Final Fantasy is a franchise I've never been deeply invested in. I played through VII back in the day and thought it was fine, but wasn't blown away. Freaking Seymour is the only thing that kept me from beating X around the same time. I also tried VIII around the same time and bounced off of it almost immediately.
Thanks to the No One Can Know About This podcast, in which the hosts present a documentary-style view of their experience playing through every Final Fantasy game, I've recently fallen headfirst into the series. Last week, in a moment of surreal triumph, I finally rolled credits on Final Fantasy VIII. This is absolutely one of the most confusing, most incredible, and most frustrating video games I've ever played.
But this game is 22 years old, so there are more reviews for it out there than there are spin-offs in the Final Fantasy franchise. Instead of reviewing the game as a whole, I'd like to walk you through my experience of each of the game’s four disks. Let's talk about the weirdo story it tells and the weirdo way it tells it.
If you haven't played this game and don't want its completely bonkers story spoiled for you, stop reading now and go play it!
Disk 1: The Dark Times.
Both when I originally tried this game and this time around, I started it up right after finishing Final Fantasy VII. The game starts you off as an angsty dude with spiky hair and a big sword. After spending so long in VII that just didn’t interest me. It felt too samey, even if his big sword was also a gun.
The world was different, sure, but mostly in weird ways. The start of the game doesn’t really let you get a grasp on the politics of FFVIII’s world, so you basically just follow a linear path doing what you’re told. You meet a bunch of characters who also seem to be fumbling around in the dark. Eventually, you get embroiled in a plot to assassinate this Sorceress who is either a respected world-leader or maybe a despot or somehow both.
It’s all weird and strange and through all of Disk 1 I never really felt like I had anything to grasp on to… and then the main character got killed. So, that’s weird.
Disk 2: Who, What, Where, When, and Why?
Okay, phew, Squall didn’t actually die. Turns out he’s fine, but now you and your crew are on the run from the Sorceress. She outlined her plans to rule the world but for some reason people love her. The characters never really slow down to ask questions, but this is where I got intrigued. At the start, I felt like I was just being served proper noun salad. Disk 2 is where I started to piece together the puzzle that is Final Fantasy VIII.
There’s also some fun gameplay stuff in this section, with you separating your group into different parties. Having to deal with a different set of characters than I’d been using helped me get a better grasp on the junction system this game uses. It basically replaces both the normal magic system and the job system of other FF games. Unlike most FF games I’ve played, though, I quickly realized how I could absolutely abuse the heck out of that system to make my characters incredibly overpowered.
Yup, the game got more fun for me when I figured out how to cheat at it.
About halfway through this disk, the story goes absolutely crazy. You find out that the Sorceress is married to the headmaster of your mercenary school. You find out that the headmaster of your mercenary school is indebted to a mysterious figure named Norg. Then you find out that your mercenary school is a freaking airship, and you crash it into a city. Oh, and also the evil Sorceress that you’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with used to run an orphanage. It turns out your entire party was raised by her even though they have no memory of this.
It’s absolutely buckwild.
This disk ends with one of the coolest sequences I’ve ever seen in a video game. Your airship is in a high-speed pursuit and battle with an airship the sorceress has commandeered. Eventually, you fight her and emerge victorious.
Disk 3: Sure, yeah, of course, why not?
Yup, that’s right. You’ve beaten the big bad and won the game. Except.. this game also deals with time travel. I’m sorry I haven’t mentioned it before, it just didn’t really come up!
Anyway, it’s at this point that your party heads for the mysterious land of Esther. You’re trying to find the girl who has been making your party relive the lives of some other group of folks (don’t worry about it). The plan is for her to send you back in time in order to save one of your party members who is stuck in a magical coma (don’t worry about it).
You find Esther by walking through some holographic force fields in the mountains, revealing the wildest high-tech city you’ve ever seen. It’s very Wakanda. The nation of Esther also manages a space station where a different sorceress is locked up. They decide to send you there, but rather than using a rocket they shoot you at the space station using a big gun.
But wait, there's more!
Your comatose friend gets possessed by a sorceress from the future, Ultimecia. Turns out that’s the actual big bad, and she’s planning to compress every point in history into one moment. Apparently she'd survive that experience while wiping out the rest of existence.
Anyway, your possessed friend facilitates a bunch of monsters flying from the moon to pick up the sorceress in space and fly her back to earth. Did I mention that the moon is covered in monsters? Yeah, the game didn’t really mention it either, until suddenly it was.
So you all get together and you go and fight the new/old sorceress so that she’ll abandon that body and possess your friend again. Then the magic time-traveling lady sends your friend with the future sorceress back in time. She then recalls your friend but leaves the sorceress behind. Now the sorceress has no choice but to compress time and take you to the future where you can face her head on.
Oh and also the person who’s life you lived in the past is probably your dad and he’s the president of Esther now for some reason.
Disk 4: The Darkest Timeline!
I was immediately confused about why this game has a Disk Four. You head straight into the future where you enter Ultimecia’s Castle, which is clearly the final dungeon in the game. The crummy thing about this castle is that as soon as you enter you lose the ability to do anything except for a plain old attack; no more items, no summons, no magic, nothing.
You can, if you are brave, head straight to the final battle with no abilities. If you’re a coward, like me, you can wander around the castle solving puzzles and defeating super-powered bosses in order to earn back your abilities one at a time.
I tried that, and still got my butt kicked. She kicked my butt so hard that I actually went back to Disk Three. I wandered the world to beef up my stats a bunch before coming back to finish the game.
I hate getting to the point where I have to do anything resembling grinding. Especially in a game that let me exploit it’s systems so that I was unstoppable to this point. I genuinely almost gave up and watched a let’s play of the finale.
But I pushed forward, got beefy, and went back to the castle.
The Final Fight
I ended up using a walkthrough to help me figure out how to get most of my abilities back. All geared up, I went to battle Ultimecia herself. It didn’t take long for me to get her to summon a beefy monster for me to battle instead, which I figured was stage two of the battle. After a few more attempts I got to stage 3, where she grafted herself onto the monster and started doing crazy powerful attacks against me.
On my third or fourth try against that third form, I beat her. She turned into a glowing ball of white and exploded and the music got all dramatic and stuff. “Heck yes,” I thought, “I have beaten Final Fantasy VIII!” Then something horrible happened. I heard one of the most terrifying things you can hear in a JRPG. Latin-esque chanting.
It turned out that hadn’t even been her final form.
The fourth and final form of Ultimecia nearly wrecked me. I kept trying over and over and over again, until eventually I gave up for the night. I was so frustrated at the taunting she kept doing at the end of the fight that I looked up a walkthrough to see if I was doing something wrong. This is when I learned this game's final weird design decision: at the point that Ultimecia starts talking in the final battle, you’ve actually gotten her down to zero HP. She just doesn’t die until she finishes talking. All I needed to do was keep the party alive long enough for her to finish!
I went back in as soon as I woke up the next morning. With more of a focus on healing in those final few rounds, I managed to beat Ultimecia, save the timeline, and finish Final Fantasy VIII.
Then I watched a 22 minute cutscene. Apparently that’s why the game needed a Disk 4.
There’s still a lot of the Final Fantasy franchise that I need to play, but in the past year and a half I’ve knocked out VI, VII, and now VIII, and I’ve loved them all. Each one has had unique systems and worlds and characters, but each has had its own charm.
Final Fantasy VIII is by far the strangest Final Fantasy game I’ve played, both in its systems and its plot. The mechanics are janky and weird and poorly explained and easily exploitable, but I loved them. The main character is a mopey loser who doesn’t understand how to socialize. He why his friends hang out with him and I’m not sure I understand why they do either. By the end of the game, though, I was totally invested in him. The plot is vague and convoluted and your characters almost never stop to ask any questions. If they did, it would help you or them understand what’s going on better, but the vagueness is part of the intrigue.
I don’t think Final Fantasy VIII is an objectively good video game. It's got a weird battle system a weird story and is just generally weird. I do think it’s my favorite in the franchise so far.
Geek to Geek Rating: 5 out of 5 very confusing stars
Oh shoot, I forgot to mention the part when you have to help film a movie. Ooh, and the prison break! Dang it, I didn’t even get to the part where you have to assemble a band and play a concert. And what about the part where you free float through the vastness of space in order to rescue your girlfriend?!
This game rules.