This is going to cover multiple attempts, just for the sake of convenience for all of us.
It's mostly because Kefka himself is a really hard final boss, one that's actually hard to overlevel for, now that I remember what the actual fight is like.
Since there are so many playable characters in this game, twelve that are “main” party members plus Umaro and Gogo, who are unlockable in the second half of the game, we actually get to set up what order they'll get to fight in should anybody die along the way.
This factors in because this final battle happens in four parts, and characters get switched out depending on if anybody's dead when shifting between parts. Part of the reason I at least wanted to have most of my party to have the Life 3 spell for this part is that I knew I'd have kind of a “muscle memory” for this and would build a pretty solid party for the fight, even though I can't consciously explain how I arrived at the specific choices I've made for this.
For example, I somehow managed to set up certain characters with armor and equipment that would, at the very least, render them immune to a lot of the attacks that would happen on the first three tiers of this fight, if not be healed by some of them. Perhaps by coincidence, these first four party members were Terra, Locke, Edgar, and Sabin, who were, if memory serves, the first four permanent party members at the beginning of the game.
The first three tiers of this fight are all compound boss monsters meant to represent a climb out of Hell, if I understand the appropriate mythology correctly. Naturally, at the top of the pile is Kefka himself, meant to represent God, in this case. All the various parts of the monsters on the way up have names to represent all this, as well.
Because of the way I had my party set up and judicious use of the Life 3 spell, the first three levels weren't so bad, nor do I suspect any real differences in the attempts to finish to come from this point. The problem is Kefka. He's the final boss, after all, and he's supposed to be hard as hell. The thing is, I knew going in that he has some cheap tricks designed to make the fight just that much harder. I had just forgotten what exactly those tricks were and how to correct for them.
Also of note is how quickly things can go to crap on you when he does those cheap tricks. Inside of three rounds, Kefka had wiped out my party. From here, it's a matter of acting quickly enough to keep my guys from getting wiped out before they kill the bad guy.
The second attempt, which took place a month and a half after the first, due to some IRL issues that had to take priority, went vastly better. The first three or four layers, I can't recall which, even though I just played it, are simply a matter of pretty much just pounding away on the boss monsters and making sure everybody has Life 3 on them all the time. Kefka's a little harder, but then again, I've already said that he's supposed to be because he's the final boss, after all. I'm not entirely sure what I did differently between the two attempts, in part because of all the time that had passed between them, but in this case, I saved Terra's morph ability for this because it's a metered ability and I wanted it to last the whole fight, for this part. Then I refilled everybody's MP off Kefka with the Osmose spell and kept spamming him with Ultima until he finally died.
When Kefka does finally fall, it's the end of magic and Espers and all that in the world, so the Magicite starts BAMFing on out even before the heroes can start leaving the scene of the final battle. This development has some frightening implications for Terra because she's part Esper herself. Since Kefka's Tower was held together by magic, it begins crumbling now that the Big Bad's gone, as well, so Terra switches on her Esper form one last time to help the others get out as part of the credits roll, telling us each of the characters' full names, if they've got more than one, and most of them do.
Partway through, there's a scene between Terra and the Maduin Magicite, since Maduin was her biological Esper father. He tells her that he's going to have to go because magic no longer exists in the game's world, but if there's someone or something she's got a strong enough connection to, Terra's human half may be able to survive on its own. This leads to something I'll try to get to more in the epilogue, which hopefully will be along sooner than this was, but from what I've always heard, this was one of those RPGs that was part of a trend, at least with Square games, at the time, where there are supposed to be multiple endings based on the choices made during the rest of the game. The one I usually get is the one where Terra survives and the young couple in Mobliz has their baby, but Shadow chooses to send Interceptor with the party and stay behind in the tower himself to go be with Baram in the afterlife.
One other character worth mentioning here is Strago. His little ending scene is where he and Realm are about to go up to the airship on the crane hook. Strago's comment is that a “kid” like him doesn't know the meaning of defeat. I'm not entirely sure why, but just for a second, I couldn't help but think of my own dad when I read that line again after all these years.
As for total play time, I'm going to make a rough guesstimate and say somewhere in the area of 65 hours, more or less, which makes it markedly longer than Final Fantasy IV, but still shorter than most, if not all, of the games that have come since. I've sunk at least that much time into FF8 already and I'm only two thirds or three quarters of the way through, more or less. But that's another of actually quite a few things I'm going to attempt to talk about in the epilogue to all this.
That list also includes some thoughts about the graphics amongst the most recent four games in the series I own and a joke from an Internet reviewer that made me think about the last half of this game.
But that's for the near future, ladies and gents, because I really do need to get on with wrapping this up. It's been going on for way longer than I would have preferred, in many regards, and there's other stuff I just need to get on with, both for my own sake and yours.
So, see you soon with the epilogue to this and maybe some more FF8!