The guardian force system is Final Fantasy VIII's way of handling "summoned monsters." Every guardian force, or GF, is like a sub-member of your party. Each has its own HP, life, level, statistics, and abilities. After each battle, your characters earn experience, the GFs earn AP, and all gain levels and skills accordingly. When a GF is summoned, its HP replaces your character's HP for the duration of the "casting" period, and any damage to your character is absorbed by the GF. GFs have their own healing potions, life potions, and even shops.
The junction system works with the GF system to give you varying skills and abilities. Each GF can be joined, or "junctioned," to a character. The effects of this are manifold. First, until junctioned with a GF, a character has no battle commands except "fight." Junctioning a GF gives you immediate access to the "magic," "draw," and "item" commands; many offer extra commands, such as "card," "death sentence," "revive," and "steal." Second, GFs have a list of skills that they can master - like a "job" in Final Fantasy V or Tactics. Some of these are player abilities, some are extra commands, some are party abilities, and some are "junction" abilities. You can assign a certain skill as "active," and all AP will go toward mastering and unlocking that new skill. Third, when junctioned, a character can often junction spells to various statistics. For example, Quezacotl may open up the HP statistic to magic junctioning. You can then junction a spell - probably a cure or life spell - to the HP statistic, and the character's HP will react accordingly. Certain abilities can be unlocked this way; for example, linking a "level three" elemental spell to your characters' defense statistic will let them absorb HP from that element's attacks. The more powerful the spell - and the more uses stocked - the greater the effect on the statistic. The possibilities for customization are immense.
Initial criticism held that the GF system is unbalanced and makes the game too easy. It's true that, at first, your GFs are ridiculously powerful, but as the game progresses, their strength becomes less unbalanced and more absolutely necessary. Late in the game, GFs are all but forgotten as junctions, special commands, and physical attacks take the forefront. While the game does tend to be on the easy side, it's still more difficult than other recent games in the series. Even the greatest RPG fanatics will find the ugly words "Game Over" staring them in the face more than they'd like. Some have also argued that it's too easy to "abuse" the system by repeatedly drawing the same spell from an opponent. Repeated drawing is possible, but it's no more "abuse" than repeatedly fighting the same groups of weak enemies to raise levels and gain money. Repeated drawing is boring, to be sure, but it's a flaw common to the traditional RPG format. Levels and money, by the by, are two more things that Final Fantasy VIII tosses aside in the name of progress - along with traditional ideas of armor and weapons. All levels are one thousand experience points apart from one another, and all enemies give the same amount of experience. How can such a system work? Enemies are always at the same level as your characters, a la Final Fantasy Tactics. As your enemies' levels increase, they gain new skills and abilities; accordingly, abilities gain importance, as you'll never achieve a purely numerical advantage over your opponents. Armor and weapons are also mostly jettisoned. No character wears any sort of armor, and each character has a single weapon that can be "upgraded" at junk shops by combining certain rare items. Without any weapons or armor for you to buy, money is mostly useless - and so it, too, is all but eliminated. The party is paid a periodic stipend (the size of which depends on Squall's SeeD ranking) with which to purchase basic supplies and items.
The RPG purist will immediately scoff, but further reflection reveals that these changes might actually be for the better. After all, in Final Fantasy games, armor and weapons are practically indistinguishable except for their numerical power. And what player won't immediately equip the more powerful item he just discovered or purchased? Weapons, armor, and money are all artificial statistical impediments to your progress through the game; by removing them, Square returns the focus to the story, characters, and battle strategies. It's a simplification, to be sure, but by no means a "dumbing down." You can still customize your attack and defense powers and characteristics (and almost any other statistic) through creative junctioning of assorted magics.
The Card Battle game, Triple Triad, is a more-than-worthy RPG minigame. There are several hundred cards to collect and swap, and local variations on the standard rule set help make each battle unique. Some cards are won from battles against opponents; others are found by using the "card" command on a weakened enemy. What's more, rare cards can be converted to rare items; rare items can be converted to rare weapons. In other words, your skill at the minigame can affect the main game itself. A single in-depth, well-done minigame is vastly preferable to multiple throwaway sequences. Nowadays, when I want to ride a motorcycle, I just plug in Road Rash. The only thing missing is a suitable reward for collecting them all - obsessive RPG fans deserve more than a star of commendation.
The English version of Final Fantasy VIII sports a decent, unassuming translation. While no one is likely to confuse Square's translations with the works of Shakespeare, the localization is grammatically correct and structurally coherent. Given the state of the RPG union, these are grand accomplishments indeed. The English version also sports one of the most welcome additions in RPG localization history: "Junction Exchange." This one-step character-swapping tool swaps spell inventories, junctioned GFs, and junctioned spells with a single click, making what was once a headache into a pleasure. With character swapping made this easy, players of the English version are far more likely to experiment with different party members than their Japanese brethren.
Final Fantasy VIII combines a fantastic story, amazing visuals, and excellent sound with solid RPG gameplay, an eminently tweakable junction system, and scads of secrets and extras. After a string of visually stunning but uninspired games from Square, many gamers feared that Final Fantasy VIII would be more of the same. Cast all fears aside: the latest Final Fantasy is the greatest game ever to bear the name.