Like the Final Fantasy games before it, Final Fantasy VIII consists of three main modes of play: the world map, the field map, and the battle screen. The world map is a 3D display in which the player may navigate freely across a small-scale rendering of the game world. Characters travel across the world map in a variety of ways, including by foot, car, Chocobo, train, and airship. The field map consists of controllable 3D characters overlaid on one or more 2D pre-rendered backgrounds, which represent environmental locations such as towns or forests. The battle screen is a 3D model of a location such as a street or room, where turn-based fights between playable characters and CPU-controlled enemies take place. The interface is menu-driven, as in previous titles, but with the typical weapon and armor systems removed and new features present, such as the Junction system. Also featured is a collectible card-based minigame called "Triple Triad".
A battle against X-ATM092, an early boss
; Zell will summon Shiva
when the blue bar that has replaced his ATB is drained.
For Final Fantasy VIII, Hiroyuki Ito designed a battle system based on summoned monsters, called "Guardian Forces", abbreviated in-game as "GF". Assigning ("junctioning") a GF onto a character allows the player to use battle commands beyond Attack with the main weapon, such as Magic, GF (to have a junctioned GF perform an action), and Item. Previous Final Fantasy titles provided each character with a limited pool of magic points that were consumed by each spell; in Final Fantasy VIII, spells are acquired ("drawn") either from enemies in battle, Draw Points distributed throughout the environments, or by refining items and cards. Spells are then stocked on characters as quantified inventory (up to 100 per spell and limited to 32 distinct spells per character) and are consumed one by one when used. Characters can also junction (equip) these spells onto their statistics—such as Strength, Vitality, and Luck—for various bonuses, provided the character has junctioned a Guardian Force. The junction system's flexibility affords the player a wide range of customization.
These expanded mechanics for summons were a departure for the series; in previous titles, summons were relegated to a single action during battle. The junction system also acts as a substitute for armor and accessories, which were used in earlier games to modify character statistics. Moreover, where earlier titles required weapons to be equipped and tailored to the character, each major character in Final Fantasy VIII features a unique weapon which can be upgraded, affecting its appearance, power, and Limit Break.
As in Final Fantasy VII, characters in Final Fantasy VIII have unique abilities called "Limit Breaks", which range from powerful attacks to support spells. While the characters in Final Fantasy VII receive Limit Breaks after incurring significant damage, in Final Fantasy VIII, Limit Breaks become available only at low health (hit points) under normal circumstances. The magic spell Aura increases the probability of Limit Breaks appearing, regardless of a character's remaining hit points, while various status afflictions can prevent Limit Breaks. They are similar to the Desperation Attacks of Final Fantasy VI, albeit more frequent. Final Fantasy VIII also introduced interactive elements to complement Limit Break animations. These interactive sequences, which vary between character, weapon, and Limit Break, range from randomly selected magic spells to precisely timed button inputs. Successfully completing an interactive sequence increases the potency of the Limit Break.
An example of navigation on the field map
Final Fantasy VIII features an experience point (EXP) system quite different from previous titles. The essentials remain unchanged: characters gain EXP after defeating enemies, which are typically encountered randomly throughout the game's environments. Earning a set amount of EXP causes the character to gain a level, which increases their overall statistics. While previous titles feature an EXP curve that increases with each level (e.g. getting to level 2 requires 200 EXP, level 3 requires 400, etc.), characters in Final Fantasy VIII gain a level after accumulating a flat rate of 1000 points. Enemy levels are based on the party's average level; in most RPGs, enemy levels remain stagnant. Some bosses have level caps to prevent the main quest from becoming too difficult. Higher-level enemies are capable of inflicting and withstanding significantly more damage, may have additional special attacks, and carry additional magic spells, allowing for Junctioning bonuses which themselves far exceed the bonuses imparted by level-gain. The game's unique EXP and level system allows a player to grind to maximum Level 100 before even beginning the plot, though this will result in far more powerful enemies.
In addition to gaining levels, Guardian Forces earn Ability Points (AP) after battles, which are automatically allocated to special abilities that Guardian Forces can learn. When a Guardian Force has learned an ability, that ability becomes available for any character or the character party, as is the case with field abilities. These abilities allow characters to attack more efficiently, refine magic spells from items, receive stat bonuses upon leveling up, access shops remotely, and use additional battle commands.