Do we think Final Fantasy VIII is a bad game? Not at all. Do we think it's one of the best Final Fantasy games? Not quite, but even now, a whopping 20 years after its initial release on the original PlayStation, there's a unique kind of magic to Final Fantasy VIII. The world, the characters, and the story create an experience that's never really been replicated. And with the release of Final Fantasy VIII Remastered on PlayStation 4, there's never been a better time to see what all the fuss is about.

Following up on the most successful Japanese role-playing game of all time was never going to be easy. Final Fantasy VII had changed the gaming landscape forever when it launched in 1997, and two years later, its successor ultimately failed to have a similar impact. Final Fantasy VIII garnered a lot of praise at the time, but its legacy is muddied -- it's largely remembered as one of Final Fantasy's most divisive entries.

And to be fair, it's easy to see why. SquareSoft certainly didn't rest on its laurels after hitting the jackpot with Final Fantasy VII -- it had the courage to shake things up considerably. Both in terms of storytelling and gameplay, Final Fantasy VIII makes a lot of unique choices, and the result is a thoroughly memorable but somewhat flawed adventure.

You play as Squall, a stylish teen who's training to be a mercenary. He's an aloof and unsociable protagonist, but his reluctance to interact with just about anyone or anything makes for an interesting dynamic, especially when it comes to dealing with other characters. Final Fantasy VIII's cast isn't the best that the series has seen, but they're strong enough to carry the narrative, and there are some great character moments scattered throughout the story.

The plot itself is... Well, it's not easy to summarise. Everything starts out surprisingly grounded as you guide Squall to his goal of becoming an elite mercenary. The first few hours introduce you to the concept of the Garden, which is essentially an academy for budding soldiers. Back in 1999, this was a pretty unique setting -- it was a slice of school life long before later Persona games took the concept and ran with it. In short, it's a fantastic opening act.

Once Squall's free of the Garden and he's busy fulfilling his first contract as a mercenary, the story slowly starts to branch out into weird (and sometimes wonderful) territory. It's not until about halfway through the game that the plot loses its masterful pacing, and from that point, events become a little less engaging. By the end, Final Fantasy VIII is basically a love story with some mental apocalypse happening in the background. There are interesting themes and concepts at play here -- and there is an enjoyable madness to it all -- but the momentum of the title's first half is long gone.

Just like the story, the actual gameplay is good -- great at times -- but it's not without its flaws. Final Fantasy's trademark Active Time Battle system returns, but it's connected to an ambitious, almost free-form means of character development. You see, in Final Fantasy VIII, character levels don't really matter that much. In order to properly beef up your party, you need to make proper use of the Junction system -- arguably the most polarising gameplay mechanic in the history of the franchise.

As far as we're concerned, the Junction system is mostly a good thing, but it's not perfect. On the plus side, it allows for a great degree of freedom. You begin by assigning a Guardian Force -- or GF -- to a character. Essentially summoned monsters that can be equipped, each GF has its own array of skills, and there are a handful of GFs to find over the course of the game. You then take your array of typical Final Fantasy magic -- cure, fire, blizzard, thunder, etc. -- and equip it to boost your stats. The stats that you can boost are determined by the GF that you've assigned.

Okay, so it sounds a bit complex, but it's easy enough to wrap your head around once you've figured out the basics. The beauty of the Junction system is that it rewards clever thinking. With the right magic at your disposal, you can create some truly overpowered character builds, but even without optimising your party, there's still a lot of fun to be had in playing around with the system's many, many options.

So what's wrong with it? Well, it's obtaining the all-important magic that's the problem. The simplest way to stock up on spells is to literally stock it from enemies. There are no magic points -- or MP -- in Final Fantasy VIII. Instead, you just have a set amount of spells, up to 100 of each. Use them and they're gone, until you find more. By selecting the 'draw' command in battle, you collect magic from your foes, and it's every bit as boring as it sounds. Stocking magic takes a turn, and you get a handful of spells for your trouble. But here's the kicker: the more spells you have stocked, the more they boost your stats when equipped.

And so you end up spending minutes at a time drawing magic from your opponents, over and over again so that you can power up your party. At its worst, it's a mind-numbing process that feels like a complete misstep. Fortunately, as you progress through the game, there are more efficient ways to stock magic, including the ability to break items down into heaps of specific spells. It doesn't excuse the tedium, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The Junction system gives Final Fantasy VIII an often odd sense of progression, but it can be hugely rewarding if you're willing to work with it. And thankfully, here in 2019, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered does take steps to mitigate the aforementioned grind. At the press of a button, you can play the game at three times the speed, which obviously helps cut down those long magic stocking sessions.

The remaster's other cheats are also worthy of note. With a click of R3, you can make your party invincible in combat, which is ideal for those who have played through the game countless times before, or if you're new to Final Fantasy VIII and just want to see the story through. What's more, hitting L3 and R3 together disables random encounters.

There are three handy modifiers on offer, then, but what about the remastered visuals? The good news is that the updated character models look lovely -- but their jump in quality creates a dodgy disconnect between them and the pre-rendered environment backgrounds, which are now incredibly blurry. Seriously, if you're not familiar with Final Fantasy VIII, you might have trouble navigating some of these locations purely because of how pixelated they are.

But hey, at least the music holds up. Another stone-cold masterpiece from composer Nobuo Uematsu and company, Final Fantasy VIII's soundtrack is as memorable as they come.

Conclusion

It's easy to see why Final Fantasy VIII is considered one of the series' most divisive entries, but its story and gameplay systems remain unique 20 years after its original release. Final Fantasy VIII Remastered has its flaws -- the draw system is still a total pain in the arse -- but there's a magic and atmosphere to Squall's often mental adventure that's incredibly endearing. This is a PlayStation classic given a new lease of life, and it's still way more interesting than the majority of Japanese RPGs hitting our consoles today.