How to make friends and stop alienating people
It’s difficult to follow up on the heels of a massive hit, even if you’re not producing a direct sequel. Disregarding Final Fantasy Tactics, which was set in a very different environment and wasn’t part of the numbered series, Final Fantasy VIII had the difficult task of being the de facto successor to FFVII. Therefore, it was bound to draw three things: close scrutiny, inevitable comparison and (unreasonably?) high expectations. And when the latter were not met – or, rather, when the developers tried to do something different – polarisation ensued. It’s difficult to find a middle ground in terms of opinions concerning FFVIII: fans of the series tend to either love it or hate it.
Most of the criticism focuses on the two main protagonists and the overemphasis on their relationship, the lack of development of the main villain(s) and the combat system. I will readily concede the two latter points: combat can get tedious, and both Edea and Ultimecia were criminally underused. But I don’t fully agree with the former point. Yes, the central relationship takes on a life of its own to the detriment of other stuff towards the end of the game, and that’s unfortunate, but I can’t agree with all the vitriol that both Squall and Rinoa receive, especially by comparison with their counterparts from FFVII. Case in point: Squall manages to grow and mature over the course of one game, whereas Cloud is still wallowing in misery two years after the end of his (c.f. Advent Children); Rinoa feels like a realistic character, flaws, pettiness and all, while Aeris/Aerith gradually becomes some kind of motherly archetype who can do no wrong.
FFVIII isn’t perfect; so much more could’ve been done with it given more time or perhaps fewer plot points. Other character relationships could’ve been fleshed out more, motivations explained,
chocobos not rendered useless. And yet it still ranks among my top five games in the FF series. The main reason is characterisation: the game has a very believable teenage protagonist in Squall, whose deep-seated fears I used to relate to, back in my own teenage days, and whose evolution over the course of the game is heart-warming. What’s more, he’s backed up by an almost shockingly likeable cast (coming as it does after FFVII, where I had severe issues with most of the crew), among whom Laguna shines bright as one of the most endearing goofs with a heart of gold I’ve ever encountered in a game.
The second reason is world building. The game does a great job at integrating its more esoteric elements (notably Guardian Forces, which are given an unprecedented amount of attention) within a more realistic world, including such seemingly mundane details as educational systems or salaries. The third reason is the ending, which invariably makes me tear up every time I see it. There’s also the quality of the cinematics, which have dramatically improved since FFVII, especially in terms of facial expressions – and thus, emotional depth. The now-famous ballroom scene and the ending both illustrate this perfectly, but the opening scene is also a stunner.
Bottom line: if you’ve never played this game before, but are aware of its negative reputation, don’t let it deter you. You might actually surprise yourself and enjoy it, much as I did.