The story follows a group of elite teenage soldiers called SeeD who enter the organization with a live fire exam that drops them into an active war zone. Our protagonist and eventual leader of the SeeD team is Squall Leonheart, a moody teenager who isn’t quite sure what to do with himself. He leads an adventurous team to help a group of freedom fighters take back their country but one goof leads to another and soon they’re trying to assassinate a Sorceress – a dangerous and powerful spellcaster – who has become the ambassador to the foremost military powerhouse in the world. The assassination plot fails due to a sniper that can’t pull the trigger and a former SeeD/ Squall’s rival who has become the Sorceress’ personal “Knight.” The whole botched job ends with Squall taking an ice spear to the chest and the team ending up in prison.
The next leg of the adventure splits the team up as they attempt to stop the Sorceress who has taken control of the entire nation from wreaking vengeance on their home bases in retaliation for the attempted assassination. This results in the destruction of one home base – called Gardens – and another having to activate a flight mode amidst an internal power struggle civil war. After saving their home, the team takes some time before realizing that they actually all grew up in the same orphanage but couldn’t remember due to their summons erasing their memories, and that the caretaker of the orphanage was the Sorcereress Edea. They head off to the site of the orphanage but find the third and last Garden also activated its flight mode and is there waiting. Amidst a massive brawl between the two Gardens, the team faces off with Sorceress Edea and her Knight and win, only to discover that Edea, while a sorceress, was not evil but being controlled by a Sorceress named Ultimecia in the distant future who has been controlling Sorceresses back in time so she could secure her rule in the future and become a god. All the while, Rinoa – a girl from the freedom fighters that Squall has taken a liking too – becomes hypnotized and revives the Knight before falling into a coma.
Edea explains that Ultimecia is looking for a particular girl – Ellone – who has a unique power to send minds through time. Using this, Ultimecia hopes to collapse all of time down into a single moment and combine all the sorceress’ powers through history to make herself a god. Squall however is less interested in that and more in having an existential crisis as he comes to grip with the strange new concept of ’emotions’ and decides to take Rinoa to the hidden country of Eshtar to get her some help and to find Ellone. In Eshtar, they end up going to a space station to find Ellone. But Seifer – the Knight – awakens a 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith to suck monsters from the moon to the earth, attacking the spacestation and freeing the sorceress (Adel) imprisoned there. Squall and Rinoa have a romantic moment trying not to die in space and find a gassed up space ship that returns them to Eshtar, only to have Rinoa hauled off in cuffs for being found out as a Sorcereress herself. Squall’s friends convince him that these “emotions” means he loves Rinoa and he should save her. With Rinoa saved, they decide the only way to stop Ultimecia is to fight her head on in her own time, and that means letting Ultimecia compress time.
The SeeD attack the Lunatic Pandora (the 2001 monolith) to face off with Ultimecia now possessing Sorceress Adel’s body. Adel takes Rinoa and attaches her to Adel’s body, thus allowing Ellone to send their united minds together and begin Time Compression. Squall and his team assault Ultimecia’s castle. They battle Ultimecia’s myriad of forms until she is defeated and sends a rippling explosion across compressed time. As time begins to reset, the SeeDs are forced to try to navigate the void of time/space to try and find their way back home. Squall and Ultimecia end up meeting Edea in the ruins behind the orphanage years before SeeD and the Gardens were even a thing. Ultimecia passes on her powers (as Sorceresses do before they die) to Edea, turning her into the Sorceress from earlier in the game, and then Squall makes mention of him being a SeeD from Garden on a mission to destroy the Sorceress thus setting in motion for Edea and her Husband to found the Gardens and create SeeD. Squall almost loses himself in the timestream before Rinoa finds him, the two are reunited and everyone lives happily ever after.
Final Fantasy VIII was my first Final Fantasy in the Playstation era and from what I recall, I really liked it. Enough that I and my ex back in high school actually cosplayed as Squall and Rinoa for our local anime convention. I remember really enjoying the love story aspect of it and the idea that Squall and Rinoa fulfilled the ‘destined’ romance that their respective parents were unable to share. I also remember really enjoying the completely jigsaw puzzle of a plot but then again I was also REALLY into Evangelion at the time, so that may have just been a thing I was in to. I clearly wasn’t good at it because after replaying some of the game and re-reading the plot synopsis I totally missed like 30% of the stuff in this game. Not that it’s hard to. Much of the background details of the world and the story are doled out in small bites across dozens of random NPCs in the world. Didn’t talk to Ma Dincht this one time you were passing through? Well, good luck figuring out the mythology of Hyne and what connection it has to the Sorceress’. Seriously, this game begged for a Wiki years before Wikis were a thing.
Not helping matters is that it seems that the plot is all over the map. It’s a coming of age tale, an epic battle of good versus evil, a war story, a love story, and a time travel story. And it hits all those notes, but it’s definitely debatable if it hits them well or if it needed to hit them all. The time travel bit honestly added the most confusion, with your characters occassionally falling unconscious to experience the adventures of Laguna and his crew thirty years prior. You’re explicitly told that nothing you can do there can change the outcome of what happens so it’s not a time travel plot in that sense, nor are the events told linearly in these flashbacks either. So it really just serves as very confusing exposition. Arguably the worst kind of exposition. Confusion really is a big factor here and I remember it leading into a lot of debate back in high school as we sat around and argued over plot details like ‘Is Squall Laguna’s son?’ (He is for the record. Ellone arrives at the orphanage with Raine’s child that was born after Laguna vanished.) and trying to make sense of the whole Time Compression thing. The real issue I have with the plot is that in only works in the cursory glance that the game gives it and doesn’t really hold up to a lot of question in my opinion. Why does Ellone have the power to send people’s minds through time? Why does Ultimecia become a god by squishing time into a single moment? Why when Ultimecia passes her power on to Edea, does Edea have ice powers instead of Ultimecia’s powers? Who built the Gardens? Why build the Gardens? Is each Garden a completely separate entity from each other? WHY AND HOW DO GUARDIANS ERASE YOUR MEMORIES?! I honestly can keep going on this. The story leaves a lot of things not fully developed and not fully explained. It feels like a lot of this is because of a lack of focus on what they wanted the story to be about.
However, one common complaint I hear is that Squall is a whiny emo that is a terrible protagonist. I disagree. Honestly, Squall comes off to me as a teenager. One who acts like one. He’s unsure, he’s cynical, he doesn’t know how to deal with things that are thrust upon him. He reminds me of actual people I knew in high school. Squall’s arc and his romance with Rinoa is honestly the best part of this game in my opinion. It feels like there’s a level of honesty with it that you don’t find in a lot of RPGs. The other characters less so. Seifer is clearly a school bully and would be an internet troll had the internet existed in the world. Most of the others seem like they’re built around school stereotypes that would fit in with an average high school anime. Zell is the sporty dude bro with a short fuse. Selphie is the free spirit fun lover. Quistis is the serious one with glasses. Irvine is the one who looks cool but is actually a complete mess. Rinoa is Usagi from Sailor Moon.
The game continues to push further into the experimental from VII with brand new mechanics such as not having equipment. You have one weapon. You upgrade said weapon several times. There is no armor or accessories or anything. This is all replaced with the Junction system! Where you take your spells and slap them into slots to augment your stats. The more of a spell you have, the better the stat becomes. More of a spell, you ask? Well the spell system is completely different too. Instead of learning magic, you draw it from monsters and draw points around the world and stock it like items. What does one Fira look like? No clue but I have 34 of them. Even the whole young adult style story is a big experiment from the previous series. With all these changes to the formula it’s not hard to see why this game is incredibly divisive. Some folks love it, some hate it, and some like aspects of it. I think I’m in that third category.
To me, VIII feels like a mess of a game. But it’s a mess of a game with a bunch of REALLY great moments scattered through out it. The love story is solid, there’s a bunch of really good suspense building where you don’t know the fate of certain characters. Heck, even the ending plays with this in not knowing if Squall is alright unless you watch the post-credits scene. And there is a video that plays through half the credits of everyone getting their happy ending on back at the Garden with Squall NOWHERE to be found. I remember honestly wondering if he actually made it, or simply vanished into the timestream after saving the world and going back in time to set everything on the path. In this game, you just DON’T know. There are no established rules at this point. On the same hand, it feels like there were a lot of ideas in here that could of have been handled better and were in other games. Some of which we’ll be looking at as part of this series.
So is VIII a BAD game? Eh, maybe. But much like a fundamentally bad movie it doesn’t mean there isn’t something to love about it. It wouldn’t be my first recommendation to a new fan, but it’s not like I would warn them away from it either.
Next time we’ll be getting some sun, some surf, and exposing an ancient conspiracy that has trapped the world in the iron grip of an endless spiral of death.
Till then, May the light of the Crystals guide your way!
Do you have any great memories from these classic Final Fantasy games? Feel free to share in the comments!
The general tale of Final Fantasy VII is told is a somewhat non-linear fashion where the facts often turn out to be obscured lies until late in the game. I’m going to do my best to summarize this in a LINEAR fashion, so it actually makes sense.
Long long ago, the Planet (Yes, that’s its name. Hence the capital P.) was inhabited by a race called the Cetra who lived in harmony with the Planet. Then a giant meteor crashed into the planet’s northern pole 2000 years prior to the game’s beginning and brought a creature known as Jenova with it. Jenova pretty much wiped out the Cetra before they were able to contain the thing.
Skip to a few prior to the main game, protagonist and sword enthusiast Cloud Strife, a lowly Shinra soldier, accompanies SOLDIERs (the capitalization makes it different) Zack and Sephiroth on a mission to Cloud’s hometown of Nibelheim. There Sephiroth discovers the horrible “truth” of his existence: He was imbued with the cells of Jenova, discovered by the Shinra Corporation and mistaken for a Cetra, to create a Supersoldier. Believing that he is a Cetra, and thus the true ruler of the Planet, and also driven to madness by the Jenova cells in his body, he burns the village to the ground and goes to retrieve the body of Jenova hidden inside a Mako Reactor nearby (Mako being the life energy of the planet and the Reactor is a power plant that sucks up Mako to turn into electricity and such.) Zack tries to stop him but is defeated, and Cloud ultimately strikes down Sephiroth and throws him into the Planet’s Lifestream below the Mako Reactor. Shinra shows up and uses the villagers of the destroyed town as experiments to infuse Jenova cells into and create a new Sephiroth to replace them. Zack and Cloud are deemed failures of this experiment and to be locked away. They escaped but Zack died from injuries sustained and Cloud’s mental state from the experiments shattered his memories, blurring them with Zack’s.
The story starts proper a few years after the Nibelheim incident, with Cloud working as a mercenary for the Eco-Terrorist group AVALANCHE along with his childhood friend Tifa and the group’s revolutionary leader Barrett. They’re on a mission to destroy the Mako Reactors and stop the Shinra Corporation from harming the Planet. The first part of the game follows AVALANCHE’s missions including the destruction of two Mako Reactors, saving Tifa from a slumlord pimp, Cloud meeting the flower girl Aeris/Aerith who is relentlessly pursued by the Shinra special ops team called the Turks because she is an actual Cetra, trying and failing to stop Shinra from dropping one of the city’s upper levels onto the sector of the city that AVALANCHE’s base is in, and then assaulting Shinra directly to find the president murdered by Sephiroth who apparently survived the whole Lifestream ordeal. The first ‘act’ ends with President Shinra’s son Rufus taking the big chair and chasing down the remnants of AVALANCHE as they flee from the mega city.
Realizing that Sephiroth is back, Cloud declares his intentions to hunt down the man who destroyed Tifa and his’ hometown. This launches into a global chase as the party pursues clues about where to find Sephiroth while Shinra and their Turks chase down the party. They learn about the Planet and the Lifestream where all life is said to come from and return to when it dies, they find a restored Nibelheim full of crazy Sephitorh “Clones” (Other people injected with Jenova cells to test out the ‘Reunion Theory’ that all lifeforms infected with Jenova will strive to reunite with the original) and that Sephiroth is looking for something called the Black Materia that contains the ultimate destructive magic (Materia being a magical crystal formed from condensed Mako energy). This is followed by the party getting the Black Materia, then Cloud getting brainwashed to hand it over to Sephiroth. Then the party getting the Black Materia again, only to have Cloud get brainwashed and hand it over to Sephiroth. In between these two, you get the tragic moment of Aeris dying while praying to the Planet with Sephiroth (Actually Jenova disguised as Sephiroth) turning her into a shiskabob. Sepiroth-Jenova taunts and mind-%$&*s Cloud with the half-truth that his memories of what happened in Nibelheim were a lie and he was a false creation with false memories. Completely mind-screwed, Cloud gives the Black Materia to the real Sephiroth who has been chilling in a mako cocoon. This allows him to summon Meteor, awaken the WEAPONs (Godzilla sized bio-mechanical creatures born from The Planet as a defense mechanism), and collapsed the area forcing everyone to escape.
The last act of the game is pretty much dealing with the fallout. Shinra is trying to blow up the WEAPONs and send a rocket into space to blow up Meteor. Cloud & Tifa are trying to solve Cloud’s existential crisis (Leading to the truth of Cloud being a lowly infantryman and Zack being the elite SOLDIER finally being revealed.) And the entire team trying to discover what Aeris’ plan of running off to get killed was actually supposed to be about – summoning Holy, the ultimate White magic, to counter the ultimate Black magic of Meteor but Sephiroth, deep in the planet’s core via the Lifestream, is preventing Holy from emerging. The team plunges down toward the core of the planet to fight of Sepiroth, ending with a final confrontation between him and Cloud one-on-one. Sephiroth is defeated and Holy is released and… Cut to 500 years later. Midgar is a vine covered ruin. Red XIII or one of his descendants along with a couple of cubs look out over the ruins. The end.
It wasn’t until years later with the release of Advent Children did we find out the outcome of Holy v. Meteor. Everyone lived. Except Aeris, naturally.
Most people who read this blog know that I don’t have a high opinion of Final Fantasy VII. That’s not to say it’s a bad game, it really isn’t. In fact as a strict gameplay factor, I really enjoyed VII. Nor was the story really that bad either. It had a lot of interesting bits that were admittedly borrowed heavily from other things I like such as The Thing and Chrono Trigger, but it wasn’t bad. In fact, most of my complaints were how flat the characters ended up being and that’s mostly because of the complete failure of how the story was presented to the player: By people talking about it. Periodically through the game the story just stops at a random location so all the characters can talk about what is going on in the plot. They don’t talk about their feelings about it, or their reactions as people, they just would sit and exposit for a while before moving on. That’s how the story is mostly conveyed in the game – by expository dialogue – to make up for the non-linear what-is-truth-what-is-lie narrative that no one could follow otherwise. Was Jenova an Ancient? No, but I know plenty of fans who think it was. And because of this method of plot delivery, the characters are never developed or fleshed out. This lead to what I called the ‘Backstory City’ effect. Every non-central character (Cloud & Aeris) have ONE town you will visit that goes into their backstory, once that is done they are officially stand-in’s for the rest of the game to fill the roster sheet. So I found the characters to pretty fairly flat. Probably why Aeris’ death didn’t phase me much.
It almost might not have helped that I didn’t play VII tills years after the game was released. Completely missing the “hype” time that the game had early on. I was a Nintendo kid. I didn’t own a Playstation until FFVIII came out a couple years later, and even then I didn’t go back and play VII. For a long time I held it in resentment simply for existing on a different console than all the Final Fantasy’s before, because I’ll be honest. I was there for the Nintendo/Sega Console Wars. Those days got dark. Like not calling people Xbots on a forum dark, but like fist fights in the school yard for brand loyalty… Yea, we were kind of dumb like that. So when I finally played VII I was probably way less forgiving of its flaws, and less awed by the technical aspects than someone who experienced it fresh and I’ll admit that.
The seventh installment is also where Square started to go in a different direction with the franchise. Where they began to experiment with new technology and opportunities that the earlier 16-bit systems couldn’t offer. It also seems to be where Square decided they needed to formally part ways with the Western European Fantasy/D&D knock off style that they had been using up until this point. Granted VI was already a departure from that aesthetic in a number of ways, but it kind of felt like the Eberron campaign setting for D&D as in “Steampunk doesn’t make it any less D&D.” From this point forward it seems that Square wanted to push further and further from the “old school” games and establish a strong new identity for the Final Fantasy games, however for many a old-school Final Fantasy fan, it marked a long road of bitter pills to swallow. I’m in the middle. I think the strong identity that they had in the early days: Four elemental crystals, vehicles, the Archfiends, the ‘Warriors of Light’ and even the early iterations of the Job system were all fairly strong identifiers that you were playing a Final Fantasy game. As they series went on, we saw less crystals, less vehicles, no Archfiends or ties to the four elements, and each game trying to do something completely different in terms of mechanics, setting, characters, etc. While trying something different is surely worth applauding, it almost felt like that Square was ashamed of how the series started.
Next time I’ll be back with what was my first actual foray into 3D Final Fantasy’s and one of the stranger iterations that takes the term ‘experimenting’ with setting and tone to a whole new level – Final Fantasy VIII.
May the light of the Crystals guide your way!
Do you have any great memories from these classic Final Fantasy games? Feel free to share in the comments!