I don’t think FFVIII has ever left my Top Five. I love this game. I loved it so much that in grade 5 I did an hour long presentation on it for my class, complete with Plasticine models of the characters and guardian forces and a full hand drawn Triple Triad deck.
I think the main roadblock for people is the Junction system, which is a shame because it is so original, elegant and gives you so much control over your party while also actually giving you incentive to explore the world.
Around the game’s midpoint you are able to convert items into magic, which when coupled with the ability to link magic to stats means every item you come across has a ton of potential value to you. You fight a weak plant monster? You don’t get that much exp but you get a vine. You can convert that vine into sleep magic. Do you give that sleep magic to someone so they have that spell? Do you junction it to Zell’s ST Atk so he can knock people out with punches? Do you further convert the sleep magic to Sleepga at a 5:1 rate? If any of these options are appealing, you’ll start to keep an eye out for these plant guys, take note of where they hang out, etc. This goes for every enemy in the game. Every enemy has potential value to you, which gives incentive to explore different areas and also makes random battles more meaningful. Since items can determine your stats, weapons and magic available to you, EXP and gold mean very little which eliminates grinding, and when you reach a town you’re looking to advance the story, instead of beelining for the weapon and armor shops. You don’t even need to enter battles for items, you can just play cards all day and convert those. Everything you come across can essentially be converted into something of value to you.
I’ll stop. I didn’t want to look in this thread because I knew I would get way too carried away with talking about this game…
However I will also say that Cloud and Squall share a lot of similarities with their character arc, but Cloud’s is cheapened by the ability to choose between dialogue options. Cloud is supposed to be an asshole ex-SOLDIER who doesn’t give a shit about his community at the start of the game but a lot of the time you’re given the choice between “I don’t care about this, give me my paycheck” and “Sure, I’ll help!”. A lot of players choose to be helpful in their RPGs so I think a lot of people like got a really muddy version of Cloud’s arc. FFVIII doesn’t give you the option to play as Hero Squall from the jump which I think angered a lot of people, but also allowed Squall to be a more defined character with clearer motivations.