Final Fantasy VIII

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Final Fantasy VIII, 1999

A year ago, when I was doing up a piece on classic gaming couples for CHUNK.ie and The R.A.G.E. for St. Valentine’s Day, I was actually struggling pretty badly. Yes, there were a whole host of tantalising will-they-won’t-theys like Link and Zelda. There were also friend-zone jobs like Mario and the Princess, and even a rare reversal with Sonic the Hedgehog and Amy Rose. And there’s even pairings that eventually turned sour, like Snake and Meryl. But proper romantic love stories? They were quite tough to shoot my arrow through.

After putting my hi-tech hindsight goggles on, I realise that I ought to have looked at more story-based games, banal RPGs in particular. Any long story needs a bit of love in it, and surely my search for whatever this century’s Posh and Becks are would finally have been over. So I went for the more Nihongo-oriented games, but since I couldn’t really find much romance in Paper Mario and Pokémon Yellow, I had to resort to the only other RPGs I know: Final Fantasy.

But that was OK, because there seemed to be quite a bit of material for me to sift through in this long-standing series, a series that’s made more weeaboos of people than Dragonball Z. Obviously I had to disregard the first 3 Final Fantasy games, the NES/Famicom ones, since you’re too busy trying to figure out what the AMUT and LOK2 spells mean to care about who wants rumpy-pumpy with who. Plus, 8-bit pixels aren’t exactly sexy to even the most vigilant of voyeurs.

There was a loved-up couple in Final Fantasy IV, but everyone in that one was stabbing everyone else in the back so often that I thought it best to leave that one well alone, in case it all ended in tears for Cecil and Rosa by the end. V is more like a Saturday morning cartoon than a game, and I never did see Arnold and Helga G. Pataki get it on, did you? So that was out.

VI had some romantic tones, it’s true, but nobody really got together, the primary female protagonist (if there was one at all) was secretly a grotesque monster and one of the characters kept his dead girlfriend locked in the basement, so I couldn’t really use that. And in VII, it was looking good for Cloud and Aeris, until, well, you know. He got a consolation shag out of it, but it wasn’t exactly a love story.

But then VIII came around, and my “prayers” were answered. Finally, a game selling itself on a love story. And not only that, but a mainstream entry of a wildly-popular franchise. It looked set to be one for the ages, right?

Well, it’s a rocky old love story, but I better actually look at Final Fantasy VIII as a game rather than as smutty pulp fiction. You are Squall Leonhart, a real lively character who’s always the life and soul of the party and gets up to all sorts of japes…. no, hang on, that’s his reluctant mate Zell. Squall is what would come out if you put all the emo bands in the world into a blender and served it with a fresh helping of a particularly irritated cluster of hungover wasps. If Squall’s dialogue isn’t a hard-hitting trio of dots, then it’s usually some snarky backchat or just a simple, no less devastating “whatever”.

Squall is a child-soldier who’s coming of age and finds himself embroiled in a nigh-incomprehensible plot to save the world from ruination from the moon in the future… or something to that effect. He later meets Rinoa, the belle of the ball, and she’s a looker. But as you’d expect, she turns out to be even more of an annoyance than Squall is, as much as I love him for being such an utter arse.

The pair spend four whole discs awkwardly trying to get together despite being fully incompatible, and meanwhile, all kinds of… bad stuff… happens…To put it politely, the story and the romance are both dirge and there’s no point in indulging the writers on this one. There are so many oddities and “plot-points” that are never revisited, characters with silly motivations and playable characters who don’t even get more than five minutes of screentime.

We’ll leave that aside and talk about the battle system. VIII does away with the popular Materia system of its predecessor and instead brings in a most unique Junctioning system, where you can fleece spells from monsters and attach them to each of your individual stats to boost them. It was just complex enough to leave the mouthbreathers scratching their heads, which is good enough for me.

Actually, as it turns out, the Junctioning system is so easy to understand that breaking the combat system totally and utterly is far too simple – spend a bit of time grinding magic off enemies, or better still, turn them into cards and refine these cards into magic with a special ability, and suddenly your level 7 Squall is rolling with hundreds of attack power and thousands of Hit Points. The difficulty swiftly evaporates. You’re even left with a lot of cards for Triple Triad, the fun and ubiquitous card game that VIII is very well known for.

So the story’s not up to it, and you have to closely regulate your stats to make sure the fighting doesn’t become an utter formality… when you look at a game that has as many clear flaws as Final Fantasy VIII, it becomes very tough for me to rationalise why I like this game so much. I don’t do rationality anyway, but God, most of the characters are shunted to one side, and the ones that’re left in the spotlight are mostly atrocious.

The dialogue is translated an awful lot better than in VII but it’s still none too kosher, and in any case the plot never starts to become resolved and indeed collapses entirely about two thirds of the way in, when the characters start going into space and all sorts. The battle system is too easily exploitable, although it’s not as if the game pins its entire hopes on pixel-to-pixel combat – after all, you can gain the ability to block all encounters very early on. The graphics don’t exactly hold up, although at least it looks prettier than FF7, especially the character models. There’s sidequests, but you’ll want to have your strategy guide open (God bless the Internet once again) to even get wind of them. That only really leaves the music and the card game to praise.

Music and a sidegame? Is that enough to actually rate a 4-disc game? It probably isn’t, but damn if Final Fantasy VIII doesn’t fill me with joy anyway. I’d rank it as the best of the Final Fantasy games – and I can hardly say why. I mean, VI and VII at least are objectively better in almost every way. The world in VIII is right, the music is just about irresistible, the card game can be time-consuming and the rules can be a nightmare but it’s ingenious all the same.

Final Fantasy VIII just about works if you completely disregard all of the things it set out to do. Forget the whole love story which could not have been any more cackhanded. Forget the battle system and all of that strategic Junctioning rubbish – just break it all over your knee as soon as you can. Skip the FMVs and the dialogue, don’t summon anything, never change your party, ignore all sidequests.

Instead, just treat Final Fantasy VIII as Squall’s grand journey to become the world champion of Triple Triad, occasionally fighting off monstrous card thieves. Dedicate yourself entirely to your quest to become the Triple Triad Top Trump and by the end of it all, you will hopefully have shunned and neglected your old friends into obscurity; you’ll emerge victorious with the girl, and you’ll have finally beaten your arch Triple Triad nemesis, Seifer. All the while, fabulous music is serenading you on your grand quest, with appropriate fanfare as you hustle your hapless opponents. What could be better?

01 February 2015

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