When people criticize FF8 - and there's no shortage of critics - they generally focus on the story and characters. It's true that they're a convoluted mess that only gets worse as the game goes on, eventually descending to the point of Double Facepalm at every new plot twist. What's even worse about the game, however, is its structure. It's just incredibly poorly plotted out for a AAA title, at some sort of horrible design confluence of emphasizing visuals over gameplay, forced linear narrative, and attempting to have combat depth without adequately either explaining or implementing it. It's easier to remember Squall being a jerkass and OMG WE WERE ALL FROM THE SAME ORPHANAGE over the years, but harder to remember the shit soup of terrible little design decisions that constantly hamper your interaction with the game unless you've played it very recently.
Basically, both in terms of plot and gameplay, the game starts to go completely to shit when you insert Disc 2. Disc 1 is actually not bad. It's a very nice prologue that unfortunately baits you into a terrible main story. The opening cinema
doesn't look like anything special these days, but for 1999 this was hot shit. I worked in an electronics department at a retail store at the time this came out, and that clip was basically just on endless loop for weeks. The background art is also gorgeous, and still amazing on a high-def screen. The character models ... not so much. Though it was a huge step forward from FF7's blocky LEGO people in terms of realism, they still look really clunky and old now, and any positive impression you've had from the hand-painted static backgrounds starts to fade every time you drop into a battle ... that or looking at the overworld map, which basically looks like an incomprehensible mass of smeared poo.
But both the story and gameplay actually start out well enough! We're in this exotic world that looks like nothing out of any previous FF game, and it's initially interesting to explore just in its own rights. The game also doesn't force-feed you background detail, instead inviting you to simply wander around and read optional stuff if you care to learn more about how the world works and what its history is. Initially, the story isn't on the usual "save the world from The Ultimate Evil" tip; it's actually about a regional conflict, and you're playing a squad of mercenaries who are only involved simply because they're being paid well into the second disc. This allows the story to zoom more in on and develop characters while the whole war thing sort of provides action and impetus in the background.
The game also gets seriously experimental with Final Fantasy gameplay conventions. Magic now only exists as a consumable, which has to be "drawn" from enemies while in combat. "Guardian Forces" are equipped like Espers in the previous two games, but in order for them to help out your stats, you have to "junction" your stock of magic spells to their various attributes to get a stat boost for your character. This adds an interesting strategic twist to battles; casting spells can actually lower your stats. Monster levels also globally scale with your party, putting a major emphasis on learning the Junctioning system (and how to refine more powerful magic from items) to get a competitive advantage rather than just Grindan Forever to LV 100 CLUD STRUFF WIF ULTIMA BUSTAR OMG. The game really encourages exploration, both of its world and battle system.
That's initially, anyway. Sooner or later, all of those things go to shit for one reason or another. The plot eventually devolves into "Save Teh World" genericness, but the way in which it does so is particularly distasteful and reliant on hamfisted, sometimes bafflingly moronic developments. Exploration of both the world and game mechanics are squashed frequently by being strung along by a linear series of scripted events that often trap you in restrictive environments; counterintuitively, the little windows that you are given to actually explore outside the lines and draw/refine magic at your leisure are usually at some totally inappropriate moment where, according to the story, you're supposed to be rushing to do something important or save something from exploding.
If you aren't aware coming in that the game expects you to not take the plot at all seriously, and take every opportunity that you're set free outside of a town to dawdle around for hours grinding up magic and poking about, you can easily get trapped in some contained, scripted event with not enough items or magic to survive. And the game is also notably stingy with save points while you're stuck in these "contained" sequences, often it'll just projectile-vomit story at you for upwards of an hour (interspersed with a couple boss battles for good measure) without giving you any opportunity to save and quit out. Guess they were following that Hirochi Yamauchi
assessment of their audience.
It's really amazing how fast disc 2 squanders any positive sentiment that's built up over the course of disc 1. The first dungeon of the disc is some monotonous Xenogearsian nightmare; you're trapped in this prison where you have to go up and down floors constantly, and literally the same screen (which has you running in a big pointless circle) is copied and pasted for EVERY SINGLE FLOOR. It's an early example of how cavalier the game will go on to be about wasting your time with pointless bullshit. It's also constantly forcing your party to split for no good reason, which for the first 2 discs means "junction swapping" constantly, because you don't have nearly enough GFs and magic for every character to be kitted out individually (nor does it make sense since inactive GFs don't level or learn new abilities.) Oh, and that reminds me ... don't even bother stocking magic on anyone but Squall for the whole first disc, because the game just makes it LOL DISAPPEAR for no good reason at all at the outset of the second (which also makes all your secondary characters suck donkey dick for the longass scripted sequence the disc starts with, as there's no opportunity to draw further magic in the range that you need until that bit is over.) There's also all these little semi-glitchy bits where the game will strip everyone's GFs and magic off except for Squall in the background without warning ... sometimes right before a boss battle, and there's no indication whatsoever until you start the fight and mysteriously two of the characters have no commands but "Attack" all of a sudden.
Oh Jesus. And did I mention all those scenes where you have to run endlessly into some giant background for no good reason other than to force you to stare at it for a full minute? How about the scenes where you fish around some indefinable blob of crystals or techno-junk trying to figure out which open, unmarked space the designers intended to be the exit? Or what unmarked spot you have to click X on to get something to happen?
The one uplifting find here was the soundtrack. Since I'd mentally written the game off so long ago, I also wrote off the soundtrack with it. But it's actually great! In fact, I now think the boss battle theme
is the best of the series ... yeah, even edges out FF6
. Anyway, like Xenogears, soundtrack is way better than the game deserves.
* Squall Iz Ded Theory
- Personally I think there's a fair chance the writers originally intended something like this. But then the marketing department + upper brass at Square stepped in and said "HAHAHAHA NO. MAKE IT DUMBER. AND ADD FURRIES." And thus you have the total mess of weird contrivance and head-slapping moments that constitutes discs 2 to 4.