Squall Leonhart is a young man in training to become of member of SeeD - a mercenary organization and the goal of all young students in Balamb Garden. Squall is not a particularly friendly guy and has troubles with his fellow students and teachers. On the eve of his graduation hostilities break out between the city-states of Galbadia and Dollet. As their final test, Squall and three other students are sent on a mission to assist in the fight against Galbadia. In the process they discover that there are other characters pulling strings from behind the stage, and eventually uncover a mystery that involves two decades of secrets hidden both from the world and from themselves.
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Final Fantasy VIII is set in a "retro" environment reminiscent in some ways of the 1960's, with a few sci-fi and plenty of supernatural elements mixed in. The basic system resembles those of its predecessors: the player navigates a party of characters over a world map, accessing various locations and fighting randomly appearing enemies in turn-based combat of the series' trademark ATB (active time battle) variety. However, character development system has been re-designed.
Player-controlled characters in the game have no defined character classes. They can be customized by equipping magic spells, which can be "drawn" from enemies in battles. When used in combat, spells act like expendable items; there are no MP (magic points) in the game. When equipped, they act like armor, raising or lowering character parameters, including resistances to various kinds of magic (elemental, status-changing, etc.).
Monster summons (called Guardian Forces in the game) play a very important role in the customization process. They can be "junctioned" to to the characters, acquire ability points (AP) earned from battles along with experience, learn and "teach" characters new abilities, and can also be summoned in battles. Each character can also execute unique powerful attacks or support actions when his or her hit points are low. Many of these attacks require the player to press specific buttons at the right moment to increase their power.
New weapons are constructed by collecting materials and bringing them to a blacksmith. The player does not acquire money from random enemies, but instead receives paychecks over time based on the player character's SeeD rank. This rank increases when the characters defeat enemies in battles without summoning Guardian Forces; when the player takes SeeD tests within the game; or, occasionally, when the player chooses a correspondent action or decision for the protagonist during some of the missions. Payments are regular and are calculated by the amount of steps the characters make.
Visually, the game resembles its predecessor, featuring 3D graphics for battles and world map exploration, and pre-rendered backgrounds for individual locations. The game's 3D character models are realistically proportioned (as opposed to the "super-deformed" character graphics of the previous game), and the influence of anime art is less noticeable.
Like the previous installment, Final Fantasy VIII features several mini-games, the most prominent of which is the card game Triple Triad. Cards can be won in matches or acquired through side quests or by transforming enemy monsters. Many characters in the game can be challenged to a game of Triple Triad, so it is always possible to take a break from saving the world to play cards with the locals.
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Saga: Final Fantasy