Final Fantasy VIII Remastered
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC (Tested on Switch)
Release Date: September 3, 2019
Developer: Squaresoft (original game), DotEmu & Access Games (remaster)
Publisher: Square Enix
The eighth mainline Final Fantasy gets the long-awaited remaster treatment, but how does the port actually stack up? Let’s grab our gunblades and find out…
Square Enix has spent the last few years re-releasing their back catalog of Final Fantasy games and other classic titles on every platform under the sun, but Final Fantasy VIII has been the notable exception on that front. A basic re-release of the old Eidos PC port found its way to Steam and Square Enix’ digital storefront in 2013, but console owners have had to settle for the PSone Classic version for PS3, PSP and PS Vita or even their original PlayStation copy. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that PlayStation original, but the announcement of Final Fantasy VIII Remastered was still a welcome one among fans. FFVIII is not one of the most popular Final Fantasy games, and its story and gameplay continue to divide opinion even 20 years after its original release, but I for one was excited to jump back in on the Switch.
If you aren’t familiar with Final Fantasy VIII, let me get you up to speed. The main character is Squall Leonhart, a teenage SeeD mercenary and gunblade specialist from Balamb Garden. Due to certain events in his past, Squall hides his emotions and is reluctant to let anyone get too close to him, essentially playing the part of an antisocial jerk to avoid being hurt by other people. The player gets to see all of his internal monologue and you get a pretty good idea who he is, but especially early on he barely talks to other people unless it’s about the mission. When he does talk to others, he often butts heads with them because he’s unintentionally being a dick.
The popular cliche on the internet is to call Squall “whiny” or “emo”, but that’s not really accurate (in context, even lines such as “As long as you don’t get your hopes up, you can take anything. You feel less pain” are meant to be in more of a matter-of-fact “this is just how things are” kind of way, rather than “woe is me, everything sucks and no one can possibly understand my pain”). Squall is just an awkward dude who is good at his job but has poor social skills and a crippling fear of abandonment stemming from past experiences, so he tries to play it cool and act like (his idea of) an adult so no one notices who he really is.
Squall coming out of his shell and growing as a person is a core concept of the story, and ties in with his developing romance with a girl named Rinoa Heartilly. Rinoa isn’t having any of Squall’s bullshit and simply refuses to be shut out, and that’s exactly the kind of thing Squall needs even if he’s not too fond of her when he first meets her during one of SeeD’s mercenary jobs.
There is also a story involving a bunch of evil sorceresses and time compression and all sorts of weirdness. The story goes completely off the rails multiple times and is definitely not the strongest the Final Fantasy series has seen, although it has many memorable moments as well as impressive setpieces for a 1999 PlayStation game. The story and writing have earned a ton of criticism over the years, some of it admittedly warranted. Still, the story and writing on their own are hardly the reason why Final Fantasy VIII is so divisive to this day.
Final Fantasy VII, while very much a classic game that brought JRPGs to the mainstream, was also a fairly traditional JRPG in terms of gameplay. Certainly, you could mess around with skills and materia to set up all sorts of craziness, but it was still a relatively basic “hit monsters, make numbers go up, gain levels until you’re a demigod” type of progression and there’s nothing wrong with that. Final Fantasy VIII, on the other hand, tried something very different. You still level up by killing monsters, but the enemies scale to your level now and the way you actually get stronger (or, indeed, do anything other than attack) is through the new Junction system.
In its most basic form, junctioning involves equipping a Guardian Force (this game’s version of the traditional FF summon creatures), which then allows you to use abilities such as magic or items. However, you also need to junction magic spells to your stats to boost your power, because the base stats of the characters are very low (as you can see in the above screenshot of a level 8 Squall dealing 56 points of damage) and stay relatively low even at level 100. So, for example, you’d junction healing spells to your HP or Vitality, and attack spells to your Strength. The stronger the better, of course. Basic Cure or Fire spells don’t give much of a boost, but something like Curaga and Ultima makes your stats skyrocket. The higher a number of a junctioned spell you’re carrying (maximum is 100), the bigger the stat gain.
Spells can be drawn from enemies or draw points, or refined from items once you get the appropriate skills from GFs. Generally, you should not try to draw large amounts of magic from enemies because that takes forever and is unbearably tedious. Barring a couple of specific spells, refining is absolutely the way to go.
The problem with the Junction system is that… well, it’s broken. Not only that (we’ll get to the details soon enough), but it can be utterly obtuse for newcomers. If you level up normally and don’t update your junctions accordingly, your damage will be pitiful and you have no chance of keeping up with the stronger enemies. You can summon GFs over and over to deal more damage or rely on the powerful limit break attacks, but at some point that tactic is no longer going to work.
Entire playthroughs have been started over because the player has not understood how junctioning works, and that includes my initial playthrough of the PlayStation version many years ago. The game offers tutorials, but they are not very helpful.
When you do figure out the Junction system, you are well on your way to breaking Final Fantasy VIII over your knee. This process is made immensely easier by the Triple Triad card game, because any cards you win can be turned into items by using the Card Mod ability that can be learned by one of Squall’s initial GFs, and those items can then be refined into spells. You can get some very, very strong cards — and consequently some very, very strong magic such as Tornado — basically as soon as you start the game, and if you want to boost your HP to the thousands you don’t even need to play any cards because you can turn the purchasable Tent item into Curaga spells!
But wait, there’s more! One of the early GFs you can obtain, Diablos, can learn an ability that disables random encounters. Since all enemies level up with you, you can absolutely wreck what’s left of the difficulty curve by keeping Enc-None active all game long and setting up strong junctions to obliterate any boss that gets in your way. Bosses don’t grant EXP either, so staying at a low level in FFVIII is stupidly easy. If this isn’t quite enough and you really want to cheese everything, you can also keep your party at low health and spam limit breaks.
So yes, Final Fantasy VIII is a bit of a mess to say the least. It’s also one of my favorite games in the series. I am fully aware of its many flaws, but I love it nonetheless. I like breaking the Junction system to smithereens and destroying every boss. I like the art style and world design, which is quite unlike anything else out there. I love the soundtrack, which contains some of the best field and battle themes in any Final Fantasy game. I like seeing Squall grow as a character and person. I like Selphie’s slightly psychotic cheerfulness. I love Doomtrain. I love Triple Triad (except some of the weirder rules). I love how you can pull the trigger on Squall’s gunblade for a timed hit that deals bonus damage. I like all of the world-building tucked in corners most players won’t think to look. And so on and so forth.
At any rate, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered offers what the name suggests — Final Fantasy VIII at 1080p (720p in handheld mode on Switch), with improved visuals at least in terms of character models and certain elements of the presentation. The new 3D models and their textures are a noticeable improvement over the original assets, although the models in particular are not state of the art by any means and look more like something you’d see on the PS2 or PSP. This isn’t really a huge problem, as I doubt anyone expected anything more. However, due to the fact Square Enix no longer has the original prerendered background art, the characters and other 3D models now clash even worse with the backgrounds than they did in the old PC port.
The problem is exacerbated by the bilinear smoothing filter applied to the background images, which now appear massively blurry and look awful on a large screen (click on the screenshots to get the full effect). That said, I should note that without access to the original assets, realistically it was always going to be either this or just keeping the original 240p images in all their pixelated glory. I would’ve preferred the latter, but it still wouldn’t have looked great.
The blurring also applies to the 2D character sprites used in place of 3D models in many scenes such as the one in the above screenshot, which looks very odd and I wish DotEmu or Access Games (I don’t know which company did what on the remaster project) had tried to mitigate the issue a bit more. Certain characters that previously appeared as sprites have been replaced with 3D models, but this is definitely more the exception than the norm. Speaking of 2D assets, the Triple Triad cards have received an HD makeover as well but I am not entirely sold on the new look. The character and GF cards originally featured hand-drawn art, but while the main character cards have been updated with higher-quality images, the GF cards and certain minor character cards now just depict their respective 3D models. It looks cheap.
Finally, the quality of the FMV cutscenes seems to vary quite a bit. Some of the videos (which looked incredible back in the day) look great and far better than their PlayStation counterparts, while others exhibit serious artifacting that looks poor on modern HD and 4K displays.
Aside from these visual tweaks, the rest of Final Fantasy VIII Remastered is basically just the old PC version. This is most evident from the fact the game doesn’t support analog controls or rumble functionality — you can certainly use the analog stick but it doesn’t offer the full analog movement that was available on the PlayStation, and the controller no longer rumbles when you press the trigger on Squall’s gunblade or summon a GF. The lack of rumble is not exactly a big deal although I always did find those gunblade hits satisfying in the original, but movement being limited to eight directions often makes it extremely difficult to line up your character when you want to talk to people or interact with important objects. You do get used to it, but it never feels particularly pleasant.
Just like in the original game and the PC port, the battle scenes run at 15 frames per second. This is not really a problem since the combat is turn-based. Unfortunately, on PC the battle UI also ran at 15 fps instead of the 60 fps from the original release, and that limitation is still in place here. This can really screw up your timing for Squall’s Renzokuken limit break, although personally I got used to it rather quickly.
Thankfully, one aspect that was severely lacking in the PC port has mostly been fixed. The Steam versions of both Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII launched with the lackluster MIDI soundtracks from the 90s PC ports, and while FFVII eventually got a patch to restore the original music from the PlayStation version, the considerably smaller and less rabid fanbase of FFVIII was not so lucky on that front. You could at least install an unofficial mod to fix the music or even replace certain tracks with orchestral versions or The Black Mages metal remixes.
FFVIII Remastered contains the original PlayStation soundtrack so no modding is necessary, right? Well… no, because for some reason the developers forgot to replace one of the PC MIDI songs — “The Landing”, one of the signature tracks from this game — in a certain section on disc 2 (obviously, no actual discs are present, but the remaster still shows what disc you would be on)! This is doubly strange when you consider that “The Landing” plays perfectly fine in its original form during the first hour and therefore is clearly in the game files. Did anyone playtest this remaster past the first disc? In addition, the songs tend to cut out rather abruptly in this version.
The remaster also includes the usual assortment of cheat options we’ve seen in previous FF ports to current-gen systems, if you’re into that. Just in case you feel you’re not breaking the game hard enough, you can give yourself all of the spells or items in the game (hell yeah, gimme those Accelerators, Auto-Haste for everybody!) or disable random encounters without Enc-None, or just max out your HP and limit gauges. The 3x speedup is much appreciated, though, because the sidequests in FFVIII often require a lot of running back and forth especially in areas like Fisherman’s Horizon and Shumi Village (with its famous World’s Slowest Elevator). Autosaves seem to be absent, unfortunately.
I hate to admit it, but as a big fan of this game, I feel Final Fantasy VIII Remastered is sadly a bit of a letdown. If you haven’t played the original version in 15 to 20 years, you might not notice the overall lack of polish and the legacy issues from the PC port, and in that case you’ll probably have a great time with this remaster if you enjoy FFVIII. I do like the updated 3D models and the speedup option, but I don’t think the tradeoff is quite worth it especially since the remaster costs €20 or your regional equivalent. The remaster is probably a better option than the 2013 Steam release if you just want to play Final Fantasy VIII, but for my money the original PlayStation version is still the definitive version of this game and at this stage of my playthrough I kind of wish I was playing that instead.
…Hey Square, when are we getting a Final Fantasy VIII Remake with all the modern bells and whistles like in the upcoming FFVII Remake? Never? OK, just checking.