The story follows a group of elite teenage soldiers called SeeD who enter the organization with a live fire exam that drops them into an active war zone. Our protagonist and eventual leader of the SeeD team is Squall Leonheart, a moody teenager who isn’t quite sure what to do with himself. He leads an adventurous team to help a group of freedom fighters take back their country but one goof leads to another and soon they’re trying to assassinate a Sorceress – a dangerous and powerful spellcaster – who has become the ambassador to the foremost military powerhouse in the world. The assassination plot fails due to a sniper that can’t pull the trigger and a former SeeD/ Squall’s rival who has become the Sorceress’ personal “Knight.” The whole botched job ends with Squall taking an ice spear to the chest and the team ending up in prison.
The next leg of the adventure splits the team up as they attempt to stop the Sorceress who has taken control of the entire nation from wreaking vengeance on their home bases in retaliation for the attempted assassination. This results in the destruction of one home base – called Gardens – and another having to activate a flight mode amidst an internal power struggle civil war. After saving their home, the team takes some time before realizing that they actually all grew up in the same orphanage but couldn’t remember due to their summons erasing their memories, and that the caretaker of the orphanage was the Sorcereress Edea. They head off to the site of the orphanage but find the third and last Garden also activated its flight mode and is there waiting. Amidst a massive brawl between the two Gardens, the team faces off with Sorceress Edea and her Knight and win, only to discover that Edea, while a sorceress, was not evil but being controlled by a Sorceress named Ultimecia in the distant future who has been controlling Sorceresses back in time so she could secure her rule in the future and become a god. All the while, Rinoa – a girl from the freedom fighters that Squall has taken a liking too – becomes hypnotized and revives the Knight before falling into a coma.
Edea explains that Ultimecia is looking for a particular girl – Ellone – who has a unique power to send minds through time. Using this, Ultimecia hopes to collapse all of time down into a single moment and combine all the sorceress’ powers through history to make herself a god. Squall however is less interested in that and more in having an existential crisis as he comes to grip with the strange new concept of ’emotions’ and decides to take Rinoa to the hidden country of Eshtar to get her some help and to find Ellone. In Eshtar, they end up going to a space station to find Ellone. But Seifer – the Knight – awakens a 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith to suck monsters from the moon to the earth, attacking the spacestation and freeing the sorceress (Adel) imprisoned there. Squall and Rinoa have a romantic moment trying not to die in space and find a gassed up space ship that returns them to Eshtar, only to have Rinoa hauled off in cuffs for being found out as a Sorcereress herself. Squall’s friends convince him that these “emotions” means he loves Rinoa and he should save her. With Rinoa saved, they decide the only way to stop Ultimecia is to fight her head on in her own time, and that means letting Ultimecia compress time.
The SeeD attack the Lunatic Pandora (the 2001 monolith) to face off with Ultimecia now possessing Sorceress Adel’s body. Adel takes Rinoa and attaches her to Adel’s body, thus allowing Ellone to send their united minds together and begin Time Compression. Squall and his team assault Ultimecia’s castle. They battle Ultimecia’s myriad of forms until she is defeated and sends a rippling explosion across compressed time. As time begins to reset, the SeeDs are forced to try to navigate the void of time/space to try and find their way back home. Squall and Ultimecia end up meeting Edea in the ruins behind the orphanage years before SeeD and the Gardens were even a thing. Ultimecia passes on her powers (as Sorceresses do before they die) to Edea, turning her into the Sorceress from earlier in the game, and then Squall makes mention of him being a SeeD from Garden on a mission to destroy the Sorceress thus setting in motion for Edea and her Husband to found the Gardens and create SeeD. Squall almost loses himself in the timestream before Rinoa finds him, the two are reunited and everyone lives happily ever after.
Final Fantasy VIII was my first Final Fantasy in the Playstation era and from what I recall, I really liked it. Enough that I and my ex back in high school actually cosplayed as Squall and Rinoa for our local anime convention. I remember really enjoying the love story aspect of it and the idea that Squall and Rinoa fulfilled the ‘destined’ romance that their respective parents were unable to share. I also remember really enjoying the completely jigsaw puzzle of a plot but then again I was also REALLY into Evangelion at the time, so that may have just been a thing I was in to. I clearly wasn’t good at it because after replaying some of the game and re-reading the plot synopsis I totally missed like 30% of the stuff in this game. Not that it’s hard to. Much of the background details of the world and the story are doled out in small bites across dozens of random NPCs in the world. Didn’t talk to Ma Dincht this one time you were passing through? Well, good luck figuring out the mythology of Hyne and what connection it has to the Sorceress’. Seriously, this game begged for a Wiki years before Wikis were a thing.
Not helping matters is that it seems that the plot is all over the map. It’s a coming of age tale, an epic battle of good versus evil, a war story, a love story, and a time travel story. And it hits all those notes, but it’s definitely debatable if it hits them well or if it needed to hit them all. The time travel bit honestly added the most confusion, with your characters occassionally falling unconscious to experience the adventures of Laguna and his crew thirty years prior. You’re explicitly told that nothing you can do there can change the outcome of what happens so it’s not a time travel plot in that sense, nor are the events told linearly in these flashbacks either. So it really just serves as very confusing exposition. Arguably the worst kind of exposition. Confusion really is a big factor here and I remember it leading into a lot of debate back in high school as we sat around and argued over plot details like ‘Is Squall Laguna’s son?’ (He is for the record. Ellone arrives at the orphanage with Raine’s child that was born after Laguna vanished.) and trying to make sense of the whole Time Compression thing. The real issue I have with the plot is that in only works in the cursory glance that the game gives it and doesn’t really hold up to a lot of question in my opinion. Why does Ellone have the power to send people’s minds through time? Why does Ultimecia become a god by squishing time into a single moment? Why when Ultimecia passes her power on to Edea, does Edea have ice powers instead of Ultimecia’s powers? Who built the Gardens? Why build the Gardens? Is each Garden a completely separate entity from each other? WHY AND HOW DO GUARDIANS ERASE YOUR MEMORIES?! I honestly can keep going on this. The story leaves a lot of things not fully developed and not fully explained. It feels like a lot of this is because of a lack of focus on what they wanted the story to be about.
However, one common complaint I hear is that Squall is a whiny emo that is a terrible protagonist. I disagree. Honestly, Squall comes off to me as a teenager. One who acts like one. He’s unsure, he’s cynical, he doesn’t know how to deal with things that are thrust upon him. He reminds me of actual people I knew in high school. Squall’s arc and his romance with Rinoa is honestly the best part of this game in my opinion. It feels like there’s a level of honesty with it that you don’t find in a lot of RPGs. The other characters less so. Seifer is clearly a school bully and would be an internet troll had the internet existed in the world. Most of the others seem like they’re built around school stereotypes that would fit in with an average high school anime. Zell is the sporty dude bro with a short fuse. Selphie is the free spirit fun lover. Quistis is the serious one with glasses. Irvine is the one who looks cool but is actually a complete mess. Rinoa is Usagi from Sailor Moon.
The game continues to push further into the experimental from VII with brand new mechanics such as not having equipment. You have one weapon. You upgrade said weapon several times. There is no armor or accessories or anything. This is all replaced with the Junction system! Where you take your spells and slap them into slots to augment your stats. The more of a spell you have, the better the stat becomes. More of a spell, you ask? Well the spell system is completely different too. Instead of learning magic, you draw it from monsters and draw points around the world and stock it like items. What does one Fira look like? No clue but I have 34 of them. Even the whole young adult style story is a big experiment from the previous series. With all these changes to the formula it’s not hard to see why this game is incredibly divisive. Some folks love it, some hate it, and some like aspects of it. I think I’m in that third category.
To me, VIII feels like a mess of a game. But it’s a mess of a game with a bunch of REALLY great moments scattered through out it. The love story is solid, there’s a bunch of really good suspense building where you don’t know the fate of certain characters. Heck, even the ending plays with this in not knowing if Squall is alright unless you watch the post-credits scene. And there is a video that plays through half the credits of everyone getting their happy ending on back at the Garden with Squall NOWHERE to be found. I remember honestly wondering if he actually made it, or simply vanished into the timestream after saving the world and going back in time to set everything on the path. In this game, you just DON’T know. There are no established rules at this point. On the same hand, it feels like there were a lot of ideas in here that could of have been handled better and were in other games. Some of which we’ll be looking at as part of this series.
So is VIII a BAD game? Eh, maybe. But much like a fundamentally bad movie it doesn’t mean there isn’t something to love about it. It wouldn’t be my first recommendation to a new fan, but it’s not like I would warn them away from it either.
Next time we’ll be getting some sun, some surf, and exposing an ancient conspiracy that has trapped the world in the iron grip of an endless spiral of death.
Till then, May the light of the Crystals guide your way!
Do you have any great memories from these classic Final Fantasy games? Feel free to share in the comments!