It’s not my ultimate favorite in the franchise, but for me, Final Fantasy VIII is The One. We all have that: The One that has stuck with you the most; The One you’re willing to defend to the death (and being a VIII stan requires this every so often); The One that makes you emotional just by thinking about it. It’s easy to overlook what many have deemed as flaws over the years because it’s Final Fantasy at its best—unafraid to evolve, unwilling to become complacent, and unrestricted in creativity and heart. It’s what Final Fantasy needed at the time of its release. While playing the new remastered version in 2019, I feel like it’s what the series needs today, too.
VIII came out only two years after Final Fantasy VII, a game that revolutionized JRPGs and videogame storytelling. There’s no easy way to follow up a game with the impact of VII. The logical inclination is to try to mimic that success with the same formula. It usually works a second time, too—but that second time demands an imminent change before the whole series becomes resigned to stagnation. Square Enix realized this and didn’t bother with trying to recreate VII’s success that second time. They just immediately broke the Final Fantasy formula, transforming the series’ identity into something bold and unpredictable. While this is where much of the ire for the title stems from, it’s also why it’s brilliant.
VIII centers on Squall Leonhart, a student at a military academy for teenagers who train to become SeeDs. SeeDs are elite soldiers who are hired to help civilians and other military factions. Squall’s dedication to his training and antisocial nature stemming from his troubled past as an orphan have led to him being reluctant to make friends or talk to people in general. Eventually, he meets Rinoa Heartilly, an activist who hires him and a few accompanying SeeDs to help her government resistance group with carrying out a mission. The two gradually fall in love and embark on a sprawling journey of transformation, war and time travel, among many other things. You know, the usual stuff. I won’t say more because I want you, reader, to actually play it if you haven’t yet. Know, though, that it constantly goes to dark, weird and magnificent places.
One of my favorite aspects about how VIII ditched the series formula is that it’s a love story. Sure, the games before it incorporated romance, but romance was one of many components and one which rarely took precedence over all else. VIII is an inverse of past installments in this regard; the romance is the story, while themes like identity, self-acceptance and family are its supporting pillars. The romance also remains the best in the series, largely because it has so much time to develop. At the end, it culminates in a mutual transformation for both Squall and Rinoa. Their relationship challenges them, forces them to face uncomfortable truths and teaches them to overcome them together. They’re teenagers, but it’s a mature and touching relationship in which the two learn to respect each other and become better individuals. Their relationship is a natural evolution, much like VIII feels like for the series in retrospect.
Possibly the most contentious part of that evolution for players has been the battle system. Let’s get it right out of the way: I am a Junction System Apologist. I love the Junction system. It’s unique, fun and flexible in a way few battle systems are. If you’re not into endless grinding, it helps you bypass that dreadful part of most JRPGs by shaping your stats according to the spells you draw from enemies rather than your level. If you like a challenge, it prevents you from relying on overleveling by making you consider your toolset and strategize. It encourages you to experiment, figure out what works best for your individual playstyle, and play with the possibilities. The freedom VIII offers is enhanced through the additional features in this remaster, which consist of a 3x speed boost for battles, a near-invincible mode called “Battle Assist” and a blessed “No Encounters” option.
While those gameplay changes are certainly welcome, the best part about the remaster is, obviously, the visual upgrades. While VIII looks like a game from an older generation, the changes are still fantastic. The sprites for both human characters and the Guardian Forces you deploy in battle are clean, sharp and detailed. Although I’ve replayed this game numerous times, it’s genuinely exciting to re-experience it like this. The backgrounds aren’t touched up, but it doesn’t detract from my enjoyment and general awe at the dramatic improvements.
Despite its identity, VIII isn’t so experimental to the point that it’s unrecognizable from the rest of the series, especially in 2019. For one, like other installments, it has a phenomenal soundtrack. I’d even say it has the best soundtrack in the entire series, with Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers being the only other possible contenders for that title. It has characters that are compelling to varying degrees but are never boring and often fascinating. It has multiple excellent antagonists, ranging from the Squall’s longtime rival Seifer Almasy—who is vastly different but mirrors his deeply flawed nature—to Ultimecia, a villain who is physically absent for the majority of the game yet—through the strength of the game’s writing and sound design—threatening and memorable from beginning to end.
If I had to pick the most important game in the series, I might very well choose VIII. VII garnered the series a level of popularity it hadn’t known before and that I wouldn’t dare understate, but it’s VIII that created the modern identity of Final Fantasy. It defined it as a series that is constantly shifting and transforming; that knows the parts integral to its core and doesn’t hesitate to separate, exchange and even replace the ones that aren’t. There’s no “best Final Fantasy game” because Final Fantasy has become largely indefinable—something most franchises can only dream of. Maybe, no matter the feats this incredible series continues to achieve, Final Fantasy VIII is the lighthouse to which the series should constantly look back to. It’ll always be there, waiting, serving as a reminder that Final Fantasy can tread new grounds while maintaining the brilliance that has made it one of the most influential series to exist.
Final Fantasy VIII Remastered was developed and published by Square Enix. Our review is based on the Nintendo Switch version. It is also available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
Natalie Flores is a freelance writer who loves to talk about games, K-pop and too many other things.