I recently replayed Final Fantasy VIII for the first time in years. Something was nagging at me to go back and see whether my initial mixed review was accurate. I'd had a generally negative impression of the game, but I also felt that it had many original ideas. Having played through it again, I still agree with my first review -- I feel like the ideas in the game don't add up to a compelling whole. Nonetheless, I also think many of the individual aspects of the game are extremely original, much better than I'd remembered. So, I figured I'd discuss the matter in greater detail.
The central theme of the game -- the romance between Squall and Rinoa -- is handled as well as you could expect from a video game, that is to say, pretty well. The game understands Squall's social ineptitude and depicts it in very realistic detail. The dance scene after the field exam, when Squall meets Rinoa for the first time, is absolutely perfect. Rinoa drags Squall onto the dance floor, he awkwardly bumps into someone, gets frustrated and tries to save face and get away, but Rinoa won't let him go.
Rinoa is actually a pretty good character, better and more subtle than I remembered. Her dialogue with Squall aboard the Ragnarok, during the game's theme song "Eyes On Me," is very sweet, not because it's "romantic," but because she actually shows compassion and understanding, like when she says that Squall has "missed so much" in life. Many RPGs depict epic themes, some make attempts at philosophy, but few are good at showing simple compassion. Although, at the same time, the love story progresses too quickly after that scene -- Squall's realization that he can't let Rinoa go is a bit too sudden and forced.
The other major plotline, dealing with Laguna, is also full of great ideas. In many ways, it's much better than the main game. It's a very perceptive and original touch to show Laguna progressing from a youthful crush on a piano player to a deeper love for the pub owner Raine. The ending FMV, in which Laguna imagines himself proposing to Raine, though he didn't get around to it in real life, is very sweet and genuinely touching. And the short visions of Raine that you can see if you return to Winhill as Squall are also effective.
The subplot with Seifer also has a few good ideas. His friends Fujin and Raijin are memorable supporting characters. Also, in the early scenes, Seifer comes across as a more nuanced character than he becomes later -- during the field exam, he treats Squall not as an enemy, but more like a little brother, who is inferior to himself but who could possibly understand him.
But. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these ideas remain only general ideas, and are never fully developed. For example, when Squall is hired by Rinoa, it turns out that she already knows Seifer and has spent some time with him. In the beginning, there is a hint that she is fascinated by Seifer and admires him. Shortly afterward, this plot element is swept aside and never returned to again. And that is much too easy. The game could have used it, if not to make a love triangle, at least to illustrate Seifer's character (and Rinoa's, for that matter -- she's supposed to be worldlier than Squall, but we know very little about her life) from different angles. Instead, Seifer's role is greatly reduced and he becomes much less interesting.
Not only does Seifer get short-changed, not only is it unclear how and why Rinoa would be hanging out with him in the first place, but it's also unclear what she's even doing in that Timber resistance movement. The game hints that she has become estranged from her father, so evidently she's just doing it to annoy him. But how did she win the trust of the Timber people? How did she end up in charge of that resistance group? Who are the other guys in the group? Why does she hate her father? What does he think about all of this? They never even have a conversation, not even a token dialogue, later in the game. The entire subplot with General Caraway is completely abandoned immediately after the failed assassination mission in Disc 1.
And sadly, even though the Laguna plotline has some of the best ideas in the game, it also fails to spend nearly enough time on them. Late in the game, Squall comments on the "bond" between Laguna and his two friends, but in fact this bond doesn't really stand out that much. They don't get to talk to each other. Laguna's crush on Julia is also under-developed -- the script seems to imply that he's loved her for a long time, but that's all there is. And Julia's fate is referred to in one short sentence later in the game, and nobody lingers on it.
I like understatement. I like the fact that the game shows Laguna and Julia making small talk, not making epic pronouncements. I like the subtlety of Laguna's later attraction to Raine. It just feels like there's not enough there -- like Julia's sole purpose is just to fill in the running time of this scene, rather than to illustrate a key time of a man's entire life. Maybe it's because of Laguna's personality. He talks very awkwardly, about nothing in particular, making a lot of commotion, using a lot of jargon and words such as "like" and "um." I gather that Julia noticed him because of his youthful earnestness, not because of his intelligence, but I wish he had been given more and better dialogue.
Maybe these scenes are fine in and of themselves. But they are quite short, and the game takes up 40 hours. The rest of the time, it's full of long, boring stretches of unremarkable gameplay.
Unfortunately, the game is extremely slow. I don't just mean that the summons are long -- in fact, if you're playing the game right, you won't be using summons at all past a certain point. Exploration in three dimensions is inherently slower than in two, but here it's taken to extremes. The locations are big and mostly empty (for example, Esthar is supposed to be a huge city, but the parts you can visit are just skyways with a few pedestrians; you don't get to see any houses, so it doesn't look like a place where people credibly live). The towns take up multiple screens (especially Esthar), and just crossing one screen from one end to the other takes a long time. Even landing your airship and walking a few feet to a town takes much longer than it should. Every battle starts with cameras spinning around to introduce the enemies, then your characters appear and wave their weapons. The attacks themselves take a long time, for instance Squall has to raise his gunblade, run at the enemy and slash it. After the battle, the characters first do their victory poses, with more flying cameras. Then you wait for the world map to load again. And so on, over and over. The slowness even messes up some of the dramatic scenes -- the battle between Balamb and Galbadia Gardens should be exciting and fast, but it's not, because you spend the first part running back and forth between points in Balamb Garden, and it takes forever to do that.
Worse, the battles are just not very interesting. Final Fantasy VIII has an excellent battle system, but very boring battles. The Junction system is very detailed and allows for many interesting combinations and manipulations. However, for the first two discs, you will mostly be fighting those pathetic blue Galbadian soldiers and weak enemies like Bite Bugs and Caterchipillars. Occasionally you'll run into a tough fight, but most individual battles are very easy. Furthermore, most battles feature just one or two enemies. There were only about three occasions in the entire game when I saw four enemies on the screen. Well, at least that's more than in Final Fantasy IX...
The gameplay does pick up later on. It was a good idea to make the enemies level up with the characters, because that ends up reintroducing a surprising amount of challenge late in the game. Suddenly, formerly mediocre enemies become much stronger, and get access to very powerful spells and attacks. There are ways to work around this (namely, junctioning 100 Death spells to your status attack), but it provides for some tough fights, especially in the Deep Sea Base secret dungeon.
But for most of the game, you're pounding on one or two weak enemies, over and over, and slowly crawling across the world map. Perhaps it's unsurprising that the cut scenes feel perfunctory and underdeveloped when they arrive. But worse still, around Disc 3, even the good ideas are abandoned in favour of the game's main dramatic plotline, the battle against Sorceress Ultimecia.
Ultimecia is one of the most boring villains in the entire Final Fantasy series. She appears close to the end of the game, much like Zemus in Final Fantasy IV. But Zemus at least had a small excuse for a back story -- he was a compatriot of Cecil's father, and his pride caused him to go insane, or something. Ultimecia has no dialogue, no motivation. Somebody tells you that her goal is to perform "time compression," but not only do they not tell you why she wants to do that, they tell you not to worry about it! But after the romantic scene on the Ragnarok, the rest of the game is exclusively devoted to this quest against Ultimecia, and the other characters are almost completely forgotten. You don't get any lines out of Quistis, Selphie and Irvine after Disc 2!
And then there's the infamous "GF amnesia" scene. It's still awful, after all these years: a totally arbitrary, pointless explanation for a totally arbitrary, pointless plot detail. Why was it even necessary to make the big revelation about the orphanage, given that most of the characters don't play much of a role in the plot? It would have been more than enough to just put Squall there, and make up better and more diverse back stories for the other guys. And yet, the game spends quite a bit of time on this scene, with lots of changes of setting and quite a bit of dialogue. That's more time that it spends on the entire subplot with Raine, which is one of the best parts!
The focus on Ultimecia also means that the game completely turns away from the world in which the story takes place. In the beginning, there are hints of political struggle between Galbadia, Timber, and Dollet. Balamb Garden starts out as a military academy that trains mercenaries that are hired by these powers. Again, an excellent and original idea. These places are also quite well-designed, the appearance of Timber (that blue colour scheme is very eye-catching) and Dollet is very interesting. But after Disc 2, the focus turns to the pastel-coloured, fantastic city of Esthar, and we never return to the political aspects again. I just don't get it: what's the use of taking such trouble to design towns when there is no reason to ever return to them? You don't talk to anyone interesting there, you don't come back to see how someone is doing or to learn new plot developments. It feels like the story is being made up as you go along, and all the earlier parts are being summarily thrown out once you've passed them. But it would have been interesting to have seen more of school life at the Garden, or mercenary life afterward, it could have added detail to the atmosphere and helped in character development. Hell, the world map even shows little trains going back and forth between towns, but you never use the train system again after Disc 1! What's the point?
This is perhaps the most mixed review I'll ever write. I gave Final Fantasy X a better score, even though now I'm inclined to think that Final Fantasy VIII had many more original ideas. But unfortunately, that only makes the end result more disappointing. The designers clearly wanted to make characters that players could like and identify with, even more than in Final Fantasy VII, and yet they couldn't bring themselves to concentrate on that aspect of their story. Perhaps they weren't confident enough to really make a good story about people, so they felt compelled to water down their own game with time compression and GF amnesia. Above all, it's a pity...