RETRO REBOOT | Final Fantasy VIII - Squaresoft's Black Sheep? (Sony PlayStation)

Final Fantasy VII, for both better and worse, was one of the JRPGs (yeah, I still call them JRPGs) that bridged a gap between the mid-range gaming enthusiast and the world of role-playing games. Pokemon also played a large part in ushering them into the hands of your regular gamer, but when it came to robust stories and themes, Final Fantasy and its publisher/developer Squaresoft were the household names. VII's cultural impact was vast, but it was time to follow its success. Does Final Fantasy VIII do that? Eh, it sped up gameplay (more on that later), but is almost as nonsensical a story as its predecessor.

For as much shit I've given Final Fantasy VII over the last 25 years, I can't take away that some of the aspects of the game's social commentary is solid; a subtle environmental message and industrialized underbelly of Midgard representing the seedier side of corporate overreach's impact on the middle and lower class are still prevalent in our society today. Even Final Fantasy VI touches on ethnic cleansing and racism. Final Fantasy VIII, released for the Sony PlayStation in 1999, feels like trying to decipher a Jackson Pollock painting while someone is smearing your eyes with Vaseline. It's tough to pick a place to start, and I'll try to keep this concise, but perhaps the best place to tackle why FF8 was such a black sheep of the FInal Fantasy series for so many years begins with one phrase; DRAW/JUNCTION.

Final Fantasy VIII's Draw/Junction system manages your strength through the magic you acquire. Magic isn't LEARNED in FF8, but rather pulled from monsters, bosses, enemies, and random spots on the map. You then Junction this magic (i.e. equip it to your base stats) to enhance their properties. For instance, for every 10 Protect magics you've stocked will increase your max HP by 400. And using the magic will deplete your stats, should you do so.

This is both easy and complicated, depending on how you choose to prioritize your magic. I essentially found offensive magic in Final Fantasy VII as useful as muriatic acid mouthwash. Just fortify Squall, Zell, and Irvine's strength with the most damaging mid tier magic you can find, and you can steamroll all four discs. Selphie, Rinoa, and Quistis can just remain your support characters.

DRAWING the magic encapsulates every meme about tedious grinding role-playing games of this nature carried during the era. It's goddamn stupid and packs on runtime going through the practice of hunting down Draw locations or sitting in a regular fight longer than you need to, just PULLING magic from standard encounters. Calling this strategic gameplay is like referring to navigating the menus on your Bluray "programming". I won't even address using the Draw method of turning enemies into Cards, which can be refined for enhancing your weapons.

The story and characters, there's no abridged way to wrap this mess up; so you play as Squall, who becomes a de facto leader of a high school mercenary group called SeeD. He and his central group, Zell (a hotdog-eating punchy anime moron), Quistis (the most ineffective third wheel), Selphie (an insane girl), Rinoa (another insane girl), and Irvine (self-proclaimed ladies man, who despite being quite handsome and dresses like Van Hellsing, has the charisma of a charcoal briquette) are sent to assassinate a sorceress running for president. This sorceress used to be most of these kids' babysitter at an orphanage, but they don't remember this, because the Guardian Forces they use (the summon magic) eroded their collective memories. This sorceress, who is also the wife of Headmaster Cid at Squall's military school, is possessed by a time travelling sorceress from the future. 

Did I mention that Squall has a telepathic sister who sends the group cryptic flashbacks of Laguna, Squall and Ellone's implied father, who fell in love with a woman, Julia Heartilly? The only relevant fact from that is, she died in a car accident, and Squall and Rinoa were that close to being siblings in love with each other. And despite Final Fantasy VIII being strongly emphasized by its director at the time that romance plays a big part in the story, the final result of everything involves your murderous teenagers time travelling and beating the piss out of a sorceress in the future. Because manipulating the future...has repercussions in the past? You can't just slap the theoretical concept of time travel in your fiction and not at least explain which rules you intend to follow!! 

None of that frustrates me. the most aggravating aspect of the setting in Final Fantasy VIII is despite the technological advancements, such as space travel, your home base (Balamb Garden) being a giant mobile fortress, but that 18 years have passed since the world's last television broadcast. How much pure cocaine was snorted when the writers mapped this out? 

Writing this got me re-angried all over again. But, Final Fantasy VIII has ONE redeeming quality; Triple Triad is the best side game I've ever played in an RPG and it's a standard that withstands the test of time. It becomes a branching side-quest that includes gathering some of the rare character cards in the game by challenging people from all over the planet. The one caveat is the rule spreading feature, which can range from elemental implementation and "winner takes all" rules that can see you potentially losing cards. This game was so influential to me, that me and a buddy in high school made our own analog version of Triple triad to play during study halls.

In closing, Final Fantasy VIII is a playable game. If I can stomach all of the dumbest elements around its story, characters, and theme, I'm capable of venturing through this, just to see Squall slowly driven mad by the sheer incompetence of his allies and enemies. The music and art production were very good for its time. The plot is braindead, the Draw system is insulting, it's overly long and drones on in spots, and Triple Triad aside, I found many of the late game side activities to be on the thin side, compared to past and succeeding games. Its greatest contribution; one of my wife and I's first dates was sitting together and making total fun of this game. Conglaturation, FF8, you have been salvaged.

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