So I just got done with Final Fantasy 8, which I played for the first time ever, and... well, I can definitely understand the vitriol many people have towards it. Now it goes without saying that I've mentioned multiple times that I don't play games for the story, but it can definitely drag the rest of the experience down if it feels like my mind is being insulted (don't worry, the gameplay has its issues too, I'll get to that later). Which it was, multiple times. Perhaps it's because of the expectations I had out of hearsay, perhaps it's because it really does show me the middle finger, who knows. What matters is that I'm left with a sour taste in my mouth, which is never good when evaluating a game. Not only is the consensus that it doesn't come close to 6 and 7 completely accurate and justified in my view, but it also doesn't compare to 4, 5 or 10 either.
Naturally I'm going to be delving into spoilers here, so since I'm such a nice guy I'm hiding them behind this jump.
What I kept hearing about FF8 prior to playing it was that it was a story of love and romance. Hence why I mentioned the game's reputation earlier, but I can tell you that if this is love and romance... ouch. Of course Rinoa, following in the footsteps of Rosa, Celes, Tifa and Aeris, is an exceedingly clingy female lead right from the start, but the issue here is that the relationship appears to be one-sided all too often. Sure, Cloud started out as an uncaring introvert, but not only did he start opening himself up rather quickly, he was never at any point the unlikable cunt Squall was for a large portion of the game.
I should mention that he appeared to have a hard time deciding whether he was into Rinoa or not, despite her best efforts. Case in point, the first time he ever appears to care is at the very beginning of disc 3. Almost two thirds into the game, for those keeping count. Not only is that very, very late for any kind of "love and romance" to blossom in a story that's supposed to be all about that, but it's a frighteningly quick U-turn considering that at the beginning of the clash of the Gardens, the final event of disc 2, Squall doesn't seem to mind at all if the janitorial staff of Galbadia Garden has to scrape Rinoa's bowels off the ceiling. Making Squall's sappiness at the start of disc 3 seem even more out of character in comparison - because it's the rest of the group that scolds and guilt trips Squall into going to save her. And suddenly, one dungeon crawl later, Squall is supposed to live only for Rinoa. Yeah, sure.
Then there's the big scene aboard the Ragnarok that's obviously meant to be the romantic high of the game. After all, Squall just went into outer space by himself with no hope of survival just because there might be a slim chance he can rescue Rinoa (again, a complete U-turn from the clash of the Gardens) - and he SUCCEEDED, thanks to a fortunate deus ex machina. So it's the big scene, their big moment, just the two of them, and Squall is so not into it that he keeps repeating, "go back to your seat". ROMANCE, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN.
And then he delivers Rinoa straight to the Esthar army so she can be sealed away forever - without protesting (thus honoring the family tradition of bolting on your love interest). So this doofus only lives for Rinoa through the first half of disc 3, going as far as to come within a shout of suicide to attempt to save her, then he hands her over despite never being able to see her again, just because she says it's what she wants. He only changes his mind because Quistis gives him the chewing out of a lifetime. So let me recap this "love story" for you: QUISTIS CARES MORE FOR RINOA THAN SQUALL DOES. (What a golden opportunity for lesbian BDSM fan artists.)
So, you wanna know when Squall and Rinoa are together and Squall seems to be into it? You guessed right: THE LAST FIVE SECONDS OF THE ENDING. When Haddaway asked "what is love?", I don't think this is the answer he had in mind.
So where exactly did FF8's reputation as a love story come from? Aside from the absolutely dedicated GameFAQs-dwelling nutters making up an important chunk of the fanbase, I mean? There's your answer. Heck, it's not like FF didn't do better before. Cecil and Rosa did it better. Locke and Celes did it better (for all that one of the few gripes I have about FF6 is that we see not enough "general" and too much "love-starved twit"). Cloud, Tifa and Aeris, for all that it was definitely more implicit, did it better too.
And in terms of the later games... I know I'm going to get roasted for this, but even though Tidus' script and Yuna's voice acting were absolutely cringe-worthy, they did it better too, if only because they both cared about each other from the word go! Of course I can't say anything about Zidane and Garnet quite yet, having not played this particular installment, but I'd like to do something about it soon.
But enough about that... how does the rest of the story hold up? Are there more "REALLY?" moments beyond the failed love story? As it turns out, very much so. There's the plot twist everyone loves to make fun of, "we all went to the same orphanage but we forgot". The game provides a half-assed explanation that the GFs cause amnesia somehow, but how do they forget everything about their youth and remember everything else, as if the GFs conveniently select which memories should be tossed out for the plot's advancement? And you know it's a really bad plot twist when they have to phone in an explanation for why Selphie lost her memory too, despite studying at Trabia Garden which doesn't use GFs. Fortunately they didn't do the same for Irvine, because SOMEONE in the group had to remember.
Speaking of Irvine, that's where it gets really bad. The moment the rest of the party remembers, the reaction Selphie and Quistis had, "why didn't you tell us?", is probably the same as every single person who ever played this game. But then Irvine's answer is the lamest thing you can possibly imagine: " 'Cause you two seemed to have forgotten!" WHAT?!? If anything, that's the very reason why he SHOULD have told them! But hey, the story would be much less melodramatic if he did. That, and we would've been spared one of Irvine's most shameful moments, where he launches into this woe-is-me story when he realizes who he has to shoot in the face at the Deling City parade and suddenly doesn't want to do it anymore. And we couldn't have that.
Furthermore, not only did they have to make up an excuse for Selphie's amnesia, but that wasn't the only hole that needed to be patched up but didn't. Clearly, Cid must've known Squall, Zell and Quistis were raised at the orphanage, being married to Edea and all. But he stays mum on the subject too. Not only that, but it gets worse. Cid claims any alleged drawbacks to GF use (such as amnesia) are just negative propaganda and should be ignored, yet how could he ignore the fact that the people of Balamb Garden develop amnesia whereas common folk don't (and I'm not just talking about Squall, Zell and Quistis either)? The only logical reason is that Cid is a slimeball who won't hesitate to lie to masses of people who trust him to achieve his ends, which is kinda the opposite of his portrayal in the game. Oh, and Zell's adoptive mother must've been aware of his past at the orphanage, why did she never say a thing? Yep, you know a plot twist is bad when it opens more holes than it fixes.
And let's not even get into the fact that this game is just a giant time loop. One of the implications of the ending is that, well, guess who's responsible for Ultimecia possessing Edea to start with? SQUALL! Meaning you do all this work throughout the game, and then Squall gets lost in time, with a dying Ultimecia following him, and when he appears in the wrong time period he basically undoes everything you've done throughout the game. In terms of disc-breaking antics, this is right up there with playing a really bad game, only to find out that the events that took place never really happened.
Of course, one can argue that the game itself would've never happened had Squall not screwed up to start with, but then I'd be getting into a big argument about time travel and I don't know jack about time travel, except that I hate it very very much. Also worth noting that Squall tells the past Edea all about SeeD and Garden to make up for it, but still, my reaction when this scene played out was, "Really? We're really doing this?", and I wonder if a more satisfying outcome could've been written. My cynical answer: probably, but since when has this game been about satisfying outcomes anyway?
So I just wrote this giant wall of text about the story, but how does the gameplay stack up? I have to say, not very well. Naturally, my main gripe is with the junction system. Now it doesn't make me want to strangle babies and eat their dead bodies as much as Majora's Mask's dreadful three-day system, but let's go over it anyway.
First, it's quite a handful for someone who's never played the game. Try explaining it to a newbie with just words, and if their head doesn't explode I'll buy you a drink. The Sphere Grid looks more intimidating, but when it comes down to it it's easier to understand. Second, the way the game is balanced, enemies level up with you. But while low-level enemies are balanced against low-level characters with weak junctions, high-level enemies are balanced against high-level characters with strong junctions. Meaning that the optimal way to play the game is by keeping your levels low, yet working on getting better junctions anyway. In a nutshell, the game discourages you from fighting random battles.
Then, there's the fact that typically, your best spells will be the ones that'll be junctioned. Meaning that if you want to use them, you're going to have to deal with penalties to your stats, as well as status and elemental properties. Of course you can always refill your stock by drawing spells, but you have to hunt down specific monsters in order to do so, which gets far more annoying than just consuming items or sleeping at an inn to keep your MP up. It goes without saying that a balanced battle system should try to limit your usage of your strongest moves (something FF6 failed miserably at, for all the praise I heap upon that game), but here it takes the extreme too far: you have to avoid using your junctioned spells as much as humanly possible to keep your stats up.
1. You're discouraged from fighting random battles
2. You're discouraged from using your best attacks (at least, far too much from a balance perspective)
I'm no game designer, but if I were making an RPG, the first things I'd try to do are making fighting random battles rewarding, but not so much so that you feel forced to grind (same goes for the difficulty curve), and try to restrict the use of your best moves, but not so much that you feel penalized for using them. FF8 didn't do either, for all that it's not a difficult game at all if you're diligent about drawing 100 of each spell ASAP, which is basically the replacement for grinding.
Now, are there good aspects to FF8? Sure, there are. The graphics are a huge step up from FF7, for one thing, and the soundtrack has some real gems (I'm partial to the boss theme, the Dollet landing theme, and Man with the Machine Gun myself). Oh, and Ultimecia's castle really has that Castlevania vibe to it. Someone must've liked Symphony of the Night a lot (can't blame 'em). Seems like they kept the best for last. Well, aside from that Griever fight. There goes your junctioned spell, and another one, and another one! It hits through the invincibility status too, which sucks. And here I thought I was being really clever by refining the Gilgamesh card over and over and over, and regaining it from that left CC Diamond girl. Speaking of which, even though I suck moose dick at it, Triple Triad is pretty enjoyable (at least when Random and company aren't ruining it). I still like blitzball better, but hey, I never claimed to be sane.
So these are my thoughts on FF8. I'd strongly suggest checking the comments before making your own, because odds are someone will deconstruct this post and list everything that's wrong with it, and somehow it'll make perfect sense. After all, I admit that much of what I complained about is open to interpretation, and there are as many ways to look at a work of art as there are beholders, for better or for worse.
Well, that's it for today. Ciao!