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Final Fantasy VIII
Publisher: SquareSoft (1999, PS2)
Gamers are very familiar with Final Fantasy VIII's many quirks and failings. The game world is strangely inconsistent, trying to shovel modern elements into a world that otherwise feels too medieval. Everything from its story to its battle system is slow, bloated, and unnecessarily confusing. And yes, Squall is an unlikable jerk, and his romance with Rinoa is not quite believable, considering it's meant to be the crux of the game.
There's a lot that Final Fantasy VIII does wrong, but there's even more that it does right. There are so many JRPG conventions that Square deliciously twists that it's almost like relearning how to approach the genre. At the core of this is the Junction system, which allows you to use magic spells to increase your stats or modify your elemental abilities.
This completely shatters the concept of RPG equipment, which has only occasionally veered beyond the "go to new town, buy new stuff, sell old stuff" pattern. Since there is no armor in Final Fantasy VIII, the spells you draw from enemies let you make your own. Similarly, weapons are primarily upgraded in the same manner -- there's some new equipment that can be assembled if you run some enemy hunting quests, but they're presented as subquests rather than necessary requirements.
Magic use has also been completely reimagined. Since the original Final Fantasy, we've been taught to conserve magic as a precious resource, dwindling to the point where our MP would reach zero and we'd need to retreat to an inn to recharge.
Yet magic is everywhere in Final Fantasy VIII -- all you need to do it is draw from any enemy creature. Of course, the dynamics of this system completely depend on the enemies on the area -- if they possess Fire magic, you can go crazy setting enemies ablaze, but if none of them have healing magic, you'd better conserve your Cure spells.
Similarly, RPGs have always been trying to seek a balance between magic and power. Fighters have always been more powerful than magicians, a point made explicitly clear in Final Fantasy VII, where magic Materia would weaken your strength and HP stats.
Using magic in Final Fantasy VIII will weaken whatever statistics that spell is Junctioned too, again forcing you to be aware of how to formulate your strategy. It's the same concept as before, just done in a completely different manner. This is one area that Final Fantasy has always specialized in -- keeping mechanics familiar yet overturning them in new and crazy ways, just to keep you on your toes.
It can be a bit overwhelming, which is why a lot of gamers initially ignored the system in favor of spamming the summon beasts, each of which were accompanied by overly long, drawn out cinemas. As such, there's a strange divide – if you fully understand the ins and outs of the system, you can totally break the game; but if you don't, it becomes obnoxiously difficult.
Still, those who like to micromanage stats and completely beef up the characters -- potentially the same kind that would find Final Fantasy V to be paradise -- can feel right at home with Junctioning. So ignore the sloppy romance and the trashy love ballad that goes along with it -- this is what Final Fantasy VIII should be known for.