpicky some gamers are about this one and how difficult it is for them to understand there are many truly enjoyable aspects of it. Yeah, Squall may start off as a wanker, but he grows up some over the adventure. It’d be nice if many of the particularly loud nitpickers would do the same.

  19. I personally like that Squall is kind of an asshole. Would have been better if he was an ass for fun and was more of a lone wolf rather than an emo baby. Whatever.

    I just replayed this in September, and I still love it as much as I did back in the day. Sure, it’s not really a great game, but I’ll never ever forget the super-fun junction system.

    Also, like lonelyspacepanda, I’m still not being approved for Talking Time. I NEED to talk about Shattered Memories with people who care! (Also to tell Tomm what a fantastic job he did and I want more!)

  20. No. Final Fantasy VIII is a mess. Remember the part in the game where the characters practically turn to the player, throw their hands up in the air and say, “I ‘un know! Junctions make us forget, but let’s use them anyway! It’s like… a time warp! UUUUHHHNNNNN…” and then the player gets disgusted and decides that Gilgamesh nerdgasms aren’t enough excuse this game from throwing up all over itself after prom? Remember? Singing in space? No, the ending isn’t good, you just really like the bridge crossing theme.
    Yeah, it works funny and maybe it has some good ideas that just don’t pan out, but really it doesn’t even have the Kawazu “What the Hell is this guy thinking?” quality that makes broken SaGa and Crystal Chronicles games interesting. Nippon Ichi games have great ideas, and they’re usually broken, and they have the maturity of the fat tweens that sit around the manga section all day at Borders. You know why they’re better? It’s because they don’t try to pretend to be anything but the girls who think cat ears are a legitimate fashion statement.

  21. I’m in the “hate FFVIII” crowd, but it does have the best final boss and best ending of possibly any Final Fantasy. I might even go so far as to say best final dungeon, since if you spend the whole game using the Junction system to its fullest then choosing which commands you “win back” can be really strategic. Also, since F the owl reminded me – it also has Gilgamesh who you earn by someone KILLING ODIN. That’s like the best thing ever.

  22. I played through the game a couple of years ago and remember liking it. In fact, I don’t think there was anything about the game I particularly disliked, other than the fact that I didn’t find out about Card/Item Modding until halfway through the game.

  23. Alright, I’m gonna go dork squared here and say that Final Fantasy 8 reminds me of the latter seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Meaning convoluted story lines, less likable characters, and a downer protagonist saved by truly sublime and inspired ‘moments’.

    With Buffy, it was episodes like Hush, Restless, One More With Feeling and Conversations With Dead People (along with just great scenes or beats that only Whedon seems able to deliver). With FF8? Someone mentioned above the fight with Seifer, where Odin is summoned at the start of the battle (as he often does), and then Seifer fucking kills him (this made Seifer the single coolest character in the game by default, because everyone else sucked and DIDN’T kill Odin) And some side quest dealing with a UFO. And the assassination attempt on Edea! The assault on the other Garden! And I’m sure I could go on.

    Overall I still say I don’t like this game, but thinking back the ‘moments’ saved the overall experience for me somewhat. Doesn’t help the fact that the plot didn’t make a lick of sense sense by the end and the characters ranged from blah to completely unlikable (hi Squall). I can’t speak for the game systems though…didn’t get them back then, felt like the game did a horrible job of communicating them to me, and I don’t have the heart (or the time) to try to dig into it again. I might try that no-leveling thing I keep hearing about though.

    Anywho, back to my whole point. Overall the experience I felt was lacking. I felt FF7 had a more coherent story, and interesting likable characters (even despite the botched translation), and a villian who’s motives and general pathos were coherent (which isn’t something you get from most FFs). But the moments of FF8 at times, were really really awesome.

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