Final Fantasy VII left some pretty big shoes to fill - perhaps this was why Final Fantasy VIII was one of the most looked-forward-to games of its time. It's neither a cynical manipulation of the seventh's successful formula nor an original breath of fresh air in a stale genre, but a little of both, successful enough to shift quite a few units (likely as not based on its predecessor's success), yet new enough to cause interest. The utterly infuriating thing about the game is the ever-present sense that it could have been the best installment in the series, had the makers bothered to shake up the formula a little more than they already had. Its premise (life of a student at a military academy) is one of the most creative and original that anyone in the industry ever thought of - however, it's abandoned mid-game in favor of a pitifully cliched battle to save the universe, by means of plot devices that were used back in Final Fantasy IV. Likewise, the academy's field exam (very early in the game) is an action sequence with enough force to rival the Assault on Mako Reactor #1 - and the others in the game don't even come close to matching it. (And no one who plays the game will ever forget the utter mind-numbing stupidity of the "amnesia flashbacks.") Once there's a plot point, there is very little chance of it ever coming into play again - after Irvine breaks down in tears at the end of Disc 1, we never hear another meaningful line out of him until the end. On the villains' side, Seifer is, admittedly, a colorful fellow indeed (and his deliberate similarity to Squall was a good idea). The sorceress Edea is actually extremely memorable - or, rather, would be, if she wasn't displaced mid-game by the utterly ridiculous "twists'n'turns." There are definitely some highs (Fujin, while not very three-dimensional, certainly rocks the house six ways to Saturday, and Squall himself is believable in his role) - just not the standard that's been set.
On the plus side, Final Fantasy VIII has what may be the series' best gameplay, combining elements of the three previous systems into the Junction system. It's complicated, but not excessively so, and features several interesting innovations - notably, the fact that you have to Draw magic out of enemies instead of learning it like before. Though this may lead some to think that the game is comprised mostly of boring, tedious Drawing, most magic can be quickly refined from small and useless items. Speaking of items, they seem to play a much lesser role than before. And there's a new money system, too - you actually get paid at regular intervals. The graphics, easily the most-touted part of the game, are indeed worth the hype (although most of the lovely FMV is in the first disc, close to the beginning). The soundtrack, on the other hand, is a bit of a disappointment - too many tunes sound the same - though it does have enough surprising gems in it (Timber theme, Laguna's theme) to be more than worthwhile. And the game's ending is probably the best that a game in the series has ever had - cohesive, clear and providing a real sense of closure.
The game works because the storyline, weak though it is, is still not quite bad enough to make you not want to keep going - it's just that it isn't likely to bring you back to go through it again. The game's got plenty of things going for it, and the first disc marks some of the genre's best moments. When it concentrates on the original points - Squall, Seifer, their rivalry, SeeD, Garden, Edea - it definitely shines, but the rest of the time it's the same old grey RPG sludge that we've been consuming for years. For all its many good points, it doesn't expand on its small, but great ideas enough to rank up there with the genre's best. Not without merit, but disappointing.