Final Fantasy VIII received critical acclaim. Within two days of its North American release on September 9, 1999, Final Fantasy VIII became the top-selling video game in the United States, a position it held for more than three weeks. It was also a bestseller in Japan and the UK. It grossed a total of more than $50 million in the 13 weeks to follow, making it the fastest-selling Final Fantasy title. In Japan, it sold roughly 2.5 million units within the first four days of release. More than 6 million units were sold in total by the end of 1999. As of March 31, 2003, the game had shipped 8.15 million copies worldwide: 3.7 million in Japan and 4.45 million abroad. The opening cut scene in Final Fantasy VIII was ranked second on Game Informer's list of "Top 10 Video Game Openings", and first by IGN. GameSpy listed it as the 15th best cinematic moment in video games. IGN named the game's ending the third best of any game for the PlayStation, while UGO.com named it one of the series' best and most memorable moments. Final Fantasy VIII was voted by readers of Japanese magazine Famitsu as the 22nd best game of all time in 2006, and named one of the 20 essential Japanese role-playing games by Gamasutra, stating "[t]here's a lot that Final Fantasy VIII does wrong, but there's even more that it does right". As of December 2013, it has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide. According to Steam Spy, another 703,000 copies of the PC version were sold by April 2018.
Reviews of the gameplay have been mixed. IGN felt that it was the weakest aspect of the game, citing its Guardian Force attack sequences as "incredibly cinematic" but tedious, sentiments echoed by Electronic Gaming Monthly. They also regarded the battle system as intensely complicated, yet refreshingly innovative and something that "RPG fanatics love to obsess over". Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine claims that the game's Junction system is a major flaw due to repetitive stocking of spells, while the video game magazine Edge commented that the battle system consists of a "bewildering" number of intricate options and techniques that "most gamers will [...] relish". GameSpot praised the game's battle system, commenting that the "possibilities for customization [with the Junction system] are immense".
In general, Final Fantasy VIII has been compared favorably to its predecessors. Though questioning the game's lack of voice overs for its characters, Game Revolution praised its storyline and ending. For their part, Edge labeled Final Fantasy VIII "a far more accomplished game than FFVII". On the other hand, the magazine also felt that the game's length left its story unable to "offer consistently strong dialogue and sub-plots". Additionally, it found some of the story's plot twists "not... suitably manipulated and prepared", leaving it "hard not to greet such... moments with anything but indifference". Overall, Edge considered Final Fantasy VIII to be "yet another outstanding edition of SquareSoft's far-from-final fantasies", summarizing it as "aesthetically astonishing, rarely less than compelling, and near peerless in scope and execution". Electronic Gaming Monthly offered similar comments, stating that the game's character development "is the best of any RPG's" and that "Final Fantasy VIII is the pinnacle of its genre." UGO.com stated that while no other game in the series had stirred the controversy that Final Fantasy VIII had and that it was flawed, Final Fantasy VIII was a "daring, groundbreaking game [...] decidedly the most original console-style RPG ever created". In 2002, IGN named it the seventh best title for the PlayStation, placing higher on the list than Final Fantasy VII; the publication felt that Final Fantasy VIII improved on the strengths of its predecessor.
The PC port received mixed reception. Maximum PC praised the full motion video sequences as "phenomenal", adding that while the gameplay took getting used to, they enjoyed the teamwork emphasized by it, and that the game's visual presentation added to its appeal. GameSpy stated that while the game was not a "huge leap forward" from the previous title, its gameplay and visual appeal worked for its benefit, though that on a computer the pre-rendered backgrounds appeared blurry and the controls at time difficult with a keyboard. GameSpot criticized the game for not taking advantage of the capabilities afforded to computers at the time, describing the PlayStation version as both looking and sounding superior, and recommending that the title was "not worth buying period" for the PC. UGO.com also described the port as inferior to its original counterpart, adding that its presentation was in turn detrimental to the reception the game received as a whole. Computer Gaming World praised some of the changes made to the game in light of previous titles and the inclusion of the Triple Triad sub-game, though heavily criticized the port as "lazy" and "disappointing", stating that it only served to emphasize the original game's flaws. Despite their complaints, they named it the twentieth best game of 2000.