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How to Play Final Fantasy VIII

How to Play Final Fantasy VIII – March 2, 2009 1:38 AM (edited 3/1/09 8:38 PM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
Rating: Not Rated
Let me start out with a few caveats. First, I haven't actually played Final Fantasy VIII for a few years now, so I'm going mostly by memory here. But that's OK, because this is more of a philosophical exercise than an actual guide anyway. Second, this post is in no way an argument that Final Fantasy VIII is a good game. The fact that everyone plays it in a way that makes it less fun than it could be is indicative of a major design flaw, in my opinion. I just happen to be the type who likes to figure out how to make a game fun. And third, you may be wondering what the point of this post is - well so am I, honestly. This is something I've thought about a lot, though, so if I post it and you get anything out of it, then great. If not, at least I got it out of my system. So without further ado: the post.

The Problem
Final Fantasy VIII is one of the more commonly disliked games in the Final Fantasy series. The reasons given for not liking FF8 are quite varied: some don't like the angsty plot, some don't like how said plot actually makes no sense whatsoever, some don't like the fact that swords are more poweful than guns, and some don't like that monsters rain down from the moon. (No, seriously.) These are all valid grievances, and I'm not here to contradict them. But the most common complaint I hear is that the gameplay is no fun: "all you do is draw all the time" and "you can win any fight with GFs (summons)." This is the complaint I'm here to address.

Some Background
Some Background
If you've never played FF8, you probably stopped reading this post after seeing the title, but just in case, I'm going to explain the basic systems of FF8 which are the basis for both the problems people have with it and my own style of play.

The Spell System
In most RPG's, you learn a spell, then spend magic points or something similar in order to cast that spell as much as you like. In FF8, however, it is best to think of spells as stackable items. You can have up to 100 of any given spell, and each time you cast it, this total decreases by 1. Each character can hold up to 32 different spells. (There is no way to hold more than one stack of a given spell, or split a spell stack on a single character. Characters can freely trade spells, however.) There are a total of 47 different spells in the game, by my count.

Getting Spells
There are three ways to gain more spells. The first, which is the subject of the most whining, is drawing them from enemies. Any given enemy will have access to a few spells during combat, and if you have the Draw ability you can choose to either take these spells (you will get 1-9 of the spell, with the number being based on your Magic stat) or cast the spell immediately without using a copy of your own. Which spells a monster has access to is based on their level (and all monsters in FF8 scale with party level), so the same monster that had Fire will eventually have Fira and then Firaga at higher levels.

The second way to gain spells is to draw them from Draw Points on a map. These points can yield up to 15 of a spell, but need to recharge after use, so they are useless for trying to stock large numbers of spells. However, they do occasionally allow access to powerful spells, and they are not level-dependent (which can be a major advantage if you are under-leveled). It should be noted that there are two islands filled with fast-recharging draw points with the best spells in the game, as well as the nastiest monsters in the game. These islands are a great place to level and gather spells.

The third way to get spells is to refine them from items or other spells. Enemies don't drop gil in FF8 (though you do earn a salary automatically), but instead they drop various items that can be used for a variety of purposes - creating new items, selling them, or refining them into spells, for example. Like spells, enemy drops get better as the enemy levels increase. (Oddly, the items you can steal from an enemy tend to be static.) Items can be refined into many different things, spells among them. You can also refine spells from other spells, usually by combining several of a weaker spell to create a more powerful one.

The Junction System
The junction system is the best or worst thing about FF8, depending on who you ask. Basically, it works like this: you can "junction" magic spells to your various stats. Each spell can only be junctioned to a single stat, and each stat can only have one spell junctioned to it. The effect of this junction scales linearly with the number of spells (so junctioning 100 of a spell has exactly double the effect of junctioning 50 of the same spell). In addition to the eight basic stats, you can junction spells to HP, status attack, elemental attack, and status and elemental defenses (up to four on each, depending on GF abilities). At most, therefore, you would junction 19 spells to a single character. For a well-junctioned character at the end of the game, 50-70% of their stats are derived from junctions (in other words, they are very important). Basically, junctions are the FF8 version of your gear. (There is no armor in FF8, for instance, and weapon upgrades are generally limited to raw attack power.)

It is worth noting that the effect any given spell has on a stat is related to not only the general power of the spell, but what it does. Status and elemental spells have obvious uses on status and elemental junctions, but as you might expect, spells like haste are good for your speed, healing spells are good for vitality and hp, etc.

Guardian Forces
GFs are FF8's summons, and the basis of the junction system. You have 16 GF's, which can be assigned to any of your 6 characters. All assigned GFs can be summoned for free, though the time the summoning takes is dependent on GF "compatibility." Basically, the more you summon a given GF, the higher your compatibility, but at the same time, the GF's you're not summoning will become less compatible and the GF you are summoning becomes less compatible with the other party members.

In addition to being summonable, GFs have a variety of abilities. Chief among these for our purposes are their junction abilities and their action abilities. Junction abilities simply determine which stats you're allowed to junction stats to. Action abilities are usable in combat, and each character can choose three of these in addition to the Attack command. (GFs also have support abilities, but these don't really enter into this discussion.)

One Last Note
There is a simple way to abuse this system. Junction bonuses are static, while enemy levels scale up with your own. The game tends to assume your stats will have reasonable junctions for your level. This means that if you get high-level spells when you're low level, you will end up with hideously overpowered stats for your level.

The "Bad Way" to Play
Taking a quick glance at the system, it seems very easy to abuse. There are three things people tend to do (myself among them, I must admit) when they first start playing FF8, all of which I will explain are in fact a Bad Idea. I will tell you what they are and why people do them now, and follow up by explaining the flaws and suggesting a better course.

Relying on GFs for Magic Damage
GFs are powerful, multi-target summons that cost no mp. Plus, if you use them enough, you can summon them almost as quickly as you would take any other action. Plus, while being summoned they take damage instead of you, making them useful as a shield. With the Boost and damage bonus abilities, GFs can become pretty damn powerful. You can win just about any fight by spamming summons. (Though it should be noted that the final boss can insta-kill GFs, and that this attack occasionally insta-kills characters if the GF is summoned too quickly.)

Drawing Until the Cows Come Home
If junctioning 20 fire spells is good for my attack stat, junctioning 100 is even better! Not only that, but I can turn those 100 fire spells into 20 firas, then draw 400 more until I have 100 firas, then turn those into 20 firagas and repeat the process four more times. I can max at 100 fire spells in each combat, so after only 25 battles I'll have 100 firagas and one of my stats will be way overpowered! I'll be unstoppable!

Setting up Three Party Members
Why would I split my ability pool among 6 people when the game conveniently has a "transfer all junctions to another character" feature built right in? By splitting the 16 GFs among three characters, I maximize each character's junctions and can get combinations of the best possible abilities. Not only that, I have to draw half as many spells for junctions.

Never Using Magic
If 100 Ultima spells give me +100 Strength, then each one is giving me 1 strength. And those Ultima spells are hard to get more of, so I'll be much better off if I never, ever cast any spells. It's not like they're that good anyway.

The Downsides
That all sounds pretty nice, right? Well, unfortunately, this method is horribly inefficient. Yes, you will be unstoppable, but it will take far longer to become so than it would if you just played the game efficiently. Why? Read on.

GFs Are Slooooooow
When you first start summoning GF's, they can take a whole turn or two to be summoned, meaning you're summoning a GF in place of several attacks. Admittedly, obsessively summoning will get your compatibility up to the point where the summoning is almost immediate. But here's the thing - you may be killing the monsters quickly in terms of turns, but those GF animations are long. In terms of actual time you're drawing battles out way longer than they would otherwise be. Yes, fully powered GFs can dish out a lot of hurt, but so can efficiently junctioned characters. Plus you're gonna break your square button boosting that much. In the long run, if you're looking for abusive damage, there are much better ways to achieve it. (Like leaving Squall at 10 hp and abusing his limit break, for example.) Everyone thinks summoning is boring, and it's not actually that good, so why do it? Save the summoning for when your fighter needs to deal magic damage or you're getting something else out of it (such as Cerberus's double/triple effect or Doomtrain's status ailments).

Drawing is Horribly Inefficient
Did you actually read what I wrote? 25 battles to max out one stat? And at best, you need to spend 11 full turns in each combat, and that's assuming your characters are junctioned for magic. Which, if you're not casting spells, is a complete waste for any action other than drawing. (GF damage is independent of character stats.) We're seriously talking hours upon hours of just drawing to max out your characters. Now let's say you're a reasonable person, and instead of getting 100 firagas at level 7, you're happy with 100 fires. You're still going to spend extra hours throughout the game, especially each time you first encounter a new spell. And, as I'll explain, you don't actually need to do this to get a lot of spells! Again, if you're whining about doing something, maybe you should stop. There are better ways.

Six Party Members is Better Because... OK I Got Nothin'
Yeah, I'll be honest, setting up only three party members really is the best way to go. There are mechanical downsides, but they're minor. Specifically, it's a pain to keep switching all those junctions (especially when you're alternating parties in the final dungeon), and having two people both spamming the same GF all the time is bad for compatibility. If you're going to be summoning less (and you should be), having each GF permanently junctioned to one person does help... a little. But what it comes down to for me is that you're a pussy if you only stat out three characters. Grow some balls, man!

Hey Wait, Magic is Good
This lesson took me the longest to learn. Yes, magic is actually good in this game. Crazy, I know. Yes, you do need to be aware of enemy weaknesses (as in every FF game), and you need to junction for it, but magic is very powerful, especially against high-defense enemies. You don't want to be casting all the time, though. Magic is an important resource, so you need to balance junctions with damage. That balance just isn't as far in favor of junctions as you might suspect. Why? Because getting more spells is easy. Even ignoring items, consider this: if you've played FF8 by drawing up to 100 of a spell once and never using it, you never draw that spell again. But chances are it's still there. So why not cast it freely, then draw yourself back up every now and then?

The Enlightened Path
After playing FF8 twice, I eventually realized that there was a better way to do things: the way the game was actually designed. Drawing a ton of spells early on is just like power-leveling early in any RPG: it's effective for a while, but in the long run it's a waste of time. If you are going to grind levels, do it at the end of the game when the rewards are worth it. So what should you do in the meantime? That's what I'm here to tell you!

Lesson One: Learn the GF System
The GF system is a lot deeper than it appears at first. Go find an FF8 FAQ and check out the huge list of items that teach GF abilities. GF abilities are your abilities. The problem is that every GF has a limited number of abilities, and they learn enough automatically to hit that limit. You need to clear redundant or useless abilities from the list and replace them with good stuff. Ignoring these items is like ignoring new weapons and armor in another RPG, yet most of the players I've known do just that. FF8's system's flaw is not that it's not good, it's that no one understands it. Once you do, you'll realize it's one of the deepest and most customizable systems in any console RPG.

Unfortunately, that flexibility grants many ways to enhance your character, but doesn't lead to a huge variety of end results. Yeah, you can be more and more badass, but in the end you're either going to be good at hitting enemies or casting on them. The GF action abilities are just not all that interesting in that regard. Basically, your casters will have Draw and Magic, while non-casters have Item. Anyone might have GF, depending on which ones they have and where you are, and then some other GF ability that seems useful. There are plenty of these, like Darkside (the iconic Dark Knight ability), various awesome healing abilities, and so on.

The real power in GFs, though, is in support abilities. Ignoring the permanent stat boost abilities (the typical "it is optimal to always use these even though they do nothing" ability type that I hate so much), the various stat+40/60/80% abilities, mug, auto-haste, counter, and so on are all great. You can easily customize your characters to have one or two really nice stats (assuming you put a little planning into it). And with the exception of the crazier stats like luck, you can easily get 6 GFs to have all the relevant junctions for your party.

So the question is, how often should you summon GFs? If you have them permanently assigned to party members, compatibility is no big concern. I say summon when appropriate - when your non-mage meets a monster with high defense, when you fight a large group of weak foes, or when you can exploit an enemy's weakness with a GF but not a spell. Summoning isn't bad by any means, it's just really boring if you overdo it.

Character Roles
With 6 characters, you often end up with a similar problem to FF12: figuring out what to do with them. The system makes it impossible to have one character who's great at everything, so you need to assign roles. Typically I have two straight fighters, two straight mages, and two utility characters who focus on defense, have healing, and have neat abilities. However, as in FF12, this ends up being kind of a waste. You're really just making clone characters and swapping between them to keep levels even - meh. So experiment. Maybe you want a dark knight style (all offense, needs healing just to stay alive), a standard fighter, a paladin type (good offense and defense, maybe Recover for healing), a defensive mage (like a cleric), an offensive mage, and a jack-of-all-trades. You can swap in all the physical guys when you're fighting low defense enemies, hit Mad Rush to speed up kills, etc. And that's just one idea.

So About Drawing...
Typically, every character in the party has the Draw ability. Don't do this. See, Draw is heavily influenced by your magic stat. Mages will usually draw 9 of a spell, while fighters may get 3. So make sure your mages have Draw. Mages get even more out of draw because they can cast Drawn spells without using their own. It's rare that you'll exploit a weakness this way, but plenty of monsters have spells you can hurt them (or heal yourself) with.

That said, those spells aren't going to get themselves. Typically I'd have two characters that can draw, and a fighter who can't. In most cases my mage would draw spells on his or her action, unless spells were needed in the fight. In this way, you're always getting more spells without drawing out battles (no pun intended). If you get 100 of a spell, give them to someone else and keep drawing.

As far as junctioning magic goes for mages, there are three ways to go about it. First, you can just junction for optimal stats and then cast whatever spells are appropriate, ignoring the consequences, and this works fine. Alternately, you can put spells that are currently less useful on important stats (for instance, fire and blizzard spells have the same junction effect on magic, and typically enemies in a given area are only vulnerable to one of the two - so junction the other). Or you can concentrate on casting spells that can be drawn from enemies in the area, with an eye towards keeping your spell totals high.

The Big Picture
So spread out your GFs, spread out abilities, focus character roles, and don't be afraid to use magic. Basically, throw out every assumption you made when you first learned the system. What you'll find is that you can efficiently take down almost anything, and the drops you get combined with the spells your mage draws will be more than sufficient to fuel your war machine. I would suggest not using auto-junction, though. It's good for the first few stats, but doing it manually gives you a lot of room to tweak things. Not only that, but you should always put some thought into your elemental and status junctions, preparing for the enemies you're actually going to fight.

In Conclusion
My party is all level 100, everyone's best stat is at or near 255, they are virtually invincible - and I never spent a minute grinding spells. I even beat Omega Weapon without doing anything cheesy. There is a better way! Just remember: draw smarter, not harder.

Re: How to Play Final Fantasy VIII – March 2, 2009 8:32 PM (edited 3/2/09 3:32 PM)
Cuzzdog (1522 posts) Head of Gamer Corner R&D
Rating: Not Rated
Well, I only played FF8 once through, but I did a lot of the stuff you mentioned here. I didn't cast spells, and did grind draws, but only till I was filled with that one spell (I never went to get firaga at level 1). I just wanted to mention another cheese-tacular way to be awesome. I stumbled upon this just with the natural way I tend to play RPG's. That being, I figure out who the main character is and have them stay in the party at all times. You know, because he's the hero. Anyway, if you do this in FF8, you'll find that the one or two characters you keep in the party regularly will quickly rocket up to level 100, while the other people you regularly rotate between stay at much lower levels. Since monster difficulty is based on average party level, having two characters at level 100 and 4 characters at level 30-40 means an average monster level in the 50's; easy pickin's for your "main" party members.

This method also has the added benefit of giving validation to Squall fanboys. "Oh man Selphie. You stupid wooden sticks on a chain did how little damage? See what the awesome might of a gun leveraged with the elegant grace of a sword can do!"

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