Final Fantasy VIII Remastered Review: Preserving A Classic With Modern Enhancements
Toeing the line between remastering a game and remaking a game is a difficult balance to strike. In the case of a full-on remake, entire game systems are often entirely redesigned and in many drastic cases, a game may no longer resemble the original very little or at all.
The upcoming Final Fantasy VII Remake is a prime example: the story beats and characters are the same, but that's about it. Basically everything else was thrown out for something new.
But in the case of Final Fantasy VIII, what we've got instead is a remaster, similar to the remasters done for Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy X previously.
For all intents and purposes it's the same game but a bit cleaner, a bit more more streamlined, and a bit more accessible. That means if you didn't like VIII when it first came out because to its divisive changes to the established Final Fantasy formula, then you're probably going to feel the exact same way about it now. This is functionally the same game.
Bucking The Trend
In Final Fantasy VIII, you take on the role of Squall Leonhart, a young recruit for an elite mercenary group named SeeD. You live in a compound designed to educate and train new soldiers from a young age — basically grooming child soldiers to rise in the ranks once they graduate. You'll travel the world, battle armies, fight off a sadistic witch, fall in love, and collect lots of cards and Guardian Forces (GFs) to summon.
Since this is a big budget remaster, let's take a step back and break down exactly what makes Final Fantasy VIII stick out from the pack and why it's such a divisive entry.
For starters, it dramatically changed everything about Final Fantasy combat other than the active-time battle system basis itself. You still wait for your gauge to fill up before you can issue a command to a character, but everything else is totally different.
For example, there isn't really any gear in Final Fantasy VIII, and you don't technically grow in strength and ability by leveling up. Instead, there's the junction system, where you "Draw" magic spells from enemies and store them with your party like other items.
Instead of an MP bar, each spell has a quantity listed, which is affected by drawing the spell out of enemies. You then junction those spells, or attach them, to your characters and their corresponding stats. You also acquire summons known as Guardian Forces that can be junctioned and leveled up as well.
It's a bit different than other systems, to say the least. The end result is something that, in theory, is rich with strategy and depth, but in practice is extremely annoying. Since magic is junctioned to characters to boost stats, this functionally means you're punished if you decide to ever cast any spells at all.
And that's not to mention that GF summons play a major role in this entry, which is a shift that has since been embraced, but at the time, it was a major departure.
Then there's also Triple Triad, the mini game that laid the foundation for basically all card-based diversions in RPGs for years to come. Dare I say there would be no Gwent without Triple Triad.
Personally, I never cared much for it, but it's got a lot of fans and is faithfully present in this version once again — unchanged as far as I can tell.
Final Fantasy VIII isn't my favorite Final Fantasy game, that honor goes to either Final Fantasy X or Final Fantasy IV depending on the day, but I'd still rank VIII in the top half. The soundtrack alone puts it above a lot of other entries and the intimate love story is one of the best video game romances you will ever experience.
Squall embracing Rinoa is the actual logo art work for the title, leaving zero question about what the center of the story is all about.
"The Best Looking Guy Here"
When it originally released, Final Fantasy VIII was renowned for its impressive pre-rendered backgrounds, soaring soundtrack, and fully 3D character models with articulated faces, hands, and full bodies, a departure from the almost chibi-style characters from Final Fantasy VII. Looking back, the jagged edges make it hard to even interpret what character is supposed to be doing half the time, leaving a lot to be desired.
Thankfully, the remaster fixes all of that.
My favorite way of describing a remaster like this is that it basically makes the game actually look and play like you think you remember it looking and playing. Nostalgia and fond memories can do quite a number on the mind, and we tend to gloss over visual discrepancies. Even the best of us imagine things in HD that were very much not in HD at their conception. Remasters fix that issue, and this is quite a fine transition when compared to its peers.
One of the funniest things to come out of the entire Final Fantasy VIII series is the meme focused on Squall's face when Rinoa tells him that he's, "the best looking guy here." Zooming in on his face, he barely looks like a person as all of the pixels are so jumbled and jagged. But now, the remaster fixes that and gives him a smooth, attractive mug instead.
Unfortunately, that same tender love and care was not applied to the remaster's pre-rendered backgrounds, which were drawn at a specific resolution 20 years ago and are now being up-scaled. Short of remaking every background to match the remaster's higher-quality character models, there really isn't much to be done, so some scenes end up looking like the characters have been superimposed onto them. It's almost like looking at bad green screen in an old movie.
It's an unfortunate price to pay for better quality character models, but it is worth it overall. Since the camera likes to zoom in so much, especially during combat, you see much more of the new character models than the handful of noticeably bad backgrounds.
Since this is a modern remaster of a 20-year-old game, Square did include some new bells and whistles beyond just better graphics. For starters, you can now toggle random encounters on and off without entering the menu at all. It's a great feature if you're low on health and need to escape an area to heal, if you're backtracking out of an area, or if you just want to get through a region without getting bogged down in fights.
There are even options to speed things up a bit, which is a fortunate inclusion considering how frequent and prolonged animations for things like big spells, limit breaks, and summons can be.
- New character models look great
- Still one of the best soundtracks in the entire franchise
- Good romance story line with lots of well-developed characters
- Welcomed accessibility and quality-of-life enhancements
- Junction system is still extremely inconvenient and annoying
- One of the weakest casts of villains in the series
Final Fantasy VIII, despite its quirks and flaws, actually holds up quite well due in large part to its oddities. Rather than feeling like every other JRPG, it's decidedly different. From its bizarre initial plot and surprising focus on intimate relationships and internal dialogues, to the extremely unique (albeit often annoying) junction system and engaging pseudo-sci-fi setting, it still stands out even to this day.
The enhanced visuals quite literally take the edge off how old the game is and the quality of life enhancements really go a long way toward making it bearable by lessening the trudge of its systems.
[Note: A copy of Final Fantasy VIII Remastered was provided by Square Enix for the purpose of this review.]