Monday, March 25, 2013

Final Fantasy VIII Plan

Final Fantasy VIII may be the most controversial game of the series. A lot of people hate the game (especially compared to Final Fantasy VII), but a lot of people love it. I think the main reason so many people have a problem with the game is the magic and leveling system in FFVIII is so different than in any of the previous games. They took a chance for the sake of innovation and learned some harsh lessons. On the other hand the music, characters, and story in the game are all pretty great. I can experience all of those no matter how I play, though... Is there a cool way to play the game while skirting around some of the issues with the magic and level systems?

I guess the place to start is to look at the quirks in the system. To start, the magic system is essentially a consumable spell system similar to Final Fantasy Legend II. You own a set number of copies of a spell. You can cast it that many times and then you're done. The twist in FFVIII is the primary way to generate more shots of the spells. You have a 'draw' command that lets you siphon up to 9 copies of a spell from an enemy that can cast the spell. A given enemy will tend to have around 2 different spells you can draw and you can store up to 100 copies of a spell on each of your characters. Drawing 300 copies of a spell when you get maybe 5 on average means 60 uses of the draw command for practically every spell in the game. This unfortunately results in very long, boring fights with enemies the first time you meet them and then a complete disregard for them going forward.

But why do you want 300 copies of every spell? If you've been following along you know I rarely cast spells as it is. Even when you get all your magic points back by sleeping in an inn I'm more apt to have Rydia beat down than actually cast spells most of the time. So why bother drawing so many of every spell? Cure spells, sure... But do I really need 300 fire, and 300 blizzard, and 300 thunder? In some sense, no, I don't. But in two very real senses I absolutely do. The first sense is my desperate need for completionism. I have to catch them all! There's a number I can make bigger, and that has an absolute cap. Just the way my brain is wired this means I'm either going to completely ignore the number or I'm going to max it out. The other sense it matters, and this is a real one, is the junction system for getting more powerful.

The primary way you get more powerful in FFVIII is by getting the ability to 'junction' spells onto your stats. My base strength is 10. If I have 100 copies of the fire spell and junction it to my strength then my strength becomes more like 24. Each spell has a different ratio for improving each stat. Cure is really good for raising wisdom but not so good at raising strength. As such, if you want to optimize your power level (and I do) then you need access to 100 copies of a wide variety of spells. As the game progresses you get access to new tiers of spells (firaga is going to boost your strength more than fire did) so you need to keep collecting 100 copies as you move along to keep maxing out your stats. Possibly with a full list of spell-stat ratios you'd know in advance what spells to collect and which you could skip but that seems like a lot of work. It's just easier to draw 100 of everything for each character and then compare in the menus afterwards. More tedious, but easier.

A final problem with the leveling system follows from the above point. Your primary path to power is the junction system, but there is also a standard 'gain experience to gain levels' system. In what was likely an attempt to keep the game difficulty smooth the whole way through and make every fight remain relevant they decided to scale the monsters in every zone of the game to your character level. As you go up in levels, the enemies go up in levels. So wandering around in the forest outside Balamb will always be a comparable challenge at every stage of the game. This is contrary to something like FFIV where the imps outside Baron started off super easy and became trivial at all other points in the game. Or something like FFII where if you took one step in the wrong direction you would run into stupidly powerful monsters and die instantly. As the monsters level up they unlock new spells to draw, which made for a reasonable power progression. You gain xp, which levels you up, which levels the monsters up, which gives you access to higher level spells, which makes you more powerful. A nice idea!

The issue here is that there are other ways to get spells other than just drawing them from higher level monsters. You can find spells in dungeons, for example. You even gain the ability to temporarily level up a monster, so you could power up a single random encounter monster, draw really high levels spells out of them, and then run away. Beyond that, you also gain the ability to refine items and cards into spells. Cards is the big one, since you can play the card game at any stage of the game and win really good cards as ante against some people. Refine those cards into top tier spells and suddenly you've picked up most of the power you can by leveling without going up in level at all! This means actually leveling up is a bad idea. The monsters will gain the full amount of their power boost from your leveling, but you only get part of the power.

This leads to the unfortunate conclusion that the way to twink out is to actually never level up at all. The game seems to be designed with this in mind... All bosses are worth no experience. You can run from most other fights, and can use the card ability or the stone spell to kill the other ones off for no experience. I remember watching Byung play a game like this once and was intrigued. I don't remember if he killed all the challenge monsters like this or not, but I'm going to give it my best shot. The challenging part of this challenge, I believe, is to not gain any experience. The fights themselves should be pretty easy since fighting level 7 monsters when you have ultima/tornado/firaga junctioned to your stats should be a bit of a joke. We'll see, anyway!

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