The hero of Final Fantasy VIII is called Squall Leonhart. His hair looks as though a hawk had been frozen mid-flap and landed on his head. And his face is tastefully marked by a scar – won in a duel, no less, in which he wielded an enormous kitchen knife with a gun grip at the hilt. He attends Balamb Garden: a preppy school, comprised of glass spires and glittering waterways, that looks like a crashed space casino. But despite its futuristic sparkle, it’s given over to creaky customs – duelling with swords, for one, but also starchy school uniforms, common rooms, and dormitories. Think Hogwarts, but instead of wands the students wave pistol swords. Now, by my count, I have just given you five reasons to strongly dislike Final Fantasy 8.
I am, however, aware that my own tastes in this matter will be considered heresy by the millions who await each installment of Final Fantasy with the hot-blooded zeal of a fanatical sect. For those people, I am sure, Final Fantasy VIII represents a delirious cocktail of archaic futurism: European domes and towers spliced with swooping skyways and airborne galleons. For me, each game heralds a garish assault on the eye – great screwy screenfuls of too-muchness that drown any sense of subtlety and style. When I see these dispiriting worlds, the feeling that wafts over me is the same incensement as when I spot a wallet chain on a grown adult, or a T-shirt emblazoned with a blazing skull. I feel the urge to thrust a bright light into their eyes and demand an explanation for such assaults on our shared societal dignity.
But, like a kid who clamours for entry into an exclusive club – or like a glutton for punishment – I keep coming back. My quest to click with Final Fantasy is similar to my ongoing mission to enjoy the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Is Final Fantasy really all that different from the likes of Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, or South Pacific? Both ventures boast intricacy of design and skill of composition, both favour loud and fully-loaded costume departments, and both succumb to blaring bursts of music-infested melodrama. First, there was Final Fantasy X, set in Spira, where the ball comes blitzin’ down the plain. Then, I tried Final Fantasy XII, wherein I searched high and low and followed every byway but couldn’t find any fun. I even downloaded the first Final Fantasy, for the Vita, thinking that the beginning might be a very good place to start.
Alas, it matters not the number at the end; these games are almost all self-contained. And so to Final Fantasy VIII, which has just received a remaster, buffing some of its blockier textures and polishing its cutscenes to a crisp 1080p. I began the game in earnest, gritting my teeth through the insistent music and trying to stay afloat in a torrent of tutorials. Eventually, I marched into the Fire Cavern and battled a creature called Ifrit, which looks like a werewolf with a molten mane rearing up on its hind legs. I could feel myself being lured in by the combat – an active time battle system trimmed with a few smart tricks, like a timed button-press to fire your pistol after a sword swipe, for extra damage. The strategy was simple (essentially an elemental twist on rock-paper-scissors), and there was a pleasing prickle of tension between attacks.
Once defeated with a magical spell, the best became my GF, and I was ready to congratulate the game on its progressive approach to interspecies romance (years ahead of Mass Effect) – while remaining skeptical of Squall’s methods of courtship. It was then brought to my attention that ‘GF’ stood for Guardian Force, and that I had apparently failed to pay strenuous enough attention while this was explained to me back in the school. (As in art, so in life.) Soon we were graduating and attaining membership of a military faction called SeeD, which was being hired to help out in a provincial war between the Duchy of Dollet and the wider world of Galbadia. Already I could feel the embers of my interest being stubbed out by stupid names.
Before long, the villain was unveiled: a woman by the name of Edea, who looks like Maleficent – only with an arrangement of aggressive-looking sea shells stuck to her scalp. At that point, I had an unpleasant flashback to Kingdom Hearts III, in which Maleficent deigns to show up for real, and I realised that my time with Final Fantasy VIII was doomed to become another abortive attempt at cracking the series’ code. What is it about these games that keeps me curious? Perhaps it’s the cloudbursts of colour – there’s a lot to be said for a distinctive, recognisable style, even if it spills over all too often into silliness – or the combat, which appeals to the tinkerer as well as to those with a thirst for feeling clever. Either way, I’ve had more than enough Final Fantasy to last me a long time. Mind you, that Final Fantasy VII Remake looks intriguing, doesn’t it?