FFVIII isn’t on the top of most PS1 RPG lists, but it probably should be. Here’s why.
It’s easy to label Final Fantasy VIII as divisive when comparing it to other PS1 RPGs. Some people believe that it belongs on the short-list for the best RPG on the system, while others think it doesn’t even make the top five games in the Final Fantasy series.
I will say that Final Fantasy VIII did have the misfortune of following the ultra-popular FFVII, and it was on a system that was packed with other role-playing games. Not only did the game have to live up to the greatness of the series, but it was also expected to exceed FFVII and other games at the time. That could be one explanation for why it’s so rarely considered in the top tier of RPGs on the PS1.
Still, there are real issues that made the game less appealing to critics and players. While I am a big fan of all the Final Fantasy games, I am trying to look past that bias and see some of the flaws.in FFVIII. I’m going to explain some reasons why I suspect the game didn’t sit well with the audience. I’m also going to show you why I believe the game should garner more respect, perhaps enough to make people think better of FFVIII.
This is a Blanket Spoiler Warning.
The Story Took Too Long to Develop
The story of Final Fantasy VIII was intricate, but that was not a problem in my book. However, a complex story needs to have the right pacing. In my opinion, the poor pacing was what sunk the story with some of the game’s audience.
You start by passing your tests to become a mercenary “SeeD”, and then you’re sent on a mission that turns into an assassination attempt. I’m condensing the story quite a bit, but it’s relatively straightforward early on. Then, like FFVI and FFVII, things get wacky and some powerful magic gets involved.
The first disc and a half tell the story of you trying to hunt down and kill a sorceress named Edea and then trying again when that fails. At first, the game looks political. Edea overthrows President Deling and it’s your job to stop her, but the game goes completely off the rails (in a fun way) later on.
On the last half of the second disc of the game, you get hammered with an amnesia backstory, more time travel, a trip to outer space, the resurgence of a sorceress named Adel, and the whole idea of time compression. You even find out what the hell is up with your characters passing out and inhabiting other people once in a while.
To put it plainly: it took too long for the crap to hit the fan.
In the case of FFVIII, there was also too much happening, too fast. The game did the right thing to preserve the mystery of the sorceresses and the possessions, but it took too long to get there. Does that mean the story is bad? Hell no. It’s just that people might put the game down at the wrong time and not pick it back up.
The Story Was Pretty Creative (Spoilers)
The pacing may have held the game back from being the top PS1 RPG, but the story itself was a beautiful, trippy, frickin’ madhouse.
Sure, I disliked the “GFs cause amnesia and we forgot we grew up together” thing, but the rest of the story was just crazy enough that I went along with it. I loved the Lunar Cry spilling monsters down from the moon and the Garden battles. Oh yeah, your girlfriend is possessed! How about sneaking into Ultimecia’s Castle in the time-compressed world? And that ending where you’re lost in time and faces start to melt? What a ride!
Was the story perfect? I’d say no. Was it highly unique and entertaining? Absolutely, and we’ll probably never see something like that come from Square Enix even if we see a Final Fantasy 25. The story was special, so if you haven’t given it the time of day, it’s not too late to go check it out.
The Romance Was Dialed Up Too High
Love stories are common in many of the Final Fantasy games, and FFVIII is no exception. However, this particular game focused on the love aspect a lot more than others, and that wasn’t something people were ready to deal with. The series was usually about destroying evil and restoring order, so the sudden leap into a full-fledged love story was not what some players had in mind when they bought the game.
I have a lot written for this part because the romance wasn’t handled the best. Here’s the short version. Basically, there are five problems that players and critics had with the romantic plot:
- The outcome of the romance is revealed before you control Squall for the first time.
- The attempt at a love triangle with Squall, Seifer, and Rinoa was handled poorly.
- FFVIII spends too much time on the romantic aspect of the game overall.
- The romance between Squall and Rinoa developed too quickly even in game time.
- The game seemed like it wanted to bring Squall and Quistis together, and then suddenly dashed the idea.
If you took two seconds to look at the logo or got through the opening FMV, then you had a pretty good idea of where the game was going in terms of relationships. Squall and Rinoa end up together. I mean, did anyone actually doubt that they would be a couple by the end of the game? Even the people that like romance typically enjoy the idea of seeing how the “will they or won’t they” turns into a developed relationship. Square kinda dropped the ball on that.
Another issue that people had is that some romantic subplots just turn out to be sort of useless. You’re introduced to your teacher, Quistis, just after Squall gets his face slashed open. She may or may not be flirting with him, and by later in the game, she admits that she loves Squall.
While she understands that it was perhaps a sibling sort of love later on, she truly thought she was in love with Squall at the beginning of the game. Aside from the weirdness of loving a student, that whole part might have made more sense if Quistis received better character development. Instead, you get throwaway lines about how she wonders if someone would do for her what Squall does for Rinoa.
So why did the game try to build tension early on with Quistis and Squall as a possible love interest? Squall and Rinoa were right on the box. I guess that would have been the ultimate fakeout, right?
You do get a break from flirting for a while with the invasion of Dollet. Then you get punched in the face by what appears to be a possible love triangle at the gorgeous dance scene. Squall is dragged to the dance floor by Rinoa.
After she ditches him, he gets asked to meet Quistis in the training area to talk. Quistis definitely saw those two dancing and decided to “shoot her shot” as the kids say. That and she was looking for emotional support after getting canned from teaching and feeling lonely. It ends poorly for her, and she gets brushed aside, ending the would-be love triangle. But wait, there’s more.
Alright, that’s three paragraphs of people fawning over Squall and we’re not even out of the first three hours of the game. As you can see, it’s constant with people in the story, and that’s too much for some people to handle, especially when you throw in the teen angst and world-ending plots.
It wasn’t just the continual presence of the romantic plots either.
Another thing that you get in this game is the other weird pseudo-love triangle. On one hand, you have Squall. He puts up a front so nobody can get close, but he’s a big soft teddy bear under that. He’ll give you the cold shoulder and then save your life. On the other hand, you have Seifer. He is an asshole, through and through. That’s not to be confused with a bad boy, either. He literally goes to war against his old school and classmates and kills a whole bunch of them.
Of course, the game makes you think that Rinoa might still love Seifer.There are even a few lines of dialogue that insinuate their relationship went a little further than hand-holding. For all that attempts at creating a love triangle, it turns out to be quite flimsy as there really isn’t a doubt that Rinoa cares about Squall and vice-versa. So what was the point? Drama? It didn’t even create a lot of that, though.
By the time the famous hug scene at the beginning of this section rolls around, there’s no question that Squall and Rinoa were always going to be together, and you’re just begging for them to make it official. Seifer was an afterthought, and his presence in the love triangle didn’t really amount to much, and neither did Quistis’ “sisterly love.”
Last but not least, the way the story is paced, it seems like Squall falls in love with Rinoa in a day.The game cuts in several parts, so it could be several weeks of time from the beginning of the game until the big hug scene. Or it could be what appears to be like a week. While we’ll never know for sure, the quick attachment of Squall and Rinoa made people dislike the initial attraction for happening too quickly and then lingering for a chunk of the game without real development.
Alright, that’s all I have to say about that. I’ve read the opinions of critics that loved the romance, but a lot of them just hated it with a passion.
The Love Story Was Still Kinda Sweet
While the audience certainly got punched in the face with the love story in FFVIII, it did have a certain sweetness. Sure, it might have developed too fast for some people and it might have been too sappy for others. Then again, have you seen how fast teenage relationships start and end? That part might have been realistic.
While the main love story was certainly sappy, it was still kinda refreshing. The game peeled away the layers of a loner and showed what it took for him to open up. It was like Shrek, but with more angst.
Seriously, though, when we find the main characters of most Final Fantasy games, they’re already the leader or the hero. This game takes you from studying in the classroom to leading some pretty intense battles. Squall learns how to balance his duty as a leader with his desire to be with Rinoa. If nothing else, I don’t know many other RPGs that are this forthright with the complexities of romance, so it might be worth checking out their take on teenage love. If you got through Twilight, you’ll get through this just fine.
People Didn’t Like the Monsters Leveling with Them
Final Fantasy VIII took a major hit from fans when they found out that the enemies level alongside you. Well, technically the monster levels are an average of your party’s level or close to it. Anyway, it’s not a system that many people appreciate because it punishes you for getting stronger, and by golly we like to get so strong we massacre our enemies.
The leveling system in Final Fantasy VIII was the only one I remember where the monsters level up with you. So, going out and grinding levels early on ensures you have a lot of difficult battles ahead of you throughout the game.
I can’t remember if that mechanic is ever explained to you, but I know that I found out the hard way. That T-Rexuar up in the picture? They give you something like one level per kill. So, I went into the training area, murdered the crap out of them thinking that the levels would carry me through the game. That wasn’t the case, though. By the time I got to the fake President Deling battle, I was getting the life slapped out of me on the regular. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to go against Omega Weapon at level 80!
You can mitigate some of the problem by keeping low level party members with you, driving down the average level. Still, the fact is that the monsters leveling with you was just one side of the coin, though.
The other problem with this level system was that the game gave you too many ways to overcome the leveling mechanic. Between the Card ability, LVL Down, the GF skill to turn off random battles and more, you could basically game the system by staying at a low level and super-powering your characters before you get off the first disc. More on that later.
The game attempted to provide a challenge with the leveling but then made this game even easier than the simple level grind you saw in most other Final Fantasy games. That doesn’t mean everything was bad with this system, though.
Final Fantasy VIII Character Customization Shined
While the level-matching system wasn’t stellar, it made you think outside of the box and put work into customizing your characters. Fortunately, the game let you customize your characters a lot through your Guardian Forces’ abilities. Anyone could be a fighter or a mage just by playing with their stats through the GF abilities and junctioning. That way, you could choose to play through the game with a bunch of beastly fighters or super-powered mages.
Of course, some characters have different roles that shine through during their limit break. Quistis is the blue mage, Zell could pack several hits into one long combo, and Rinoa could launch her whiny dog at people. The ability to go through and make a party from scratch was not only cool, but it made me want to experiment with different members for a while.
Since so much of your strength is predicated on the GFs and magic linked to your stats, you could face down difficult enemies by boosting your resistances to match their types, too. If you had a really tough fight, you could pour all of your assets into one character and then mercilessly stomp the hell out of most monsters and bosses for a good portion of the game.
So, once you know how the leveling system works, you can use the system to your advantage. In fact, that leads me to the next major criticism of Final Fantasy VIII.
With a Little Knowledge, the Game Was Too Easy
Another major criticism that some used to keep the game from the top-tier was how easy it was to beat every boss. I’m not talking about the FFVI Vanish and Doom combo, but something almost as easy.
You could absolutely break Final Fantasy VIII with the right deck of cards. Sadly, that’s just a shade off of being true since you can completely dominate the game by the time you’re halfway through the first disc. If you’re serious about it, you can ride that success through the whole game.
The same junction system and GF abilities that were meant to give you a fighting chance against the monsters that powered up alongside you could also be used to subvert the game’s difficulty. The game gives you several ways to diminish the experience you gain and thereby reduce the power of the game’s monsters.
Between the Card ability, LVL Down, and the power to turn off random battles through your GF, you never had to get past level 20 if you wanted. That means every fight you did partake in was going to be weak.
Now, back to the cards. There was this amazing game called Triple Triad. You’d play people around the towns and your Garden, beat them, and collect cards. You can use a GF’s ‘Card Mod’ ability to turn those cards into items and then use your other GF abilities to turn those items into magic or parts to upgrade your weapons.
By the time you stroll into Deling City with Squall and company, you could be damn-near untouchable for the rest of the regular game. It takes a time investment for sure, but when you can use Tornado and Flare magic to boost the right stats, you turn every boss inside out. You have enough power to end battles in a single turn, a third of a turn if you are constantly using Limit Breaks.
All in all, the game was considered too easy by several critics. You could quickly and easily make your characters capable of taking on anything short of Omega Weapon.
Does that make the game unplayable, though? I never thought so.
The Innovation Is Worth The Breakable System
How did you get strong in Final Fantasy VI? You equipped an Esper, built stats through leveling, and learned magic along the way. How about Final Fantasy VII? You just leveled, equipped materia, and learned most of your limit breaks on Disc 1. Except for Aerith’s, right?
(I wrote a whole piece on Final Fantasy VI if you want to check that out.)
My point is that you can break any game with the right amount of time. It wasn’t like Final Fantasy VIII told you to do card battles for hours, farm items, and then traipse through the game leaving a trail of low-level corpses.
The bottom line is that it’s not terribly difficult to get strong in many games in the series. Final Fantasy VIII tried to branch out and do something new with the junction system so you couldn’t get away with doing random battles until you hit the max level. The game might have caught more flak for having a similar system to FFVII, so there was no choice whether or not to innovate.
Could they have done the junction system better? Sure. Was it the worst thing ever put in a video game? I don’t think so, but there’s a reason we haven’t seen the same system pop up again.
The Art Style and Aesthetic Were Turnoffs
The last major issue that held back Final Fantasy VIII from being a top PS1 RPG was the aesthetic. FFVIII was a bright, colorful, glossy modern world with fewer medieval fantasy elements than previous installments. To many people, that sort of world was unappealing and too far detached from what Final Fantasy was supposed to be about around that time.
Final Fantasy VIII wasn’t the first game in the series to delve into technological development, but it was definitely the one that pushed further than any others at that time.
FFVII was modern, but that worked very well in the grand scheme of the story. Midgar had that gritty feeling that you get from cities going through an industrial revolution. The art and city construction reflected Shinra’s willingness to put the planet at risk to achieve supremacy. The result was an aesthetic reminiscent of Steampunk/Cyberpunk baby. I think. I thought it was cool either way.
Of course, you would then explore the rest of the world and see nothing like what is present in Midgar. That tech in FFVII was both an aesthetic choice and integral to the plot.
(Yep, I also wrote a big post about Final Fantasy VII Remake here. Check it out.)
In FFVIII, you get futuristic technology such as a hovering school building that you can pilot, a spaceship, the Lunar Base, and a whole city that was hidden from view Wakanda-style. On paper, that sounds awesome. It just didn’t look or feel right for a Final Fantasy game, though.
I think it’s hard to put a finger on one specific element that makes the game’s aesthetic unpalatable. I don’t think people knew what to make of the world that was so technologically advanced and still had a problem of sorceresses and monsters literally raining from the sky. Was it stretching the suspension of disbelief too much? Maybe, but something about the game’s overall presentation just didn’t sit well with many critics or players.
The Graphics and Art Were Still Awesome
We can argue all day about the overall aesthetic of FFVIII, but those graphics were a nice upgrade from FFVII. Not even just the FMVs, either. The overworld looked decent, the cities were designed well albeit sparsely populated, the monsters were more than blocks, and you got hands in this game. Real hands.
More importantly, we got real proof that Square listened to some of the criticism and feedback from Final Fantasy VII. While it’s tough to follow FFVII with a better story, FFVIII made a significant effort to try new things with this game. Do good graphics outweigh a wonky art style? That’s up to personal taste, I guess. You can’t say the game didn’t try to make something cool, though.
Final Fantasy VIII might not be considered the best RPG on the PS1, and it might not even break into the top 5 or 10. Maybe it should, though.
While I have tried to examine the pieces of the game that were received poorly, I definitely didn’t get to every reason that someone has for disliking the game.
As I’ve said, I enjoyed the game just as I had enjoyed many other entries in the Final Fantasy series. Is FFVIII my favorite? No, but it has enough going for it that I have replayed it several times, and that’s more than I can say about some other games.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading. Feel free to comment and add your reasons for liking or disliking the game.