Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Octopath Traveler

The Hateful Eight

As videogame development advances throughout the generations, some companies yearn to recapture the “good old days” of gaming by creating games that sport significant retro features, largely in regards to their visuals. Games with such aesthetics that come to mind include the System Prisma-developed and Nippon Ichi-published Cladun series. More notable publishers such as Square-Enix would take a stab at retro-style games combined with contemporary features, with the company partnering with developer Acquire to produce Octopath Traveler for the Nintendo Switch and PC. Does its hybrid of old and new RPG features work out?

Akin to the first and third Romancing SaGas, Octopath lets players choose eight different playable protagonists to start, each starting in a different area of the game’s world and having their own backstory. The narrative is the game’s strongest aspect, given the worldbuilding that occurs, that each character has their own backstory and contribution to the action, and quirks such as in-game tracking of the story itself and that NPCs, when “scrutinized,” have mini-stories, as do the sidequests. The only pitfalls are the absence early on of a central unifying plot, and a certain endgame narrative cliché.

The localization is functional for the most part, but very much has its rough spots. For one, the Chaucerian English H’aanit and her people speak is simply atrocious, definitely alien to those not versed in the language’s medieval variant. As with most Japanese RPGs, moreover, the writing is worst in battle, with there being no plausible explanation, except alcohol, why anyone would think it natural for a character to shout “A torrent of arrows!” among countless other unnatural things, for instance the anime cliché of characters somethings shouting the names of their attacks. Most of the time the translation isn’t abysmal, but is one of Square-Enix’s weaker efforts.

The mentioned storyline trope is one of many pitfalls with the mechanics, but these have their positive aspects and otherwise good ideas. Battles are randomly encountered, with the skill Evasive Maneuvers learned by Cyrus and the Scholar class reducing their occurrence. Fights themselves are turn-based, with each character and the enemy taking turns depending upon agility, and a turn order meter showing who goes when in the current round, and a preview of command sequence in the subsequent cycle of combat. When each round ends, each character acquires a Boost Point (BP), critical to the mechanics.

Each character has a number of commands, first of which is attack with one of their currently-equipped weapons, certain characters and classes allowing them to swap arms. They can also consume Skill Points (SP) to perform their native set of abilities, and when the player unlocks subclasses, a secondary list of skills. Some characters such as H’aanit and Alfyn, have additional abilities segregated from SP, such as the former’s ability to tame monsters for a number of uses in battle and the latter’s to combine ingredients to perform elemental effects on adversaries or benefits to the party.

Characters can further use consumable items, with a limit of ninety-nine per item characteristic of franchises such as Final Fantasy, defend to reduce damage and make their next turn come sooner in the next round, or attempt to escape, which largely works against weaker foes, although failure will cause all allies to slip and fall for the rest of the round, and give the enemy a temporary advantage. In most cases, however, to keep up with the recommended levels of each character’s four chapters, players will want to fight, and victory nets money, occasional items, experience for all participants, and Job Points (JP).

At the end of battle, characters may occasionally level, in which case the game restores all their HP and SP, which can sometimes ease the exhaustion of dungeon delving, and players receive bonuses depending upon their combat performance. One major key to the game mechanics is the ability, after exploiting an enemy’s weakness enough time with a number of hits, they “break” and become more vulnerable to attack and lose their ability to act for one round. Luckily, the game tracks what certain foes are weak against (and Cyrus and the Scholar class’s Analyze spell can reveal more weaknesses).

One aspect that can aid in the breakage is Boost Points, where the player can “boost” a character up to three times (with five max BP for each ally), which can empower SP skills or let them strike an adversary up to four times with a weapon. Moreover, characters can use JP acquired to unlock their native class and subclass’s abilities, with each unlocked ability also netting an ally an innate skill, four of which they can equip, and many of which can actually be incredibly useful, with the Cleric job’s ability to let characters be healed above their maximum HP proving critical to my playthrough, especially late-game.

One downside players may find to combat is that BP and overhealing beyond maximum HP are use-it-or-lose-it, but there are other issues. One is that certain skills miss too often, especially those that strike enemies randomly, even against stunned foes. Another is that battles can take a while, particularly those with bosses, some annoying, given their tendency to change weaknesses mid-battle and even shield their weak points. Worst is the Mega Man-esque endgame where the player has to refight eight old, empowered bosses without opportunity to save followed by a cheap ultimate final boss. In the end, the battle system shows promise, but falters in execution.

Control fares somewhat worse, starting with the countless unskippable company logos whenever the player boots up the game. There are a few bright spots, such as the clear direction on how to advance the main storyline (though accessing the postgame story content may necessitate a guide), the fast travel between towns (but unfortunately not among visited fields and dungeons), and the general ease of shopping. However, there are some additional annoyances such as the need to reequip weapons whenever a character changes subclass, the lack of maps for fields and dungeons (except for visited areas of the overworld). In the end, the developers could have given interaction a once-over.

A brighter spot in Octopath, however, is its aural presentation, with most themes starting with that on the title screen being solid, from various town tracks that very well capture the milieu of their respective settings, such as that which plays in seaside settlements. There are also several different pieces that play in battle depending upon the area, and the main boss theme feels epic. Perhaps the biggest downfall in the audio, however, is the abysmal English voicework, with the writing such as H’aanit’s people’s faux old-world speak not helping. Fortunately, there exists the option to switch to the Japanese voicework, so things aren’t entirely bad.

Though the developers have ballyhooed the game’s “HD-2D” presentation, the graphics, aside from the decent art direction (prevalent in the very rare character portraits and the enemy designs, despite plenty of palette swaps), actually don’t look all that wonderful, given the incredible degree of pixilation, dull hues, terrible viewing distance in areas, foes in battle just blinking when executing commands rather than actually being animate, and so forth. There is also a complete absence of CG or anime cutscenes, although the character sprites at least resemble their designs. In the end, Octopath could pass for a PS One RPG, but even then, there are games back then and before that looked better.

Finally, the game is one of the longest this reviewer has ever played, even when disregarding the countless sidequests, which do grant some lasting appeal, along the introductory variations, although odds are players wouldn’t want to revisit it after investing a great deal of time in it.

Overall, Octopath Traveler is at best a middling experience, given the faulty execution of its central game mechanics, the niggling control issues, the inconsistent localization, the lackluster English voice acting, the subpar graphics, and the fact that it requires a significant investment of time to get the most out of the narrative. Granted, not all is bad, given the incredible thought dedicated towards the storyline, the good soundtrack, and the sheer amount of side content. Regardless, there are definitely better RPGs from Square-Enix and for the Nintendo Switch out there, so players would best approach this game with a shaker of salt.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy borrowed by the reviewer, started as H’aanit, played to the end of each character’s chapter, after the ending credits, and without completion of the postgame content.

The Good:
+Battle system has good ideas.
+Fast-travel can be handy.
+Story is well fleshed-out.
+Localization is legible.
+Good music.
+Plenty of side content.

The Bad:
-Execution of game mechanics leaves something to be desired.
-Issues with control.
-Medieval English is atrocious.
-Awful English voicework.
-Subpar visuals.
-Way too long.

The Bottom Line:
An average JRPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 4.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 6.5/10
Graphics: 4.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 5.0/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 3-4 Days

Overall: 5.5/10

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