Final Fantasy VII is one of the more unique entries in a series that prides itself on uniqueness. Following hot on the heels of the vastly successful and influential FF7, 8 continues the series tradition of evolving and experimenting with the RPG genre, with mixed results.
You take on the role of Squall Leonhart, a student at Balamb Garden. Gardens are military academies that train students to become an elite mercenary force called SEED. It’s basically Highschool, but English and math are replaced with weapons training and magic use. Within the high school hierarchy Squall fulfills the cool and brooding loner archetype. Through him you attend normal school functions like delving into fiery caverns to combat demi-gods with your instructor and later full on of a city.
The first thing that separates VII from other games in the series is its relatability. Outside of the militaristic and fantasy elements, FF8 is about a teenager going to school. He has trouble interacting with his peers, teachers and his own emotions. These are things we’ve all been through and had to deal with. The game emphasizes this aspect by giving us showing us Squall’s inner thoughts. Characters also have much more realistic designs and animations, utilizing motion capture. All these elements combine to create characters that are much closer to real people, and therefore much easier to relate to than those of the past.
Up until the release of XV, Final Fantasy VIII’s world was the closest to our own in the series. While not devoid of fantastical elements, much of the setting is relatively mundane. Characters live in cities, drive cars, go to school, and buy stuff at shopping centers. Squall even has a hobby in the form of the trading card game Triple Triad. As the game goes on, more and more fantastic elements seep in. This slow buildup of the fantasy elements helps make those elements feel much more exciting or terrifying because the world is otherwise so normal.
Another twist to the conventions of the series attempted by FF8 is it’s non-linear storytelling. Throughout the game the POV will switch over to Laguna, a Galbadian soldier. It isn’t totally clear what’s happening at first, but what we are viewing are events in the past. Through these we get to see areas before Squall and his party arrive. In the first scene with Laguna he visits Deling, the capital of Galbadia. While the goal is to go to the hotel, it isn’t clear exactly where that is. When I played I accidentally walked under the arch and into the sewers. This turned out to be pretty handy because later when the main party was stuck in the sewers, I knew what the exit looked like. Laguna and his pals are also great characters, I actually like them better than the main crew. Laguna is a lighthearted dreamer who wears his heart on his sleeve. His buddies don’t have much to say, but their outfits speak volumes. Kiros looks like a cross between Michael Jackson and Vega, and Ward is just a big ole sailor. These sections also feature the best battle music in the series.
FF8’s gameplay structure is pretty standard JRPG. Out of combat you run around on a beautifully detailed 2D backgrounds where you can interact with NPCs and open menus to mess around with your stats. Combat occurs on a separate screen with Active Time Battles, standard to the Final Fantasy series since IV. Your characters stand in formation across from their enemies. Each character has a bar, that fills up in real time, when full the character takes their turn. This system creates a hybrid between turn based and real-time combat, adding time pressure to strategic decisions. The basics of combat are like past games, a couple new wrinkles. Some examples include button pressing minigames for Squall’s gunblade attacks and limit breaks. Another is the change to the way summons (called Guardian Forces, or GF for short) work. In old games summons were just extra expensive and dramatically animated spells. Here summons are free from MP costs (because MP doesn’t exist), instead utilizing a real-time countdown before going off. While the countdown ticks the GF has an HP bar and takes hits for the character casting it. During that time enemies could potentially kill the GF, but at least the character holding won’t have taken the damage. The last wrinkle I want to mention are limit breaks, a returning mechanic. Instead of utilizing a fighting game-esque super bar, FFVIII’s limit option randomly appears when your characters have low health. The lower the total health, the more likely limit breaks are to appear. This system resembles FFVI’s variation on the system called desperate attacks, although those were extremely rare.
The most dramatic systemic change from previous games lies within the junction and draw systems. Like I mentioned above, there is no MP for casting spells or summons. Instead spells work more like items. Each character has their own inventory of spells of which they have a number of casts for each spell. For example, let’s say Quistis has 50 fire spells in her stock, then she casts fire in battle she will go down to 49. This is similar the way spells work in Dungeons and Dragons and Final Fantasy 1. To acquire spells, you must use the “Draw” command on enemies in battle. Each enemy in the game has different spells to be drawn. When you use the draw command your character will stock 1-9 copies of that spell. This can be repeated any number of times on a single enemy, but your character can only hold 100 copies of each spell. This system is kinda weird, but on its own not too bad. It’s when we add in the junction system that things get complicated.
Junctioning is the primary means of character advancement and customization in Final Fantasy 8. To start each character must junction at least 1 GF into their brain, or the only action they will be able to take in combat is attack. Each GF has a few different abilities they bestow upon their users. The first 4 active abilities each GF can bestow are draw (to gain magic), magic (to use magic), GF (to summon the GF), and item (to use items, why this requires strange magic to do is not mentioned in the game). Characters can only equip 3 extra active abilities, so already you need to make some choices. Later in the game GFs can acquire different active abilities like Card, which lets you turn enemies into trading cards. By default, characters can also equip 2 passive abilities, but most GFs do not start with any. Next up in the junction system is the most important aspect, junctioning spells to stats. Different GFs allow you to junction spells to different stats, like HP or Strength. By equipping multiple GFs, you will eventually be able to junction a spell to every stat. Different kinds of spells work better with certain stats, Cure works well with defensive stats like HP or VIT, while Fire works best with offensive stats like STR and MAG. The effectiveness of a stat junction is also effected by the number of spells, junctioning 100 Fires to STR is better than 50. This means that by having my character cast Fire in combat, I am effectively making my character weaker.
These two systems tend to be the most controversial aspects of Final Fantasy VIII. I feel that the reason for this is because they upend character progression systems of most JRPGS. Enemies scale with your level, making level grinding pointless. Weapons are the only equipment in the game, but their upgrades are rare and not very important. The only thing that matters are your spells and where they are junctioned. I can understand why people don’t like this system, equipping a fire spell directly to your strength stat feels much less concrete than equipping a new sword. It also loses the visual feedback of seeing my character with a new sword. These systems also create a weird effect on the nature of grinding. Most JRPGS, every other FF included, you power up by fighting many battles over a period of time. FF8 changes this dynamic by power most efficiently being gained by drawing spells over and over in a single fight. While the amount of grinding time may be the same, it isn’t as intuitive and divergent from the norm. This form of grinding also requires much less decisions over time. The most efficient method is to sleep a lone creature, then draw from it until your spell coffers are full. Contrast this with fighting many different enemies over time, and the different strategies necessary to combat them; it becomes easy to see why FF8’s grinding is considered boring.
Despite the downsides, I actually love these systems. For one it allows a crazy amount of character customization, and none of the options are set in stone. GFs, spells, junctions and abilities can each be set, unset, and traded between characters. This allows for many different configurations of abilities and strategies to try out. Do you want to make Squall into an auto attack powerhouse? You can assign some strength buffs, sleep effect to his basic attack, and turn that attack into the Mug ability for additional items. Why not give Zell the card ability and make combat like opening an MTG pack? It’s very open ended and deep when you really dig into it. Real talk, it’s also broken as fuck. GFs have out of combat abilities as well, mostly revolving around turning items into spells. Early on you can learn an ability to turn healing items into healing spells. Remember, healing spells are the great for junctioning to HP. Use that ability to turn Tents, an item available in the early shops, into 10 curagas, the best healing spell. Junction that to your HP, now you’ve more than than quadrupled your total HP. But here is the tricky thing, remember what I said about limit breaks? You’ve now raised your HP from 600 to over 2000, but raising max HP does not raise current HP, so you will be at 30% HP. Having a low health total triggers Limit Breaks. You can also spam the cancel button over and over to reset your action gauge and cause the limit option to appear. Limit breaks are crazy powerful and don’t require long windups or feature bloated animations like summons do. Plus, while your total HP is low, its quiet high for your level and you’re not in any real danger. In conclusion, FFVII’s got some complicated systems that may not be that fun unless you know what you’re doing.
I want to wrap up with my favorite aspect of Final Fantasy VIII, the trading card game Triple Triad. You initiate a card game against NPCs by pressing the square button, if they don’t want to play cards they will just give their normal dialogue. If they do want to play you will be taken to a 3×3 grid, creating 9 spaces for cards. Each card has 4 values, corresponding to each of its 4 sides, as well as blue and red faces that indicate which player controls it. Players take turns placing cards onto the grid. When a card is placed adjacent to an opposing card, the values of their touching sides are compared. The lower valued card will be flipped over the winner’s card face. After all 9 cards are placed the player with the most cards on their color wins. The loser must give the winner some cards from those used in the match, which ones and how many depend on the rules established beforehand. Winning matches isn’t the only way to acquire cards, enemies will occasionally drop them after defeat in combat, as well as the above-mentioned Card ability. Cards can also be modded into items with a GF ability. Very rare and powerful cards can be modded into the most powerful items in the game, for example the Laguna card can be modded into 100 “Hero” items, which makes a character temporarily invincible in combat. Triple Triad isn’t just dropped into the game just for fun, there is lore and quests associated with it as well. You’re in game terminal explains that the playing cards were originally Tarot cards used by soldiers to pass time during war. You can meet the Queen of Cards who can change regional rules, also there are regional rules! Earlier I mentioned a card based on Laguna, each character in the game has a card based on them. This may seem weird that a game played by everyone in the world would have such cards for specific individuals. This is explained by a character who paints new cards by request for individuals. This is reflected in that to acquire a character’s specific card you must play against someone close to them. For example, to get the Zell card, you must defeat his Mom. As you can see Triple Triad is easy to pick up and permeates all facets of the game: exploration, combat, and lore. It’s for these reasons I believe it has gone on to be the most memorable part of the game.
Final Fantasy VIII tried out many new things to set itself apart from other games in the series, especially its direct predecessor VII. Some of these elements worked well, especially its implementation of a card based minigame, something later games would try to replicate with less success. It’s attempts at a more mature, relatable, and romantic tones had more mixed results, later games would build upon these traits very well. Lastly its attempts to create a new paradigm of JRPG character customization mostly fell flat. While I found the junctions and draw systems interesting, they were probably too complicated for their own good. Overall, it’s that effort to try new things and be something different that makes FF8 stand out to me. FF8 stands as one of the more experimental and weird games in a series that is built on reinventing itself with each installment.