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.
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.
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!
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.