The Final Fantasy franchise is no stranger to change. Over three decades, countless minor alterations have been made across its massive lineup of installments in hopes of capturing, and capitalizing, on a larger audience, hopefully more than each prior entry did before. There is nothing inherently wrong with innovation, seeing as you can’t expect the same “tired” formula to hit home runs every time. That is, of course, unless we’re talking seasonal sports games – or Pokemon – but I don’t want to dig myself into a hole just yet. Moving on…
Around 20 years ago, Final Fantasy VIII had the honor of following up the massively successful seventh installment, and aimed to change things up quite a bit – not as different as what transpired between the franchise’s first and second titles over 30 years ago, mind you. But like anything that is altered on a grand scale, some things will work while others will not, and Final Fantasy VIII is no exception. It aims to achieve many high points, especially with its narrative, but it consistently holds itself back from greatness. Not everything is grim – the remaster obviously looks great – but the fresh coat of paint and additional features can only do so much for a game that was pretty mediocre to begin with. Want details? Read on!
Final Fantasy VIII focuses on the endeavors of Squall, an up-and-coming soldier of the elite military force known as SeeD. SeeDs are often deployed around the world to handle everything from delicate political situations, to less trivial matters happening in their back yard. Completely devoted to the profession, Squall has no problems rising the ranks of SeeD, but like with any teamwork-oriented job, must learn to work with, and rely upon, others to get many jobs done. This often proves difficult for the young SeeD, as he constantly battles against his inner-demons that take the form of his past, on top of his already introverted personality. Sounds a lot like a…SOLDIER…from another game, right? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet, though.
It isn’t too long before Squall and his comrades discover that their path leads to unearthing dormant memories, repressed connections, and a strange dream-like state that has key characters experiencing the lives of others through their own eyes. Conceptually, all of this may sound amazing, but things only get weirder (and unfortunately worse) from here. The first half of Final Fantasy VIII has you following a pretty traditional militaristic narrative, facing SeeDs off against a large faction that may or may not have someone pulling strings from the shadows. Things kind of go ape in the second half though, not because they throw the groundwork out completely, but because it is expanded on in an unflattering way. Discoveries made over the course of the journey possess little resolution, and instead complicate things exponentially. Demonic possessions, advanced civilizations, and trips to other worlds await you beyond the heavily emphasized military schemes from the first half of the game.
Narratively speaking, Final Fantasy VIII achieves its greatest success through constantly keeping you guessing as to what is to come next, but that guessing game proves to be a double-edged sword. There are mysteries abound throughout the story, but many pieces ultimately fail to make an impact due to their ill-conceived follow-through. Many questions go unanswered for a long time – and some are never expanded on in a meaningful way. Events and situations covered up by a blanket “it doesn’t matter” statement happen frequently enough that The Rock himself would be jealous. If nothing truly matters, then what is the point in caring about these things in the first place?
One thing is for certain – Final Fantasy VIII wants you to care about the relationship (or lack thereof) between Squall and Rinoa. I’ll leave the fine details for you to discover on your own, should you fancy that, but let’s just say that it feels so forced that I was legitimately laughing at many of the more serious (and exceptionally cringe-worthy) moments. Squall, in general, is so wishy-washy with his emotions that some of his actions later on really fail to come across as believable. But our suave protagonist isn’t the only one to blame – the clearly adolescent-comprised cast are constantly doing things that will leave you scratching your head.
All of this is quite bizarre to me, because I know many people adore Final Fantasy VIII for its story. For me though, it is a clear example of the old adage, “different strokes for different folks.” As a fan of the majority of Final Fantasy games prior to the PS2 era, I wanted to believe that these characters, and the narrative in general, could be more than just the jumbled mess that I remembered from decades ago, but revisiting it has only solidified my previous conclusion. It says a lot when your favorite character (by a mile) plays a minor role for most of the game, is constantly laughed at by his peers for acting legitimately dumb in most situations, and is prone to anxiety-induced leg cramps. Much love for my man, Laguna.
Final Fantasy VIII’s combat is, at its core, similar to previous titles in the franchise ( utilizing a turn-based or ATB combat system), but it leaves behind the Materia system established by its predecessor in favor of a brand-new Junction system. This mechanic is the biggest component of character progression, as the gains provided by character equipment and level-ups are quite minor in comparison. The Junction system has you equipping franchise-iconic summons – or Guardian Forces (GF) – in order to amplify your stats, and capabilities, in combat. GFs are unique from one another in what power-ups they offer the wielder, as well as what abilities the they can perform if called upon in battle.
Each GF has a list of abilities they can learn from earning AP accrued from combat. These abilities may, for example, allow the user to “junction” a spell to their STR attribute, providing a sizeable bonus to that statistic. Understanding this mechanic is crucial to success because, as previously mentioned, standard level-ups provide little bonus to your character, and equipment is a pretty bare-bones feature in itself. Not only that, the world scales with your level, meaning if you fail to run with the Junction system, you could find yourself in pretty difficult situations in the future.
Because of the scaling world, Final Fantasy VIII discourages traditional “level-up” grinding, but there’s still one to be had with the Draw mechanic. Characters acquire magic through “drawing” powers out of enemies, stocking them for later use as a combat ability and/or to augment aforementioned stats via Junctions. Using the “draw” command in battle will present a list of draw-able powers from that specific enemy, which can be stocked or used instantly, though the latter’s potency is reduced as a result. Individual characters will draw out zero to nine copies of an ability each time Draw is used, depending on the magic stat of the character and the enemy/ability in question. Up to 100 copies of each spell can be stocked, though you are limited in the amount of unique abilities each character can carry at any given time.
Despite a lesser emphasis on level grinding, you’ll still be spending a bunch of time in combat drawing enemies, which unfortunately is as dull as it sounds. The remastered version’s speed-up feature is fantastic here, but you’ll still deal with spurts of frustration when certain characters draw very low (or no) copies of any given spell. All that in mind, I will admit that there are some thrilling moments to be had when drawing powerful abilities from rather dangerous enemies, but those cases happen too infrequently to really amount to anything in the end.
Limit breaks return to Final Fantasy VIII, but are more akin to VI’s desperation attacks rather than VII’s gauge-based system. When low on health, characters have the chance to use their Limit Break, and this can be abused simply by shuffling the active party member over and over. In other words, keeping your team’s health low can allow you to pop off repeated Limit Breaks, but there’s an obvious risk to that method since you’re in one-shot range at the same time. Regardless, limit breaks can be powerful tools that can get you out of some sticky situations.
Final Fantasy VIII provides a fairly linear journey, but does occasionally open up for freedom, exploration, and side quests The most notable feature of optional content is Triple Triad – an easy to learn, but hard to master card game that is playable throughout the entirety of the campaign. I don’t have much to say here personally, as I’m not a fan of card games whatsoever, but it is worth noting that many players adore this minigame, and for good reason. It has the potential to add dozens, if not hundreds of hours to your playtime, and there are some nifty things which can be obtained if you fully devote yourself to the feature.
Mainline Final Fantasy games have always attempted to reach technological peaks in regards to graphics, and that certainly applied to the original release of Final Fantasy VIII. Born in the age of early 3D polygonal graphics, VIII was a massive improvement over the incredibly blocky design of VII, and the remaster provides some additional polish to several assets. Characters, enemies, and weapons have had their graphical fidelity increased substantially.
Cutscenes and pre-rendered backgrounds have seen less love in that regard, but have been brought up to a passable standard for modern televisions nonetheless. These changes are nice, but are still limited to the original aspect ratio set in the original game. Could more effort have been put into the graphical polish? Absolutely, but that would also incur a heftier price tag. The fact that these updates – though minor – exist in a nice, $19.99 USD package makes it easy to digest for almost any curious passerby.
Veteran Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu returns again for the eighth installment in the series and, as usual, does not disappoint. While not my favorite soundtrack of the franchise, it undoubtedly has some excellent, fitting compositions that should appeal to broad strokes of consumers. While I wouldn’t dare to boil down to my absolute favorite pick from the bunch here, The Man with the Machine Gun is easily one of the most iconic battle themes to come from the mind of Uematsu.
Like the Steam version before it, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered features some optional bonuses, such as various battle boosts, a toggle-able random encounter mode, and the aforementioned speed-up command. These can be great for veterans and newcomers alike, though you should consider giving the game a go in its vanilla form if you’re a first timer. That said, the speed-up feature, while not required, is absolutely nice to have for those rather dull “drawing en masse” moments you will definitely have along the way.
The black sheep of the Final Fantasy franchise has finally arrived on Switch, and is the best it has ever been thanks to the inclusion of handy features and a (partial) graphic overhaul. Its budget-friendly price point allows for those intrigued by it to give it a shot at minimal risk, but I have to be honest here: Final Fantasy VIII has never been my favorite game in the series – far from it really – and I don’t feel it is the best represents the franchise as a whole.
That’s not to say Final Fantasy VIII is a BAD game, but the nonsensical story, uninteresting characters, and the oddities that are a byproduct of the new game mechanics certainly do not do this 20 year old game any favors whatsoever. Simply put – there are better choices if you’re looking for a Final Fantasy fix on Switch, but there likely isn’t an easier (or better) way to play this “classic” than to fire up this remaster. You can ignore many, if not all of these cons if you’re only in it for the card game though, as that is essentially a full-fledged experience in itself.