Imagine being in the unenviable position in which Square Enix found itself following the release of Final Fantasy VII in 1997. The studio had just put out a genre-defining game that many still say they haven’t topped and had catapulted itself to a position that invited unrealistically high expectations. Gamers are a notoriously fickle bunch to please, and anything less than an equally groundbreaking game as Final Fantasy VII would be met with waves of disappointment and complaining. Bearing this enormous pressure in mind, it’s no wonder that Final Fantasy VIII turned out as… well, weird as it did.

The only answer to the impossible question of “what’s next?” was to take things in such a preposterous direction that fans would just be left baffled by the final product, unsure of whether they loved or hated it. Indeed, now that Final Fantasy VIII Remastered has finally arrived on modern consoles, it’s rather fascinating to see how time has treated this one. Final Fantasy VIII Remastered certainly isn’t the best release in this treasured series, but it also proves to be one of the most memorable and innovative instalments.

Where to begin with this story? After the heady, brooding tone of the narrative in Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII was certainly… fascinating. The narrative follows Squall, a cringy and angst-filled ‘lone wolf’ teen who is needlessly irritated by just about everyone in his life. Squall lives at a military school called Balamb Garden as a member of a special organization called SeeD and spends his time going out on missions for the organization in a mercenary-like role, occasionally accompanied by his longtime rival Seifer. After his graduation ceremony, he falls in love with a kindhearted girl named Rinoa, but things quickly go awry when the plot turns and begins to focus on the eclectic mixture of antagonists. Final Fantasy VIII features not one, not two, but three evil witches, each of which seems less planned by the writers than last.

See, Final Fantasy VIII has the sort of story that’s a complete dumpster fire if you try to take it seriously, but it becomes extremely enjoyable if you take a step back and enjoy it for all its ridiculousness. Case in point, a completely left-field revelation partway through the game reveals how several of the main characters – including one of their teachers – all grew up in the same orphanage when they were young, but they forgot because the Guardian Forces (summonable entities) that live in their brains made them lose their memories. Or, in another memorable example, the primary financier of Balamb Gardens is revealed to be a miserly goblin creature named NORG, who lives in the basement of the school and eventually gets in a fight with Squall and his gang. Once defeated, ol’ NORG simply retreats into a cocoon and is scarcely referenced again.

Long lost, time-manipulating sisters being chased by witches? Check. Hordes of monsters living on the moon that inexplicably fall to the world? Check. Final Fantasy games have always had some rather meandering plots, but even by series’ standards, Final Fantasy VIII plays out like a bizarre fever dream that just keeps upping the ante as it slowly descends further into madness. And yet, it’s a story that you can’t help but love. Final Fantasy VIII features a plot that’s very much an example of ‘so bad it’s good’, offering up a thoroughly gripping (if mostly incoherent) tale that’s truly unforgettable.

The strangeness of the story extends to the gameplay systems, too, which drop series’ convention by eliminating the MP bar and introducing the ‘Draw’ mechanic. With this, you can spend a character’s turn in battle to siphon magic away from enemies, either casting it in that same turn or storing it in your inventory for later use. Magic is a basically a consumable item here, and it’s critical to character growth and development. See, Final Fantasy VIII doesn’t feature equippable accessories and items as a standard JRPG would; instead, you essentially ‘wear’ magic spells to bolster stats. It’s certainly an interesting idea, but unfortunately, the Draw mechanic just serves to be a tedious time sink that punishes you for using magic and encourages you to do the same repetitive actions ad infinitum.

You can stack up to one hundred of a given spell at a time, and the more spells you have, the more they’ll bolster the stat that you’ve attached them to. So, it’s in your best interest to spend battles not actually fighting the enemies, but repeatedly spamming Draw to suck out as much of the magic that you need from them. The amount of magic drawn out each time is random – you get anywhere from one to nine spells at a time – which means that battles can take close to ten minutes if you’re starting from scratch with a given spell’s stock. If you choose not to do this, or you actually cast your magic in combat, your stats will inevitably suffer and later enemy encounters and boss fights will be made immeasurably harder. You still level up like in past games, but the main stat increases will come from the spells you equip. The idea behind this whole Draw system is interesting, but it forces you to play the game in a very limited, time-consuming manner that rapidly becomes a bore.

Though the jobs system is still nowhere to be found, it finds something of a replacement with the new Guardian Forces system. As you progress the story, you’ll collect a series of monsters and deities (Ifrit, Shiva, Cactuar, etc.) which can be equipped to characters and summoned in battle for super attacks. After each victory, Guardian Forces receive experience and level-up independently of your characters and can unlock new passives and abilities which can be transferred to other characters with that Guardian Force. It’s a cool system that encourages experimentation while also giving you the flexibility to swap up team compositions at will, and it smartly brings summons back to the forefront of combat after their relative obscurity in Final Fantasy VII.

Aside from the tried and tested loop of ATB combat and dungeon crawling, Final Fantasy VIII also introduces a rather fascinating and surprisingly addictive ongoing minigame called Triple Triad, which more or less works as an in-universe equivalent to Magic: The Gathering. The rules of the game are simple enough to pick up, but they have quite a bit of depth once you get into it, and this is only further exacerbated by a huge amount of collectable cards and an ever-changing ruleset depending on what region of the world you’re in. Aside from offering up a nice break from the usual gameplay, Triple Triad is also integrated into the main game mechanics in how you can transmute cards into spells, which lets you cut down on the Draw grind while also giving you access to some unusually powerful spells early in the game if you know what you’re doing. It’s not often that a minigame receives this level of TLC in a several-dozen-hour epic such as Final Fantasy VIII, but Triple Triad stands as a great example of how introducing a completely unrelated yet well-developed gameplay concept alongside the core gameplay loop of a game can bolster the value of the overall product by a significant margin.

This being a remaster of the original Final Fantasy VIII, certain quality of life features that have been included in most of the other Final Fantasy remasters are all present and accounted for. Unlike the original PSX release, you can opt to triple the game’s speed, buff up your party members to max health and unlimited limit breaks, or completely disable random encounters, all at the click of a stick. For the most part, Final Fantasy VIII holds up reasonably well in terms of overall pacing and difficulty curve, but having the ability to gloss over the uglier parts of gameplay proves to be an absolute godsend that dramatically raises your overall enjoyment.

For example, summon attacks are fun to use, but also feature some almost comically long animations when casting their attacks. Though a minigame can allow you to bolster the attacks’ damage during these animations, it’s nice that you can breeze right through them if you’d like. Our only real complaint in this area is that Square didn’t include a slew of other quality of life buffs that were included in the PC re-release, such as maxing Guardian Forces levels and enabling all Triple Triad cards. Considering that the console and PC ports are effectively the same game and that there isn’t any rational reason for why those features couldn’t also feature in the console port, it just comes off as feeling like a cheap way to encourage more sales of the PC version.

From a presentation standpoint, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered certainly stands as the best-looking version of the classic, although its age as a PSX title is all too apparent. The new, redesigned character models and UI are a welcome inclusion that bring much more clarity to the blocky and aged look of the original, but the pre-rendered backgrounds, unfortunately, haven’t been shown the same love. Next to the enhanced models, the backgrounds look painfully flat and low-res, creating a stark divide between the old and new. It’s understandable why this is the case – evidently, Square lost the original files to the backgrounds a long time ago – but that does little to soften the harshness of these antiquated relics. That being said, you do grow more accustomed to the backgrounds after putting enough hours in, and the battle animations are still top-notch.

Conclusion

Nearly twenty years later, Final Fantasy VIII proves to be just as weird and polarizing a release as it was when it first came out. Cool new ideas like Guardian Forces and Triple Triad are hamstrung by an absolutely wack story and the tedium of the Draw system, making for an experience that’s great in some regards and not so great in others. Taken as a whole, however, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered proves to be a fun and enjoyable romp through the weirder side of the Final Fantasy series, notably bolstered by the new HD presentation and the inclusion of helpful quality of life features. This is easily the most skippable entry of all the mainline Final Fantasy games on the Switch right now, but if you find yourself to be a fan of either the Final Fantasy series or the JRPG genre, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered proves to be a release that’s certainly worth your time.