Time Extend: Final Fantasy VIII
Square Enix’s Final Fantasy franchise has gone through three distinct phases since it debuted on the NES in 1987. The first six entries helped to ingrain the conventions of JRPGs for western gamers, and introduced the mythology and mechanics – from chocobos and moogles to summoning and airship travel – that bind all of the discrete stories together. FFVII (you can read the making of that game here) through XIII-2 shifted focus to prerendered 3D environments, dazzling cinematic interludes, involved minigames, and darker sci-fi themes. The third phase, which began with XI, entered the MMORPG space.
Players weaned on the first phase and alienated by the third likely felt a pang of nostalgia playing IX’s Tetra Master card game when it was repackaged for online multiplayer with XI. It was a reminder of what many players cherished about second-wave Final Fantasy at the precise moment that it was coming to an end. Another simple yet deep card game, Triple Triad, appeared in Final Fantasy VIII. Older fans could once again blow a Sunday afternoon trying to win Seifer’s card from the owlish Headmaster Cid, in his office high atop Balamb Garden, where sails hang motionlessly against a painted sky.
Upon its 1999 release, Final Fantasy VIII performed well critically and commercially, but the series-changing (and, for many gamers, life-changing) VII was a tough act to follow. As a result, time has not been especially kind to VIII’s reputation. The standard line on the trio of PlayStation games is that VII is the godhead, IX the neglected gem, and VIII the red-headed stepchild. In 2011 they’re all still a lot of fun, but while VII probably isn’t as good as you remember, VIII might just be better.
Not that it’s immune to the franchise’s more dubious idiosyncrasies. Like its predecessor, it has an opaque storyline that revolves around a group of young people thrown pell-mell into the intrigues of vast geopolitical forces – a marauding regime, an organised resistance, and an evil sorceress. The action opens at Balamb Garden, an academy run by a mercenary organisation called SeeD, which trains insecure teenagers to fight and hires them out to paramilitary groups who want to overthrow the government.
You can go to the Fire Cavern for your SeeD exam right away, but you might enjoy wandering around the Garden first. Its long looping halls and flying walkways are laid out over circular canals, with lush greenery nestled in a Phantasy Star-style architecture of moulded metal. There is some kind of festival being planned. There are inklings of a subplot about a hotdog shortage in the school cafeteria. There is a training facility – a synthetic jungle – that anyone can wander into and get devoured by a T-rex. And when you start down the main path, things get really strange.
When the students aren’t busy cutting, shooting and burning human soldiers and mythical beasts, they sit around and talk, a lot. The rampant killing they’ve been doing seldom seems to concern them; instead, they grumble about schoolyard issues of social acceptance, even after they begin to collectively black out and dream of a trio of mysterious (and player-controlled) soldiers, for reasons that remain mystifying for a long time. It’s a faintly ridiculous and incomprehensible blend of Star Wars, Dawson’s Creek and David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
The most controversial thing about VIII was a new gameplay mechanic that jettisoned the usual magic points in favour of a system where spells are ‘drawn’ from monsters, to be cast immediately or hoarded. Spells can also be ‘junctioned’ to boost player stats in proportion to how many are stocked – but only if you have a properly trained Guardian Force equipped. It’s an ingeniously layered system that allows for customisation beyond traditional magic types, though it can get tedious: minor battles last forever because you want to draw a few more of those rare Double spells. But you do it. You do it to make your team strong.
Who are they? At the very start, we know little. Zell has a foul-mouthed attitude, a Limit Break that recalls the combo inputs of Xenogears, a tribal face tattoo and a love of hotdogs. Schoolgirl Selphie has a bob hairstyle like Nancy Sinatra and a giant pair of nunchaku. Rinoa is the raven-haired love interest with doubts about her revolutionary bona fides. “We’re serious,” she says, defending her cell’s commitment. “So serious… it hurts.” Quistis is nerdy-hot in a proto-Bayonetta way. Her use of a whip underscores her cute dominatrix style.