Final Fantasy VIII is a departure from many traditional standards of the Final Fantasy series. It is the first game in the series to consistently use realistically proportioned characters, the first to feature a vocal piece as its theme music, and one of the only titles to deviate from the series' traditional means of increasing a character's power. In addition, it does not have a magic point-based system for spellcasting.
The game was positively received by critics and was commercially successful. It was voted the 22nd best game of all time by readers of the Japanese magazine Famitsu. Thirteen weeks after its release, Final Fantasy VIII had earned more than US$50 million in sales, making it the fastest selling Final Fantasy title.
Like Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII consists of three main modes of play: the world map, the field map, and the battle screen. The world map is a 3D display in which the player may navigate freely across a small-scale rendering of the game world. Characters travel across the world map in a variety of ways, including by foot, car, Chocobo, train, and airship. The field map consists of controllable 3D characters overlaid on one or more 2D pre-rendered backgrounds, which represent environmental locations such as towns or forests. The battle screen is a 3D model of a location such as a street or room, where turn-based fights between playable characters and CPU-controlled enemies take place. The interface is menu-driven, as in previous titles, but with the typical weapon and armor systems removed and new features present, such as the Junction system. Also featured is a collectible card-based minigame called "Triple Triad".
The flexibility of this system makes it possible to build a powerful party early in the game. This alternative use of such summoned creatures was a significant departure for the Final Fantasy series, as they were previously used almost exclusively to deliver a single devastating attack during battles. Furthermore, junction replaced the equipment system of previous installments with a permanent, specialized weapon for each character. Each major character's weapon can be upgraded, increasing its power and changing its appearance. Armour and accessories are not included in the game.
Another change is that most of the main characters' special techniques feature interactive elements, ranging from a slot machine design to fighting game-style button inputs. These elements, which are dependent on the character and the nature of the Limit Break, can be used to increase the potency of the attack.
In addition to gaining levels, Guardian Forces earn Ability Points (AP) after battles, which are automatically allocated to special abilities that Guardian Forces can learn. When a Guardian Force has learned an ability, that ability becomes available for any character—and, in some cases, the entire character party—to use, such as field abilities. Through learned abilities, characters can receive attack enhancements in battle, refine magic spells from items, receive stat bonuses upon "level up", have remote access to shops, and use additional battle commands.
As part of a theme desired by director Yoshinori Kitase to give the game a foreign atmosphere, various designs were given to its locations using the style of internationally familiar places, while also maintaining a fantasy atmosphere. Inspiration ranged from ancient Egyptian and Greek architecture, to the city of Paris, France, to an idealized futuristic European society.
During the game's pre-production, character designer Tetsuya Nomura suggested the game be given a "school days" feel. Scenario writer Kazushige Nojima already had a story in mind in which the main characters were the same age; their ideas meshed, taking form as the "Garden" military academies. Nojima planned that the two playable parties featured in the game (Squall's present day group and Laguna Loire's group from the past) would be highly contrasted with one another. This idea was conveyed through the age and experience of Laguna's group, versus the youth and naïveté of Squall's group.
To maintain the game's theme of a foreign atmosphere, the characters were designed to have predominantly European appearances. The first Final Fantasy VIII character designed was Squall. Desiring to add a unique angle to Squall's appearance and emphasize his role as the central character, Nomura gave him a scar across his brow and the bridge of his nose. As there was not yet a detailed history conceived for the character, Nomura left the explanation for Squall's scar to Nojima. Squall was given a gunblade, a fictional revolver–sword hybrid that functions primarily as a sword, with an added damaging vibration feature activated by use of its gun mechanism, similar to a vibroblade. His character design was complemented by a fur ruff along the collar of his jacket, incorporated by Nomura as a challenge for the game's full motion video designers.
With Final Fantasy VIII came the inclusion of some designs Nomura had previously drawn, but had not yet used in a Final Fantasy game. These were the designs of Edea, Fujin and Raijin. The latter two had originally been designed for use in Final Fantasy VII, but with the inclusion of the Turks characters in that game, it was felt that Fujin and Raijin were unnecessary. Nomura had designed Edea before the development of Final Fantasy VII, based on the style of Yoshitaka Amano.
During the graduation party, Squall meets Rinoa, whose personality is apparently the opposite of his own. When assigned with Zell and Selphie to help her Galbadian resistance, Squall learns that a sorceress named Edea is behind Galbadia's hostilities. Under orders from the Balamb and Galbadia Gardens, Squall and his comrades—now joined by Rinoa, Quistis, and Irvine—attempt to assassinate Edea. Despite a nearly flawless execution of the plan, the party is detained. Squall's party also learns that Seifer has left Garden to become Edea's "knight", her second-in-command.
After the team escapes, Galbadian missiles deploy towards Trabia Garden. Fearing that Balamb Garden is the next target of Edea's revenge, the team splits into two units: Squall's group returns to Garden to warn of the attack, but must first stop an internal conflict incited by NORG, SeeD's financial supporter; while Selphie's team travels to the Galbadian Missile Base in attempt to stop the missile launch, but fails. Squall inadvertently turns Balamb Garden into a mobile fortress and manages to evade the missiles; however, he loses control, and the Garden collides with the docks at Fisherman's Horizon. While local technicians repair the Garden, Galbadians invade in search of a girl named "Ellone", who had been staying at Balamb Garden until recently. Ellone eventually escapes to Esthar, the world's technological superpower.
During Squall's meeting with Ellone, he learns that she had been "sending" him and his party members into flashbacks set seventeen years in the past in order to change it. The scenes center on Laguna and his two friends, Kiros and Ward. During the flashbacks, Laguna changes from Galbadian soldier to the defender of a country village to leader of a resistance movement against Sorceress Adel, and later goes on to become the president of Esthar.
Meanwhile, Squall confronts his personal anxieties fueled by ongoing developments, such as Headmaster Cid appointing him as SeeD's new leader, and his increasing attraction to Rinoa. While investigating Trabia Garden's ruins, Squall and his comrades learn that—with the exception of Rinoa—they were raised with Seifer and Ellone in an orphanage run by Edea; they later developed amnesia due to their use of Guardian Forces. It is also revealed that Cid and Edea had established Garden and SeeD primarily to defeat corrupt sorceresses. After these revelations, the forces of Balamb Garden and the Galbadian army, led by Squall and Seifer respectively, engage in battle above the orphanage. After Balamb defeats Galbadia, the player learns that Edea is merely an unwilling tool for "Ultimecia", a powerful sorceress from the future who wishes to compress time into a single moment; it is for this reason she has sought Ellone. Edea loses a decisive battle against the SeeD, forcing Ultimecia to transfer her powers to Rinoa; Edea survives, but Rinoa enters a coma. Squall becomes obsessed with waking her and goes to Esthar to find Ellone, as he believes that she can help save Rinoa.
While Rinoa is being treated on Esthar's space station, Ultimecia uses her to free Sorceress Adel from her orbital prison. Ultimecia then orders Seifer to activate the Lunatic Pandora facility, inciting a rain of creatures from the moon that sends Adel's containment device to the planet. Having selected Adel as her next host, Ultimecia abandons Rinoa in outer space. Squall rescues her, and they return to the planet on a derelict starship. Upon their landing, delegates from Esthar isolate Rinoa for fear of her sorceress abilities, forcing Squall to rescue her. President Laguna apologizes for the incident and announces Dr. Odine's plan to let Ultimecia possess Rinoa, have Ellone send Rinoa (and thus Ultimecia as well) to the past and then retrieve only Rinoa back to the present, enabling Ultimecia to achieve Time Compression to occur, as it would allow Squall's group to confront Ultimecia in her world. To do this, Squall's team infiltrates Lunatic Pandora, defeats Seifer and Adel, and has Rinoa inherit Adel's sorceress powers. Time Compression is thus initiated; Squall and his allies travel to Ultimecia's era and defeat her.
With Ultimecia defeated, the universe begins returning to normal; however, Squall is nearly lost in the flow of time as he witnesses the origins of the game's story. When a dying Ultimecia travels back in time to pass her powers to Edea, Squall informs Edea of the concepts of Garden and SeeD that she will create. Afterward, he is able to properly recollect his memories and was able to regain consciousness and thus return to the present. The ending cinema depicts the events after Squall and co.'s return to the present. Seifer is once again reunited with Raijin and Fujin; Laguna visits Raine's grave (and recollects his proposal to her) along with Ellone, Ward, and Kiros; and a celebration takes place in the Garden, with Squall and Rinoa embracing one another under the moonlight.
Development of Final Fantasy VIII began in during the English language translation of Final Fantasy VII. As with much of Final Fantasy VIIs production, series creator and veteran Hironobu Sakaguchi served as the executive producer, working primarily on the development of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and leaving direction of Final Fantasy VIII to Yoshinori Kitase. Shinji Hashimoto was assigned to be the producer in Sakaguchi's place.
From the beginning, Kitase knew he wanted a thematic combination of fantasy and realism. To this end, he aimed to include a cast of characters who appeared to be ordinary people. Character designer and battle visual director Tetsuya Nomura and art director Yusuke Naora strove to achieve this impression through the inclusion of realistically proportioned characters—a departure from the super deformed designs used in the previous installment. Additionally, Naora attempted to enhance the realism of the world through predominantly bright lighting effects with shadows distributed as appropriate. Other measures taken included implementing rental cars for travel in-game, and the use of motion capture technology to give the game's characters lifelike movements in the game's FMV sequences.
Scenario writer Kazushige Nojima has expressed that the dynamic of players' relationships with the protagonist is important to him. Both Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII feature reserved, quiet protagonists in the form of Cloud Strife and Squall Leonhart. With Final Fantasy VIII, however, Nojima worked to give players actual insight into what the character was thinking; a direct contrast with his handling of Final Fantasy VIIs script, which encouraged the player to speculate. This approach to Final Fantasy VIII is reflected by the frequent use of dialogue that takes place solely within Squall's mind, allowing the player to read his thoughts and understand what he is thinking or feeling even when he keeps those thoughts to himself.
In 1999, the ballroom dance scene of Final Fantasy VIII was featured as a technical demo for the PlayStation 2. In , a PC version was released for Windows. This rerelease featured smoother graphics, enhanced audio, and the inclusion of Chocobo World, a minigame starring Boko, a Chocobo featured in one of Final Fantasy VIIIs side-quests. For most North American and European players, the PC version of the game was the only means of playing Chocobo World, as the game was originally designed to be played via the PocketStation, a handheld console never released outside Japan.
The score is best known for two songs: "Liberi Fatali", a Latin choral piece that is played during the introduction to the game, and "Eyes On Me", a pop song serving as the game's theme, performed by Chinese singer Faye Wong. The latter song was released as a CD single in Japan and sold over 400,000 copies, placing it as the best-selling video game music disc ever released in that country until the release of "Hikari" by Utada Hikaru for Kingdom Hearts. "Liberi Fatali" was played during the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens during the women's synchronized swimming event.
Within two days of its North American release on September 9, 1999, Final Fantasy VIII became the top-selling video game in the United States, a position it held for more than three weeks. Aside from grossing a total of more than US$50 million within the first 13 weeks to follow, in Japan, it sold roughly 2.5 million units within the first four days of release, and during 2006 was voted by readers of Japanese magazine Famitsu as the twenty-second best game of all time. More than six million units were sold in total by the end of 1999.
Reviews of the gameplay have been mixed. Multimedia news website IGN felt that it was the weakest aspect of the game, citing its Guardian Force attack sequences as "incredibly cinematic" but tedious, sentiments echoed by Electronic Gaming Monthly. They also regarded the battle system as intensely complicated, yet refreshingly innovative and something that "RPG fanatics love to obsess over". Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine claims that the game's Junction system is a major flaw due to repetitive stocking of spells, while the UK-based video game magazine Edge commented that the battle system consists of a "bewildering" number of intricate options and techniques that "most gamers will ... relish". GameSpot praised the game's battle system, commenting that the "possibilities for customization [with the Junction system] are immense".
Critics have compared the other aspects of the game to previous Final Fantasy installments. Gaming Age cited the storyline and graphics as two major improvements over Final Fantasy VII, while considering the music "hardly a step up...". Though questioning the game's lack of voice overs for its characters, Game Revolution praised its storyline and ending. For their part, Edge labeled Final Fantasy VIII "...a far more accomplished game than FFVII". On the other hand, the magazine also felt that the game's length left its story unable to "offer consistently strong dialogue and sub-plots". Additionally, it found some of the story's plot twists "not ... suitably manipulated and prepared", leaving it "hard not to greet such... moments with anything but indifference". Overall, Edge considered Final Fantasy VIII to be "yet another outstanding edition of SquareSoft's far-from-final fantasies", summarizing it as "aesthetically astonishing, rarely less than compelling, and near peerless in scope and execution...". Electronic Gaming Monthly offered similar comments, stating that the game's character development "is the best of any RPG's" and that "Final Fantasy VIII is the pinnacle of its genre".
On September 22, 1999, a CD-ROM titled Final Fantasy VIII Desktop Accessories was released. It contains desktop icons, computer wallpapers, screensavers, and an e-mail application. Additionally, Final Fantasy VIII Desktop Accessories features an edition of the Triple Triad minigame from Final Fantasy VIII, creating the ability to play against opponents via a local area network.
The European release of Final Fantasy VIII saw a relatively large amount of merchandise being packaged together with the game for an initial run special release at no extra cost. These were all sold in a large rectangular box which contained a Final Fantasy VIII t-shirt, a PlayStation memory card and a selection of Final Fantasy VIII stickers to put on a PlayStation memory card.