Final Fantasy VIII
   To call Final Fantasy VIII "highly anticipated" and the strongest tack in Sony's holiday lineup is in no way an overstatement. As members of the hallmark RPG series, each new Final Fantasy title is subjected to both heavy anticipation and intense scrutiny. The heavy anticipation has been running full steam for months. Extensive pre-release coverage and the massive marketing campaign have showcased its gorgeous full motion video cutscenes and more "Western-friendly" design, piquing even casual gamers' interest. A building buzz of the sort generally associated with major motion pictures has made the world well aware of Final Fantasy VIII's release.

   Now comes the intense scrutiny: Final Fantasy VIII is a major departure in many ways from the series' traditional style and formula. While Final Fantasy VII improved and expanded the existing console RPG formula, Final Fantasy VIII strips the forumla down to its bare bones and painfully rebuilds it into a fit new form. Many accepted genre conventions have either been done away with or drastically reworked; such a massive redesign may frighten traditional gamers, but rest assured: there's no mistaking this game as anything but a Final Fantasy.


   The most prominent innovation is the intricate Junction System. Reaching far beyond the limited scope of previous games' systems, it brings the formerly disparate functions of magical spells, summoned creatures, and physical attacks together into a single streamlined operation. Guardian Forces, or "GFs," let characters Junction magic to statistics such as HP, Strength, Vitality, and more. The power of the stat increases according to the type and number of the spell Junctioned. Increased power and strength comes from Junctioning more powerful spells to defensive and offensive ratings. Because of this, magic remains an integral part of the game from beginning to end, rather than becoming obsolete as your party attains more powerful weapons and physical attacks. Gamers can also ascribe spells to elemental and status attacks and defenses. GFs don't just boost your statistics, though; they can learn Character Commands, Character Abilities, and Party Abilities from Ability Points gained in battle. Assigned Commands ("Mug," "Darkside," "Recovery," etc.) and Abilities ("Str+40%," "Auto-Haste," etc.) affects characters battle peformance. GFs can even learn Abilities that can be selected outside of menu. Most of these abilities let you "refine" spells or items from other spells, items, or cards.

Squall's car
Check and turn the signals to the right!

   Without the Guardians, commands, abilities, magic, and junctioning are impossible. But their assistance doesn't stop there; GFs themselves can be called upon in battle. Early in the game, players will find themselves overly reliant on the Guardian Forces. GFs take time to summon, rendering the caller inactive until the summon completes. Until then, any blows dealt to the calling character are absorbed by the GF's own HP. A GF can be knocked out in battle, making it useless until again revived. Early in the game, GFs are so much more powerful than your characters that you'll let them do the dirty work. Later, however, the balance of power shifts back to your characters, keeping the battles from becoming endless summonfests. Enemies remain on your level throughout the game, evolving to learn new attacks and new spells. Victory is more dependent on careful junctioning than sheer numerical superiority.

   Magic is obtained via the new "Draw" system. Spells are Drawn from foes while in battle, or from Draw Points scattered throughout the environments. Drawn spells can be either immediately Cast (if in battle), or "Stocked." The usual Magic Point system is no more; each spell, instead, can be cast according to the number of stocked uses remaining. Judicious use is necessary, as it's possible to run out of a particular spell and find yourself unable to locate a new "source." Moreover, every time you use a spell that's Junctioned to an attribute, that attribute is weakened.

This's the way!

   Final Fantasy VIII achieves an excellent balance between attacks, magic, and GFs, requiring both thought and a sound strategy at all times. One of the larger criticisms aimed at Final Fantasy VII was that players could sail through the game by purchasing new weapons and ignoring magic. This is not the case with Final Fantasy VIII; if you don't carefully manage your magic inventory, you will die. Many people were also disappointed with the ease of Final Fantasy VII's endgame. Unless you play through the Final Fantasy VIII using a strategy guide, you'll miss most of the finer secrets, and the last dungeon and final boss will make you hurt. But each defeat only highlights a flaw in your Junctioning; you have only yourself and your miscalculations to blame.

   Final Fantasy VIII revises two other RPG standbys, weapon upgrading and acquiring money. No longer do you simply purchase stronger weapons as you proceed from town to town, weapons must now be upgraded at Junk Shops by "forging" them with extremely rare items found along the way. Even so, a carefully Junctioned party member will deal more damage than one with poor Junctioning but the best available weapon. Earning funds, while less traditional, makes more sense. Rather than picking up money dropped by gnarled, defeated enemies, Squall receives a periodic stipend from SeeD. The higher your rank, the better your pay. Rank is raised by accomplishing certain assignments with skill and speed, taking tests given by the Garden (the school Squall attended to become a SeeD), or fighting with courage and honor. Eliminating the artificial economic cycle of RPGs actually makes a lot of sense; additionally, the new system encourages gamers to hone their fighting skills and give each task their all.

Triple Triad
~Over 100 or more to see / To be a Triple Triad master is my destiny~

   Final Fantasy VIII includes more secrets and hidden features than even the most intrepid gamer will find on his or her first time through. One special feature sure to suck up dozens of hours is the intruiging card game. Well-crafted enough to be a game on its own, "Triple Triad" forces players to combine skill, luck, and a powerful deck. Cards are obtained from defeated enemies or from card game opponents. Different regions of the world even play by slightly different rules and variation. These rules can even be passed on to other regions; returning to a previous area doesn't mean an uninteresting game! Strangely addictive and tons of fun, gamers are sure to find themselves returning to the card game time and time again.

   The graphics are far and away some of the best, if not the best yet seen on the aging PlayStation hardware. Small details, such as the shifting focus of the game's "camera," or subtle, animated background elements, make exploration a joy. Gamers will want to see every breathtaking location the game has to offer. Each town and dungeon has its own unique look and feel; not a single one feels generic or derivative. The polygonal battle engine is equally impressive. Allies and enemies have painstakingly detailed texturing, and the over-the-top summons and spell effects are larger than ever. Characters move fluidly and realistically, each with custom animations for almost every action -- even clearly visible facial expressions upon victory. Perhaps the largest innovation would be the excellent FMV integration. Thanks to the realistically proportioned character models, the transition between gameplay and FMV sequences is perfectly smooth. In fact, at several points the FMV is actual integrated into the gameplay itself. To cite an example would be giving away a plot point, but be assured that there is never an abrupt and removing transition into the FMV; it fits perfectly in line with the rest of the action.

The Deling Witch Project

   If there's one area not quite on par with the rest of the game, it's the music. None of the tunes are particularly bad, but, with only a few exceptions, most are emminently forgettable. Series composer Nobuo Uematsu attempts a more orchestral, "movie-like" sound than in previous titles, and unfortunately comes up slightly short. Nevertheless, the soundtrack is still excellent; Final Fantasy games are just held to higher standards than "other" titles. The final battle theme and ending theme, in particular, are some of the series' finest moments.

   But all of these points only serve Final Fantasy VIII's strongest feature: its storyline and characters. The cast of characters is superb; while there are fewer characters than previous titles, each is exceptionally realistic and deep. Instead of relying on standard RPG stereotypes, Final Fantasy VIII strongly develops each member of its limited crew. The characters' strength comes from their humanity; players can relate with every one of them. The story itself is equally well-developed; while suitably epic, it stays true to human emotions and relationships to the very end.

   Final Fantasy VIII is an excellent addition to Square's critically acclaimed series. The prevalent changes and innovations make this game a fresh new direction for the series and an example to other genre titles. Square was not afraid to try something new, and in the end, the game is stronger for it. The series has always been one to set trends, not follow them. Now, other RPGs must run to catch up.

Review by Drew Cosner, GIA.
Final Fantasy VIII
Developer Square
Publisher Square EA
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD (4)
Platform Sony PlayStation
Release Date  02.11.99
Square releases Chocobo World for PC
Ending shots
"Destiny" poster
CD case, memory card case, calendar and jersey