Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Five Things I Love About Final Fantasy VIII, Part One

I've been playing Final Fantasy VIII again, this time on PSP, and having just finished it I want to talk about some of the things I love about this under-appreciated entry in the series. Expect spoilers. FF8 had an impossible task: how do you follow Final Fantasy VII, which introduced the Final Fantasy series to new legions of fans, becoming more of a cultural phenomenon than just another RPG? On my first playthrough I was disappointed, and it didn't seem that I was alone. People didn't like Squall (or Selphie, or Zell, or Irvine), people didn't like drawing magic for what seemed like hours upon boring hours, people didn't like the backstories of every character but one (they're all from the same orphanage!)

There is a lot to like about FF8, but a lot of it doesn't properly reveal itself until you've been through the game already. This subtlety isn't something we expected after FF7, which wears its plot points enthusiastically on its sleeve: we weren't sure what to expect from that photograph in Nibelheim, but we knew *something* was about to go down. In FF8 we wouldn't have been shown the photograph; we'd be told there might have been a photograph, but who knows where it got to?

So here, in somewhat-chronological order, are two of the five things I love about Final Fantasy VIII, the rest to come tomorrow.

1. The Timber TV Station Monitor

Midway through the first disk, our team of SeeDs are assigned to help enthusiastic but green revolutionary group the Forest Owls retake the city of Timber from its Galbadian occupiers. They learn that Galbadia's president, Vinzer Deling, has come to Timber to use its TV station to broadcast a message to the whole world. You see, no one has been able to broadcast anything over the air for seventeen years thanks to interference on every wavelength, so all long-distance communication since then has been by cable. Galbadia has been working to restore the broadcast station in Timber so they can air their message.

The Forest Owls decide that after Galbadia is done, they'll use the equipment to broadcast a message about Timber's independence. On their way up to the TV station, they pause in front of a giant TV screen, and your SeeDs see lines of gibberish scrolling up it.

Rinoa: "This is creepy...What is it?"
Squall: "This noise is broadcast over most of the frequencies. Something has to be done about this before they can broadcast it over the air."

This was in the days before HD, but even then it was clear enough to make out that the interference Squall is talking about wasn't gibberish, but consisted of actual phrases. Like this one:


Or this:


Or this unpleasant sentiment:


You find out much, much later (two disks later!) that Sorceress Adel is trapped in a containment prison in space that serves to block her powers. The radio interference that blankets the entire world are her angry, angry thoughts. You first hear about the radio interference maybe two hours in, and two or three hours later you see this TV monitor, but it's another fifteen or so before you find out anything about Adel and the containment prison. It's a creepy but forgettable moment your first time through; on subsequent playthroughs it's an early indicator of a major plot development later on.

2. The Lunatic Pandora is Everywhere

Another example where FF8 almost requires you to play through it once in order to understand what's going on involves a giant rectangular structure called the 'Lunatic Pandora.' You first hear about it on Disk 3, talking to NPCs who seem to assume you already know what the Lunatic Pandora is. Things like this:

Doc Odine: "Why iz Lunatic Pandora here now? Who iz moving zat thing?"
Doctor's Assistant: "Galbadians, sir. They're the ones that salvaged it. We must sound the alert in the city now!"

By the end of Disk 3, you've slowly pieced together the timeline:

1) A Crystal Pillar fell from the moon during the Lunar Cry that destroyed the Centra continent eighty years ago.

2) Sorceress Adel had the Crystal Pillar excavated and had a Laboratory constructed to build a casing for it. This giant rectangular casing was called 'Lunatic Pandora' and could be moved, so it could be used as a weapon. Tears' Point was constructed as the other half of its weaponized use.

3) After Adel was overthrown as the ruler of Esthar, the new president (Laguna!) deemed that Lunatic Pandora was too dangerous to keep around, moved it out into the ocean, and sunk it.

4) In the present day, Seifer was used as a pawn to find Lunatic Pandora and move it out of the ocean. He brought it to Tears' Point, causing another Lunar Cry, and Adel's space prison was brought back to the planet in a flood of monsters.

5) The team assaulted Lunatic Pandora in the Ragnarok at the close of Disk 3.
It's fairly straightforward when put in sequence, but remember that it's shown to us all out of order and without the necessary context. But, and this is the cool part, not only have we seen the Lunatic Pandora before all the exposition of Disk 3, but we've even been inside!

Lunatic Pandora being ominous
 Way back on Disk 1, before we really know what's going on with these sudden scenes with Laguna and his friends (they're flashbacks to the past!), Laguna and Kiros and Ward are out patrolling as part of their duties for the Galbadian army. They get lost and end up in an excavation site. Esthar is digging something up, and soon Laguna and co. are inside the whatever it is: a giant crystal structure with tunnels inside it.

It's the Crystal Pillar that will eventually become the core of the Lunatic Pandora! Laguna spends awhile inside it messing with things: accidentally opening hatches, dislodging boulders, setting off the wrong bombs... hilarity ensues, and much of Laguna's charm comes from being sort of a bumbler. Much later on, you can see the result of his actions when the party boards the Pandora; do the right things and you have access to all the treasure locations.

Later on, Laguna auditions for a part in a B movie in order to make some money. In the distance you can see a giant rectangular structure: the Lunatic Pandora.

Once Laguna gets to Esthar, in fact, he works at the Lunatic Pandora Laboratory, and interacts with Doc Odine, the man responsible for weaponizing the Pandora.

All of this before the player has any idea what the Lunatic Pandora is or does. It's just invisible on a first playthrough, or worse, confusing. On subsequent playthroughs you see how involved the Lunatic Pandora really has been in the story and it's quite interesting.

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