Final Fantasy VIII Remastered review – A masterpiece returns

I’m glad that Final Fantasy VIII is finally getting the recognition it always deserved. It was the black sheep of the series for a while thanks to some of its more experimental elements, but it seems to have grown on people in the years since (or, perhaps, I just follow the right people on Twitter). At the very least, calls for some sort of remaster ramped up every time Square Enix announced a new swathe of Final Fantasy ports, re-releases, and what have you where VIII was conspicuously absent.

But Square Enix saw the demand, and we finally have a remaster of what I’d go as far as saying is the finest Final Fantasy of them all.

Final Fantasy VIII has a lot of superficial similarities to the rest of the series, from the monsters you encounter to a story that ultimately sees you saving the world from some sort of god-like being. But VIII couches that in abstraction and philosophising that becomes downright enchanting as the story moves along: what begins with a squad of teenage mercenaries helping a small rebel outfit to liberate their city from imperial occupation turns into a tale of fractured timelines that blend and merge and intersect in bizarre ways. The arch-villain doesn’t just want to destroy the world; she wants to compress the entire history of the universe into a single moment with no past or future.

With that, Final Fantasy VIII becomes a fascinating exploration of the very concept of time and space. For much of the game, players witness two different stories alongside one another: in the present, we have our teen mercs fighting the evil empire in classic Final Fantasy style, but they regularly find themselves in shared dreams that seem to depict the adventures of a group of soldiers from said empire, some twenty years earlier.

But these “dreams” are nothing as mundane as mere dreams. As the story unfolds, the idea of time flowing along some linear path becomes increasingly abstracted, and the blurring of these two timelines takes things in some wonderfully bizarre directions. 

A low-key, but perfect, example of this is in how the Final Fantasy VIII shares characters stats between the characters in the present and those in the “dreams”. Rather than having their own levels and their own ability setups, the three characters that form your party in the “dream” world directly mirror three of those from the present. Laguna (the main character of the “dreams”) will always have exactly the same stats, abilities, and whatnot as Squall (the main character of the present, and of the game overall). If Laguna levels during a “dream” sequence, Squall will be a level higher when the dream ends; if you switch all of Laguna’s abilities around, you’ll see those changes reflected in Squall as well.

It’d be easy to pass this off as just something done for the convenience of play. But when you look at it in the context of Final Fantasy VIII‘s time-bending story, it becomes something far more interesting: another piece of this web of timespace oddities.

The side effect of this is that Final Fantasy VIII tells a story that’s much less clear-cut than that of its peers. It’s not a game that’s interested in tying up loose ends and answering every question it proposes so much as one that wants to explore a complex, abstract idea through tone and theme. I suspect this is one of the reasons a lot of folks looked down on Final Fantasy VIII at first, but if anything, it’s one of the things that makes it stand above its peers.

The other big thing that gave people pause with FF8‘s original release was Squall and his “Whatever…”s. People like to point to the frequent use of “Whatever…” in Squall’s dialogue as an example of poor writing, poor translation, or poor characterisation (or all of the above). But Squall is none of these things; he is, quite simply, a teenager. He comes across as a pastiche of an edgy, emo teenager, but that’s just what being a teenager is! He thinks himself far more of a misunderstood, isolated lone wolf than he actually is, and his “Whatever…”s embody that perfectly.

So it is for the rest of the main cast, too. Despite their wildly different personalities and backgrounds, each one of Squall’s fellow teen mercenaries comes across like someone awkwardly playing at some particular social role or character archetype because that’s just part of what being a teenager is. The very thing that makes some people accuse Final Fantasy VIII‘s writing as not being realistic enough is exactly what makes it one of the most authentic depictions of adolescence you’ll encounter. 

This also helps to ground the story, emotionally. Fascinating though the time compression stuff is, if that was the entirety of the narrative, it’d run the risk of just being too clinical, of being too tied to its heady philosophy to the point of alienating its audience. But with a cast of such genuine people at its centre, working through a lot of the same shit that we all had to work through as kids (notwithstanding the whole saving the world thing), there’s something to hold on to and relate to, even as the overarching thing becomes the roller coaster that it does.

It’s for these reasons that I go as far as calling Final Fantasy VIII a masterpiece—and that’s not a word I use lightly. Every Final Fantasy game tackles interesting themes and concepts, but few go all-in the way that VIII does.

Hopefully, this remaster will help more people to appreciate that, whether through converting old critics or introducing a whole new audience. It certainly helps that the developers have gone above and beyond to get Final Fantasy VIII Remastered looking as good as possible. The character models, in particular, look like they’ve been redone entirely, rather than just layering some high-res textures over the old polygons. It would have been nice to see the pre-rendered backgrounds and FMVs touched up a bit (though it’s understandable that they haven’t been, what with the original assets being long lost). Nonetheless, FF8 that looks better than it ever has.

The remaster also includes some welcome new (optional) features to help making playing a 20-year-old game a smoother process. Being able to dial up the game speed to three times what it normally is is a godsend when you want to grind levels and try to generally break the game through creative use of a very open-ended character building system. Being able to disable random encounters and/or make your party borderline invincible when you just want to enjoy the story without too much time wasting along the way.

Perhaps the most remarkable achievement with Final Fantasy VIII Remastered is the fact that it even happened at all. This would have been a mammoth undertaking to put together, thanks in no small part to the fact that the original source code is apparently long lost. That Square Enix managed to pull a remaster together, and one as polished as this, without the source is more than a little impressive.

Thanks to those efforts, we now have the best—or, at the very least, the most interesting—Final Fantasy game readily available on modern consoles with modern conveniences. Final Fantasy VIII is finally getting the recognition it’s long deserved, and Final Fantasy VIII Remastered will play a crucial role in keeping that legacy alive.

Essential


The publisher provided a copy of the game to Shindig for reviewing purposes.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.