Final Fantasy VIII

Final Fantasy VIII is a dazzling spectacle. The lavish introduction, the cut-scene animations, and the in-game effects are guaranteed to capture your attention. Even its most glamorous scenes are so artfully woven into the fabric of this conversion of Square Soft's celebrated PlayStation role-playing game that I occasionally had trouble separating the spectacle from the gameplay.

The story is based around the adventures of a rather uncommunicative young man named Squall - a student in the Balamb Garden academy for SeeD mercenaries. Teamed with colleagues and allies, he'll explore a vast, picturesque world (one much more realistic in appearance than FF7's), collect items and info, master a Magic: The Gathering-like card game and fight the good fight.

As FF8 opens, Squall's in the infirmary, recovering from a training session with a classmate and rival, Seifer, that had the air more of a fight to the death. As he and his teacher walk back into the Garden proper, the camera leaves them behind, panning across the academy, where students are playing games, sitting at tables, walking to class.

Now, this is just a passing moment in FF8, but it's notable as a cut scene that doesn't feel like a cut scene. It feels like a natural extension of the game.

Partly, this is a function of simple speed - there's no tell-tale pause for loading - but also of a stylistic proximity between the game world and the rendered world. Naturally, they're not the same, but they're also so different that we're clubbed over the head by the difference.

Or take the scene atop the Dollet communications tower. I can't watch it enough times. From its vibrating wrench to its sparking engines to its surging machinery and impeccable timing, it's a wonderful show. I won't give away how it all works out, but it feels utterly right and as though it follows directly from the game that came before it. Once again, interactive and non-interactive join to form something bigger than either of them.

Combat is generally similar to the fighting in FF7 and, indeed, to console role-playing games in general - with a couple of notable exceptions. Magic is now drawn directly from enemies and from fixed locations within the game. You can customise your combat menu.

And you have on your side "Guardian Forces" - supernatural entities that have varying affinities for your characters and that grow in abilities along with them. A great smoking demon emerges from a hot cyclone, rides a molten ball into the air and hurls it down upon the target with devastating results. A pale blue fairy appears within a cone of ice, breaks out, and, with almost ballet-like movements, hurls a great cold light at your enemies.

I'd play on just to see the next Guardian. I must have seen some of these animations 40 or 50 times by now, and I'm still watching them all the way through and not scrambling for a key press to cut them off.

Now, I love gameplay, and FF8 has plenty of it. I love wandering into places I don't have any reason to be and finding out something I wouldn't otherwise have learned. I love finding the magazines strewn all over the game and the tips within. I love talking to characters after a pivotal event and finding they have something new to disclose. I love the humour - the poor train guard who sees his future life withering away with every harsh word from his charge. I've even got used to using save points to store my progress.

But it's those artful spectacles that I come back to again and again. I haven't seen anything quite like them before, and I can't seem to put them out of my mind - a preoccupation that bodes poorly for my spare time . . . but very well indeed for Final Fantasy VIII.

Product: Final Fantasy VIII

Publisher: Square Soft

URL: www.squaresoft.com

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