Final Fantasy VIII (1999)
Following the phenomenally successful Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft faced the unenviable task of producing a worthy follow-up and in Final Fantasy VIII they created not an equal but a superior game.
As with all entries in the Final Fantasy series the story is eventful. Galbadia, under the new rule of the Sorceress, is waging war against neighbouring countries but finds opposition from a mercenary force known as SeeD. You take on the role of Squall Leonhart, an introverted but brilliant SeeD student, who becomes embroiled in the struggle against the Sorceress. Squall’s task is further complicated by his encounter with a resistance fighter, Rinoa Heartilly, and the onset of mysterious dreams about a Galbadian soldier named Laguna. That is only a taste of the epic storyline on offer here which contains a myriad of twists and turns to maintain the interest.
Square Enix keep all the mainstays of the series here with superb graphics, beautiful music and stunning cut-scenes, including the opening sequence to the game which, more than ten years on, remains a visual treat. Aside from the main plot there are a series of side quests and secrets to unlock, as well as an optional card game that is thoroughly addictive. The characters take on a more realistic look here, as opposed to the anime style appearance of previous games, while the backdrop is more of sci-fi and fantasy rather than the traditional fantasy which many fans may prefer.
The focal point to playing Final Fantasy VIII is the Junction System. This requires the user to allocate or junction a god (known as GFs) to each character allowing them to summon these deities in battle and benefit from a series of skills and abilities they possess. Your GFs also enable your characters to junction any magic they gather to improve such status parameters as strength, speed and HP. The GFs learn new abilities as you gain experience in battle and enable your characters to become more powerful over time.
The game is not without its flaws. The summoning of gods in battle leads to a short animation as your celestial allies use all their powers to assist you. The first few viewings of these scenes are memorable but having to sit through them without the option of shortening or skipping through can lead to frustration. You will inevitably need your gods during the game but it is possible to use them minimally. The new Junction System is explained via a series of tutorials which remain available throughout the game but can still lead to prolonged head-scratching when you first play. Thankfully, if the Junction System is proving problematic, you can have this automatically done for you and select from three options – attack, magic or defence – dependent on your priorities.
Final Fantasy VIII still impresses more than ten years after its release. Its main strength remains in the superb story played out by a series of characters that each have their flaws, while the romance between Squall and Rinoa is an undoubted series highlight. In my opinion, this narrowly pips the brilliant Final Fantasy X as the finest in the series so far.
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