It’s been a while since I finished my series on Final Fantasy XIII, and I’ve found myself missing this sort of lengthy analysis/playthrough, so here we are. This time around, I’ll be going through Final Fantasy VIII and talking about what I do and do not like about it, with a few observations on writing, expectation, and structure. I'll be spoiling plot points constantly, so don't read on if you want to experience it for yourself!
I picked up the PC edition of the game to make it easier to get screenshots, which may have been something of a mistake. I’m not sure what exactly happened to the art and music assets for the game, but the visual quality is mostly fairly low, and the music seems to be much more basic, for whatever reason. Given that the original soundtrack can be purchased from their online store, it’s not like they don’t have a version of it bobbing about somewhere, but I guess that it was too much work to rejig how the music works in this game? Who knows.
Update! Well okay, Square clearly were reading this series and decided to go full steam ahead on making a remastered version of FFVIII. That's great, though maybe mildly inconvenient for me since I've literally only just replayed it! And now all my screenshots will look extra-dated. Oh well, everyone's here for what I've written, and not the pretty pictures, right? RIGHT?
Final Fantasy VIII was the first numbered Final Fantasy game that I owned. I’d played a bit of VII, which belonged to a friend, and had completed the spin-off Final Fantasy Adventure, but this was my first proper experience with the turn-based, expansive worlds of the main series.
Now, some of my issues with FFXIII were down to my high expectations from playing earlier entries. FFVIII, however, I pretty much experienced as a completely new style of game, with no idea of what I’d find.
That’s not entirely true, of course – my sample of VII gave a fairly good idea of the basics of the gameplay, and I’d read a review that denounced VIII as an outdated pen-and-paper relic. However, their review copy was entirely in Japanese, which the reviewer couldn’t read, so they got none of the world-building, dialogue, and storyline, beyond visual cues.
And that’s the important thing about RPGs. The experience is central to what’s going on, and all of the individual parts of the game rotate around that, or serve as pillars to hold it up, if you prefer.
FFXIII opens in the middle of the action. The first thing you do after the opening cutscene is a boss fight, and from there you’re running along roads fighting almost everything you see. FFVIII, though, takes something of a different route…
You can’t really talk about the opening of Final Fantasy VIII without touching on That Cutscene. There are a few games that I feel really nailed the opening video, and Final Fantasy VIII stands out on that front, along with Metal Gear Solid 2. With almost casual ease, it introduces the romantic subplot, the sorceress antagonist, and Squall’s rivalry with Seifer, backed by a rousing score, and featuring visuals that were ahead of most if not all other games I’d seen at the time.
There are three main features to the introduction that overlap here and there. The first one is the inevitable relationship between Squall and Rinoa, as the intro opens with a conversation that’s somewhat cryptic with no context yet. The second is the sorceress Edea, our not-exactly-main-antagonist, who appears by herself, and also with Rinoa.
Third is Squall’s training bout with Seifer. I’m not too sure what the terms of the bout were, but it’s made clear later on that Squall and Seifer took it too far, so I imagine that Seifer’s use of magic can be safely interpreted as unsporting. The two of them scar each other, marking each other as opponents for the rest of the game. It’s a decent set-up for their rivalry, though as I’ll go into much later, it doesn’t really come to a satisfying conclusion.
With this done, FFVIII transitions into the actual gameplay. Opening calmly in an infirmary, we join Squall as he wakes up after his duel. It’s a very different style to FFVII or FFXIII, which each open with prolonged action sequences. Dr Kadowaki chides Squall for getting injured in his attempts to be “cool”, along with expressing her disapproval of Seifer’s headstrong nature.
Squall’s second visitor, who he doesn’t react to, is a mysterious woman, who cryptically says “we meet again”, before leaving the plot for several hours. Thirdly, he’s visited by his instructor, Quistis Trepe, who also berates him for his escalating rivalry with Seifer. While leading him from the infirmary back to class, they have a brief exchange that neatly displays how predictably grumpy Squall is, along with his apparent lack of self-awareness.
In class itself, Quistis outlines the upcoming SeeD exam, warns Seifer not to take training too far (to which he responds by slamming his desk with his fist), and reminds Squall that he’s not actually done the pre-requisite for the exam yet. This sets up the first dungeon of the game, but first you can check out the Study Panel at your desk, something that I particularly appreciated.
Here’s your access to a load of world-building. Now, I complained plenty about FFXIII’s Datalog, which I felt listed far too much detail on plot events that weren’t properly covered in the game, and also featured info long before it came up in the story, changing the player’s perspective of events based on how much they read there.
The Study Panel, however, strikes a much better balance. Firstly, it’s integrated into the world. The Datalog in FFXIII is just a feature of the game’s menu, while this is basically an infodump for students, along with a social chat feed and a sort-of blog. A lot of what you need to know is presented through the gameplay – this is a military school, and the students make use of Guardian Forces to employ magic in the field. What the Panel provides is extra information, both to give the sense that you’re actually part of the school, but also to give some details that will become relevant later.
The point is, it’s not mandatory. While you can play FFXIII without ever using the Datalog, there are certain parts of the game that don’t quite make sense without it, and the first two chapters in particular are a bit messy in bringing you up to speed with the whole l’Cie/fal’Cie business.
Major details that come up here include the Headmaster, the Garden’s benefactor NORG, Dr Odine, the theme of sorceresses, and some expanded info on SeeD and its role in world affairs. SeeD refers both to the military organisation itself, and also to the title for promoted members. These details all come up later through the story, however, and there’s no set requirement to read up on them here.
The next part of the game offers you a tour of the Garden, in a sequence that introduces future companion Selphie, along with suggesting the existence of other, linked Gardens (info that’s also present at the Study Panel). It’s a neat little section that allows Squall to come across as a long-term student, while still showing the person playing him where everything is.
And that’s just as well, because Balamb Garden has a whole bunch of areas that you can visit, and it can be a little overwhelming for new players visiting a Final Fantasy world for the first time. You can also get your first cards for the minigame Triple Triad, something that I ended up playing often when I was tired of fighting monsters. It’s a simple but effective card game, so much so in fact that it made it into the online cousin Final Fantasy XIV years later, allowing you to play against other people around the world.
But yes, back to the 90s, we get the freedom to look around the school, and then it’s time to visit Quistis at the front gate, to get ready for your trip to the Fire Cavern. Along with the Study Panel, this sequence introduces the concept of Guardian Forces, and gives you a tutorial on how to use them. Most of this went above my head the first time I played this, but it’s a relatively simple system. You equip GFs on a specific character, which then allow you to increase your character’s powers through the use of magic. Let’s not get into that too much yet, though.
It’s also important to note that the Study Panel makes the first mention of “rumoured” memory loss resulting from the use of Guardian Forces. This is a video game, so you can bet that’ll be relevant later. I’m ready to complain about it now, but I’ll be patient and get to that when it’s time.
However, I think that’s a good place to stop, before we get started on a long series of subjects. Next time I’ll be looking at the game’s combat and early structure as we head out into the world map for the first time.