Opinions on Final Fantasy VIII vary greatly. I've heard it described as everything from complete drek, to the ne plus ultra of Final Fantasy. In my opinion, it lies somewhere between those extremes. Other noders have reviewed the game effectively above, and covered most of the salient differences from other games in the series. What's missing, though is a quick summary, which is what I'm attempting to provide here
- Gameplay: 4/10. The GF system is interesting and original, but unbalanced and frankly broken. It's fun to play with, but once you know the tricks it kills the challenge of the game. Also, whoever thought of monsters leveling up with you should be made to wade through Level 99 goldfish! Not only does this mean that careful players will never face a challenging fight, it also means that newbies can never out-level the enemy if they're having difficulty. On top of that, the designers seem to have used this "feature" as an excuse to design only about half as many enemies as earlier Final Fantasy games. Also, the gear upgrade system is frustrating, hard to use and doesn't make much sense. On a positive note, though, the salary system is interesting, and probably deserves to be revisited at some point, with the proviso that you should still be able to find Gil in treasure chests and such.
- Graphics: 9/10. Make no mistake, Final Fantasy VIII is shiny. It's all-around a better looking game by far than the acclaimed Final Fantasy VII, and in general better looking than Final Fantasy IX. Most of the character and building designs are interesting, if a little garish, and the cutscenes are beautiful. Gone are the blocky graphics of FF7, and character models are more realistically proportioned, too.
- Story and Plot 6.5/10. Not one of the best in the franchise - that award probably goes to FF6 or FF7 - but not bad, either. The whole time-loop thing is weird and reminds me of a bad episode of Star Trek, and Seifer's role in the whole sordid affair always seemed a little vague to me. That said, the political intrigue, drama, romance and tragedy elements are quite well executed. Where the writers hit, they hit hard - but the misses miss by a mile.
- Music: 9.5/10. If Final Fantasy VIII doesn't have the best soundtrack in the entire Final Fantasy series, then it's damn close. Nobuo Uematsu hit a metaphorical grand slam on this one. Its love themes actually sound like love songs, and the battle themes (especially The Man With The Machine Gun) make me want to fight - or at least dance. Its only real weakness, as far as I'm concerned, is a slightly uninspiring main battle theme. It's not bad by any stretch, it's just that Don't Be Afraid seems slightly weak next to The Man With The Machine Gun, Force Your Way, The Legendary Beast or Maybe I'm A Lion. It's telling that Final Fantasy VIII has one of the most frequently re-performed scores of any video game. Eyes on Me, performed by Faye Wong, doesn't fit terribly well with the rest of the score, but the effect is more like a green apple in a barrel of red ones, than like the oft-mentioned turd in the punch bowl - it's a misfit, but still stands well on its own merits.
- Characters: 6/10. This was a real mixed bag. Some characters are spectacularly well developed - Rinoa Heartilly, Laguna Loire and oddly, Ellone, while others are eminently forgettable or just breezed over, like Irvine Kinneas or Selphie Tilmitt. The main protagonist, Squall Leonheart, just pisses me off. He's a self-absorbed taciturn ass with a level of emo-ness that would make Shinji Ikari tell him to lighten up, who morphs into an altruistic taciturn ass who's only marginally less emo. I want to like Squall, but every time he has a chance to redeem himself for his earlier assiness, he bungles it! Rinoa vacillates between being a pillar of strength and almost completely helpless, but does so in a way that makes perfect sense for her character. Zell Dincht, on the other hand, has all the hallmarks of a mama's boy hiding behind a veneer of machismo. I think that's exactly what he's supposed to be, but the something in the way it's portrayed just rankles.
- Translation: 7.5/10. On the face of it, the translation seems good - and by and large it is. There's just a few minor niggles - mostly plot elements that come from out of the blue - that make me think that a few nuances of dialog were lost. Still, compared to the relatively gimpy translation in earlier Final Fantasy games, this one is quite good. It's also not censored, or at the very least, not enough to notice. There's actually cussing in the dialog now. I'm somewhat neutral on that, since it did stir up some controversy that the series could do without, but it certainly fits and doesn't feel gratuitous.
- Secrets and replay value: 7/10. There's actually a fair amount of stuff squirreled away in the crevices of the world for you to discover. It doesn't have the wealth of side quests that made Final Fantasy 6 and 7 notorious, but it's close. Between the various hidden GFs, spells, monsters and issues of Weapons Monthly, there's a lot to find, even before you start playing Triple Triad.
- Mini-Game: 7/10. Triple Triad is an entertaining game, though the 'local rules' variant is more annoying than enjoyable. Plus, Triple Triad fits into the world fairly well, and there are real game-mechanincal benefits to playing it, unlike Final Fantasy 1's sliding tiles game. Comparisons to the various Gold Saucer games from Final Fantasy 7, and to Tetra Master from Final Fantasy 9 are inevitable - but Triple Triad comes out looking OK.