If you’re an enjoyer of JRPGs, then you probably have some history with Final Fantasy. Like many, my first experience with the series was with the much beloved Final Fantasy VII. I’ve since gone played nearly every mainline FF game, the eighth and ninth games being notable exceptions. Of course, the existence of this blog post can only mean one thing. I have completed my 253rd video game.
Final Fantasy VIII is a strange and fascinating game. As I reflect on my experience, much of what comes to mind is negative. I almost didn’t finish the game, and yet here we are.
Almost all of my issues with the game begin with the number of interlocking mechanics: magic drawing, junctioning, Guardian Forces (or GFs), the Triple Triad card game, and leveling-scaling enemies. They work together to make for a convoluted progression system, and you can’t afford to ignore any of the mechanics because they’re all connected.
I’ll try to summarize Final Fantasy VIII‘s mechanics in a single wall of text. I do this not because I want you to read it—though you can if you’re so inclined—but rather to demonstrate just how much you need to learn in order to be proficient in the game’s language of play.
You have to junction multiple GFs to a character in order for the GFs to learn abilities as you earn AP. When the GFs learn abilities you can equip those abilities to the character that the GF is junctioned to. You can draw magic from enemies, and each character can hold 100 units of any particular magic. You can then junction that magic to your characters stats, assuming the GF that is junctioned to that character has learned the ability that unlocks that particular stat. Most of the best magic can be had by refining Triple Triad cards and items, which require specific abilities that your GFs should learn. You can get new cards by winning Triple Triad card games against the people you encounter in the game, so you should try challenge everyone (even though some people don’t play). But be aware that some of the rules of Triple Triad change depending on what part of the world you’re in. It can be either fun or frustrating. You can also acquire cards by turning enemies into cards. Turning an enemy into a card is the only way to defeat that enemy and earn AP with earning XP. This is important because—contrary to what you might have learned from every other JRPG you’ve played—you should actively avoid earning XP and leveling up because enemies scale with your level. Besides that junctioning magic to your skills ends up making you incredibly strong, even at low levels. Also, each character can only hold 32 different kinds of magic, so you might not realize that you’ve maxed out a character’s magic inventory when you’re trying to draw powerful late-game magic. Of course each character’s magic inventory is completely separate, so you’ll need to manage them seperately by navigating all the menus that allow you to junction GFs, magic, stats, attack buffs, defense buffs, and character abilities.
I think that’s all of it. Please forgive me if I missed anything.
It’s crucial to understand all of this when you begin the game—especially that you avoid leveling up—so that you don’t make the game impossibly hard in the future. In the meantime, I constantly felt like I was playing the game wrong, a major anathema for me. And my solution for this was to consult a guide. I eventually settled on a thorough video guide by a YouTuber named FuzzfingerGaming. I found myself sitting at my computer desk, Nintendo Switch in hand, playing alongside the host.
I felt constrained by the learning curve, and I was trying to replicate someone else’s experience with the game. It wasn’t fun. So I stopped playing the game. I wrote Final Fantasy VIII off as a game that simply wasn’t for me.
That was late last year.
Then a few weeks ago, I loaded up my 30-hours-long save file on a whim. I started poking at the game without any expectation of mastery, and ironically Final Fantasy VIII started to make sense to me.
I thought about Squall. He’s far from an aspirational, heroic character. But unlike the more straightforward characters that contemporary JRPGs often centers on, Squall is given an interiority. The player sees his thoughts rendered as parenthetical statements on the screen. We know that he struggles with the tasks that are forced upon him. There is a clear disconnect between the expectations placed upon him, and what he feels he is capable of handling. In his worst moments, he resents those expectations. I can’t help but to wonder how much this would resonated with me if I had played it when it released in my early teenage years… instead of my late 30’s.
The narrative in Final Fantasy VIII is not particularly sophisticated, being a self-described love story. However, the game takes some wild twists and turns in it’s final third (let’s talk about 🎮𝕥𝕚𝕞𝕖 𝕔𝕠𝕞𝕡𝕣𝕖𝕤𝕤𝕚𝕠𝕟🎮), which becomes a tradition in subsequent Final Fantasy games. The absurdity is what will stick with me as the years pass and the immediacy of my annoyance with the mechanics fades in my memory… like the lost memories of an orphan who can’t remember her childhood because she junctioned with a Guardian Force that lives in the part of the brain where her memories are stored.
I think the years will be kind to my recollection of this game, but for now it’s my least favorite mainline Final Fantasy game. In my ongoing effort to rank every game that I’ve ever finished, Final Fantasy VIII is tentatively ranked 236 out of 253.