Final Fantasy VIII was released in 1999 on the Sony Playstation (and in 2000 for the Windows PC) by Square Enix to throngs of expectant gamers, many of whom had been introduced to the series by Final Fantasy VII and were thus not of the typical old-school power gamer crowd. It is one of the most strongly loved and strongly hated games in the series, depending on (in many cases) the player’s affinity for the characters, battle, and character ability setup system.
As in Final Fantasy VII, the world of this game is more technologically advanced and seems chronologically later than many other games in the series — it feels like it's in the near future. What this basically means is that instead of placing the player in a medieval world of swords, shields, and small hamlets, it is a world of high technology. Cities are modern cities; the villain at the beginning of the game is not an evil wizard or grand vizier, but the president of a neighboring country; the vehicles presented to the player range from jeeps to spaceships.
The hero is Squall Leonhart, a student at an elite military academy. The game begins near to your graduation, with only two tests left — a journey into a nearby cavern to obtain a Guardian Force (more on this later) and actually participating in a mission with other prospective graduates. The idea of these academies, called Gardens, is that their highly trained graduates, called SeeDs, will become mercenaries, helping out those who need them (for a fair price of course — you're actually salaried throughout the game). Of course, in the unlikely case that another Sorceress arises and the world is once more plunged into turmoil, the SeeDs’ duty will be to stand against her. SeeDs each specialize in a weapon of their choosing, ranging from Squall’s gunblade (essentially a revolver with an attached sword) to Selphie’s nunchukas to Zell’s fistfighting (which, oddly enough, can be improved with better gloves). Weapons are not bought and sold as in previous games, they are reforged into newer and better models that you discover through reading a Guns and Ammo analogue, issues of which are scattered around the world.
I will not delve heavily into the plot, as it would (in my opinion) ruin the game for my reader. The plot covers 40 years of game time, and is intricately woven, involving about 20 important characters and a huge mess of locations and events. It is, in the end, a tragedy and a romance. The plot is the real draw of this game, and is possibly the strongest in the series. Many players object to the plot, however, finding it trite and boring. What these players have missed is that the part of the story about war, political intrigue, sorceresses, and time travel is merely the vehicle for the important part of the game: the characters.
Almost every character is highly developed, with a past that you piece together as you proceed through the game. The hero is not a typical Final Fantasy hero — he’s a nobody who, although he does well as a student, does not believe in himself, spends much of his time in self-criticism and unhappy introspection, and does not have a great deal of charisma. As the game progresses, he develops into a fighter, a leader, and a considerate human being. Yes, he does get the girl (Rinoa Heartilly) in the end — but not without becoming a better person. The true villain is not the Sorceress by any stretch, but your misguided and unhappy rival, Seifer Almasy. The other characters also undergo transformation and self-discovery, although not as severe.
Another aspect of the game which is a thorn in the sides of many players is the so-called Junctioning system. Essentially, characters fight side-by-side with powerful spirits, called Guardian Forces. As a result of this interaction, they learn skills, become stronger, and can (of course) summon the Forces into battle to fight. Guardian Forces (or GFs) can be equipped (or Junctioned) as the player sees fit, with as many or as few on any characters as he pleases. There are a fair number of Guardian Forces, many of which are only found after difficult (usually optional) battles or at the end of prolonged sidequests. Also different is the magic system. Magic spells are essentially stolen from enemies during battle, and can be either cast then, saved and cast later, or Junctioned to various aspects of the character, including HP, physical and magical strength, or as a preventative against various types of magic or status changes. With each stat, some spell are better than others; some are just plain useless. Balancing them and acquiring more is an important part of the game. Because of the burden placed on the player, it’s possible to be completely screwed for much of the game (as I was the first time I played) or an elite team of juggernauts. Also of note is that the enemies become stronger as you do — it's very much worth it either to avoid battles (which is difficult to do) or to have your characters develop and level up until past the cap for enemy levelbuilding — around level 60 or 70, depending on the foe. This serves to make those players who depend on forced levelbuilding to beat games to think and plan instead of just using brute force.
Also tucked into the game is a highly developed card game, called Triple Triad. It’s essentially an extremely complex, evolving form of one-sided Othello. The rules are highly permeable, and change as you move from location to location in the game, as different places have different variations in gameplay. You can adopt rules that you like, and use them as you play with different people. New cards can be won either by the winner of a match or under special circumstances, depending on the rules being used. Extremely powerful cards are usually won by playing against important characters in the story. As a side quest, Triple Triad can take up many hours of gameplay, and is quite fun. As an added bonus, some cards can be transformed into items using the right abilities from GFs, meaning that an expert card player can turn her hobby into a practical way of getting characters stronger.
The game’s soundtrack is simply amazing. It represents some of Nobuo Uematsu’s best work in his entire career, and it is well worth it to obtain copies of the piano collections (and sheet music) as well as the orchestrated album, Fithos Lusec. This album is just plain beautiful, and stands strongly alongside just about any other classical music one could find. Go forth and find it.
There are dozens and dozens of other ways in which this game breaks the mold set by previous Final Fantasy games, but it’s not worth your time for me to explore them all here. Trust me when I say that if you go into this game with an open mind, learn how to use the junctioning system well, and pay attention to the characters instead of the inconsequential part of the plot, you will find one of the greatest video games ever made. I can promise that.