Let me tell you a story. Way back in the year 2000, when Outkast were busy apologising to Ms. Jackson and the Baha Men had just lost their dogs, a ten-year-old me was cruising the local Blockbuster for something new to play. Browsing the PS1 games, I picked up a copy of something that caught my eye. It was a game that I’d read a lot about in magazines like Hyper and the Official PlayStation Magazine. That game was Final Fantasy VII. I’d heard through print and through friends that this was one of the greatest games ever made, so naturally I was ready to rent that bad boy. That was, until a stranger came up beside me and told me that I was making the wrong choice, that there was something even better. Final Fantasy VIII. They explained to me that not everyone liked the latest entry in the series, but that they were wrong, and I should play it. In fact, they had a copy in their car that they’d be willing to sell to me for a cheeky $15. Sure, I thought. Why not? Naturally I found my parent and let the adults sort out the transaction, but in the end I got my game. And from that moment, my life changed.
Final Fantasy VIII not only became my introduction to the Final Fantasy series as well as one of my favourite games of all time, it kicked off a passion for all JRPGs, truly shaping my gaming tastes for the rest of my life. For that reason, while I’ll happily admit that there are other Final Fantasy games that deserve as much praise as VIII (VI, IX, XII – looking at you), there’s a very special place in my heart for Squall and friends. Which makes it all the more sad and frustrating that Square Enix has seemingly ignored FFVIII at almost every opportunity in their consistent efforts to bring classic Final Fantasy games to modern consoles. For a while now I’ve been able to play around half a dozen classic FF games on my PS4, Xbox One and Switch – just not VIII. Cue my absolute excitement during Square Enix’s E3 2019 conference when it was announced that Final Fantasy VIII was not only being released on modern platforms, but it was getting a ‘Remastered’ treatment as well. Eat your hearts out, basic ports of VII and IX, finally my boi Squall gets the goods.
Yeah, so poor Cid hasn’t aged terribly well
Because this is a review of a remaster of a game from 20 years ago I’m not going to spend precious words on explaining the game itself, and the above should be an indication that I certainly don’t need to tell you whether or not it’s good. It’s bloody amazing. For context though, Final Fantasy VIII continued the high fantasy-meets-science fiction with a touch of political intrigue that was popularised by its predecessor. With a story that deftly jumped from military conflict to sorceresses to space and time travel, it managed to pull together some very disparate and complex themes. From a gameplay perspective, it didn’t deviate too much from VII’s iteration of the series’ Active Time Battle turn-based combat. It did radically change things up in terms of character progression though, introducing the ‘Junction’ system whereby magic spells were a quantifiable item rather than an ability, and could be attached to a character’s stats to boost them. The wild plot and unusual JRPG mechanics certainly put some fans off, but to me this was (at the time) Squaresoft at their daring and creative peak.
So now we come to Final Fantasy VIII Remastered. Like the modern ports of VII and IX, this is the original PS1 game tidied up and released in something more closely resembling high definition. Like those ports, it also includes some slightly cheat-y new features like the ability to turn off random battles, boost your abilities and even play the game in triple speed. Unlike those two however, Square Enix have gone to the effort this time to go in and redo basically all of the game’s 3D models. That means characters, weapons and monsters all sport far better detail than their PS1 counterparts. It’s not just higher resolution or better textures, either. Some of the more prominent models feature all-new geometry that breathes new life into the original characters. They definitely still look like they belong in a PS1 game, all blocky features and stilted animations, but it’s impressive just how much of a difference the new models make. The one unfortunate victim in all this is the poor overworld map, which looks worse than ever in HD. The overall effect of the update is almost transformative in most cases though, making it the best reason to buy and play through the game again.
They censored Siren’s pubes! Wait until the gamers find out about this…
Elsewhere, overall improvements are few. Aside from the new 3D models and high-res UI elements the rest of the visual package is ripped straight from the original game. That means that all of the pre-rendered backgrounds and CG cutscenes are quite blurry. They do look as though they’ve been treated with a bilinear filter or something similar but it doesn’t do much to hide their 240p origins. It’s obviously something of an unavoidable circumstance when you consider that Square likely doesn’t have the original, high-res art any more, but when you consider than fan mods for the game’s existing PC version have done a far better job of bringing the existing backgrounds up to a higher standard it’s a tad disappointing. Something that truly baffles me though is the fact that the game screen is letterboxed on all four sides, meaning a thick black border all the way around. It makes sense that there would be borders on the sides given the original game’s 4:3 aspect ratio, but it definitely could have filled the screen vertically without affecting the aspect ratio at all. In the end I found I had to manually zoom in with my TV’s display settings to make the game fit the way it should. It’s also worth mentioning that, for whatever reason, the in-battle UI feels more sluggish than it used to. It’s possible (though I haven’t confirmed) that it might been dropped down to 30fps from an original 60 to match the framerate of the rest of the game. It seems like a minor thing, but it might actually have tangible repercussions in how effective the GF’s ‘Boost’ abilities are – they require frantically mashing the Square button to use and it definitely feels more sluggish and harder to hit high numbers than it did before.
One crucial thing that this version of Final Fantasy VIII does have going for it is the inclusion of the original PS1 music. That might seem like strange praise, but it’s been a thorn in the side of Final Fantasy fans for a while now that the ports of the series’ PS1 entries usually wind up using the godawful 90s PC MIDI soundtracks as opposed to the gorgeous PlayStation OSTs. One curious issue that I did run into while playing Final Fantasy VIII Remastered is that quitting and reloading the game would sometimes cause the music to switch from the PS1 audio to the horrible PC versions. I’m not sure if its a case of DotEmu (the Remastered port’s developers) accidentally leaving the other music in the game’s source and then the game mistakenly picking up the wrong files to play, but switching music definitely isn’t an intentional option so I couldn’t even fix it. Instead, there are now certain places in the game that play a bastardised rendition of Nobuo Uematsu’s otherwise beautiful original score. Hopefully this issue is picked up on quickly and fixed in a later patch.
Final Fantasy VIII is, in my opinion, one of the greatest JRPGs of all time. This fact alone makes Final Fantasy VIII Remastered a worthwhile purchase for both hardcore fans and anyone who missed it the first time. WIth the fantastic new refresh of the game’s 3D models, a cleaner UI, the good version of the OST and a reasonable $30 price tag, it’s almost a no-brainer. There’s no getting around the sorry state of the game’s pre-rendered stuff though, and a few design quirks hold it back from really earning that ‘Remastered’ moniker. Still, it’s now finally possible to play Final Fantasy VIII on modern, non-PC platforms and that makes the world a better bloody place to live in if you ask me.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher