Review by Matt S.
If Final Fantasy VIII isn’t my favourite in the whole series, it’s not far behind. This game, which looked like it was in danger of being actually lost for a while after Square Enix apparently lost the base code, weaves a masterful tale of five of the best heroes in the franchise’s history (there’s also Zell, but no one likes Zell).
Now it’s back, and the work done on it by retro touch-up specialists, DotEmu, is masterful. The improved resolution on the characters is used to great effect, and while this is obviously still an old game, it’s one with some stunning art direction and it has lost none of its confident, bold vision.
I do remember Final Fantasy VIII being broadly criticised on release, and for many years afterwards. I look at some of the discussion around it now, and the good news is that things seemed to have changed, and I see a much more positive conversation around it now that people are focusing more on its themes and storytelling than when it was new. It seems that the modern Final Fantasy series has something of a reverse halo effect going on. Many of the titles in the PlayStation series onwards are derided at launch – Final Fantasy VIII, X, XII, XIII and XV especially. And yet each time, when Square Enix pushes out a re-release on modern platforms, people are re-evaluating their initial impressions. X and XII are now lauded as classics. I fully expect VIII to be too after this release, and I can’t wait for XIII to get a re-release and for people to realise that it, too, is brilliant.
What I chalk this effect up to is expectations. Final Fantasy is a series of such long heritage and prestige that fans have certain expectations of the kind of experience “their” Final Fantasy should offer. However, while Square Enix has kept its other major JRPG property, Dragon Quest, traditional, Final Fantasy has always been approached in the spirit of experimentation and risk-taking. Sadly for the series, if there’s one thing you can always expect from video games, it’s that the community will not take change or experimentation particularly well.
So, with their initial releases, many of these newer Final Fantasies don’t fare too well. They don’t check off the list of expectations that players have going in, and so they must therefore be “bad”, as the logic train goes. But then you fast forward a fair few years and the game is re-released. The Final Fantasy fan buys into it again, and this time around discovers that, removed from the expectations that they no longer have, the narrative, characters, and everything that is actually important to Final Fantasy, becomes the focus, and the overall game comes across as far better than remembered.
The deep, rich, existentialist story of Squall, Rinoa, Selphie and the rest of the crew, once it has taken centre stage, is powerful and emotive. Squall’s initial aloofness, which is irritating for apparently being an attempt to one-up Cloud, makes sense once you know the context of the whole narrative. The nonsense idea of a gunblade (I’m sure in hindsight the developers realised that was a silly idea), stops being something to fixate on. Yes, the draw system in combat is still cumbersome in the way that it can turn a single battle into a 10-minute affair, as you dutifully suck the magic power out of the monsters before, once they’re finally tapped out, actually starting to fight them. But when you play Final Fantasy VIII now, you’re not looking to power through the game to get to the next plot highlight. When you’re more comfortable with the leisurely pace through, that draw system is an enjoyable way to get the most out of the gorgeous variety of enemies.
Final Fantasy VIII’s irritations stop being irritations, or even become positives. Final Fantasy VIII’s strengths – the characters, the narrative and that incredible soundtrack, are all brought to the fore, and when you look at that stuff, Final Fantasy VIII really is a special work. Of the three that were released on the PlayStation, where Final Fantasy VII struggled to maintain its deeper themes through the entire game, and where Final Fantasy IX actively kept trying to re-focus players on its “traditional Final Fantasy” elements, Final Fantasy VIII remained committed to a difficult, dense, and intense narrative from start to finish. One that’s willing to confuse players and ask them for a second play through in order to fully appreciate the thematic point of the game.
There’s such a rich world to Final Fantasy VIII, and the HD remaster demands that it’s explored all over again. One of the truly amazing elements of the game is in tracking down all of the summons, of which there are a lot, and once obtained each of them then offers players a spectacular cut scene whenever they unleash their powerful attacks. Even today, the creative energy visible through those attacks is impressive, and the remaster elevates them further. Similarly, there’s a great joy in hunting down all of the traditional Final Fantasy critter battles and bonus areas to explore.
Triple Triad is the other major trick up Final Fantasy VIII’s sleeve. As bonus minigames go, Triple Triad is right up there. It’s a simple capture card game, where you place cards on a 3 x 3 grid to try and overpower your opponent’s cards. Win, and you get to keep one of them, eventually powering up your deck with the most powerful cards once owned by your rivals. There are dozens upon dozens of cards to collect, all representative of favourite faces and monsters from the game, and you can spend a lot of time simply running around trying to build up a really good deck. Triple Triad is so beloved that Square Enix has since released standalone versions of it, and while it’s perhaps a little too simple to be the ideal card game in itself, in the context of Final Fantasy VIII it proved to be one hell of a distraction.
Obviously Final Fantasy VIII looks technically primitive today in comparison to the newer titles out there. However, all the elements of a truly great JRPG are in there. There’s the incredible, nuanced, and philosophically valuable narrative, the wonderful characters (aside form Zell), a vivid art direction that shines through, even if the technical blocks are basic, and a soundtrack that will never age. Final Fantasy VIII is a masterpiece, and I’m glad that it’s now properly accessible on newer consoles. Hopefully a new generation of players can now discover it.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
Please help keep DDNet running:
Become a Patreon!