It’s only a slight touch of paint, but it didn’t take much to make Final Fantasy VIII even better
It was never going to be easy to follow the most successful Final Fantasy release of all time, especially considering its position as the second-best selling release in the Sony PlayStation’s history and the game that’s widely considered to have made the Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) popular in the West. Square knew this, and it tackled the challenge by pushing the envelope even further. Final Fantasy VIII hits the ground running with what is still one of the most incredible opening sequences we’ve seen in video games, then built upon Final Fantasy VII’s innovations while also departing from a number of the series’ longer-held customs: it was the first Final Fantasy whose theme music included vocals, the first one to use realistically-proportioned character models throughout (as opposed to sprites), and the first to move away from the series’ traditional magic system. Square continued to blend gameplay with anime-esque cinema throughout the incredible — if somewhat convoluted — narrative, and ultimately changed the way we saw Final Fantasy for the years to come.
Gamasutra’s Kurt Kalata said it best back in 2008: “there’s a lot that Final Fantasy VIII does wrong, but there’s even more that it does right.” That, in a nutshell, is how the game was received; for every person who enjoyed the game’s innovations, it felt as though there was someone else who despised them. As stunning as they were, some critics saw the game’s increased use of cinematics as somewhat tedious (especially the Guardian Force attack sequences). Likewise, although the new Magic system — which replaced the use of Magic Points (MP) with consumable spells that could be acquired from monsters and select points around the map — was interesting and helped players avoid spending valuable items (and time) managing their MP, it also gave rise to the occasionally repetitive mechanic of “drawing” spells from enemies. The most divisive of Final Fantasy VIII’s innovations, however, was the Junction system that replaced the series’ traditional collectible equipment with the use of spells to augment the characters’ stats. On the one hand, it offered near-limitless customisation options, which RPG fans are always happy with; on the other, though, it was convoluted, and extremely difficult for those who didn’t fully understand it.
Final Fantasy VIII certainly wasn’t a perfect game, but it was good enough to follow on from VII’s genre-defining success and even become the fourth-best selling release in the PlayStation’s history. That’s why it’s always been interesting to note that, while Square Enix has released a plethora of ports, remakes and remasters over the past few years, this is the first time we’ve seen more than a simple port of Final Fantasy VIII; even then, you’d be forgiven for contending that it isn’t that much of a remaster.
Just as Final Fantasy VIII was a different, somewhat risky take on a Final Fantasy release, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered is a different, somewhat risky take on a remaster. For the most part, Square Enix has left it alone: its menus and HUD elements still look exactly the same, with just a little touch of polish, its field map and cutscenes use the exact same pixelated, pre-rendered JPEGs as their base, the full motion videos (FMVs) haven’t been touched at all, and the whole thing is presented in the same 4:3 aspect ratio as it was 20 years — and three console generations — ago. That’s completely understandable, too; Final Fantasy VIII was built around those pre-rendered JPEGs, and it’s hard to imagine Square Enix devoting the hours necessary to recreate them considering that it’s focussing so much energy into the Final Fantasy VII Remake, or collaborators Access Games and DotEmu being able to do it given that Square lost the game’s original source code way back when.
Literally the only thing that Square Enix has changed is the 3D models, but those 3D models change absolutely everything. The 3D models are visible in all three modes of gameplay: the world map, the 3D scale rendering of the game world that players can traverse by foot, car, airship, Chocobo or train; the field map, where the 3D models traverse a number of linked 2D renders; and the battle screen, where 3D renderings of key areas provide the backdrop for the action-packed, turn-based battles. These models don’t just look and perform infinitely better than they did 20 years ago, though — they look the same as the characters look in the FMVs. We no longer have to use our imaginations to transform those grotesque clumps of pixels into actual people, and that makes the largely-unchanged experience so much better.
Remasters very rarely, if ever, change the base game beyond polishing its graphics and updating certain features for the new, more modern platforms. Final Fantasy VIII is no exception to that rule, but Square Enix, Access Games and DotEmu did add three “cheats”, modifiers that alter the gameplay experience and mitigate some of the game’s more grindy aspects. Pressing the L3 button at any point in time pushes the game into 3X speed (although the timers remain at 1X), pressing R3 makes your party (but not your Guardian Forces!) completely invincible, and pressing both together disables random encounters completely. These three cheats work together to not only allow the player to focus more squarely on the story, but to show respect for your time — something that simply doesn’t happen enough in the modern gaming landscape.
Using the modifiers also renders certain events a little easier to navigate. Speeding the game up and disabling random encounters enables you to complete timed segments such as the test at the Fire Cavern and the escape from Dollet more quickly, and you can choose to make yourself invincible and defeat X-ATM092 — the spider-robot that chases your party during the escape from Dollet — in order to earn a 100-point bonus to your SeeD Exam score (you can’t actually defeat it until you’re on the bridge, so don’t waste time fighting it before that!). Additionally, the invincibility option opens up one of the most effective methods of levelling your characters in the early game: with it activated, you’re easily able to account for the T-Rexaurs found on Balamb Island and in Balamb Garden’s Training Centre; the battles will only take a minute or two and they yield a good amount of experience in the early game.
The modifiers are a wonderful addition to a wonderful game, but it wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy VIII remaster if there wasn’t a negative or two to balance out their overwhelmingly positive effects. The obvious issues lie in the lack of growth and new abilities to be found if you disable random encounters for your entire playthrough and the lack of any real challenge if you stay invincible throughout, but the speed-up mechanic comes with a couple of issues of its own: although it doesn’t affect the on-screen timers, it does affect certain unstated timers such as the ones that occur during the train heist in Timber, making those challenges impossible to do in 3X speed. It also affects the in-game cursor, making it difficult to retain your precision when navigating menus and playing Triple Triad (still one of the greatest mini-games of all time, by the way). Of course, all of those issues can be negated by simply deactivating the modifiers when you need to; you’ll still complete the game a whole lot faster this time around than you did without them.
When all’s said and done, Final Fantasy VIII is still one of the finest — if not one of the most polarising — role-playing titles of all time, and it was a very worthy successor to Final Fantasy VII’s incredible success. Technical limitations have seen to it that Final Fantasy VIII Remastered isn’t a complete remaster by any stretch of the term, but Access Games, DotEmu and Square Enix have done what they were able to do extremely well: the remaster closes the gap between the 3D models and the FMVs, Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack is still an absolute masterpiece, the modifiers help you control exactly what you focus on, and the gameplay itself is still just as challenging, intriguing and rewarding as it was 20 years ago. Whether this is the first time you’ll experience Final Fantasy VIII or the tenth, Final Fantasy VIII Remaster is absolutely worth experiencing.
There are some technical issues that prevent Final Fantasy VIII Remastered from being as significant a remaster as many others on the market today, but less is sometimes more — the changes Access Games, DotEmu and Square Enix were able to make enrich the entire game, making it a fantastic and very worthwhile experience for any player.
Jake reviewed Final Fantasy VIII Remastered using a PlayStation 4 code purchased from the PlayStation Store.