Final Fantasy VIII (PS1) – a broken game?

I’ve had a long history from Final Fantasy VIII. I played it when it first came out on PC only to get stuck somewhere on the third disc (in all fairness I was only 10 years old at the time). A few years later with a better grasp of VIII’s systems I started over and made it to the final boss. Here however I was defeated – beating the final boss’s various forms proved impossible. I was forced to download a save file from the internet with every characters’ stats maxed out just to see the ending. Over the years since I’ve played chunks of Final Fantasy VIII a couple of times, never to the end and more often than not just to enjoy Triple Triad. If only younger me had known that the game can essentially be played as an interactive novel – seriously! No random encounters, comfortably easy bosses and over-powered characters, and with little to no grinding at all! It’s the special, broken magic of FFVIII.

Untold number of deaths to this woman.

Untold number of game overs due to this terrifying badass.

When I picked up a PS3 recently it seemed like the perfect time to revisit Final Fantasy VIII. It’d been several years since my last go at it, plus, there’s a fantastic, spoiler-riffic post on an interesting fan theory over at Otakusphere that made me want to return to the game’s plot. Besides crazy cool fan theories, the other major thing I’ve learned via the internet since my last playthrough is just how brilliantly broken VIII’s metagame is. There are a number of factors that feed into this, but it boils down to the fact that apart from bosses and the odd mandatory battle, all the combat in the game can be skipped.

Let me say that again, for effect this time: all random battles can be skipped; every single one. No grinding, and zero need to level up. In fact you can beat VIII without levelling up your main character Squall a single time (although that might actually require some effort in the game’s early stages). All told, it’s absolutely astonishing to learn this considering how much I’ve struggled to complete this game over the years.

He's bleedin' useless. Geddit.

Squall Leonhart. Turns out he’s bleedin’ useless. (I’m sorry.)

In case you aren’t already aware of the ins and outs, I’ll explain. The first thing, which is key, is that all the enemies in the game, including bosses, level up with Squall. This effectively makes grinding to gain levels useless.  Therefore, you don’t need to level up, and for that reason you can turn off random encounters.

How do you get stronger in a game in which levels are meaningless then? That’s where the Junction system comes in. Junctioning all hinges on magic. The stronger your magic, and the more of it, the better your stats are. Typically, the game expects you to draw magic from enemies which you can junction, but there is an easy way around this. Early on in the game you can gain abilities that let you convert items into magic. Get hold of the right items, like say, a Tent, which you can refine into 10 Curagas, and you’ve gotten the most powerful healing spell in the game. Purchase 10 Tents from the shop, refine, and your main character’s HP will be in the thousands, even at their starting level.

Of course getting hold of items can require battling and/or money, which you would typically gain from battling. The alternative which lets you avoid all of that is the excellent card minigame, Triple Triad. Just as with refining items into magic, early on you gain the ability to refine cards into items. Extend that out and you can refine cards into items into magic, et voila!

Triple

Introducing the greatest RPG battle system ever conceived: Triple Triad.

Personally, I find this a fascinating system for an RPG series – it seems to bypass so many of the characteristics of the classic RPG, like grinding, optimizing equipment and battle strategy it may as well not be an RPG. As someone who isn’t the biggest fan of RPGs, I don’t see that as an inherently bad thing. However, clearly there are people out there who do feel strongly about it: a quick look online shows that many people consider Final Fantasy VIII broken in an entirely negative way because of the Junction system. (There are of course those who dislike the world and the characters, but that’s a whole other topic.) I’m not saying those people are wrong, and maybe it’s weird that I like the prospect of playing the game more like an adventure game: breezing through bosses and experiencing the creepy environments, the crazy cutscenes, and the excellent music without interruption.

Regardless of personal preference, you have to hand it to Square: it was extremely ballsy on their part to make the Junction system so open. Had the developers chosen to, Final Fantasy VIII could’ve been a more traditional gated RPG experience – more like Final Fantasy IX, in other words. It’s been a long 17 years since VIII came out, but I’m now old and experienced enough to appreciate and applaud the developers for trying something different with the Final Fantasy series.

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12 comments

  1. Mr. Panda

    Very intriguing article! It’s great that you found such good in the system they used for FFVIII. Honestly, it was because of how unnecessary it was to level up combined with the junction system that I disliked the gameplay, I can see your point of how it made it unique. However, if they were going for that, perhaps they should have just ditched leveling altogether? The gameplay wasn’t the only reason I disliked VIII (when compared to other FF games). I was also not a fan of the characters or what I felt was a forced love story, but that’s another topic, as you say. I know this game has many fans, and I think this game has worth as a fun experience to some. I just don’t consider it a game that can stand among other games in the series.

    • veryverygaming

      FFVIII is a divisive game, isn’t it? It was the first Japanese RPG I’d played (before then I’d only played first person dungeon crawlers) so it made a huge impact on me at the time. I was worried that adult me would cringe at the characters and the writing going back to it but several hours in I actually like it. It’s very silly and the love story is forced, but there isn’t too much dialogue and the story moves quickly.

      Having written this post and reading the comments I definitely feel conflicted about the systems. As you say, why bother keeping in leveling if it makes no difference? Since it serves no practical purpose, it can only cause players to get frustrated, particularly if they don’t understand how junctioning works. There are a few other things they could’ve done to help – how about rather than manually drawing magic from enemies in battle, you automatically gain magic by defeating enemies? That would at least better signal how important it is. What ifs aside, there’s no doubt that this method of playing the game without random battles requires a large amount of advance knowledge. It’s counter-intuitive to say the least.

      • Mr. Panda

        Exactly! I like your idea about gaining magic from defeating enemies. I also think that enemies leveling up with the player is usually not a good idea in games. Taking that simple element out would necessitate random battles. Having both would make VIII more similar to other FFs, but those were systems that worked.

  2. Aether

    17 years since FFVIII came out? Blazes, I feel old. I’ve always appreciated the design of Final Fantasy VIII, where the vast, vast majority of your power doesn’t come from your grinding, but I could never quite bring myself to take full advantage of that by never gaining any levels. Just wasn’t fun to play that way. Spending long hours in Triple Triad to get the second best weapons by the end of Disc 1? Right on top of it. Using the junction system to give myself one-hit kill weapons and make myself immune to everything? Absolutely. But refusing to fight but for bosses just wasn’t fun for me. I think it is a bit of an odd choice to marry the death of grinding with a game that puts you through random battles, but I guess they weren’t up to that stage of mold-breaking just yet.

    I can’t say I understand the hate for the junction system. It seemed pretty straightforward to me.

    • veryverygaming

      17 years, yup. Time takes no prisoners, something the Final Fantasy series loves to remind us of again and again! Clearly at Square there was some serious push and pull between the traditional RPG approach and the unconventional break-the-game approach. Right now I’ve just gotten Diablo and am currently learning his ability to turn off random battles. I like the sound of turning them off, but in practice I don’t know how much I’ll use it. Also, from the sounds of things, clearly I’ve still got a lot to learn about how to abuse the system – my characters are strong but not THAT strong!

  3. hungrygoriya

    I remember playing this game after playing through X and IX, and I could never, ever get into it because of the characters. I didn’t find anybody to be even remotely likeable! I personally didn’t find the junction or magic systems to be much of an issue once I got my head around them, either. What I find interesting is that I played this game almost right to the end without ever knowing that levelling up did nothing to help your case. I spent hours and hours grinding away in this game in my late teens not knowing any better and still couldn’t beat the game. I never finished it then, but I feel like it might be worthwhile to try again now that I know of these exploits, though I’m shuddering at the idea of playing Triple Triad again. Thanks for an informative post!

    • veryverygaming

      Thanks for commenting! The characters in this game are unusual… this might be odd to say, but I don’t think they’re supposed to be all that likeable. I’m quite early in the game though so that could change. I’m with you on the grinding point. It didn’t click with me until I read your comment but that’s the same reason I struggled with this game’s final boss too. I feel lucky to have played on PC where I had the luxury of downloading a save file to see the ending! Did you not like Triple Triad then? I love it and it’s useful for boosting your characters’ abilities early on in the game, but it’s not mandatory or anything.

      • hungrygoriya

        You’re very welcome. I’m looking forward to reading more from you!

        I have never seen the game’s ending, and I think it’s been so long since I’ve played it that I wouldn’t know what anything meant. I should just start over and not grind! With respect to Triple Triad, I really, really hated it. I don’t think I paid much attention to the rules when they were explained in the game and I could never quite seem to get the hang of it. I’ve heard it’s easy so I feel silly even admitting that! I didn’t realize it served much of a purpose at all, but it’s good to know that you can boost abilities and things. If I replay it, I’ll certainly keep that in mind.

  4. truetallus

    I’m glad you’re trying the game in its no random battle state! I had a similarly tough time as yourself and other commenters on my first attempt when it came out (I was 16 or so), stalling out at the last dungeon with its locked abilities and (for me) overpowered enemies. I grew frustrated that my usual ‘level up and crush ’em’ approach only set ME up for a pounding. I tried the game out a few years later, determined to make it through, and stumbled upon the no battle approach while looking through junction abilities. The game became a delightful breeze, one where I could adjust the difficulty however I wanted, still experiencing fights via boss battle (or chosen random battles) at a swift pace that allowed me to focus on the story and cast. I had a particular connection with the characters at the time, an understanding of my own place in the world at large echoing in the adventures of Squall and company:)

    I can certainly appreciate how people found the system irritating, but I still think it was a great take on rpg battles and difficulty in general. It allows for all sorts of ways to approach fights- a means of adding spice to the story, an intense struggle where enemies gain strength (and even new skills) as you do, a measured (if flawed) way to incrementally ramp up challenge, or even the ultimate ‘stomp your feeble opponents to mush’ min-maxing power fantasy (there’s a unique thrill to having the final boss’s ultimate attack do damage in only the single digits). I feel like there must have been some kind of concerted effort to make concessions for players who were tired of standard random rpg battling systems, hence the ability to grow characters through triple triad, or the inclusion of real-time interactive elements via the gunblade, guardian boost and Zell’s limit breaks.

    It’s also just nice to be able to take a break from random battles whenever you’d like. There are certainly times in every RPG where I want to be able to walk for more than 30 seconds without a fight ensuing. Suikoden has had a solution for this since the first entry in the form of a rune/ability that completely removes random encounters with insignificant enemies, and I’m sure other JRPGs have implemented something similar. It definitely makes retreading an area much more palatable (Legend of Dragoon would surely have been at least 30% better with the inclusion of this element alone). Constant turn based tussles can’t help but make me feel battle worn, even when encounters in a modern rpg aren’t randomized. Having enemies be seen ahead of time often still doesn’t shake the feeling that I’m playing The Library level in Halo on slow motion.

    I’d be interested to hear how your experience with the game goes as you continue. The no battle version takes so much less time, and it’d be neat to hear if FF8 stays or even grows MORE engaging as the hours continue!

    • veryverygaming

      Thank you for such a great comment, I feel bad that it’s taken me so long to respond and more so that I haven’t played any more of FFVIII recently. Your comment is pushing me to go back and continue though, so thanks! It sounds like there are several people out there who had a similar experience of really struggling with this game as youngsters, only to return feeling empowered to completely break it.

  5. Van Rockingham

    I didn’t know about the no encounters thing! I’ve never been a big fan on VIII, it is probably my least favourite. Me and my mate did a playthhough late last year and we hit 108 hours playtime, but that was mostly playing cards.

    I do find whenever I play it to be a chore though, the cards stop being fun when the daft rules appear, the story is too twist heavy and makes little sense. I always get stuck at certain sections because what you’re supposed to do isn’t clear (push invisible buttons in military base?)

    • veryverygaming

      I’m crawling through the game right now so haven’t gotten to the military base you’re talking about yet but I can well believe it. I definitely got stuck a fair few times when I was young at some of the more obscure puzzles. I agree about the card rules – it turns out there’s actually a way to bring across certain rules from the starting region and get rid of the other, more obscure ones in the other towns, but you have to read a FAQ as it’s rather complicated and takes some effort (more than it’s worth probably).

      As for the story I don’t remember enough of it to try and defend it, except to say that the fan theory I linked to in the post definitely makes the story more interesting. It wraps up some of the loose threads and gives the main villain a backstory and motivation, things that are notably absent otherwise. Have to wonder if I’ll still be so positive on this game when I get to the moon though 😛

      By the way, I think it’s awesome that you and your friend were able to get so many hours out of this game even if you didn’t especially enjoy it!

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