Know Your Role #4-Final Fantasy VIII

Recently, faithful Junkieites, I began a new articles series entitled “Atari Man Defense Squad”, where I take a second look at a piece of video game history that is either often maligned, misunderstood, or just flat out overlooked. Often times when I review games, they can become victim of what I like to call the “red headed stepchild syndrome” where even though they are a part of a vast series of titles that all work together in perfect harmony (if only on paper) they are so often overlooked due to that one game in the series that seemingly everyone has deemed THAT ONE GAME every fan of the franchise must have. Today, on Know Your Role, I take a look at a game that all too often suffers from that syndrome, Final Fantasy VIII on the PS1.

Whereas many of my opinions on reviews are based on my actual playing of the game, as well as some research, before I get into the review, some of you may not fully understand what I mean by when I say this game is so often ignored because it isn’t Final Fantasy VII. Allow me to elaborate. To be Final Fantasy VII is like to be a part of a sports team that even though you are consistent, show up, and do your job, you’re not doing the crazy, acrobatic, and showman type stuff your co-worker Final Fantasy VII is doing. People pat you on the back, tell you “Good job, Final Fantasy VIII” while throwing roses, awards, and their newborn children at the feet of Final Fantasy VII. Why Final Fantasy VIII hasn’t gone all Clark Griswold on Square Enix by this point is beyond me.

Somebody get me some Tylenol.

If a Retro Junkies comparison is more to your liking, it’s like throwing an ALL SNES party, having the perfect drinks, snacks, and entertainment, and just when it seems all guests have arrived and all is well, the doorbell rings..

I know..scary, right?
I know..scary, right?

Ok, so maybe it’s not quite like that, but that’s your receipt for “Sega Boy”, you flannel wearing hoser. What I do know is this, even at my store, many customers will go on and on about Final Fantasy VII, and yet when I mention the follow up they either say “Oh I’ve never played that”, like I somehow just darkened their day by mention of something that is less of a game next to the mighty Final Fantasy VII, or they say “Oh I never finished playing that”, like Sephiroth himself is holding a blade to their neck telling them to “Never ever play that horrible game or it’s your neck!”

You know, just another typical day for this fella.

On that note, let’s roll that beautiful bean footage..not really.

sup, Hickman?

For many years, seemingly since the beginning of video game time, no matter what the company’s name behind it was, Final Fantasy titles have been THE benchmark for RPGs, and while that has certainly changed over time, both in the present as well as through second looks through less rose colored glasses at the past, Final Fantasy games have always been different, changing, for better or worse, how we look at the genre as a whole, all while trying to balance the core elements that make the genre so great, as gamers clamor for something fresh and new. One thing many Final Fantasy titles have remained consistent with throughout are the soundtracks, and Final Fantasy VIII is no different, continuing with the tradition of some stellar tunes throughout, although I think by this point most (not all) gamers were getting sick and tired of yet another “remastered” version of the battle theme because you can be a firm believer in tradition and still be sick of stuff, like Christmas fruit cake, or grandparents pinching your cheeks during holiday dinners.

One of the greatest challenges for me as a writer/blogger/Rob Luther joke teller is looking at a game in the most complete of senses, and for me that isn’t viewing a game through the eyes of what it was like when a game and came out and “changed the world” or was hyped to the moon. It’s difficult, nearly heartbreaking, to see a game that was long herald for greatness having those chinks in the armor that are glaring in 2015. What I’m getting at is for all the fanfare for Final Fantasy VII, the graphics were not the best by any means, especially in the realm of character creation. These were blocky, spiky haired looking weirdos that did not hold up well over time, and yet these are the characters Final Fantasy fans swoon over, while the graphics for the PS1 follow up were far greater in every way. Contrasting the blocky, polygonal fest of its predecessor, the graphics in Final Fantasy VIII are undoubtedly smoother and more refined and when you are 34, years removed from the hype parade behind any PS1 Final Fantasy games, you realize this makes a HUGE difference in both the appreciation and overall enjoyment of these games. During the rise of the PS1, and even the N64, we were just happy to have something that at the time blew our minds. Like those who grew up with the Atari 2600, NES, and SNES, we never thought the state of video games would get any better graphically, and that it did, and it still does, and when it really comes down to it, two things are so awfully apparent. Games that may have a solid core have a harder time keeping our attention because the artwork and design just isn’t that pretty anymore, and games that actually have better graphics than the more popular titles in a franchise have yet another reason to be ignored by gamers, which is sad. Bottom line, if you’re playing RPGs for more than just the story, that’s fine, but do yourself a favor and give credit where it’s due, it isn’t enough in 2015 for a game to tell you a good story, it also needs to put you into a world that fascinates all your senses, including sight, and to me, Final Fantasy VIII was just aesthetically better than the mighty Final Fantasy VII sitting pretty on its throne.

Unfortunately, one of the things that HAS to happen in any game, regardless of what genre, franchise, or era in gaming, is that the game has to be fun to play, and this is especially true in RPGs for a couple of reasons. Obviously one of the things that both turns gamers away from RPGs while also bringing in a whole new fan base is that these games are time consuming. They require quite the investment in time, and as so, you’ve got to actually desire to play the game, to grind for hours, to enjoy the battles, and find secrets along the way. Secondly, the story has to both be an interesting one of twists and turns, but also possess characters that are either relatable or at least having a personality that is endearing to a point. RPGs, especially the classics, have characters for every kind of gamer. Even the ones that few gamers like are still appreciated because gamers can say “Well, he may be a jerk, but I understand why he feels this way.” Lastly there needs to be a battle system that is both well tuned and also easily accessible to gamers. The sad truth of it all is this is where Final Fantasy VIII not only stumbles, but it might as well have fallen into a manhole set up by one of those guys from Urban Champion on the NES. As stated, graphically this is a very good game, however, it is apparent that this was the beginning or one of the earliest signs that RPGs within the Final Fantasy franchise were going to focus way too much on the pretty things and less on the core elements of the genre. If you don’t believe me, try enjoying these pretty guardian summons that are kind of like that one song you love on the radio that is then played to death to the point where even if you think Adele or Sam Smith are fantastic artists you want to strangle them. It’s all fun and games until someone wants to put the controller down and never pick up the game again. This seemingly harmless decision made by developers was the first major flaw in the game, but perhaps as equally annoying is that the lead character in this game is about as endearing and appealing as, well, I’ll let The Office sum it up. Oh and shut up, Luther and Stephens. Love ya!

Yeah, it’s EXACTLY like that.

Now many RPGs, like films and television shows, have characters that while not the star of the show have developed a cult following because they have those witty quips or those little nuances that actually make them quite interesting or at least entertaining, but as long as the lead is strong it doesn’t affect our love for this product because we don’t need these side characters to be present to keep the story going, they’re just the icing on the cake..or the crap Nick Stephens puts on his hot dog. Gosh, what a hoser. However, in the case of Final Fantasy VIII, the story is abominably “held up” by a guy who is just a colossal jerk who by the time he shows any kind of endearing and appealing personality quirks we want to throw off the nearest bridge, or at least into The Grinder at Mondo Burger. I mean, just look at this guy.

Even his digitized smile seems fake and insincere. Also how are we supposed to connect with a American Eagle winter jacket model with a gun/sword? A gword? A swun?

And thus this causes a domino effect the game never truly comes back from. Final Fantasy VIII games have complicated characters and that’s fine, but they are usually presented in a way that gamers can be patient knowing there’s going to be a moment where you realize what makes the character so awesome. In the case of Squall this either never happens, depending on your viewpoint, or happens after you’ve already played the game for several hours and want to smother him with a Final Fantasy VIII licensed pillow.

Using one of these pillows makes his demise acceptable, you know, because poop emojis are A-OK.
Using one of these pillows makes his demise acceptable, you know, because poop emojis are A-OK.

Final Fantasy VIII had all the potential in the world to either continue where its predecessors left off or to take the game in a completely different (and great) direction, but in the end this is an enigma of an entry in the lush Final Fantasy series, becoming either a bitter pill to swallow or a game that the same people who prefer different (and often maligned) entries in other super popular franchises defend feverishly for having to come on after the masterpiece that so many gamers found Final Fantasy VII to be. I am left on the fence about this game to be honest. Do I feel it is the worst Final Fantasy title in the entire canon of work from Square/Enix? Certainly not, but I do feel this was the first misstep in a series of them that have often plagued and misguided the franchise to the point where even diehard fans of the franchise are clamoring more for Super Deluxe Awesome HD versions of earlier entries (Hi there, Final Fantasy VII, lookin’ so smug!) and less for whatever new “innovation” developers come up with, which speaks volumes to the notion that perhaps this tried and true franchise is losing its pension to create something RPG fans want to play. In the end, Final Fantasy VIII is different, and within the realm of gaming, is different really all that bad?

Then again, different can be getting attacked by random pigeons scary.
Then again, different can be getting attacked by random pigeons scary…
..or why the hell would ANYONE glorify death by diabetes for profit scary..
..or why the hell would ANYONE glorify death by diabetes for profit scary..
..or, ya know what, different is dangerous, let's just stay the hell away from dangerous, ok?
..or, ya know what, different is dangerous, let’s just stay the hell away from dangerous, ok?

Speaking of different, I am going to be tackling a game I never played before, as we enter the world of Vagrant Story next time on Know Your Role, where it’s ok to admit you didn’t really like that sweater your mother got you for Christmas. I mean it’s not like she gave birth to you or anything, right? Hoser!

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