Having played the Final fantasy games in sequential order, I'm familiar with some of the game mechanic changes made throughout the series. Final Fantasy VIII breaks the mold by revamping the magic, money and leveling systems. There are no classes, but each character has a weapon specialty that can be upgraded throughout the game.
The main character, Squall Lionheart, wields a gunblade which is a sword that can shoot bullets. His fellow classmate and nemesis Seifer, uses a gunblade as well. The game begins with them brawling and Squall ends up in the infirmary with a fresh scar on his face. Squall soon gets retrieved by his teacher who reminds him to study and practice for his SeeD exam. SeeDs are soldiers for hire that were established to defeat sorceresses that prove to be a threat to mankind.
Squall's exam involves going to a nearby cave and defeating the boss (Ifrit) within. His teacher, Quistis, teaches him the basics of combat and using Guardian Forces for magic and abilities. Without a Guardian Force equipped, a character can only attack, use an item, or run. Guardian Forces can attack and take damage for you while their ability is charging up. If they run out of hit points, you'll have to revive them before you can use them again. You cannot use magic unless you have a Guardian Force junctioned to your character.
Magic in Final Fantasy VIII is not permanently learned, in fact; it has to be drawn from enemies, items or draw points. Magic is pretty much treated like an inventory item in this game. Unfortunately, there are restrictions on how many spells you can carry on each character at a time. Thankfully, you can exchange spells between party members to make room for more.
Many enemies and bosses have vulnerabilities to particular elements, so it pays to have a wide variety of spells and Guardian Forces at your disposal. While some Guardian Forces are given to you, many have to be drawn out from bosses or earned through side quests. It's easy to miss an opportunity to draw one from a boss, but in the final castle you get a second chance.
Guardian Forces have unique attacks and grant their owner special abilities like increasing various stats, adding new command abilities like mug and revive, or extracting magic from items. If you know that you missed an opportunity, I would recommend reloading your save to try again. There are many great walkthroughs out there and I would recommend following one to make sure you get all of the not so obvious items available. Even ignoring some of the side quests, I still put in over seventy hours into this game. A good majority of my time was spent playing the Triple Triad mini card game. You can challenge most NPC's to a game and can win or lose valuable cards that can be converted into items later in the game.
While leveling is beneficial to the guardian forces who also gain experience per battle, it's not doing your party any favors since the enemies level up with you. That's right. The enemies get more hit points depending on the party's average level. Like many Final Fantasy games, the last area has you splitting into two parties, so make sure you have adequately leveled everyone in your party.
The party members each have a unique personality and some of them are outgoing or obnoxious while others are shy and introverted. There are moments in this game where you go back in time and play the roles of other characters and learn about their quirks as well. The battle music is awesome when you're in this alternate world.
Final Fantasy VIII has some great music composed by Nobuo Uematsu. The title song Liberi Fatali has earned its inclusion in several Final Fantasy and video game soundtrack compilation CDs. The battle music in the main world is pretty good as well. The main ending/love song has lyrics which was a first for the series.
The pre-rendered movies look great with the CGI animation and detail. The movies are so frequent and big that the PlayStation game has four discs! The in-game graphics have not aged well, but were pretty good for its time. While the Guardian Force battle movies look cool the first time you see them, I wish there was a way to skip them for subsequent battles. I wonder how many hours of the seventy were spent watching these battle sequences.
Shiva's battle sequence reveals her tightly fitting clothing and womanly figure. One of the sorceresses you battle in this game is referred to as female but she definitely had some testosterone flowing through her to give her a manly (and shirtless!) chest. While we're on the subject of sorceresses, magic is pretty much a given in this game. Sadly, the language trend from Final Fantasy VII carries over to this title as well. Thankfully there is no blaspheming, but d*mn is used a couple of times.
Despite its flaws, Final Fantasy VIII is still a fun and worthy edition to the series. It's been recently re-released with better graphics on Steam and the price is a reasonable $12. While it's not my favorite Final Fantasy game, I still enjoyed it and recommend it for mature gamers.