I’m rather resigned to the fact that the Final Fantasy franchise has left me behind. My inner manchild is no longer the manchild demographic they’re targeting, and whatnot. And I’m fine with that: it produced enough interesting stuff in my childhood and adolescent years. I don’t really need any more.
Because, if there was a geek franchise I could probably have been called a fanboy of growing up, it was Final Fantasy. Every new installment was an Event for me, anticipated for over a year in advance. I would defend their rather silly stories as actually being really deep and showing that games could be Art. I would log countless hours onto them, etc.
Now, in my most recent gaming post, I kinda criticized the JRPG genre for hiding clunky gameplay underneath lots of story and (especially) pretty graphics. And indeed, I find that as I get older, the rather repetitive, accumulative nature of the genre becomes less and less fulfilling. Part of this is because, unlike when I was 12, I often just don’t have the time to devote 50+ hours of my life to slowly maxing out my characters in order to see the end of a mediocre fantasy story. Something more immediately gratifying – like MegaMan – is more up my alley.
So the JRPGs that stick with me have in some way to go above and beyond the standard formulae in order to keep my attention. One manner of doing this is to so streamline things to the point where the D&D gameplay becomes dynamic and exciting: Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy XII are excellent examples of this.
The other way is to go the opposite direction in making the mechanics underlying the game very complex and ‘technical’. The game expects you to tinker around with it, figure out how things work, and develop an optimal strategy. A great example of this is the severely underrated Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter.
Another example, is, curiously, Final Fantasy VIII
Now, Final Fantasy VII was a real game-changer (pardon the pun). It was one of the first video games to be made with the budget of a Hollywood movie, it elevated JRPGs from a niche genre into the mainstream, and turned the Final Fantasy series into a commercial juggernaut.
It was a lot like the Matrix, visibly affecting a lot of what came after it for better or worse. And, like the Matrix, it’s also pretty dripping in the 90s from a contemporary perspective.
Anyway, Final Fantasy developer Squaresoft had every incentive to play things conservatively for the immediate followup. But aside from similarly being a big budget, eye candy extravaganza, Final Fantasy VIII seems to pride itself on being unusual and baroque.
The result is something of a mess – arguably, FFVIII is not a coherent product. The game almost seems to punish you for wanting to play it normally, and to reward you for attempting to short circuit it. The story and setting show both a concern for worldbuilding and a complete lack of concern for the sort of cohesion that allows for things to make sense in the minds of the audience. The box attempts to sell it as a story, “based on the theme of love,” but the romance feels forced.
In spite of that, it is a fascinating game. FFVIII is one of those pop culture artifacts which are filled with interesting things to look at.
So my look at this game is going to be a bit experimental: I want to move through the game in sequence, commenting on its various elements and details along the way. I’m not entirely sure how many posts this will take (of if it’s even worth continuing; I wonder if this may just be too pedantic). But my current play through is bringing up a lot of thoughts, and I’d might as well try to jot them down.
This is the opening movie that plays when you start a new game. It’s almost humorously overwrought, doing everything it can to convince the player that what will unfold will be epic, profound and full of gravitas. It takes itself way too seriously.
But it’s also pretty impressive. Although CG has advanced quite a bit since 1999, the artistry and attention to detail is still pretty incredible, I find. And it serves as an excellent summation of FFVIII’s rather unique (for a video game) aesthetic. Not to mention that it features Liberi Fatali on the soundtrack – a famous, early example of a game making use of a full orchestra and choir. It’s a suitably over the top accompaniment to the visuals, but similarly still remains pretty effective. Composer Nobuo Uematsu was already a Final Fantasy veteran by this point, and he made good use of the wider sound pallet that 1999 tech provided him with.
Story wise, this intro serves to introduce us to the rivalry between Squall and Seifer (and the gunblade: their logic-defying weapon of choice).
Our protagonist, Squall Leonheart. On the outside he’s a pretty standard stoic anime dude who takes his duties pretty seriously. However, we also get throughout the game a running interior monologue from him where he goes on about his insecurities, complains about the situations he gets thrown into, etc. This has him pegged by a lot of people as an angsty/emo whiner. But he’s kinda grown on me over the years. This time around I actually found some of his sardonic commentary to be pretty funny – it produces an effect similar to Kyon’s monologues in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzymiya (in fact, those two characters have a lot in common, now that I think of it…which would make Rinoa into the Haruhi of FFVIII…) And, honestly, most of us would likely seem a lot more obnoxious if people could listen into what we’re thinking.
Squall’s rival, Seifer. In a way, he’s sort of a prototype of the Hayden Christensen Anakin Skywalker (Attack of the Clones was still a couple years away at this time). Arrogant, hot-headed, impulsive and a bit of a misfit, he gets tricked pretty quickly into pulling a Darth Vader and turning on his comrades. But what I like about him is that he isn’t some ominous figure with a prophecy: he’s just a kid who gets mixed up in some pretty messed up stuff, like an ISIS recruit or something.
Anyway, the actual game begins with Squall recovering from the head injury he sustained in the opening. It turns out that him and Seifer were just having a sparring match and things got a little out of hand. Practicing to Ominous Latin Chanting will do that to you. Shortly after Squall catches a brief glimpse of a Mysterious Girl passing through the room, his instructor Quistis Trepe arrives to pick him up.
Perhaps one of the more incompetent military instructors around. Most of her efforts seem to have been devoted to (unsuccessfully) attempting to make Squall into her bf. She can, however, shoot lasers from her eyes, so there’s that.
Oh yeah, I should probably explain where they are and what’s going on. Squall and Quistis are members of Garden, an international private military organization that trains teenagers (of course) to be SeeDs: elite mercenaries that countries and other interested groups can hire to do their wetwork and whatnot. Their particular home Garden is located in the island nation(?) of Balamb. It has a Jurassic Park inspired training arena with dinosaurs in it. Don’t ask about the implications all this would have for national and international law. Money can buy you a lot of things in FFVIII.
Anyway, we find out that today’s the day for Squall’s final exam. But it turns out that his head injury has prevented him from completing his prerequisite test, so the first task the player has is to wrap that up. Both of these things involve live combat, by the by. Which will require players to understand the….
Unlike in most fantasy settings, human characters are not naturally magical. There are a few exceptions – the dreaded Sorceresses – but for the most part people are pretty mundane. However, they live in a world with magical monsters called Guardian Forces (GFs) and have used them for technology that effectively functions as a sort of erzatz magic. This is the Junction system.
The player can ‘junction’ a GF to one of the characters (the game is pretty vague as to what this actually entails, but it seems to involve incorporating them into your mind). Having done so, the GFs abilities get loaned to that character. This includes the ability to gain magic spells, which are not really spells in the traditional sense, but rather consumable items to be used. The GF itself can also be called into combat if need be.
The spells also double as your equipment, because, if the GF has the right abilities, they can also be Junctioned to your character’s base stats. For instance, if the GF Ifrit knows Str-J, then the character junctioning him can also junction some of the spells he has stockpiled to his Strength stat, in order to raise it up. But the tradeoff is that you can’t deplete your stockpile of that spell in combat without also lowering that character’s Strength.
If all this sounds bizarre and obtuse, well, it kinda is. Your ability to enjoy the game rides on being able to understand the intricacies of it. But the beauty of it is that its a very hands-on approach to shaping your characters, making things a little more dynamic than just collecting experience and searching out the most powerful armor.
You can indeed gain experience levels, but the enemies will always have an experience level average to that of your party’s, so the advantage to be gained by doing so is nill. As far as I can tell, the only reason FFVIII still makes use of experience is to ensure that the combat difficulty is appropriately graded.
So, like I said, attempting to play this game normally will turn it into a war of attrition. You need to treat it like an oyster and shuck it.
Anyhow, Squall’s prerequisite test involves going to the nearby Fire Cavern to capture a GF. So him and Quistis head out on their way.
So we get introduced to FFVIII’s World Map. World Maps used to be a constant of JRPGs but seem to have fallen by the wayside. It functions as an abstraction, meant to symbolize the characters traversing long distances. Like most World Maps, FFVIII’s is pretty small and barren. The island of Balamb in particular only consists of one seaside town, the Garden, and the Fire Cavern.
You’re not supposed to think too much about it, though: the player will zig-zag a bit over it in the course of what turns out to be a day in the game’s story.
But let’s think more about it: what if FFVIII takes place on a planet which is substantially smaller than our own? The local flora and fauna would be used to the lower gravity. A visitor from earth would practically be a John Carter. But I digress
I find it odd, how, in spite of setting up a rather untraditional fantasy setting, the game immediately throws you into a generic fire dungeon. As stated, your goal is to collect this guy – which leads me to ask the question: how do they manage to repeat this test for all the students? Are there just an indefinite number of Ifrits hanging out here? Also, I wonder how many students have died in this test. It seems like just one misstep will send you sliding into lava (and here we’re assuming that convection schmonvection applies).
The test is also timed, but the faculty are nice enough to let you choose your own time limit. Students who take too long probably just suffocate anyway.
NEXT TIME(?): Triple Triad! Final Ex—
: Furthermore, you have yet to even cover my ascendance to the rank of Jorneyman, and yet you waste ink on the apprenticeship of a young man to what must be one of the most undisciplined and inefficient guilds I have yet laid eyes upon. But what else can one expect in this degenerate age?