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Final Fantasy VIII

Once in a while, a product comes along that is so epic and engrossing to play that throngs of devoted gamers dedicate themselves to absorbing every nuance, and exploring every possibility. Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VII was one such product, captivating countless numbers in Japan with its intricate plot twists and engaging characters. American players greeted it at their doorstep with open arms, and although it possessed a few marring flaws, FF7 was a critical and financial success. Squaresoft has attempted to reproduce this outstanding success with another sequel, Final Fantasy VIII, although whether time will remember it as warmly as its predecessor remains to be seen.

Those familiar with the convolutions of FF7's plot will feel right at home within their FF8 counterpart's digital skin, Squall Leonhart. As the story opens in a breathtakingly gorgeous movie, Squall is training at one of three elite military academies, known as Gardens, and is striving to be part of the elite group of mercenaries called SeeD. His bitter rival within the academy, Seifer, is equally skilled, although with a far more fiery temper, and far less adherence to authority. Consequently, Squall beats him out for the position, and gets sent out on a mission to assist an underground resistance in kidnapping the nation's warring, dictatorial president in order to convince him to release his oppressive grip on the area. Through a series of plot twists, misfortune and tragedy, it is slowly revealed that it is not the president who is to be feared, but rather the power behind him: the sorceress Edea. Hell-bent on conquering the world, and armed with the ability and intent to ruthlessly crush all those who oppose her, Edea wastes little time in establishing herself as the ruling authority. She also seeks to crush not only the Gardens, but each and every living SeeD as well. To this end, who should mysteriously appear as her right-hand man and lead genocidal expert but Squall's former classmate and rival, Seifer. While this might seem like a mildly lackluster concept for a storyline, rest assured that the creative souls at Squaresoft have managed to weave in countless themes, including friendship, love, emotion and redemption, thereby rendering an ordinary storyline an extraordinary one.

Players who found themselves hopelessly enraptured by FF8's predecessor know that part of its enjoyment was found in its intricately crafted characters. Squaresoft was aware of this fact, and infused the title with deep, complex characters, each possessing their own unique qualities and faults, hopes and dreams, and insecurities and fears. There is the quiet, lone-wolf Squall, whose secretive past has rendered him an unemotional island, stoically refusing to allow anybody to get close to him, or even to display any sort of emotion. Occasionally, he collapses into a dreamlike state, in which he sees the world through the eyes of Laguna Loire, an enigmatic and passionate journalist who has given up the warrior's life in exchange for defending the weak and oppressed with his writing. There is also the aforementioned Seifer, an ambitious and incredibly tempestuous soul, whose actions are fuelled not only by his hidden dreams, but also by his boundless competitiveness with Squall, perhaps the only individual whose abilities match his own. Key to the whole situation is Rinoa Heartlilly, leader of the underground resistance known as the Forest Owls. Like the others, her past is veiled in secrecy, and often exposes more questions than answers. While these are but a few of the countless characters that populate the title, their complexity and intricacies are definitely worthy of their pedigree, and are integral to its enjoyment.

If a whole is only the sum of its parts, then the vibrant characters that flesh out the gameworld can only serve to render it an extremely vibrant one. The struggle to defeat Edea and her minions will sweep the characters across the globe, and through the mists of time, touching upon countless bustling cities, monster-infested tombs and rolling forest hills along the way. Most every nook and cranny of this world offers someone or something with which to interact, be it a monster for battle or a merchant for haggle. Although the plot-specific destinations are very clearly mapped out for the player, one can instead spend their time exploring caverns, or conversing with locals. A certain degree of non-linearity is at work here, being on one hand unencumbered enough to allow enjoyment of the fully fleshed-out gameworld, and restrictive enough to not cause one to lose track of their bearings in the somewhat open-ended exploration and combat.


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