July 23, 2018

RE: Octopath Traveler

I’ll start this off by saying that I picked Ophilia as my main character in Octopath Traveler -- in the demo, which carried over to the full game.  I’m not regretting my choice.  The plan was to do a little revisionist history for Final Fantasy X, I.e. having Yuna and the pilgrimage be front and center instead of Tidus and…everything else.  For sure, the idea of playing as a cleric out on a sacred quest to perform a ritual in her family’s stead is an interesting one you don’t see very often in games, and I wanted to experience that for myself.

Imagine my surprise, then, when -- within a 10-hour span of real-world time -- my innocent, noble cleric has befriended a hunter who sics her giant snow leopard on feeble townsfolk, abetted a thief in his trespassing and attempt at grand larceny, and stood idly by while a merchant spiked a band of pirates’ wine with drugs -- which could have gone south real fast if she’d used poison instead of sleeping herbs.  Also, she’s friends with a not-quite-but-close-enough-to-it stripper, who went on to kill her boss.

This game is kind of amazing.

I can tell you right now that Octopath Traveler isn’t the game that I thought it’d be.  Despite being a classically-styled JRPG, it wasn’t on my radar until Nintendo and crew shouted “Yo, free demo!” from their lofty treehouse.  After that?  I still didn’t read up on it too closely -- just the occasional article here or there as I waited patiently for reviews.  It does have the Squeenix brand on its box, after all, and you know how I feel about them.  (Yeah, it’s a different dev team, but acknowledging that ruins the joke.)

I went in thinking that I would mostly follow Ophilia’s story while the other characters would pop in as backup/side stories.  That is not the case, at least based on what I’ve seen so far.  True, you can start with your character of choice and possibly beeline it toward the part of the map that contains their Chapter 2, but the game puts up a “recommended level” in tandem and suggests that you shouldn’t try it unless you beef up.  So basically, I was rearing to start Ophilia’s second chapter, only to have a HUGE level disparity that would’ve guaranteed a game over.  My only choice?  Travel the globe and recruit the other travelers.

By extension, that means -- as far as I can tell -- there’s not much in the way of an overarching plot linking the eight travelers or the game at large.  That could change later on (and it probably will), but here at the 10-ish hour mark, the format of the game is pretty striated.  Choose your main and venture out to meet the other party members.  Meet one, go through their first chapter, and then venture out again.  Repeat until you’ve got a full deck.  It’s an unusual take on the genre, which leads me to believe that -- considering I’m only at 7/8 and have done NO second chapters -- this game is a long one.  You’ll be getting your money’s worth, for sure.

The tradeoff is that if you’re looking for character synergy and camaraderie -- the sort of bonding you’d expect from a Tales or Persona game -- then you’re looking in the wrong place.  There are sequences you get that have your characters reacting and responding to story events, but A) I haven’t personally seen a single one, and B) that seems more like a substitution than a feature.  Even though your party walks in a close formation, they might as well have steel walls as thick as redwoods between them, for all the interaction they do on their journey.

So basically, the individual eight stories are going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting.  Honestly, I’m okay with that.  This format ensures that everyone has an equal presence in Octopath Traveler, and everyone has a chance to be the main character.  Literally.  I’m sure that favorites are going to sprout up from such fertile ground, and some will rate choice travelers higher than others.  Again, I’m okay with that; whereas plenty of JRPGs put you on a set track via the narrative, this one puts the agency and sense of ownership smack dab in the players’ hands.

While it remains to be seen if a specific plot/force will definitively link the travelers together outside of the players’ whims (boy, I hope the game doesn’t end with us needing to kill God again, or otherwise showing the world’s religion is a hollow lie), it’s not as if there’s no unifying theme.  As disparate as each of the game’s characters are, they’re all driven by ambitions.  Duties, dreams, and desires that need to be fulfilled, no matter what.  Even if it’s confined to each traveler’s first chapter, the game is asking a simple question eight times over:

Ophilia wants to do right by her family (and the church) by completing the Olympic torch-style pilgrimage.  Primrose wants to reclaim her broken family’s honor by exacting revenge on three tattooed criminals.  Tressa wants to see what’s beyond the borders of her seaside town and fill her merchant coffers along the way.  Therion wants to regain his dignity -- and make his thieving life easier -- by stealing three treasures to remove the shameful bangle strapped to his arm.  Everybody’s fighting for something, be it noble or selfish.  

It’s the sort of thing that, despite the personal nature of each story, really makes the world feel bigger than something you’d see on your TV screen.  By proxy, it’s the sort of thing that makes you realize that there are other stories out there in the real world -- people journeying, struggling, and fighting for something they desire.  Even in the absence of the typical “save the world” plot -- or maybe because of it -- the game has some serious weight to throw around, and that’s before getting into the weighty subject matter in some of these stories.  (*tugs collar while remembering Primrose’s Chapter 1*)

I don’t know what’s in store for me with the other chapters.  There’s no telling if that unifying theme will stay the same throughout, or if we’ll pick up some new ones along the way.  Whatever the case, I’m interested in seeing as much as Octopath Traveler has to offer.  The setup is there for everyone, as is the promise.  

While each character’s story has variances in tone and intent, each one generally, and universally, manages to stroke those heartstrings pretty tastefully (in varying amounts, sure, but the effect is the same).  Will the emotional torque ratchet up in future chapters?  We’ll see…but honestly, I’m kind of betting on it.  I’d better have some tissues nearby, if what the odd review here or there has implied.

But enough of that story garbage.  How about that gameplay?

It’s not as if Octopath is reinventing the wheel here.  You bring in a party of four travelers to take on rival monsters; sometimes you’ll fight against a small horde, and other times an unexpected enemy ace will slip into the mix.  Either way, the main draw is that you can spend BP (which you gain once per turn) to boost the effectiveness of your attacks, spells, and skills.  Want to wipe out an entire horde with one shot?  Spend 3 BP with Ophilia and cast Luminescence for a powered-up light spell that hits all targets.  Easy money.

The other core wrinkle of the combat follows the same path as the Persona/SMT games.  Enemies have weaknesses you can exploit, which means that if you hit them enough times with that weakness -- say, Cyrus’ axe -- then you’ll do more than just extra damage.  You’ll put them in a Break state that makes them more vulnerable to any hit you throw out, and the broken foe loses its turn.  When coupled with the BP boosts, you can do a ton of damage in one shot.

As an aside, though?  Man, I love charging up to Level MAX.  There’s something way too satisfying about simply tapping R to build up your power.

Standard battles are simple, but satisfying -- and while there is some occasionally-frustrating trial and error when trying to find weaknesses (which to be fair is something the SMT games faced), it’s also satisfying to actually hit a weakness, and even more so once you get that Break.  Beyond that?  The game really comes alive when you fight the bosses.  It’s not just about them having higher stats or being able to tank damage; some of them have tricks and gimmicks that might make you change your strategy.  Likewise, they’ll telegraph when they’re about to go for a big hit -- so it’s up to you to decide whether you have time to cancel it out with a Break, or turtle up and hope for the best.

I’ve made comparisons to Persona already, but there’s one key element that makes a big difference: SP management.  Given the format of the games -- an ongoing adventure versus spaced-out endurance runs -- it’s sort of an apples to oranges thing.  Still, it’s worth noting that you’ve got a lot more freedom to cast magic and use skills without worrying about how you’re going to replenish your rapidly-emptying meters.  Thanks to some passive skills and equipment, my Ophilia virtually never has to worry about running on empty.  And even if she’s getting low?  I’ve got dozens-strong stock of restorative items that’ll put her back in fighting shape.  It’s a relief that not only lets you experiment, but also doesn’t penalize you for trying and failing to find/exploit weaknesses.

If I had to make one complaint, it’s that -- as it stands -- the rate at which you earn new skills, and the JP needed to unlock them, is painfully slow.  For me, making steady progression and gaining new powers in RPGs is always aces; in Octopath, I’m left waiting and wanting for an irritating amount of time because the next skill is gated behind a massive JP barrier.  I guess the blow’s dampened a bit thanks to the JP gates being much thinner at the outset, but I want all the tools ASAP so I can play around with them.  If this is a sample of how it’ll be once I can cross-pollinate with hybrid classes, then I’m anticipating/dreading a grind to build my perfect team.

It’s a shame, because -- and I can’t stress this enough -- the prospects of party-crafting and team synergy in this game are astonishing.  It’s early in the game, so I can’t say I’m the ultimate authority here; still, from where I’m standing it looks like every job has some real potential.  They’ve got juice -- skills active and passive that’d make me do a spit-take all over my Switch.  Therion and Cyrus in their default states -- their default states! -- are a dream come true for magic-heavy parties.  The thief can steal SP, and then freely donate a chunk of it to the caster of your choice.  Meanwhile, Cyrus can use a couple of basic items to generate a full-part SP heal.  That…would be utterly broken in a Persona game.

Part of the reason I’m so antsy about learning new skills is that I want to see what kind of seemingly-broken tools I’ll be given next.  Primrose can unlock a passive skill that makes her buffs last a turn longer, on top of another passive that restores a little SP each turn.  What this means is that she can cast enhanced buffs for free.  And then the team synergy comes in; if she casts on Ophilia, whose passive makes buffs last longer on her, then you’ve got a powered-up cleric without spending any BP…that is, until said cleric spends her BP to effectively go beyond Level MAX and ravage the foes ahead.

Now I’m just sitting here, salivating at the prospect of the broken job combinations I can put together.  My Ophilia’s already taking hits that no one else can; if I cross her with a warrior, then she might soon become an invincible paladin.  H’annit’s damage output is high, but her SP pool is comparatively low -- so what if I mix her with a scholar to not only enhance her magic, but give her the power to scope out enemy weaknesses (like any good huntress should)?  Oh man, so many options.  I can’t handle it.  I just can’t.

You know, I really like the Nintendo Switch.  It says a lot when my biggest complaint about it so far is that I fall asleep with it in my hands because -- like a fool -- I have a nasty habit of using it while curled up under the covers.  Considering how it has to pull double duty as both a console and a handheld, it also has to accommodate long-term play sessions and short-term trips.  It’s not hard to see how games have shifted in style to fit the bill, be it Mario Odyssey, Splatoon 2, ARMS, and the like.

All of the Switch games I’ve played so far have been fun (except maybe Xenoblade Chronicles 2 past its fourth chapter, but that’s a topic for another day).  The problem is that even if those games have been a blast, there’s been a lurking dread in my mind -- the sense, the feeling that a lot of those games are insubstantial.  Fun, but missing that certain rock-hard core.  I’ve been thirsty for a big adventure to go on, and one I can fit in my dainty little palms.  As it stands?  Octopath Traveler is filling that nice.  That quota.  That desire.

I don’t know if the fun, excitement, intrigue, and enjoyment will last from now until the end credits.  But you don’t know how ready I am to find out.

I mean, if nothing else, it’ll have a bangin’ soundtrack.

That’s rad.

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