There is a saying that everyone wants to be a filmmaker. And if you don't, then you probably want to be a writer. Okay, this doesn't apply to everyone, but I bet that in any given room, at any time, there's going to be at least one person there who is just dying to get in the movie business with "the" script hidden somewhere at home. Movies just seem to have this hook on people that makes them want to be involved in the industry some way, some how. Whether it was witnessing the epic that was Gone With The Wind (historically controversial as it is) or the stylized wonder that is The Matrix, we have all wanted to get behind something that would move an audience the way those marvels have. And it didn't hurt that you could make a fortune doing so. No one is immune to this, not even accomplished game developers; with every leap in hardware, videogame developers are using more and more elements that have traditionally been grounded in movies and implementing them now into their games. One developer in particular, Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy series, once said that he has always wanted to be a film director and with every release of the Final Fantasy series, he nears closer to his dream. Now will this man's dream become our nightmare or will it appropriately fill its role in the natural progression of the medium?
I would wager that a film connoisseur like Sakaguchi knows that a great script is key to the success of any movie and that this "rule" also applies to the RPGs he produces. The stories and characters are some of the most endearing elements of the Final Fantasy series and Final Fantasy VIII (FF8) delivers accordingly. FF8 starts off strong with a major opening sequence that got my blood flowing and really psyched me up to play further. The story of Squall Leonhart and his mission to be a SeeD (a legal mercenary) quickly evolves into a passionate love story that pulls out all the stops when drawing emotions from the characters involved as well as from me. Sure Squall starts out as a bit of a jerk, but his character evolves enough to make him likeable. In addition, the things going on around him are distracting enough to have me hooked on the story's bigger picture.
For all its depth, though, I quickly discovered that I had little control of the game after the early part of it. No matter what I did or what kind of responses I gave [to the non-player characters (NPCs)], the story progressed regardless of that. It has been a running trend with Sakaguchi since Final Fantasy III (FF3) that furthering the plot takes precedence over player involvement. While the story is deep and filled with emotional scenes, there is a very apparent lack of interaction and I could feel his heavy hand guiding me all about the game. I was directed to go to point A and when I did I was rewarded with an excellent CG movie. When that was done, I was then instructed to go to point B where there might be a battle followed by another CG movie or cut-scene. Linear game play such as this has been a mainstay in Final Fantasy since the beginning, but it used to be balanced with character interaction. In FF8, this balance does not exist and I am left feeling extradited from the game for much of the time.
Speaking of taking players out of the game, I think the graphic artists at Square are jones-ing to start up a movie development studio, meanwhile being overly confident with the advantages of the PlayStation. They did little to deal with the limitations of the system, which consequently did not help in producing a better gaming experience. I'm sure they worked very hard to create the exquisite graphics and CG animations (the opening intro is the best I've seen in a game thus far), but they really should have held back when the CD-ROM proved to be unable to load them fast enough. And this is not just waiting for screen loading, mind you, but for animations as well; I'd say that one-third of my playing time was spent waiting. It got so bad that when I summoned a GF (Guardian Force: the magical being I call upon to cast spells), I would lie back in my couch, place the controller on my stomach, and close my eyes; I knew the animations were over when the controller stopped vibrating, which meant that I could finally continue playing again (note to Square: I like playing your games, but I don't like being held captive while doing so).
Since I brought up gameplay as well as the Guardian Forces, I must mention that this is something new that could leave many gamers cold. Similar to the Espers of FF3, Guardian Forces must be equipped to each character to be used in battle. Unfortunately, with the many plot twists and turns, I was required to switch between as many as seven GFs at a time and parcel them out between the three characters in my party. That meant I had to unequip whatever character I wasn't using; equip the character I wanted with a particular GF; then match up whichever magic abilities I wanted specialized for that particular character; and, finally, choose the abilities determining whether he will be stronger defensively, offensively, or magically. I had to do this with each character each and every time I switched. It got to be ridiculous when I had to use a GF for a mere 10 seconds, but still had to go through the monotonous process all over again. The option of having the PC automatically choose strengths and weaknesses for characters does exist, which allows me to quickly get through battles not requiring too much specialization. But I was left wondering why I ever had to do it manually at all. Also using them did not drain any of my Magic points so I was able to use them as often as I wanted as long as they didn't lose all of their Hit Points. The result is an overall easier game; even battles with the bosses lacked a sense of urgency, because I always knew that I could beat whomever I needed to.
There are a few minor changes to the game that need addressing. The super-deformed characters (big heads, small bodies) from previous game are gone and are now replaced with more realistically rendered character models. Doing so allows for more dramatic acting and movement throughout the game, but it is not without its down side. The graphics of the character models do look good for a PlayStation title, but when put against the pre-rendered backgrounds, they cannot help but appear pixelated and dated. Also, Square is convinced that older gamers play their Final Fantasy games more now so they have "treated" us again with more pointless cursing. It rubbed me the wrong way in Final Fantasy VII (FF7) and it is no better here. Square's move towards a more organic feel throughout the areas is a welcome change as opposed to the Blade Runner-style of FF7. The organic look and feel of the Gardens (the schools where SeeD candidates are trained) relaxes the predictable sci-fi angle that was the foundation of the FF series and the results are marvelous.
Does everyone want to be a filmmaker? I still think so. A few hours with FF8 and I knew that that was where Hironobu Sakaguchi and Square wants to be heading. Considering that they have been working on a Final Fantasy movie (done solely on SGI machines) only strengthens my belief. FF8 has what it takes to knock FF7 from the memories of gamers. Its story is better developed, the characters are more interesting, and the graphics and music are twice as good and plays pretty darn well for much of the time. However, limitations of the hardware as well as art direction hamper the game too much in the end. It winds up being partly a graphical showcase and movie hybrid and partly a less than epic RPG (which was what it was billed to be). If Square doesn't give up on games and Sakaguchi doesn't abandon us for Hollywood, I'd like to see them come back to the table with another sequel that gets it right. Till then, as far as FF8 goes, what it has been most successful at doing is turning my PlayStation into a VCR.