Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Disclaimer: As far as possible, this review will be about my memories from when I first played the game a few years back, and the rating will naturally reflect this.
This was the game. The game that started my journey into the world of console RPGs (or as I like to call it, Combat Adventure Games). And man, it just rocked my world. Really, there's no other way to describe it. From the very beginning, there were plenty of goosebump moments. And then I played it again. And again. And again. And I've played it a few more times since then.
What, exactly, though, is it about this game that made me enjoy it so much? Well, the decently told story, the impressive FMVs, and some of the absolutely marvellous scores are part of it, but one of the main reasons is because this game has some serious replay value you don't find in other games of the kind.
I'll come back to the story later, but it's the main gameplay that has variety here. And that variety extends into how it's possible to improve your characters by other means than mere random battles.
To first explain, the way things work here is that you can equip Guardian Forces. This allows you to also summon them, mostly for some serious damage, but the main thing they do is that they allow you to improve your stats by junctioning magic to them. A Fire spell will do nice for Strength, whereas Cura is good for HP. The trick is that instead of having spells and then MP, each character can acquire 100 of each spell. Naturally, junctioning 100 Cura to that HP stat is more effective than junctioning only 10. And the first way you learn to
And here is where the gameplay gets the variety point. Sure, lots of people complained about the Draw system. But the thing is, it's not the only way to get magic. In fact, almost all magics (except Scan and Float, neither of which you'll need 300 of) can be gained in at least two ways, usually three, and possibly up to five. So if you don't like Drawing magic, then don't do it? Just defeat an enemy and refine some item he drops. Or try to use the Card command on it (which requires a different fighting strategy) and refine the card. Or play Triple Triad.
In fact, Triple Triad deserves a section to itself, talking about why it's one of the best minigames in the FF series.
1) It's fast to start playing, and you don't need to spend several hours exclusively building a deck. 2) It's also fast to play (unlike Blitzball) . If you know what you're doing, each card fight can take less than one minute, from the moment you start talking, until the moment you're done. And there's almost no dead time in here, you're doing something most of this time (very unlike Chocobo Racing in FF VII). 2) It's got a very high reward-per-game ratio (unlike Tetra Master), almost too high, in fact. spend a couple of hours very early on amongst some players you know carry the good cards, and you'll have magics you would otherwise wait at least one disc to get. 3) It can be played pretty much anywhere, giving you an opportunity to take a break from the ordinary gameplay at any time. 4) It's usually pretty easy, but you have to pay some attention and not just play blindly. And if you want it more challenging, there are ways to ensure that, with different sets of rules, and some players having better cards. 5) If you still don't like the card game in itself, then it's actually truly optional, because -none- of the items and (indirectly) magics you can refine your cards into are exclusive. They can all be found elsewhere. That's what makes Triple Triad variety, and not something you must do for completeness. And you certainly don't need to do it to collect points that you'll then spend on another minigame that has the real reward.
Same thing goes for the stats. There are in fact five different ways of improving the main stats (HP, Str, Vit, Mag and Spr), which requires either different combat strategies, and some of them may have drawbacks, such as leveling up without certain bonus abilities junctioned.
Because, you see, the monsters here level up pretty much the same you do. Now, at first, that might seem a bit like defeating the purpouse of random battles, but for me, it was an journey where I learned how to best do things. And another thing is that the way the leveling system works, it allows for monsters more than ten times tougher than the first boss to roam about in the same forest as the weakest monsters in the entire game. And learning how to be able to defeat both kinds with the Card command is definitely something that'll keep you occupied. And when the monster is a higher level, it also carries better magic and items, so there may be reasons for you to level up after all, unless you opt for other ways to get those magics... Like I said, you've got choices in this game.
Adding to this is a bit more realistic feeling about the monsters: They don't carry money, for one thing. Instead, you earn wages which are periodically filled as you keep walking around, which are determined by several different factors (only one of them being random battles) . And the items are almost only stuff you'd expect, such as a T-Rexaurus leaving behind a Dino Bone. And there are very few recoloured monsters (about half a dozen), which is something I'd wish they keep up in later FF games.
All of this; the Triple Triad, the way of earning cash, the way you might don't want to level up; plus the fact that you can get the No Encounter ability very early in the game (if you know how) makes for a very special CAG: One that doesn't rely so heavily on repeated amounts of random battles. Sure, you have to play through it at least half a time to start getting it (it took about two and half times myself, since I didn't have any fancy internet to help me), and you need to spend some extra time early on... But do things correctly and spend those few extra hours, and you can then spend the rest of the game at exactly your own pace, instead of having to "pause" the plot regularly to do some more random battles.
And I for one enjoyed that rest of the game quite a bit as well. The hero Squall is a young mercenary (in a mercenary school) who mainly wants to be left alone... At least at first. But things are never that easy, and when some dick-tator and his sorceress starts to invade a town, it leads to a series of events that, well, at one point, it actually had me in tears. It was a cheesy part, it was a cliché, but I didn't care, because I was just so much into it by then.
Of course, it didn't exactly hurt that this game got the music it deserved. "Liberi Fatali" is probably still one of the very best scores ever made (and not "just" as a video game score, it's simply great, period.), as is the one at the second round of credits, and several others in between. And while some of the music is often flat and a bit boring, hardly any of it is actually bad, and you can't expect every score to be a winner, can you? And they even have a love-song incorporated that's supposed to be written by one of the ingame characters... Which for some reason works, despite it being really mushy. Because I was also so much into this game here as well.
Graphically, I was satisfied. Some really great FMVs, and the characters did in fact resemble people the other times as well, as well as having a more Western design (I've never really been into the anime style, especially when it comes to the eyes).
So there you have it. If you wonder what makes a console RPG earn an A from me, then this is what you need in addition to a decent story and some great scores: Variety in the main gameplay, and not having -everything- relying on repeated random battles. Sure, exploiting all the options also makes it an easy game, but unless you're relying on a FAQ from the start, then figuring out all the ways of doing things provide a different kind of challenge, which is the challenge of thinking through things and making an overall strategy. And that's a far more satisfiable challenge to get through, than the challenge of patience that other games of this kind puts you through, if you want to overpower your characters.