This isn’t the easiest game in the series due to the fact that enemies scale to your party’s level. This was done in the interest of maintaining a constant level of challenge. In fact, actual level gains only have a minimal effect on stats, making junctioning essential. Of course, you could try to avoid combat whenever possible, but there are several issues with this strategy. First of all, your characters live and die by the abilities they learn from GFs, and if they’re not fighting, their GFs aren’t earning any EXP or AP.
Secondly, in order to boost their stats or upgrade their weapons, your characters need magic and enemy item drops, but those also depend on the enemies’ levels (the same enemy could be carrying different ones at higher levels). You could always spend hours playing cards and turning them into items or magic, or use the LV Up ability learned from Tonberry, which will raise an enemy’s level by a given amount, but it’s a rather tedious solution (and you need to fight 20 tonberries to obtain the GF…).
Thirdly, the amount of fighting your party does affects their monetary gains. For the purposes of greater realism, money no longer drops from enemies. Instead, when Squall passes his exam, he is assigned a certain SeeD Rank, based on his actions during the event. This determines the salary he is paid at fixed intervals during the game. Avoiding random encounters will steadily drop the Rank (as will getting paid, actually), and thus impair your party’s finances. You can improve it by taking Tests, which are 30 series of short questions about the game world and mechanics, available from the main menu. Every correctly answered series gives you an extra Rank, but Squall’s level determines the highest series you’re allowed to answer (if he’s level 18, you can only answer series 1 to 18), so if you’re not gaining any levels, your financial supplies will be more difficult to keep up.
Last, but not least, some places in the game have fixed-level enemies, namely the Island Closest to Heaven and the Island Closest to Hell, which are both brimming with rare magic Draw Points. The problem is that the local enemies are always level 100. And you DON’T want to face a level 100 Ruby Dragon or Malboro unprepared. In fact, your odds against a Malboro at any level are pretty poor–this is the deadliest they’ve ever been in the series up to this point–, so do avoid them whenever possible. The problem is that you need some items from them to teach Quistis their Bad Breath attack and, more importantly, to construct Doomtrain, one of the most useful GFs in the game.
The best way of dealing with Malboros, especially before your characters learn St-Defx4, is to rely on Odin, one of the four non-junctionable GFs in the game. He can be obtained via clearing the Centra Ruins (where you can return afterwards to obtain Tonberry as well), and, once subdued, will randomly appear at the beginning of any non-boss battle to dispatch the enemies in one fell swoop with his Zantetsuken attack. You can increase his appearance rate by collecting Dead Spirits, but he tends to show up in Malboro encounters pretty consistently anyway. If he doesn’t, your best bet is to escape and try again. The problem is that the storyline eventually forcibly replaces Odin with Gilgamesh. The latter can appear at any time during a battle (including boss battles), but has four attacks at his disposal to pick from randomly, only one of which is Zantetsuken (and one of the other three, Excalipoor, deals ONE point of damage). So this is a distinctly lousy tradeoff, and I heartily encourage you to get as much mileage as possible out of Odin before finishing Disc 3.
The other non-junctionable GFs are Phoenix and Boko. The former can be summoned by using a Phoenix Pinion in combat and will subsequently have a chance of reappearing if your party is KO’ed to revive them, as long as you have at least one Phoenix Pinion in your inventory (the more you have, the higher the chance). Two Phoenix Pinions can notably be obtained by following the lengthy string of sidequests involving Shumi Village and Winhill to gain more information about Laguna and his life after the Galbadian army.
Boko is obtained via the Chocobo Forest sidequest and can be summoned by using a Gysahl Green in combat. Chocobo Forests have a distinct domed shape and each features a puzzle, but you only need to solve one of them to obtain Boko. You can also continue the sidequest to earn some goodies and a rare card. Chocobos are available for riding once you solve the puzzle in each forest, but the problem is that they’re only really useful once late in the game, as there are plenty of other, more accessible means of transportation.
Another issue is that Boko is involved in a large chunk of cut content. In the Japanese version of the game, players could originally level Boko up by playing a minigame called Chocobo World on something called a PocketStation, a PlayStation add-on that never made it to Western shores. The storyline was bare-bones and very childish, but Boko ended up learning four different attacks, including one that broke the 9,999 damage limit, and you could obtain two extra non-junctionable summons, Moomba and MiniMog. This minigame has been restored in the PC version of the game, but PlayStation users remain SoL. It’s not really a big deal, as there are other ways of dealing heavy damage, and the content is pretty silly, but it’s still worth mentioning.
On the other hand, where FFVII had chocobo racing, FFVIII has Triple Triad, a rather addictive card game. Squall obtains a starting deck at the beginning of the game and can then challenge NPCs by pressing Square. Cards can represent standard enemies, bosses, GFs or characters, the latter being the strongest cards in the game. Each card features a set of four numbers, which apply to each of its sides. The higher numbers are stronger, with A being higher than 9. Some cards are also elemental (which raises or lowers their stats by 1 in some circumstances). Prior to a match, each player picks a hand of five cards. The cards are then successively placed face up on a 3×3 grid (hence the name of the game). In order to win, you must capture your opponent’s cards by placing your cards in such a way that the side adjacent to the opponent’s card has a higher number. So if your card has an 8 associated to its top side, and you place it below the opponent’s, which has a 2 associated to its bottom side, you capture the card.
Different rules are applied, depending on which region of the world the party is in, and winning several games in a row may spread one of the previously encountered rules to the party’s current region. Some are very handy, such as Open, which allows you to see your opponent’s cards and thus prepare a strategy in advance. Others are a real pain, such as Random, which, as you can guess, randomly picks your hand from your available cards. Trying to control these rules is very frustrating and involves tracking down the Queen of Cards, an NPC who travels around the world and has the ability to change card rules for a steep fee. This is both unreliable and expensive, so trying to adapt is still your best strategy. But don’t let that deter you: cards can be converted into items and magic using Quezacotl’s Card Mod ability, so obtaining the most powerful ones can be very profitable (e.g. the Gilgamesh card), and modding the lesser-quality cards takes the sting out of the Random rule. There’s also an additional sidequest in which Squall can challenge the secret BGU Card Club for a bunch of powerful cards.
Other noteworthy sidequests include using Occult Fan magazines to track down PuPu, a curious little alien who collects samples of the planet’s flora, fauna and architecture (including a cow and a Moai head) to obtain his card, or the weird Obel Lake interlude. There’s also the Deep Sea Research Center, an abandoned marine lab containing the Bahamut GF, lots of difficult monsters and one of the optional superbosses of the game, Ultima Weapon, which carries Eden, the strongest GF, as a prize. The second superboss of the game, Omega Weapon, is located inside the final dungeon. While it’s always level 100, the battle is made easier by the fact that its actions follow a fixed pattern that you can exploit. Or you can just mod the Gilgamesh card for 10 Holy Wars, which make the party temporarily invincible.
Since we’re talking about the final dungeon, I might as well mention the final boss. Edea looks stunning and could have made for a fine opponent–not to mention the first female antagonist in the series since FFIII–, especially once her backstory comes to light. But then, the game pulls the same trick as FFIII did with Dark Cloud/Cloud of Darkness and introduces the ‘real’ villain somewhere around Disc 3 (out of 4). Thus, we have Ultimecia. She’s also female, which makes FFVIII unique in having not one, but two major female antagonists, something that no other game in the series has. However, besides that, her inexplicable speech quirks and her incredibly revealing outfit (seriously, how does that dress even stay on her?)…she’s just generically evil, and her chosen method for world domination is rather ridiculous. The battle against her is complicated by the fact that she starts out by selecting three party members at random. Meaning that if, like me, you only have three fully-kitted characters, you may find yourself facing her with one or two unprepared combatants. Fortunately, this is just a temporary annoyance, as, if one of them dies, they will eventually be replaced; you just need to wait until you obtain your preferred party composition. After that, it’s pretty much a cakewalk.
The equipment system has been simplified to the maximum: there’s no armour or magical accessories, only weapons that can be upgraded. Mind you, this still changes their appearance and costs money, so the end result is pretty much the same; it’s just that you don’t need to choose what to buy anymore. Weapon upgrades require specific enemy item drops and ‘recipes’ found in Weapons Monthly magazines. Then you just need to visit a Junk Shop to perform the upgrade.
Another detail that I must mention in praise of the game’s realism is the transportation system. Not only can your party rent cars (nevermind the fact that only Quistis is old enough to drive unsupervised), but you actually need to keep up fuel supplies. The railway system is also very well implemented and even features random train traffic while wandering around the World Map.