After the runaway success of Final Fantasy VII, expectations were high for the release of Final Fantasy VIII. Square Enix attempted to turn the series on its head, introducing many new and unique features. Even as a series that is constantly reinventing itself with each numbered instalment, Final Fantasy VIII feels like the black sheep of the franchise.
Final Fantasy VIII Remastered has been a long time coming; seemingly most other Final Fantasy’s have had some sort of facelift in the years since VIII’s original release. But even then the changes feel mostly minor. And without going into a ‘remaster vs. remake’ discussion, this does mean Final Fantasy VIII remains as divisive as ever.
You play as Squall Leonhart, a student of Balamb Garden, but this isn’t a regular school. Students in Gardens are actually in training to be SeeDs, a member of a mercenary force for hire. The game starts with Squall gearing up for his final exam, which just happens to coincide with the Republic of Galbadia invading the small city of Dollet.
After completion Squall then becomes a full-time SeeD member and must take on all manner of tasks that revolve around this ongoing war. Or that’s the plan at least, but in typical Final Fantasy style it isn’t long before Squall and his fellow SeeDs are pulled into a battle for the survival of the world they inhabit.
Final Fantasy games are known for going all over the shop in terms of plot, but these tangents typically occur towards the end of the games. VIII once again subverts expectations by introducing elements of body shifting, shared dream experiences and generally ‘out there’ story elements very early on. Whilst sometimes at the expense of character development for Squall and the rest of his crew, it is interesting nonetheless.
Final Fantasy VIII completely rewrites the traditional turn-based battle system as well. The Active Time Battle – ATB – system is still present, but the main change is in the removal of MP. MP stands for Magic Points and is akin to your HP; a bank of points used to perform magic attacks. It has been in every single mainline Final Fantasy game, so it is a massive deal not being included in VIII. What you get instead is the ability to Draw magic from Draw points in the world, but also from enemies you face. This gives you a Stock of each magic, the number of times you can cast it. But these values have another, more crucial feature.
Magic can be attached to certain character stats in a mechanic called Junctioning. Doing so increases the stats and can make you incredibly overpowered. This is because – in another change to traditional Final Fantasy games – enemies are scaled to your level. They are not scaled to your Junctioned abilities however, so you could kick like a mule despite having a lower level and as a result battling becomes a lot easier.
Of course, all this could be considered a moot point with the various boosters available in this remaster. Once again, the x3 speed, battle booster and no encounter buffs are all available, identical to the ones found in Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX.
Other new items to feature in the remaster include updated character models. But other than that there is very little else; this begs the question then of why the other PlayStation One era Final Fantasy titles – that all feature the same limited touch-up – haven’t been given the same remaster moniker?
Pre-rendered backgrounds are the same low resolution as they were in 1999 – and in 4:3 format with no border – and the music is the same as the original (not a bad thing but some remastered tracks would have been welcome). As a result, seeing some high-resolution character models running around pre-rendered backgrounds gives off the wrong impression.
There is one saving grace that hasn’t been touched, and that comes in the form of Triple Triad, the main minigame that is played by many NPCs in the world. It is a collectible card game played on a 3×3 grid and can easily suck up most of your time if you are not careful. It’s incredibly easy to learn and understand but also comes with a lot of depth the more time you put into it. I am not ashamed to admit that I did on more than one occasion put a pin in my world saving exploits just so I could have one more card game.
Junctioning can also be done with your Guardian Forces, referred to as GFs. These are your summons in Final Fantasy VIII, and there are a lot of them. Being an older Final Fantasy game, summons are incredibly useful and can be used whenever, unlike Final Fantasy XIII where they were hardly ever used and Final Fantasy XV where the game dictated when you could use them. Franchise favourites such as Shiva, Ifrit and Bahamut are all present, along with some less frequent ones including Brothers, Diablos and Doomtrain. Some are hidden and require ‘Drawing’ them from different enemies, but many are awarded to you as you progress through the game.
Final Fantasy VIII Remastered has 34 achievements in total, and for a JRPG it is a fairly forgiving list. There are still a few missable achievements related to GFs and a couple of collectibles, but the game crucially doesn’t disable achievements when using the three boosters. For those that just want to enjoy the story and not spend loads of time grinding, these boosters are invaluable.
The plot for Final Fantasy VIII is nothing special in terms of the long running franchise standards, but the beauty is in the unique battle system. It certainly takes a bit of understanding, but spend time with it and you will be richly rewarded; the customisation options to buff the stats the way you want sounds trivial now, but many RPGs before the original release of VIII simply didn’t have it.
There’s a big argument that Final Fantasy VIII Remastered on Xbox One isn’t a true remastering. Some things are haphazardly ported over, and it’s the same gripes with the recent Xbox releases of VII and IX, though at least the music restarting itself isn’t an issue here. But then on the other hand it feels like a bit of a forgotten gem – we never thought we’d get a modern release of the game, and I am incredibly grateful that we have. Final Fantasy VIII remains as divisive as ever, but now fans have a way to decide for themselves without sourcing an older copy.