I bet if you smushed Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy XIII together, you'd have a pretty alright game.
It's mostly because FFXIII and FFVIII, in my mind, kind of represent two different approaches to awfulness in the Final Fantasy canon. Final Fantasy XIII is nothing but a linear progression through wave after wave of disposable enemy, relying entirely on that game's flashy combat system for any semblance of interest; and Final Fantasy VIII represented a particular Squaresoft hubris that, to some degree, would infect the entire series going forward from this entry. These were no longer mere "video games" – Final Fantasy VIII tried to prove that a video games (or at the very least, Final Fantasy games) could be as serious, intricate and well-produced as any movie or TV show; and, bless their souls, but in 1999, they couldn't be.
It's this aura of pretentiousness that infects FFVIII from top to bottom, grinding every last ounce of fun or enjoyment that one could reasonably expect from a Final Fantasy game out in the process. Because despite Yoshinori Kitase constantly assuring the player that any given segment has legitimate dramatic heft and weighty psychological inquiry, the conscientious player will recognize that the story, the characters, the often-butt-ugly settings, and most damningly the actual gameplay, are an act of putting one over on the player.
There was this combination of ridiculousness and pathos that dominated the very best Final Fantasy games up to this point – Final Fantasy IV had Cecil's redemption, Final Fantasy VI had a wide, wide range of characters painted with very charming strokes, and Final Fantasy VII had a confusing cyberpunk anime story that somehow made a real impact on the player. But then consider Final Fantasy VIII, an attempt at "real" political intrigue, a valiant attempt at making a main character wholly unlikable, and an attempt at unending "seriousness" at every turn. If Final Fantasy VII was coloured in rainbow hues, Final Fantasy VIII is an endless riff on shades of brown.
The game starts off as a school-days bildungsroman, starring the ever-sour Squall Leonhart. Squall is a student at the Balamb Garden, a school that trains supersoldiers who engage in government-destabilizing actions. I'm not entirely sure who would actually fund such an operation, but that's besides the point. Through a series of events, Squall and a few of his friends end up working for a resistance group under the command of Rinoa, a princess and love interest of Squall's. When a powerful sorceress named Edea ends up taking over a colonial government, Squall's team of agent provocateurs become enemies of the state, and the fact that Squall's school nemesis, Seifer, is involved, makes things quite a bit more twisty in the plot department.
The plot, actually, is pretty interesting, but the characters who propel it are far less interesting, and that's a bit of a problem. The game spends an inordinate amount of time on the machinations of its plot, which means that we're forced to spend hour after hour with the blandest set of Final Fantasy characters I've yet seen. Squall's taciturnity is nearly unending, and it gets to the point that his blank wall persona becomes the entirety of his character (at least, until near the end). The other characters who surround Squall are, unfortunately, just as uninteresting, relying on a stock set of characteristics that never seem to change or become engaging. The worst offenders are Selphie and Zell, who spend an awful lot of time on the screen but rarely contribute anything, and Seifer and Edea are so opaque, they threaten to destabilize the game's propulsion entirely. When you spend a good 80 to 90% of a game totally unaware of the motivations or end-game of the primary antagonists, you stop caring about them entirely.
The side effects of this focus on plot and theme (being, you know, less of a focus on gameplay) could have been overlooked if the plot and themes were just a little bit more engaging, but the game also has the nerve to introduce an almost entirely inscrutable battle system and to totally dismantle any last vestiges of freedom to explore that once existed only a year prior. It cannot be overstated how the worse of these two, the battle system, completely and utterly destroys the pacing of the game, making what is already a little bit of a slog akin to driving a tank through a sea of glue. Basically, the Materia system of FFVII is jettisoned for the "Junction" system, which has you attaching all of your magic skills to the various summon monsters you collect through the game. Standard magic points are exchanged for "Draw Points," which allow you to steal and use enemy commands at will. Your characters and your summons gain new skills by training the summons through the back end, which means two things: endless tinkering and FUCKING IMPOSSIBLY SLOW battles.
Now, I am the type to get right into gear with somewhat obscurantist back-end strategizing – Fire Emblem is one of my favourite game series of all time, after all – but even I found FFVIII's endless menu scouring to be nauseating. And when that's tied up with battles this arduous, it makes the menu hunting all the more tiresome. See, making the Final Fantasy games reliant on, essentially, giant mecha anime monsters seems like a great and fun idea. But in practice, the summons completely dominate the proceedings, making your characters' skills seem pretty irrelevant by a certain point in the game. And having to see fifteen to twenty second animations every single time you use your summons, with no option to skip, was unforgivable even in 1998. Once again, Final Fantasy VIII seems like a progenitor for the "change the battle system to keep the game interesting" school of development that has completely poisoned the JRPG landscape – far better to use something functional and, you know, fun, I say.
Still, despite all of this, Final Fantasy VIII does still feel like a Final Fantasy game. It's got the requisite epic tone and unending, crashing waves of melodrama, and unlike the aforementioned XIII, it still maintains the core humanist heart of the series up to that point. But there's no denying the damage it did to the series. It seems like the idea of scaling back or paying homage to the brilliant designs of past installments would be obliterated by this game, never to return again (except in a small thematic and aesthetic way in FFIX, and in the amazing battle system of FFX). Final Fantasy VIII is ultimately undone by its ambition, which is in some ways an admirable quality, even if one wishes that Squaresoft would have known how to possibly achieve their ambitious goals, or whether it was a good idea to have those goals at all.