I have a secret to tell; I actually enjoyed Final Fantasy VIII more than I did Final Fantasy VII. Before you immediately judge me or dismiss this review, hear me out. Twenty years ago, this epic tale of students at a military school battling an evil sorceress clicked with me. Harry Potter, another story about school kids battling an insurmountable foe, had only one book to its name, but was already becoming a cultural phenomenon, and FFVIII capitalized on that. The production of the eighth Final Fantasy adventure and the incredible music score by Nobuo Uematsu made this — at the time — one of the best games in the series, even if it wasn’t appreciated in its day. Now, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its debut, Square Enix has released Final Fantasy VIII Remastered, an HD version of the iconic adventure with new character models and a few new features to make the game run a bit faster.
Final Fantasy VIII Remastered is the story of Squall Lionheart, a moody, emo-centric student at Balamb Garden, a military school. He and his fellow students are training to become SeeDs, the upperclassmen who lead the school under the watchful eyes of his one-time teacher, Quistis Trepe, and the school’s headmaster, Cid. Squall also has a heated rivalry with Seifer Almasy, a cocky older student who thinks he’s better than his fellow classmates, and his instructors, and wants to prove it every chance he can get.
This day-to-day existence at the school is made even more complicated as a war is being fought between the Dollett Dukedom and the Republic of Galbadia. The various Gardens around the world are contracted to fight in the conflict, and when called for, the SeeDs are sent into battle, making for a tough school year for Squall and his friends. This becomes even more complicated when he meets Rinoa Heartlilly, a young girl with a secret, and he falls deeply in love with her.
In fact, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered’s overall theme is love. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the series, was known to explore abstract themes in his FF titles. The first was a battle between order and chaos, Final Fantasy VII’s theme was the dangers of unchecked corporate greed, and Final Fantasy X — the last title that Sakaguchi worked on — tackled religion and sin. At the time, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered was a departure and a new path, both of which separates it from the other titles in the long-running franchise.
As Squall, Rinoa, and their band of heroes get pulled further and further into the conflicts of the world around them, a sorceress, Edea, comes to power, and she — in one form or another — proves to be the antagonist standing in the way of these students and any chance at a happy ending. There’s also a time-travel element and a side character’s story that must be resolved. These are big-time themes for a 20-year-old game, and they still resonate today.
The combat mechanics in Final Fantasy VIII Remastered were groundbreaking at the time, and Sakaguchi and his team outdid themselves with the nuances at play here. Magic spells were not readily available and had to be drawn from enemies or various locations around the world. In battle, you could choose to draw and stock a spell, like Fire, Cure, or Esuna, or cast it immediately. Each character in the party has their own spell pool to build up, so stocked spells were not shared between the team.
Adding to this was the advent of the Guardian Forces (GF). GFs were epic summons that had to be equipped to each character. The power and type of the Guardian Forces dictate the spells and stats boosts the character would get. They also level up with XP earned in battle and learn new skills along the way. In part, acquiring, equipping, and “raising” GFs feels a little like Pokemon training, another huge phenomenon in the late ’90s. Getting all the GFs becomes a sidequest in itself, and in Final Fantasy VIII Remastered, trophies and achievements are awarded for each GF you find and acquire.
The combat system is much deeper than what I’ve discussed, as I’ve only scratched the surface. Skill boosts and more can be combined with Guardian Forces for an even deeper experience. It feels daunting at first, but a few hours into the game, all of it feels natural, and the level of customization to each of the game’s six main protagonists is rewarding.
Final Fantasy VIII Remastered features new character models, replacing the heavily digitized models from the original. In fact, the character models now look better than those in the fully rendered CGI cutscenes. The downside here is that while the models are completely rebuilt, the static, digitized backgrounds remain largely unchanged, which makes for some odd visual anomalies.
I never expected this game to be a complete remaster — like the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake — but seeing fully rendered 3D models in high definition walking around maps that are decidedly still low-res pre-rendered assets, is, at best, jarring. It’s easy for longtime fans like myself to overlook, but new players to the game might be put off by the mix in graphic styles.
The presentation has also seen a bit of an upgrade. The game still retains the 4:3 aspect ratio (with thick black borders around the screen), which is kind of a head-scratcher for a remaster. It feels like Square Enix was onboard with the idea of remastering the game but really didn’t want to put that much effort into it. Dotemu and Access Games contributed to this port, and both studios are well-known for upgrading classic games for current-gen systems, so the half-hearted attempt here is mind-boggling.
There are two new features that make Final Fantasy VIII Remastered worth replaying, assuming you can get past the somewhat jarring visuals — the ability to speed up the game and turn off random encounters with a button press. FFVIII was lousy with lengthy, unskippable summons spells, and since summoning and using those Guardian Forces are both integral to the combat system, you will be calling these monsters to fight for you early and often.
After seeing the fire-based Guardian Force Ifrit rip from the ground, fly high into the sky, and then pound a fiery bolder onto an enemy from above for the 500th time, you’ll want to skip the whole song and dance. The ability to speed the game up by (up to) a factor of three alleviates some of this drag and can help you grind faster, even if you lose the ability to truly appreciate the visuals on display.
The ability to turn off random encounters is a godsend for a JRPG from the ’90s. If you are out of restoratives and tents and are limping back to the Garden with just a few HP, the last thing you want to do is get into a fight — any fight — with a monster. Also, this ability helps speed up the flow of the 80-hour adventure. The downside is that you still need to grind for levels, so if you never get into fights to earn XP, you and your GFs will never grow. This can be countered by creating dedicated “grinding sessions,” where you spend hours doing nothing but battling to raise your levels and skills — and stocking various spells — and then once at the level you want, continuing on in the story.
I’m old school, so I’ve not turned off the random battles for any extended period of time. I mean, it’s Final Fantasy; the battles — and that classic victory fanfare — is part of the draw to the game. Just know that it’s there if you need it.
The sidequest card game Triple Triad is another major draw to this chapter of the series, and it hasn’t lost a step. With amazing music and deep strategy, Triple Triad has stolen more hours of my life in the last 20 years than I would like to admit, and playing it again in Final Fantasy VIII Remastered is bringing back old memories — and creating new ones. This side game is still the best that the franchise has to offer, and playing a few hands will tell you why.
The music in Final Fantasy VIII Remastered is as good as ever, even 20 years after it debuted. These are songs that are mainstays of the various “music of Final Fantasy” concerts, and one track was even used during the 2004 Olympics for a synchronized swimming event. Nobuo Uematsu composed a score that not only fits the story and the characters but makes even the lengthiest grind sessions tolerable. I’ve been humming these tunes on and off for the last two decades, and hearing them again is a real pleasure.
I’m glad that Square Enix has taken the time to release Final Fantasy VIII Remastered. Revisiting this adventure again after all these years has been a treat. That being said, while I have enjoyed the handful of additions and the upgraded character models, the game as a whole still feels half-hearted. If you are going to remaster a classic game, give it the proper treatment it deserves, as opposed to adding in one or two features.
It doesn’t detract from the overall experience, but I find myself thinking about what a proper remaster could have been. Squall Lionheart is now, in fact, the best looking guy at the party, but the world around him is as ugly as ever. Final Fantasy VIII Remastered may not be the definitive version that longtime fans had hoped for, but if you’ve never played it before, there is still so much to love here, and after all, that’s the name of the game.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A review copy was provided by Square Enix.