Sunday, September 13, 2009

Final Fantasy VIII: Beating the System

September 9th, 1999 was a fantastic day to be a gamer. It was the release of Final Fantasy VIII, Square's followup to their breakthrough (In America) title: Final Fantasy VII. But it was also the release SEGA's swan song, the Dreamcast, a system that would endear itself in the hearts of SEGA fans and still be spoken of to this day as a system that was ahead of its time. I made one hard rule when I started this blog. I would only look at games from systems whose generation has passed. With the Playstation 2 still actively receiving new games, the Dreamcast can't be reviewed yet. However, I still wished to commemorate that day, and I could do so by looking back at a game I didn't understand and despised it for that, in order to see if time and understanding would change my perception. I am, of course, referring to Squaresoft's divisive classic, Final Fantasy VIII.

I'm not going to go into detail about the plot or the characters. Most people already know who Squall is and the problems he has, and any insight that I could offer has probably already been discussed much more eloquently than I am capable of. Instead, I want to discuss the Guardian Force system, the core that all of the gameplay is based on and how it can be used to create a game that plays exactly as the player wants.

The Guardians are Final Fantasy VIII's summons, except that instead of solely being the characters big magic attacks, they are the source of all their powers. Without a GF equipped, the only thing they are capable of doing is attacking. Once a GF is equipped though, there becomes a whole range of options for the player to chose from. At the start, these include the magic, item, GF, and draw commands. Three of these commands can be added to your character at any time, and there are others that can be unlocked later, which allows the player to customize how each character approaches battle.

For what I want to discuss though, draw is probably the most important of the skills available at first. That's because magic in Final Fantasy VIII isn't determined in the normal way. A spell doesn't require a certain amount of magic points out of your total pool in order to be cast. Rather, magic in this game is a consumable, which means that as long as you have it, you can use it.

When the character draws a spell from an enemy, it can be either cast or stocked to a maximum of 100 spells. If the player wanted to, he or she could draw all 100 of those from a single enemy. Lets say 100 fires were drawn. Now the player can do one of several things with that group of spells. The most obvious use is that they could be cast on enemies, but that's, sometimes, not the best choice.

Take junctioning, for example. Junctioning, for ease of contemplation, can be thought of as a complicated equipment screen. The Guardian Forces act as the main piece of equipment, each of which comes with different attributes and characteristics. They have skills like ATK-J or HP-J, modifiers like MAG +20%, commands like 'defend' or 'card', skills that effect the summon itself, and some that grant useful skills for inventory management. Some of these skills are available at the start, while others must be learned by gaining AP.

But what we are concerned with, at this moment, are the ATK-J type skills. What these skills allow the player to do is junction a group of spells to the stat it names. So, if the the Guardian Force that a player has equipped knows ATK-J, then one becomes capable of junctioning magic to it. So, if we junction 100 fires to ATK, then that character's attack will increase by 10 points. If we junction 99, then it's 9 points. 85 would be 8 points. And if fira or firaga were junctioned the increase would be even greater. Now, the player is stronger than before, but the trade off is that there is a penalty for using those spells.

At first, this only allows the player to increase the characters stats a little beyond what they should be capable of, and as one would expect, the game is slow to dole out enemies with more powerful spells for the characters to draw from and draw points, special spots on the map where magic can be drawn, are not a good source of magic. However, for the patient, that is not a problem.

The inventory management skills I spoke of come into play here. By learning certain skills, the player is able to refine items into magic. The M-stone piece could be used to make fire magic for example. The Magic Stone could create fira. While the Wizard Stone could be turned into firaga. By refining items into magic, it is possible to gain a large number of powerful magics early in the game.

However, one might think, and rightly so, that collecting these items would require a lot of battles, which would raise the party's level, defeating the purpose of junctioning all that magic because you've already grown stronger. That is only half right, and there are two reasons for that.

The first is that the game levels with you, so as the character's levels grow higher, the game becomes more difficult to compensate. So if the player is the type of person that likes to grind until they are more powerful than his or her enemies, they are actually doing themselves a disservice.

The second reason is that the player does not have to gain EXP for their battles. With the use of the Card command, any monster can be captured and turned into a card. This grants the player everything that came from winning the battle except the EXP. With the use of this command, it is possible for the player to control their level, and by that, the difficulty of the game.

These cards can then be put to an even better use. By acquiring a skill called Card Mod, the player can refine cards into items, and those items into spells. The Card and the Card Mod skills are taught by one of your first Guardian Forces, as is a skill that will turn five low level spells into a mid level spell. For those who want to, it is possible, very early in the game, to create spells beyond what one should have.

What this does, and why this is so amazing, is that it places full control over the game in the hands of the player. If one wants the game to be more difficult, he or she can increase the characters' levels and lower their junctions. If one wants it to be easier, then Card or run from fights to manage your levels and create high level spells to junction.

I used to hate Final Fantasy VIII, and that's because, for the most part, the tutorials explaining the game were horrible. There are a lot of things, such as the game scaling with you, that weren't even explained outside of a SeeD Test. I played though most of the game lost and struggling. And I still hold the game responsible for that. However, going back and figuring out what was actually going on, I was able to find a deep and engaging system that required the player to grind intelligently rather than by simply hitting stuff over and over again until the characters had bigger muscles. And that is what makesFinal Fantasy VIII so fun.

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