In 1999, Square was in the middle of having its most prolific and celebrated run of mainstream RPGs to date. Final Fantasy VII changed the landscape for everything that would come after. Final Fantasy Tactics was a strategy spin-off that brought a new audience into Square’s realm. Xenogears allowed a reincarnated messiah couple to kill God. To start the new millennium, Square followed the impossible-to-follow Chrono Trigger with Chrono Cross — which is a total classic in its own right. Final Fantasy IX is widely regarded (by me) as the finest of the PlayStation bunch, with the franchise’s debut on PlayStation 2 also breaking barriers for the series. Square’s late 90s-early 00s run is unfathomable.
Final Fantasy VIII is, cliched as it has become, the odd middle child. It had been years since I played VIII, but after spending hours this weekend with it, I can tell you confidently that Final Fantasy VIII Remastered is not only the definitive version of the JRPG. It has me reevaluating which Final Fantasy is truly the best ever.
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For the completely uninitiated, Final Fantasy VIII expands on VII‘s attempts at creating a realistic pre-rendered, lived-in sci-fi world. You play as Squall, a student at Balamb Garden, a military academy of sorts for teens. Squall is training to be a SeeD: the most elite squad of students who travel the world to help militaries and civilians alike. Like most teens, Squall has some major feelings. We see a lot of his inner thoughts over the game’s 60-100 hour play time, which is a bit of a departure from the unreliable narrative aspects of VII. Though there are definitely wild threads in Squall’s story, as well.
Squall’s fellow students, both at Balamb and other Gardens, slowly join him as they uncover secrets from the world’s past, present, and ultimate future. To go into much more detail would be spoiler territory, for sure, but suffice it to say Final Fantasy VIII‘s plot is complex. Squall’s relationships with the other five playable characters are complex. Squall’s relationship to his own past is complex. There’s a lot to unravel and, even knowing the beats this time around, I was impressed with the pace at which the game drips information on the player.
This is teen melodrama at its finest, with characters that show you exactly who they are in five minutes but never stop surprising you with their unique perspectives on the wild events you’ll experience.
You’ll meet characters outside your party that you’ll remember forever. Squall’s rival Seifer is a lost, miserable bully, but his two cronies, Fujin and Raijin, are unforgettably strange. The random townspeople you meet have a ton of personality, too. And being able to see their dwellings and daily lives was super rewarding to experience all over again.
Globetrotting VIII’s planet is breathtaking at times. The pre-rendered backgrounds are awe-inspiring… even if they’re much fuzzier than I remember. Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack is uneven by his lofty standards, but some of his strongest work ever is found in Final Fantasy VIII. “Blue Fields,” the game’s overworld song, is a layered, majestic piece of music. I spent more time in Timber alone because of “Timber Owls.” The character models are more detailed and proportional than any other 32-bit Final Fantasy game and are remarkably expressive in movement and purpose for a 20-year-old game.
Your team will fight random encounters with the Active Time Battle system, which is turn-based on a timer. You’ll be rewarded with quick menu-ing, but it’s a far cry from the action-based systems of more recent Final Fantasy entries. Squall can use the a trigger press to shoot his gunblade upon attacking, which means you’re generally more engaged with each battle. Likewise, Zell’s Limit Break (i.e. a powered-up attack for when your health is low, or sometimes because of random triggers), involves fighting game-like button combinations.
The overall mechanics of VIII won’t be that unfamiliar to fans of JRPGs, but if complexity is the backbone of its narrative. It’s also deeply embedded in its familiar systems.
What’s Your Function?
Leveling your characters in JRPGs is traditionally a straightforward affair. You fight enemies; those enemies give you experience points; when you hit a certain threshold, your characters level up. You might notice, however, that Final Fantasy VIII barely rewards traditional leveling. Instead, the game relies on the Junction system to give you characters major stat boosts and abilities.
This is where many players bounced off in 1999. It’s where I suspect some newcomers might, as well. The heart of the Junction system is your character’s relationship with Guardian Forces. Guardian Forces (GFs) are similar to summons in other Final Fantasy games, but your bond with GFs are a vital part of how your characters get stronger.
Assigning a GF to a character isn’t permanent, but you’ll want to closely manage how your GFs level (you can have them learn things in a specific order) and how they impact each of your character’s stats. Your characters are imbued with the power to cast spells, use a Guardian Force attack, collect magic, and use items only through your GFs. Without a GF, your characters will only be able to attack with their equipped weapon.
With me so far? Okay, so let’s bring magic into the equation. In other Final Fantasy games, you might be able to use magic by assigning it to character, or through developing the ability with a weapon… or by simply learning it at a certain level. In VIII, you need to draw magic from different sources in order to stock spells — as if they were items. Using the Draw mechanic either at Draw Points in the world or from enemies themselves, you can load up with spells and assign them to your stats via the Junction system.
Here — and mainly here — is where the game allows you to get super powerful. I thought this was a tedious system in 1999, but it truly is one of the most interesting features you’ll find in any JRPG. The tedium is in Drawing itself and menu management more than anything else. Of course, a remastered Final Fantasy game is nothing without its boosts.
Boosting, Not Just for GFs Anymore
As with other Final Fantasy remasters, Final Fantasy VIII comes with optional boosts that fundamentally change the gameplay. On PlayStation, Switch, and Xbox One, you have three at your disposal.
The first is “No Encounters,” which, as you might guess, turns off random encounters wherever they exist. You still have to fight mandatory or scripted battles, so this boost is best for when you need a break from battle, are trying to do something very specific on the world map and don’t want to be interrupted, or when you feel like you’ve leveled enough and want to get through the story. I didn’t use this boost much.
The second is the “3x Speed” boost — or the Reviewer’s Boost, as I call it. This, predictably, speeds the gameplay up quite a bit. That’s great for powering through battles you don’t want to skip, but are easy to dispatch. It’s also great for making some of your quest backtracking faster. Although this wasn’t without a couple of sound-based bugs in my playthrough. But it’s nothing major and totally expected given the nature of the remaster.
The third major boost is the “Battle Boost,” which instantly heals your characters, sends them into Limit Break, and immediately fills their Active Time Battle meter. This is basically the “win” boost.
On PC, you’re able to Boost items and magic more granularly, which is a nice extra. These boosts may sound sacrilegious to longtime fans of challenge and/or Final Fantasy VIII, but let me paint a picture for you. If Drawing, the most tedious part of Final Fantasy VIII, is rendered much less tedious by Battle Boosting and Speed Boosting, why wouldn’t you use them?
If you’re disciplined, you can use the two boosts to accelerate your Drawing and still turn the boosts off to experience the game as it was meant to be experienced. This may unbalance things in the early going, but I still found myself in some major struggles against optional GFs and some bosses.
As for the remaster’s non-gameplay touches, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Though the UI/UX improvements are vastly, vastly superior to other Square Enix re-releases, the dialogue boxes are still a little too sharp compared to the surroundings. The character remodels are nice, but some background characters didn’t seem to get the same treatment. And the interactive background elements really stand out against the original, pre-rendered ones.
It wasn’t long into this playthrough of Final Fantasy VIII that I thought to myself “This game is much, much better than I remember.” The world is so vast and the things you will do span beyond ages, but the intimate nature of the core group of characters is built with love and lived experience. Final Fantasy VIII Remastered is so special not because it smartly undermines its worst gameplay mechanics, or because of new coats of paint, but because Square Enix has finally allowed us to play its finest game with fresh eyes all over again.
Square Enix provided a review copy to Fanbyte. Reviewer Played 20 hours of the PlayStation 4 version. Reviewer played 300 hours of this game between 1999 and 2010.