RPGS After 10: Octopath Traveler

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The goal of a reviewer is to give an informed opinion about a game to help gamers choose what they want to play. However, in the case of role playing games it’s difficult for reviewers to help because they’re so freakin’ long. As more and more RPGs are released with longer and longer play times, it’s hard to keep up. So, we’ll be taking a look at newly released RPGs after playing for ten hours and see how they stack up.

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It’s only been about a year and a half since the Nintendo Switch was released worldwide, and already there have been some great games for the hybrid handheld/console. RPGs are no exception: between originals such as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and ports such as Stardew Valley and Skyrim, the newcomer console has a small yet strong library for those who like long adventures. The advantages of the Switch also make the console ideal for developers wanting to get into throwback games, modern games that appeal to the aesthetics of classic games from decades past.

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Octopath Traveler is a JRPG developed by Square-Enix and Acquire, headed by staff from the recent Nintendo 3DS series Bravely Default. The game’s plot focuses on eight main characters, each on a journey to fulfill their dreams, missions or grudges (hence, the title). Together, they explore distant lands illustrated in “HD-2D”, combining Super Nintendo-style character sprites and textures with high definition environments and effects, and fight monsters and villains in a turn-based system very reminiscent of past JRPGs such as Final Fantasy, SaGa and, of course, Bravely Default.

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I was able to dive into the game fairly easily, partly because I had the opportunity to play the demo versions of the game before the worldwide release but mostly because the game paces itself in terms of introducing gameplay concepts to the player. I started the game as Tressa, an aspiring merchant, and quickly got into the swing of the game. The game holds the player’s hand as they get used to the game, introducing the concept of Path Abilities, which allow the player to interact with NPCs in unique ways based on the characters in the party. In the case of Tressa, she can acquire items from NPCs for a slight discount and sometimes get weapons and armor well ahead of when they be purchased at armorers.

The game has level scaling based on progression, at least in the “starter” areas of the game. Since the game is relatively open world with effectively all towns and dungeons free to visit – so long as you can survive the trip – “progression” means “recruiting characters”. As such, with only one of the eight main characters in my party, Tressa only had to deal with level one enemies that were designed specifically for Tressa to fight.

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This is because of the unique quirks of the combat system. Enemies have “vulnerabilities”, weak points that correspond to each of the available means of damage such as the categories of weapons or elements of spells. Each character can only equip certain weapons and have specific elements of magic available to them: Tressa, having only bows, spears and wind magic accessible, mostly had to fend off monsters that conveniently were vulnerable to bows, spears and wind magic. By hitting vulnerabilities, the player will stun enemies, which not only forces enemies to skip turns but also increases damage dealt to the stunned enemies. The player also has a trump card in the Boost Point system: every turn each character gains a Boost Point that they can use to get extra attacks or increased magic effects, which allows characters to exploit vulnerabilities and deal massive amounts of damage. I find this system to be viscerally exciting: gauging enemies and testing their vulnerabilities before unleashing with a flurry of attacks, accompanied by intense auras and flashy effects, got my blood pumping.

After Tressa was successful in defeating some pirates and recovering her village’s treasure, I was able to venture out into the world. Each of the eight characters dwell in villages and cities surrounding a large inland sea, and in order to recruit each of the characters I had to journey to various extreme geographies: it wasn’t uncommon to go from a beachside to a mountainous village to a desert and then to another mountainous region. As Tressa recruits each character – I ended up skipping the knight’s village by accident and went to the desert village, instead – the difficult of the storylines increase to accommodate for the extra characters and increased experience levels. It would take some time to feel challenged, as my characters would for a long while stay ahead of the experience curve.

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Even after I had gained my fourth party member I still never felt significant stress during combat: random encounters tended to be on the easy side to accommodate for gaining new party members. Boss encounters were always more difficult, but as I gained more options and breadth the difficulty tended to come from large hit point totals and greater thresholds for vulnerabilities to put the bosses in a stunned state. I personally don’t mind this: I tend to play games for story and characters than for challenge, but players looking for a grindfest may find the early game lacking.

Those in search of a game experience with a good story will likely not find this game lacking: the eight separate storylines are fairly good. I did not find the plots to be complicated affairs of politics or war, but they were all fairly serviceable and did an excellent job of establishing each character and their motives. One could see the influence of SaGa Frontier, though where SaGa Frontier used the separate storylines to go in wildly different tones and genres Octopath Traveler instead keeps to a smaller, personal scale, with early hints of seemingly disparate storylines being linked to each other: an offhand reference to a fallen kingdom by Cyrus the scholar is made more personal when Olberic reveals himself to be a knight of said kingdom.

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The different storylines do have a slight problem in varying tones. While SaGa Frontier had tones in the storytelling that wildly deviated from others, the completely separate nature of the protagonists’ storylines made the deviations feel more natural. Not so in Octopath Traveler: the eight characters are linked to each other, so it can be disconcerting when the plots range from Tressa’s somewhat slapstick confrontations with pirates to Primrose’s tale of betrayal, exploitation and revenge while working as a dancer in a skeezy desert tavern.

The strongest aspect of the game is the localization. Each character has a unique voice that reflects their hometown and culture. The huntress, H’aanit, and her villagers have a dialect that bring to mind a backwoods version of olde English, but other characters don’t need to go as far to establish their personalities. I’ve never felt myself drawn out of the game by odd typos or strange word choices: the localization team did a superlative job.

Ten hours didn’t seem like a long time when it comes to this game: I’m a particularly slow player, taking longer than necessary to get through games, but even after ten hours I still have one character to recruit. Part of the long time is on me: after accidentally skipping Olberic, I decided to continue collecting all the female characters first, which necessitated skipping two other towns. This resulted in me not thinking to at least enter the towns so I could fast travel back to them. However, the game’s pacing is still particularly slow: even with the advantage of leveled companions, each character’s initial story arc can take an hour to complete. There are still features of the game I have yet to encounter such as the multiclassing system, where the characters can adopt the class of other characters to expand their own skillset.

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My impressions of the game after ten hours are very good: I am enjoying the various characters and their stories and personalities. I’ve already settled on a main cast to focus on – Tressa the merchant, Alfyn the apothecary, H’aanit the hunter and Primrose the dancer – and look forward to seeing how they work together. The combat system is very enjoyable, if a bit slow at times. However, the slow pace is a bit of a drawback, but not unexpected for an RPG. The biggest issues from my (relatively) brief playthrough are difficulty and graphics. As stated before, the game is a bit on the easy side, at least in the beginning, and I’m waiting to see if the game becomes more challenging. The graphics are great, blending fantastic 16-bit character sprites with gorgeous environments, but there are issues with seeing open pathways, especially when shapes in the foreground block the view of whatever environment I’m trying to navigate, or when lighting causes the environment to blur.

It’s too early to give this game a grade: I’m still barely scratching the surface of the game. However, at this point I have to give the game a thumbs up: the characters are great, the story is entertaining and the combat is fun, and the downsides of the easy challenge and some visual issues barely tip the scales against the game. The Primrose storyline will be of concern to some because of troubling implications, but I feel that the situation was resolved adequately and I don’t see future chapters of her storyline being nearly as provocative. Overall, the game was a blast to play for the first ten hours, and I look forward to completing the game.