Final Fantasy VIII: An Uneven Classic

There’s always this weirdness that comes when I’m reviewing a classic game like this. I did Final Fantasy IX, my favorite game, last year during a lull in releases and playing new games. Thanks to the release of the Pixel Remasters, there’s no danger of that for a good while (I’ve basically got Final Fantasy games lined up for the entire month). Despite being thirty year old games, those are new versions of them in several ways, as we’ll see.

But what about the Final Fantasy VIII Remaster on Switch? This is technically the way to play the game on that particular system, and that has been the focus of this blog. This is technically a new way to play it, and it also means that we can take this massive JRPG with us on the portable system, though I rarely use my Switch out of its dock.

I actually debated whether or not to pick up this game at all. I already own the Steam version of this very remaster, and I bought the game back when it was released on Playstation. This would mark the third time I’d purchased it, and there’s this argument among the community that we should stop purchasing these halfhearted release attempts from Square-Enix. The idea is that every time we buy a remaster or the like, we’re encouraging them to do the sort of half-assed job that they did. Plus it’s essentially spending money for another version of a game we already have.

I’ve already gone on at length about game preservation, and this is at least some variation on that. However, I would argue that this particular release has enough substantive updates and features that it essentially becomes the best version of this particular game. That definitely makes it worth at least the $9.99 sale price that’s often offered on the Eshop (and the current price as of this particular post).

Worth it if only to see not-Robin Williams in the sharpest quality

Final Fantasy VIII is well known for its absolutely insane plot, even by Final Fantasy standards. Back in the earlier days of the internet, the online gaming critic known as the Spoony One (or Spoony for short) gained fame and notoriety for absolutely shredding this particular game, laying into all aspects of it, and somewhat deservedly.

The game feels almost as if it’s not sure what it wants to be. It starts as this almost gritty, realistic portrayal of a military school. You play as Squall, the massively introverted protagonist, who is a gunblade wielder (yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like, and yes, it is dumb). He’s about to graduate from Balamb Garden’s SEEd program to become a full fledged mercenary for hire at the age of about 17 or so. The game’s early plot follows Squall and a gang of fellow students as they get caught up in military conflicts involving Galbadia, a military dictatorship. It’s revealed that Galbadia is using a Sorceress. Note the capital “S” there: these are notorious beings with arcane powers that can cause all kinds of problems and issues.

It’s during an assassination attempt on said sorceress that the game starts to go just completely off the rails. The attempt, carried out by Squall and his Squad, fails, and the group is taken prisoner. Turns out that the Sorceress is actually the matron of an orphanage where Squall and literally every other character that matters save love interest Rinoa were all orphans together. They conveniently forgot about it because the Gardens encourage their students to link up with magical beings known as Guardian Forces, and apparently that costs memories.

It gets crazier.

See, the Garden is partially funded by a strange creature known as the NORG. Its reasons are its own, but it really only matters for one event in the story. See, SEED was really designed to kill sorceresses but NORG wanted it to just be a mercenary group so they have to fight it out. Fortunately you’re on the side of Cid, who wants the whole sorceress killing thing. There’s a problem though; it turns out that love interest Rinoa might actually have the potential to be a sorceress which they know for… reasons. So Squall has to choose whether or not to save Rinoa at the cost of the world or something.

That’s NORG; he shows up for one event that seems major and is never mentioned again

Oh, wait, but there’s actually this sorceress from the far future called Ultimecia who wants to go back to the past to get a girl in the past who was showing Squall and the Squad visions of a further back past. See, Ultimecia wants to use time compression to make all times happen at the same time in the same place because of reasons? I think she wants to wipe all existence for… some reason.

See, she originally intended to go to Sorceress Adel, who is this massive being that doesn’t even look human any more. Adel rules over the technologically advanced civilization of Esthar… well, ruled before a rebellion that Squall and the Squad may have had a hand in helping start thanks to the time traveling ability that sent them and their awesome abilities back into the bodies of these three Galbadian soldiers who weren’t actually soldiers at the time. Adel got sealed away, but Ultimecia can still enter her body because they’re both sorceresses and shut up it’s magic and—

This plot is nuts. It’s impossibly convoluted, makes almost no sense, and makes decisions and choices that make no sense. Time has not been kind in this respect. If anything, it’s made it look more foolish, as there’s actually this theory that Squall died and that most of the craziness is his version of the afterlife or a vision or something insane. The fact that a theory that involves your main character dying makes more sense than the actual plot says a lot.

The characters honestly aren’t all that likeable either. They play into various anime tropes almost painfully hard, and most of them are just unbearable teenagers who make decisions that really don’t make any sense. These decisions wouldn’t even make sense to other teenagers, I’ll have you know. The only thing really saving Squall is that he seems almost as confused by everything that’s happening as the player is.

The gameplay is equally nuts. This was the period where Square-Enix were really experimenting with how to do abilities and stuff. So everything is tied to those Guardian Forces (GFs), including the ability to Draw Magic from monsters and sources throughout the world, then “Junction” that magic to stats to change them. This system is one of the most easily abused in any JRPG I’ve seen, where you can literally make your characters into demigods before you even leave that Garden.

It’s uneven, it’s messy, it’s nonsensical, but it’s still something of a classic. It’s still a solid JRPG from a company that was cranking out absolute hits throughout the 90’s and early 00’s.

Earlier I said that this is the best way to play it. I would preface it by stating that it’s the best way that I, personally, have played this game. I’ve gone through it on the original Playstation, pretty sure on my Playstation 2, definitely through emulation, and that Steam version. It’s probable that said Steam version had many of the same additions that the Switch one had, but I found myself enjoying and liking how the Switch version operated more.

There’s just a lot of quality of life improvements here. You can speed up or slow down the game pretty much at will. Mix that with the broken Junctioning system, and it’s pretty easy and quick to get fairly powerful. Grinding, long a touch point of these older JRPGs, is essentially unnecessary and a breeze to do if you elect to actually go there.

It looks and runs pretty darn good considering its age, though that may be part of the reason why. There was definitely something enjoyable about booting the game up, watching the 90’s anime as heck opening cutscene, and then listening to the soothing Garden music, which made me go back to those wonderful days as a teenager playing through any JRPG that I could get my hands on.

This is in many ways a game that every JRPG player should experience. It does things that no other game would even think of doing, and most of what it does just doesn’t pan out. The Junction/Draw system is broken, the storyline is nonsensical, the characters are mostly unlikeable, yet there’s still something to this game that makes it a classic. It’s not just that it’s called “Final Fantasy,” though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the branding definitely helps.

This game feels a lot like something out of its time. It’s the sequel to Final Fantasy VII, a game known for changing the landscape. The overwhelming success of FFVII meant that suddenly JRPGs had the potential to be money makers. That opened the floodgates, letting in all kinds of interesting series and games, some of which would become classics in their own right. FFVIII had to contend with that legacy, and in order to do so, they clearly tried something new.

The whole almost edgy, child soldier aesthetic really feels like it’s their attempt to keep up the general tone and theme that FFVII put into play. Yet they couldn’t quite stop themselves from being crazy and fantastical, going way out there in terms of plot and what all the game involves. It feels experimental and weird, yet still very much a classic JRPG that came from a company that excelled in making classic JRPGs.

FFVIII is a middling Final Fantasy game. I’d almost put it exactly in the middle if I were to do a comprehensive ranking of all the Final Fantasies I’ve played (which is all of them save for the online ones and XV). Yet it’s still a window into an era of games where they were trying something experimental and new, where they wanted to create something that would be remembered. The new Switch version takes that game and removes some of the sharp edges, catering to the player and making it all the easier to approach this game and see what it entails.

It’s stupid; it has strange ideas and mechanics that didn’t work; it’s definitely flawed. But it’s also worth picking up at the asking price, and is still a good game overall.

8 I mean, could I give it anything else? In all seriousness, it’s still a good game with a memorable soundtrack, fascinating and easily exploitable system, and a weird story that has to be experienced firsthand


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