Love is a battlefield.
A lot of gamers will be looking closely at Final Fantasy 8 this fall -- after all, it's the next episode in the never ending Final Fantasy series and the follow-up to one of the best selling Playstation games ever. And while the hyped-up Final Fantasy 7 wasn't perfect, it does have the distinction of bringing RPGs into the mainstream. Most people will be jumping to 8 simply out of their love for 7. But will it be worth it? I'd have to say yes.
Squall Leonhart is a student at the elite military school, Garden. At Garden, students are trained to become SeeDs, mercenary soldiers of the highest caliber. SeeDs are hired and sent out to extinguish problems throughout the world.
Across the ocean lies the country Galbadia -- a nation ruled by an evil dictator with dreams of world conquest (has there ever been a GOOD dictator?). To subjugate the planet, Galbadia has enlisted the aid of Edea, a mysterious sorceress. Sorceresses have been the subject of legends, and were long thought to have been gone from the earth.
The theme of the game is love -- just look at the couple (Squall and Rinoa, the heroine) hugging behind the FF8 logo. Awww, isn't that cuuute? Sarcasm aside, the storyline is actually the brightest part of the game. There are some slow parts in the middle, but just when you almost start to lose interest, things pick up again. Frankly, you don't even have to play the game to know that love will win out in some way...very 'Hollywood.' But it is the way in which they tell the story that sets it apart from being just some teen-angst drama. Even for a cynic like me, there were moments that made me put down my controller and think. Now that is a game with power.
For those of you who are less concerned with the plot, let's get straight to the combat. The battle system is set up by junctioning "Guardian Forces" to your characters. These Guardian Forces, or GF's, are creatures that srengthen your character for battle. After being junctioned, your character will inherit the GF's abilities and magic junction powers. Bye-bye materia, hello new complicated system..
Initially, the only ability your character will have is "attack". After you junction to a GF, your character will be able to fill up 3 active abilities, as well as inactive abilities. Having only 3 slots gives a good "check and balance" feature to setting up your character. Most GF's will immediately offer you the following active abilities: magic, item, GF (a.k.a. to summon the GF), and draw. More abilties open up as your GF's level increases. Inactive abilities are also earned and include such things as "HP increase by 80%" or "automatic haste."
Magic is done with a "draw" method rather than the familiar magic points meter. When you "draw" against an enemy, you take one of your enemy's spells. These spells can then be cast using the magic ability or they can be "junctioned" to certain character statistics.
Confused? Let's say you've drawn 31 cures and your GF has the ability to junction magic to HP. By junctioning your cures to the HP, your HP can be raised. Different GF's have different magic junctions: some can junction spells to your vitality, others to your Elemental defense. It allows you to customize and greatly strengthen your character.
The downside of the draw system is that in order to really "strengthen" your character, you need to draw all of the important spells to the max (100). That can get… well, boring. There aren't any armor upgrades, and weapon upgrades are a minor aspect in the game. So it's all about junctioning magic. I think even the most battle hardened of RPGers will get tired of drawing spells from some weakling enemy that's barely fighting back. The last area in the game is really nothing more than an easy chance to max out all your spells. It would have been better if spells were harder to accumulate and enemies didn't have unlimited spells to draw.
Much like FF7, the graphics push the envelope of the Playstation hardware, but at the same time illustrate the limitations of the system. What really makes the graphics impressive is how the character designs stay consistent throughout. From battle to video to just walking around, there's none of that wacky, super-anime deformity of FF7. This consistency helps to keep the story flowing smoothly. Unfortunately, sometimes the backgrounds of the battles have a pixelated look.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Square game without overblown, glorified videos. The transition from gameplay to video is truly impressive and seamless.
Musically, there are only a few tracks that really stand out. The other songs have a looped, empty feel. Th best musical piece in the game is "Eyes on Me", sung by Hong Kong popstar Faye Wong. It's a cliched, but beautiful love song. A clever trick in the game is how they work the melody of the song into key moments, so that when you get to the lyrical version, the song carries a lot more meaning. Faye Wong is one hell of a singer, and if you ever get the chance, try finding some of her other work.
Now for the complaining... Why aren't there any voices? If you really want to read, go buy a book. A voice carries so much feeling and character. There is something sorely missing when I can't hear Rinoa talk. So what if it would've taken 8 disks and cost more? It would have upped the immersion level dramtically. I really hope that this is the last "silent" Final Fantasy.
Final Fantasy 8 is a great game, but not a perfect one. The battles and junction system have their flaws. At times you'll be too powerful; at other times, you'll just be drawing spells to gain strength. But the long ending that waits in store will make up for most of the negatives. Overall, it plays and feels like a fleshed out Final Fantasy 7. While one can find similarities between the two in characters and ideas, you can really see how things really come together in number 8.