Show Some Love

Posted on Aug 2nd 2018 at 08:00:00 AM by (Crabmaster2000)
Posted under Octopath Traveler, Switch, SquareEnix, jRPG

I've often talked about how I feel like I'm no longer the target audience for most game makers these days and how I've been more rapidly retreating into older generations of gaming to get the types of games I love most.  One of the amazing side effects of the current state of gaming is that when games come out that appeal to me, they are quite often niche games or passion projects that have decades worth of influence to draw upon and implement, or use for inspiration in their new project. Octopath Traveler was immediately on my radar when it was announced due to the beautiful visual style of the game coupled with the fact it was a console quality JRPG. The young Square Soft fan that has been locked deep, deep inside of me and has slowly been losing faith in them really wanted this game to scratch the itch that they used to for me. To say that Square has finally put out a game that is everything I love about the genre and is one of the few games that takes newer gaming concepts that I thought I would never enjoy and makes them fun and appealing to me is a true pleasure in every way.

*The following review is spoiler free*

As was fairly clearly stated in the marketing campaign, this is not your typical JRPG story in which all the characters band together to defeat some looming evil that is out to destroy/conquer humanity. This is eight smaller, individual stories in which the characters are more or less travel companions that slowly build bonds with each other while pursuing their own personal interests. It's kind of scary to have eight different stories, since it's pretty hard to make one compelling story, so I was a bit concerned that several of them wouldn't resonate with me. There is a fantastic range in the types of stories told in Octopath. There are things typical to the genre, such as a revenge quest against your father's murderer or a mission for an apprentice to find and surpass her absent master. If that's not your thing, maybe you just want to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage, unravel a small mystery, go on a quest of self-discovery, or even just head out in the world to use your medicinal skills to heal those in need. Each character's quest felt fresh and unique to that person, and all of them save for one, felt like it had a very satisfying conclusion. And several times my personal expectations of how the story would unfold were totally off base, as I was expecting the storytelling to fall into certain tropes; they completely subverted them and in doing so pleasantly surprised me.

If you love some of the old JRPG tropes (as I sure do), there are still a few really great ones, such as the final chapter where a couple characters' quests explode into some fairly convoluted storytelling in which the "final boss" of that particular chapter is far more ridiculous that it probably should be. The stories also range from playful and lighthearted, such as a friendly rivalry escalating into a friendship, to downright sinister involving slave trading, prostitution, public executions, and cults. Having so many stores to bounce between was perfect, since I could get a bit of a break from both the bleak and the cutesy when necessary.

The diversity in stories and characters is just the very tip of the iceberg. Each of the eight characters hails from a very different landscape. Each area of the map is broken into a type such as: Flatlands, Woodlands, Sunlands, Cliftlands, etc. These areas all have their own musical themes and enemy types local to them. In fact, the amount of amazing enemies and unique character sprites is staggering. The typical enemy encounters are gorgeous enough that I would have been satisfied with that alone, aesthetically speaking. But the development team went above and beyond with insanely stunning, giant sprite work for each and every boss and major encounter in the game. Every one of them looks fantastic.

I haven't even spoken about one of the most important parts of the game yet, but the gameplay is just as top notch as everything else presented here. The battle system is traditional in the sense that it is turn-based menus. However, they play on that in a few fun ways. Each character earns battle points once each turn and can bank those to either hit an enemy multiple times with basic weapons or to super charge spells and abilities, which can range from extending status effects extra turns to boosting damage or improving your healing abilities. In addition, each enemy has initially unknown weaknesses to different types of weapons or spells. They can be uncovered by trial and error or by using the scholar's unique abilities. Next to the weakness chart an enemy will have a shielded number. Each time it is struck with one of it's particular weaknesses, that number is reduced. When it hits zero, you will have achieved an enemy "BREAK." This will cause them to cease any further action for that turn, as well as one turn after that AND your party will do a boosted amount of damage while attacking during that time and not be punished for using attacks that don't meet the weakness requirements. For example, if you have a character that is a strong magic user, but an enemy that is only weak to physical weapons such as pole arms and swords, you can simply cause a BREAK by attacking it with swords and then during it's BREAK phase, you can cast all the spells you want at full damage. It's a really fun system with lots of chances to experiment and exploit. It also encourages you to keep a diverse party, since you can easily run into normal enemies that can be quite a challenge if you do not know the appropriate weakness for them. Boss characters also play around with this and occasionally have extra reinforcements that have different weaknesses. This mechanic forces you to prioritize who you should focus on BREAK-ing. Some enemies are even able to change their weaknesses mid-fight or increase their amount of hits to cause a BREAK after each one. It's a super simple concept that gets reused in many interesting ways throughout the game and it never once felt stale. Each fight also comes with an opportunity for additional ways to earn currency, experience points, and job points. If you finish a battle unharmed, you get a cash bonus. If you cause a BREAK, you get an extra EXP bonus. And if you can DOMINATE, which means end the battle in one round of attacks, you earn extra Job Points. 

As shown in the marketing leading up to the release, each of the characters also have a unique job. Some are standard fair such as a thief or cleric, but there are some interesting new ones like a merchant and apothecary. As you earn job points, you unlock additional skills for your class as well as secondary skills, which are equipped and add permanent bonuses. These upgrades include extra points in a stat, better chance for a preemptive strike or chances for bonus actions in battle. Each class culminates in an "ultimate" style ability, which is a hugely expensive and powerful spell or ability. Not long into the game the option becomes available to start double classing and learn skills previously only available to one character with everyone. The caveat being that the original character will have exclusive abilities not available to someone who is using it as a secondary job. For example, when double classing the Apothecary, your character has access to all the healing spells and status effects abilities that Alfyn the Apothecary has, BUT Alfyn also has the ability to combine items during battle to create powerful status effects, healing spells or damaging items, which a character multiclassing would not have access to. So even though you can learn some extra skills, the original character of each job has a very distinct advantage in their preferred job type. The game is designed very well to ensure each character is useful both in and out of battle so that nobody gets relegated to the bench and forgotten.

One modern gaming convention that I have been very vocally against, but am slowly warming up to, is the concept of an open world. Games like Assassin's Creed, Batman Arkham City and Far Cry 4 are my initial experiences with this kind of design and I'm not a fan of how they present it. Super Mario Odyssey warmed me up to a different style of open world design and Octopath Traveler nails it for me. Upon starting the game, you are presented with a fairly large swath of the map and the ability to choose one of the eight characters to start the game with. After that, you can head any way you like at any pace you like. The game shows you where each of the 8 characters are on the map, but you can head in any direction you like and are very often encouraged to explore. Running off the beaten path almost always rewards you with at the very least a treasure chest, but also quite often new dungeons, cities, quests or various other rewards. As long as you are strong enough to survive the enemy encounters in an area, you can proceed. More than once, I was excited to explore a space that recommended I was a higher level, so I simply loaded up on precautionary items, equipped my characters accordingly, took it slow, and was always rewarded for doing so. Reaching a new city always treated me with new opportunities to equip my characters with stronger armor and weapons, offered chances to earn more money, and threw more chests at me that I could ever want to open. The map is quite large and you can always fast travel to any city you've previously visited to make up for each area and dungeon being relatively short. I found this great, especially in some of the areas with very strong enemies. In a lot of JRPGs, late game dungeons can be a drag between exploring for high level loot and random encounters. With the shorter dungeons being crammed full of chests, I felt quite well compensated for my efforts.

As much as I've already gushed, I'm far from done. Possibly my favorite aspect of this entire game is how alive the cities feel and how much life has been breathed into the NPCs in each area. Every city in the game is packed full of people to interact with. They are much less sparse than your typical sprite-style JRPG. In addition, in most cities half to three quarters of them are more than your standard NPC. The non-standard NPCs have speech bubbles over their heads in one of three colors. Anyone with a speech bubble can be interacted with in a unique way by each of your eight characters. Therion the Thief can steal from these people, Cyrus the Scholar can glean useful information that can result in discounts or new items available, Olberic the Warrior can challenge NPCs to combat, Ophelia the Cleric can even convince NPCs you join your party.  As for the three colors I mentioned, a green speech bubble means a main story quest is related, orange means a side quest is related, and white is your standard NPC character. However, many of these standard characters hold items or information needed to complete quests or receive awards. All of these characters have names, bios, items, weaknesses, etc. I think the last JRPG I played in which I was excited to run around town and talk to NPCs was Vay on the Sega CD. I get quite giddy finding a new city to see what new quests, items, and challenges become open to me. As someone who started with Therion the Thief, I had a blast making it my quest to steal from EVERYONE I could. My party was never without items, which became a huge blessing late in the game when I needed extra battle points, SP, healing items, or weakness-related damaging items.

And speaking of stealing, they took one of the best parts about Dark Souls and implemented it into the game. The world of Octopath has a ton of lore and interconnectedness, but it's only there if you want it. Talking to NPCs and paying attention to subtle story dialogue really fleshs out the world you're in and exposes some secrets that make it feel very real. And NPCs are not just relegated to towns either. You'll meet them on the road during your journey and even in dangerous places like dungeons. These NPCs are just as impressive as their urban counterparts.

As with any RPG, music is important. Octopath somehow surpassed my expectations in this area as well. There is a monstrous amount of music in this game from each character having their own musical theme (each with a different instrument showcased to differentiate the feel), to each area on the map having it's own theme. The battle themes also differentiate depending on the strength of the monsters being faced. There are very few songs here that I dislike and I had a really hard time narrowing it down to just a few favorites to I'm going to link eight (to keep with the theme) of my favorite tracks from the game.  However, there are plenty more amazing tunes to be heard while playing.

Since it is also sound-related, I thought I should throw a mention to the voice acting and localization here as well. As you might expect.... it's superb! The translation was great, but beyond that, each region of the game had their own spoken dialects that came out really awesome during the voiced sections. Characters like H'aanit and Z'aana from the woodlands spoke so exotically and colloquially, while more educated, well-to-do characters like Cyrus had that old English pomp to them. Characters from the Coastlands spoke distinctly different than those from the Sunlands. It was really impressive all around.

As I rack my brain to think of some negatives, only one jumps to mind. When you are engaging in a main character story quest, the game directs you to certain areas (which in itself I don't mind), but how it does that is actually quite lazy. When you want to enter an area that is out of bounds, they place a wooden sign in your way, which is extremely out of place. Once you complete your quest, it simply vanishes. This is very odd, since every other part of this game screams dedication to immersion.

To recap why you should buy Octopath Traveler: and yes, it is 100% worth buying it new and at full price. It has a diverse cast and compelling stories, fun and customizable combat and job systems, open world exploration at it's finest, and a beautiful orchestral soundtrack that is rewarding for those who choose to explore it (can also be as linear as you want it to be). It has the most lively and vibrant towns and NPCs that I think I've ever seen in this style of game, lots of interesting lore to dig into if you want it, and lots of reasons to keep playing post-game after finishing all eight story arcs. Octopath has excellent voice acting and localization and is a very polished game all around.  You can tell that there was a large amount of care taken both in game and with the special edition, which is a testament to the passion put into this product.

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I'm about 20 hours in right now, and I find it doubtful that any other game will be my GOTY for 2018.
@noiseredux: I'm actually surprised at how many games Ive been loving lately and there are two more big ones coming out for me before the end of the year still. This is easily a contender for me though.
I was excited to hear about this game's release when I saw the preview footage on the Nintendo Direct, and now that it's out, it's very cool to see it doing so well. I have told myself that I'm not going to go after this game until I play Skyrim or Xenoblade 2, but I might pick this up at full price anyway, just to support it, and show Square Enix that we want more of this kind of thing.
This games does indeed look great. I snagged a copy on release, and excited to dig into it (whenever that ends up being lol). The individual character stories remind me of the old SagaFrontier games on the PS1. Also, the battle gameplay sounds really similar to the Bravely Default games on 3DS. If you like this you might want to give those a try.
@zophar53: I put 170 + hours into Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and enjoyed my time with that game. Octopath is in another league though. I havnt played Skyrim so I cant speak to that, I typically not a huge fan of most western RPGs so I have had no reserve skipping Elder Scrolls games.

@zophar53: Its a play on that battle system that feels a lot more fast and fluid than Bravely Defaults did. I really couldn't get sucked into those games because of the very "mobile" feel of them. Most things about them seem just absolutely tailored to me, but being constantly reminded to invite real world friends to play with me and that would quicken my progress really killed the immersion and made it no fun.
Did someone say Dark Souls?

It still odd to me that you got that hung up on the online parts of Bravely Default. I messed with them just a bit and quickly forgot all about them. Not essential to the game at all.

I'm looking forward to playing this one at some point when I get a Switch. Looks great!
I love this artwork, as it reminds me of the really awesome 16/32-bit JRPGs, but with a aesthetic that puts me in mind of 3D Dot Game Heroes (without the extreme blockiness) for some reason.  I'd get it, but I'd never get to play it (it's my kid's Switch).
@bombatomba: You are absolutely right with the aesthetic, so pretty.

My son is actually a bit peeved at me because he wants to borrow the Switch to play Fortnite, but I'm always on it lately.

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