This is the PC port of Final Fantasy VIII, which found great success and popularity on PlayStation consoles both in Japan and in the United States. Like earlier releases in the Final Fantasy series, this role-playing title features well-developed characters and an epic storyline. Players follow the tale of a soldier called Squall, who must overcome both the hostilities of the enemy and his own dissuasion towards close emotional contact as he progresses with his comrades through through the ups and downs of the story. Remaining faithful to the original console experience, little was altered as the game moved to the home computer and even the interface and graphics of this PC conversion are very similar to those of the original PS version.
Square is always thought of as the trend-setter for RPGs, or at least as far as console RPGs go - after all, we've been treated to fairly little of their work, other than the previous Final Fantasy title, VII. It was something entirely different, and, though having its faults, immensely entertaining for the sometimes excessively traditional PC RPG genre. Many diehard fanatics hated it for its lack of stat keeping, non-linearity, side quests and so forth, but a larger audience, one in excess of more than a million people, simply liked the game. In my case, I would hesitate to name the single one thing that I liked about the game - though I could name a few that I hated; yet, I enjoyed it enough to play it five times over, the most times I've ever played any game. It goes without saying I was anxiously awaiting the release of the sequel (though, technically, this can't be called a sequel since it has absolutely nothing to do with FF7 - yet, it does have the next number in sequence, so we might as well call it that.) This time, Square didn't wait a year to release a PC version: it has been naught but 4 months since the Playstation release came out in September of 1999. So how does this game measure up to the current, and past, successes and failures of the industry? Let us examine that in an intoxicating amount of detail, rants and praises that follow.
First of all, allow me to warn you, the reader, about one thing. If you happen to have played the PSX version, and deeply, innately hated the game for whatever reasons you may have, it would perhaps be best if you continued no further, and sent any hate mail based on the first paragraph here. (After all, isn't that how hate mail always works? Based on the first three lines and ignoring the rest?) I believe this review might ruffle a few feathers, but I write (I could use the perpetually abused phrase "from the heart," but I can't begin to imagine the amount of jokes that'd generate in #trg, so I'll modify it somewhat) "from the mind."
Whatever the case may be, without further signal noise, let us proceed to the actual gist of the issue. Though graphics don't make the game, they represent a larger part of FF8 than of other games, so I believe that would be a good place to start. Without much hesitation, I should say FF8 sports some of the best graphics I've ever seen in a computer game - not counting FMVs. FMVs are a separate story, and I believe them to be absolutely THE best FMVs I have ever seen in a computer game, with no exception. The character animation, detail of all the surrounding elements, gizmos and thingies, all the intricate detail, up to the decals and little screws of all the mechanical units and so forth is absolutely astounding. People look incredible, too - hair animation, muscle animation, everything is unbelievable. I thought FF7 had amazing animations, especially in the well-known epic scene at the end of Disc 1 or during the Junon fight with the Weapon, but this beats it hands down. I would normally not take screenshots of FMVs, but these were too amazing to miss, so I chose to forgo my usual preference for in-game-only shots.
On a downside, and a very important one, Square doesn't seem to understand how the PC world works. We have had 3D accelerators for quite some time now, and by now a Voodoo 2 is pretty much standard. That also means that they could easily use 800x600 in the game - but you will never see that: the game always runs at 640x480. Granted, the spell effects are so unbelievably amazing that you'd think they might saturate the lower-end cards - but for one, I doubt that is the case, and two, I doubt anybody cares. What might be a more realistic reason, I fear, is that they didn't want (or understand that they should) re-render all the backgrounds for higher-resolution PC graphics, and just stretched the lame PSX backgrounds; and that seriously detracts from the visual lushness that could've been experienced. As well, FF8 doesn't make use of antialiasing, and as such, when slower-motion things happen, such as your characters walking around and the like, you may notice quite a few jagged edges. The screenshots will portray that (and amplify that), as well; though, I should say, it isn't quite as apparent during the game, especially during spellcasting.
Another area where SquareSoft is overstressing the gamers' tolerance is the interface. A PSX doesn't have a keyboard, we all know that. But I refuse to believe, no matter how convoluted and complicated the code, that in the 6 months that they spent "porting it" they couldn't at least make the user be able to (gasp!) *type in* his name using keys, rather than hunting for each letter and hitting 'Select'. Similarly, when you have a lot of spells in your inventory, it'd be pretty nice to be able to press a letter and have the cursor jump to the first spell with that letter. Also, staying true to the FF7 tradition, there's no Load menu choice, so if you want to load an earlier save game you have to quit and reload. As well, it appears SquareSoft went on an interface pruning frenzy, and removed some elements, which are absolutely redundant, and no gameplayer would ever even really need - such as, for example, a Quit menu option. I mean hey, who needs one? After all, you're supposed to play this game nonstop 24/7, why would you do such a blasphemous thing as quit? (Works for me, by the way.) Either way, you have to press Alt+F4 or Ctrl+Q to exit the game. Astounding. Though I should mention that Alt+Tab works very well, and even though Square claims that might generate visual artifacts, I've yet to see them. Rare to see a game that properly switches to Windows apps.
As we were taught in elementary school essay writing, 'text should flow from paragraph to paragraph', and this is a lame attempt at juxtaposing two paragraphs. Spellcasting in FF8 is a very mixed blessing. On the one hand, you're unlikely to find anything this beautiful in any game out on the market right now. Water effects, fire effects, ice, lightning, non-elemental - all of those were lovingly worked on by the graphics artists and are absolutely stunning to watch. However, the effect, unfortunately, does wear thin after a hundred or two castings. Some might actually start to hate it after three or four. Just to give you an idea, the animation of Shiva, the ice elemental, takes approximately 15 seconds to play out - while the animation of Eden, the most powerful Guardian Force in the game, takes a full 76 seconds. Of course, the more powerful the Guardian Force, the more likely you are to have a tolerance as to the length of the animation - but an option to shorten them may have been quite nice. Same thing for movies: you cannot skip them, which can get to be quite a drag, especially for the intro movie (though, again, it does look absolutely ILM [Industrial Light and Magic - the people who brought us all the Star Wars effects]). Though fortunately, once you discover the GF ability called 'Boost', it will entertain you endlessly, or for at least another couple of hundred castings, as you mindlessly smash the 'A' button to make your GF execute an additional 500 points of damage.
Next up on the list is the modified magic system. To fill you in, in Final Fantasy VII, you would equip what was known as Materia (the easiest parallel would be spells in traditional RPGs) which would add certain capabilities to your character. There were several types of Materia - Summon, Command, Independent, Support, Spell. Without going into too much detail, they would do things such as allow your character to heal himself, summon certain creatures, automatically retaliate when attacked without needing an extra turn, cast minor elemental spells, and so forth. In FF8, while the idea of having spells was kept, the way it was implemented was drastically changed. Now, the main item in the inventory of any character is the Guardian Force (or GF, as it is referred to in the game, and which is often cause for some rather amusing associations). There are many GFs in the game, but the main similarity in them is that they don't come to you asking for wisdom and guidance, but you have to either defeat them or Draw them from your opponents - more on Drawing later on. That can be quite a drag, since you will often not think about drawing it from an opponent, but in general, appears to be a good system.
Drawing is new to Final Fantasy, and it works thusly. When you fight an enemy, whether a boss or a regular enemy, you can draw magic (or a GF) from him, and Stock it in your character's magic inventory. You can then cast the Stocked spell using the Magic menu. The upside of this is that a character is not limited to the extremely low number of Materia slots like in FF7; on the other hand, drawing too much magic (different kinds) becomes extremely cumbersome in the sense that it's absolutely impossible to find anything in the menu anymore. On the other hand, once you junction a GF, you can attach drawn magic to certain characteristics, be that stats like Strength or Vitality, elemental attack/defense, status attack/defense and so forth. As well, as you draw more of the junctioned magic, its effect will increase. So, for example, if you junction Fire to Elemental Attack, and obtain a 25% in the statistic window, that will mean that you have a 25% chance of inflicting Fire damage on your opponent when attacking physically. As you play on, you might draw 40 more Fire magics from enemies, and that statistic will automatically rise with each new magic joined. You aren't only limited to drawing from monsters, too - often, you will run across Draw Points, which look like several intertwining pink streams, but they aren't quite as frequent, and can only be used once, while the monsters can be drawn from indefinitely.
Unfortunately, what I said above doesn't come in too useful, or at least at the beginning of the game. Why, might you ask? In the specific example that I gave above, it assumes that you execute a physical attack on your enemy, whether with a gun, a sword, a whip, a fist, or whatever else can inflict pain. In FF8, though, almost never (at least at the beginning) will you use physical attacks - simply for the reason that they don't do nearly as much damage as they should to make them worthy. Even with upgraded weapons, I don't seem to be able to do over 500 damage with the special 'trigger' move of Squall - and that, to bosses that have 16,000 HP or more. Incidentally, in FF8, whenever you do happen to attack using your sword, you can virtually double the normal amount of damage that it inflicts if you press the trigger button (E by default) just at the right time - that is, when the blade just starts to touch the opponent. Another complaint that I have about normal attacks is that limit breaks are extremely hard to achieve. I'm dead-set on always having my characters at no less than 50% health, and limit breaks just don't occur there, or occur very rarely: the main amount of limit breaks occurs when your character's HP are in the yellow, i.e. below 25%. Not cool.
The story is where SquareSoft always shines, in the best of times and in the worst of times. The story of FF7 fascinated many and kept them glued to the screen of their TVs and their PCs for hours unend, battling the forces of evil, the Shinra, the Weapons, and all that bad stuff taken together. FF8 differs little: while I haven't finished the game yet, so far, the story (while not exactly out of a Hitchcock movie, where, to put it lamely, when someone opens a door you can't be sure it'll be opened all the way - much less about what's on the other side) is quite wonderful. As many might know, the theme is based around love (the "touchy-feely stuff"), and revolves around Squall, a newcomer to the ranks of SeeD, an elite for-hire mercenary force. Before we go on, however, allow me a quick sidetrack. Why is it that SquareSoft's main characters are consistently named after weather effects? First Cloud, now Squall? And more, why does the adverse competing power always have a similar name? First Sephiroth, now Seifer? Anyway, moving on. As the story unfolds, at a first glance, you see an arrogant young man, caring little about those around him, and brushing off any emotional approaches from anyone as irrelevant and 'soft'. But as the background of his childhood is revealed throughout the game, you realize that he isn't an arrogant asshole, but rather nothing but a scared child, who lost his sister in early childhood and spent most of it searching for her, needing her guidance, protection and loyalty. For those of you into Japanimation, think of Ikari Shinji - that was the first thing I thought of. So as he moves through the world of FF8, Squall realizes more and more that he isn't alone, and he can't be alone forever, and more and more does he go deep into himself, searching, looking for his real self. His emotional problems are often revealed in quotes like "... Why doesn't someone come and tell me what to do...? Wait... someone? That means I'll be relying on others again..." and so forth. It just so happens, as well, that he can't meditate in peace, either - an evil sorceress (didn't see that one coming) is trying to take over the world (didn't see that one coming), and he is more or less the only person that can save the world (didn't see that one coming), along with his ragtag band of friends and comrades. Interestingly, parallels can be drawn between characters from FF8 and FF7 - Quistis = Tifa, Rinoa = Barrett, Irvine = Vincent, Sefie = Yuffie and Zell = Barrett. Though, fortunately, they are significantly more articulate - the translation is much better than FF7 - and you will no longer see phrases like "Shinra're the VERMIN for killing the Planet! Guess that'd make you King VERMIN! So shu'up jackass!" Of course, the dialogue isn't of the intricate depth and quality of Planescape: Torment, but recall that this isn't so much a thinking and philosophical RPG inasmuch it is an action and, to a degree, emotional one.
So, what else is in the game? (This is the stuff-I-forgot department). First of all, the Card Game. If you played Magic: The Gathering back in high school, you'll probably think this is familiar. Well, it's not, that's what I thought too. But it is the best analogy: you have monsters, and you make them fight. Sort of like gladiators, but not quite. You have monster cards, of varying levels, and each card has 4 digits on it, aligned in a north-south-east-west fashion. There's a board, on which the cards are laid, and depending on the rules of the game, there might be or might not be spaces that boost or retract from a card's digits. The idea is, that once someone puts down a card, you want to match his card with a card of a higher value on the side that touches it: so if someone puts down a card that has a 3 on top, you'd want to put a card right above it with a 4 on the bottom (or higher). There are also other things you can do, such as defeat not one but multiple cards, through Combos, Pluses and others; but those are more advanced rules, and they serve no purpose other than unnecessarily complicate this explanation. As you travel around the world, you will gain new cards, and will encounter different opponents of varying strengths - and some will teach you new rules, whether bad or good. Once you learn the new rules, you will distribute them to all other players you play with, so watch out that you don't distribute rules you hate to play with, such as Random (which no longer allows you to choose your deck of cards, but they are picked at random instead). However, should you happen to distribute an inconvenient rule, you can look for the Queen of Cards, a woman that will revoke a rule from a region for a fee.
Of course, this review wouldn't be complete without outlining where SquareSoft really dropped the ball. These have been mentioned throughout the review, but I reiterate them here, for I think they are extremely important, and as Square prepares itself (and the series) for the exciting, uncharted, and terrifyingly unknown foray into the double digits (after all, nobody's ever had 10.0 versions of anything, aside from Omnipage and Autocad - everybody else just jumped on the lame 2000 bandwagon). Why did I skip over FF9, which was just recently announced? Mainly because it wouldn't sound cool to say 'the terrifyingly unknown foray into the digit 9'. Nonetheless, nothing would rejoice me more than a proper port of FF9 - but, unfortunately, it's still being developed for the original PlayStation, so I don't think we can really hope for that: all factors noted, Square doesn't seem to be keen on re-rendering its backgrounds for PC users, even though the current hardware is absolutely capable of displaying higher-resolution graphics. In addition, if anything, they could at least code in a keyboard interface. And, perhaps, make the Save menu not look quite as PlayStation'ish - what's up with the two memory-card-looking slots? Ah, but I'm not done yet. As a few recent reviews pointed out, the music sounds much better on the PSX than it does on the PC. The fact that I believe the reviewers were playing with a SoundBlaster 16 is irrelevant; more to the point, what happened to SoundFonts? Final Fantasy VII used a 4MB SoundFont, so fishing out an extra 8MB of RAM for my SoundBlaster AWE32 was worth every minute spent disassembling the old 386 - the sound difference, in my view, was just as drastic as switching from FM synthesis to wavetable. Nothing of the sort in FF8. Apart from that, maybe a button to skip FMVs once the player saw them at least once.
There is much more to FF8 than what I was able to describe in this short little blurb. (Though, I surmise, most readers wouldn't think that this was incredibly short). From going deeper into the story, to the character evolution, to the GFs and the incredible array of abilities they can learn, to the secrets, the optional quests, and all the intricate little details that make FF8 what it is, all of that can't possibly be fit into a four-page review. I also acknowledge there are a few reviews out at the moment that bash the game in many ways, some of which I acknowledged in my review, and some of which I think are despicably close-minded and, sometimes, even moronic. Let that not be a symbol of closed-mindedness, however; I believe that everyone has a right to form his own opinion, and this outlines mine. And, on a side note, if anything, SquareSoft showed us, yet again, that it IS, in fact, possible to produce amazing-quality computer graphics which approach reality, without having ambiguosly gay characters hated by all - such as the famous Jar Jar Binx. Let this be a tribute to his demise (which, unfortunately, hasn't happened yet - perhaps in a few years, though).
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