Final Fantasy VII was a juggernaut. One of the best-selling PlayStation 1 titles, it not only established Square’s dominance of the RPG market on Sony’s emerging console – it also pushed Final Fantasy to the forefront of the 3D gaming landscape. But where do you go when you’ve conquered Everest? For Square it was a question they’d faced before – each installment a separate entity from what came before. But this was different, Final Fantasy VII was THE experience for many – topping it would be a hard challenge. Enter 1999’s Final Fantasy VIII

Final Fantasy VIII follows the goings-on of Squall, a potential SeeD at the Balamb Garden military academy. SeeD’s are basically mercenaries for hire – plying their trade to the highest bidder. Things go a bit wrong though when Squall and his band of idiots join up with the resistance faction in Galbadian-occupied Timber. Suddenly the team find themselves attempting to assassinate a Sorceress (Which doesn’t go well at all) and everything they know thrown into danger. There’s a ton more story but after this it all gets very trippy and really you should just read the Wiki – because the story is bat-crazy by the time the final disc hits.

I think that was part of the problem with this title. People came in wanting something akin to Final Fantasy VII, yet they got something that wanted to be a different beast entirely. Even the graphics in FF8 are notably different – attempting to be more realistic. No longer are characters formed of oddly proportioned body parts – everyone in this game looks like an attempt at realism. It’s just a shame that characters in FF8 are somewhat blander. Squall effectively plays the role of teenage angst, awkwardly fumbling his way through a blossoming relationship with Rinoh. It’s the kind of romance that makes you want to reach for a copy of Twilight for respite.

It’s a shame because the characters around Squall don’t really help things either. Every one of the characters suffers from a glaring personality defect – something the game takes pleasure in exploring at one point or another. Zell in particular is about as endearing as a box of wasps – with the same kind of grating humor that really doesn’t land well much of the time. If Cloud and his gang of mercenaries made you laugh, this might be something of a comedown.

If it sounds like I’m dissing on Final Fantasy VIII a lot- there is a good game under the surface here. The central story (first two discs at least) is endearing enough to keep most people engaged – while the game has some of the most interesting mechanics in any FF game. The magic junctioning system is actually very useful – allowing you to craft insanely powerful spells – making some of the game’s boss battles insanely easy. You also never need to touch these mechanics if you don’t fancy – but it only makes the harder.

The core mechanics are also incredibly fun. The battle system is fine for the time while the weapon upgrade paths are intuitive enough that you have to actively want the parts to go and find them. The fact you can swap out party members means you’ll at least have some degree of choice in how battles play out. Limit Breaks are also incredibly fun (if slightly over powered) and offer a chance to come back when battles don’t go in your favor.

There’s also a lot to do outside of that main quest. Little villages dot the world and you can visit them as you please once you’re half way through the second disc. There’s a heap of side quests, flashbacks and intrigue in the world itself to keep even the most hardened of JRPG fans excited. It also helps that this game has one of the best soundtracks in the series. From the ballads to the background music, these are tunes that will catch and stick in the memory long after you’ve turned off the game.

We also have Final Fantasy VIII to thank for the emergence of Triple Triad – arguably the games greatest legacy. This popular card game basically sees you able to challenge anyone in the world to a card game. Collecting these cards is an entire game to itself – and with each city having their own rules (Which can spread and dominate other rules). It means if you want the best magic, you’re going to need to spend hours fighting over a Childrens Card game. It’s amazing that some of the games most important characters will simply down tools – all so they can play it with you.

If you were to ask me what the biggest problem with Final Fantasy VIII is though, I’d say that story has some of the most bizarre pacing I’ve seen a videogame. The first disc is mainly build – as you plan your mission and watch it tumble to pieces. By the end of Disc 1 – you’ve ultimately failed in your mission and are playing through the repercussions of that. Missiles are launched, war is declared – it’s all very high stakes. It builds to a climactic battle at the end of Disc 2 which feels genuinely like the culmination of the story – and then it keeps going. Disc 3 suffers from some incredibly awful filler. The game struggles to keep its momentum from the first two discs – pushing you into character building and some weird plot twists that undermine the whole point of the game thus far.

Effectively that Sorceress you were trying to kill wasn’t evil – she was being controlled by a sorceress from the future. Now she’s inhabiting the body of Rinoa, so of course you have to go out of your way to save her. It means lots of wandering on the map, a weird reveal of a hidden city and a trip into space. As said, Final Fantasy VIII is nothing if not ambitious in the scope of its story.

Then you hit Disc 4 and oh dear do the walls start to melt. At this point – the much talked about “time compression” occurs, with pretty much everything melting together in the kind of hilarious “oh god what were they thinking” madness that only the Final Fantasy series could get away with. Suddenly you’re in the past, the future and god knows where. It’s unique – but it’s also easy to see why many gamers simply abandoned the game long before the ending touched down.

I think that’s the reason this game has such a mixed opinion among fans. It’s a title that’s so different to what came before that many couldn’t handle it. It’s not a sequel to Final Fantasy VII in anything but name – and that’s not a bad thing.

As a standalone game, I find it all really interesting – and sometimes fun. It’s certainly not the best Final Fantasy game, but it has the chops to go out and try something different (So different that they walked most of it back for Final Fantasy IX!). It’s a solid outing, let down by some bizarre decisions that rob the game of greatness.

Certainly though, I recommend it to anyone who wants to see just how out there Final Fantasy was willing to go. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.