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Eight roads diverged in a wood…

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    Octopath Traveler

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    Eight roads diverged in a wood…

    I oftentimes find my enjoyment of JRPGs being similar to my enjoyment of Metroidvanias. I love the idea of them on paper, but very few of them actually hold my attention to the very end and manage to stand out as great games. Whether or not Octopath Traveler did that for me depends on your definition of "the very end," but it does stand out as a great game with excellent combat, marred only by bland stories and stereotypical characters that fail to make much of an impact.

    The game begins with you choosing one of eight main characters. There’s Therion, a thief who encounters a hiccup chasing a score; Olberic, a once famed warrior seeking answers for a fallen kingdom; Tressa, a merchant on the hunt for grand adventure; Ophilia, a loyal daughter determined to carry out an ancient ritual; Cyrus, a respected scholar pursuing a stolen tome; Primrose, a dancer with a heart of gold on a hunt for vengeance; Alfyn, a wandering apothecary helping those in need; and H’aanit, a fierce huntress searching for her lost mentor. Choosing your initial character is more important than you might think at first, as you will be unable to swap out that character in your party for the duration of his/her story. As you begin the game, the locations of the other seven characters around the world will show up on your map, and you’ll make your way through the world meeting each of them and recruiting them to your party. With eight characters total and a maximum number of four members in your party at once, you’ll want to make sure your first character sounds like someone you’ll want to keep around for the long haul. Thankfully, they all have their merits, and you shouldn’t find yourself regretting your initial decision down the road.

    Each character’s story consists of four chapters, and each chapter has a suggested level requirement based on its difficulty and the enemies you’ll be facing. As you might’ve guessed, the level requirement increases drastically from one chapter to the next, making sticking to one character’s story from start to finish an impossible task. So of course you’ll want to complete each character’s first chapter, then each character’s second chapter, and so on. There are a few strategies on how to approach completing the game and which chapters to undertake in which order, but I won’t get into them here. It’s an open world game, and you have the freedom to choose what path you want to take and when. One of the bigger downsides to this kind of story structure is being unable to continue a storyline you’re interested in until you continue in another one that you’re not, but I never found myself being irritated by it.

    Another downside to the game’s disappointing story (stories?) is that the eight main characters are never featured in each other’s campaigns. When going through a character’s main story chapter, none of the other party members will make themselves known or contribute dialogue to the conversation, and you’ll never hear an NPC mention the other three characters in your party. On the contrary, on occasion they’ll actually comment on how you’re traveling alone, despite the fact that three of your companions just helped you mow through a dungeon of enemies. Octopath Traveler has some major ludonarrative dissonance going on, and it requires you to check your logic at the door in that regard. The only time your party members ever interact is when you’re in one of the game’s various towns, and a prompt will occasionally appear on screen telling you to press + to hear travel banter. You’ll then be taken to a separate screen with two characters (or three or four later on) in your party speaking to each other, and though it’s a nice idea, none of the conversations are particularly enlightening or serve to enhance what little camaraderie there is between the party members.

    But, setting all the negative story aspects to the side, Octopath Traveler truly excels in its gameplay mechanisms. Each character in the game has a Job (forgive me if this all sounds fairly standard, I’m hardly an expert in the genre). Olberic’s a Warrior, Cyrus is a Scholar, Ophilia is a Cleric, and so on. Each of these Jobs have their own unique skills you can unlock using JP, which you earn from completing battles. These skills can be used in combat using SP, your character’s standard magic meter. As you accrue JP and equip skills, you also unlock Support Skills, which are passive abilities that don’t require SP and can affect the entire party depending on the attributes it grants. As you progress through the game’s world, you’ll find yourself coming across certain shrines that unlock these Jobs as secondary classes that can be equipped on any of your eight characters. Therefore, for example, while Olberic is initially just a Warrior, you can equip him with the Scholar as a secondary job, and suddenly the skills, abilities, and equippable weapons of that class will become available to him, thus expanding your options in combat and giving you additional options when it comes to managing members of your party. So while you can only have four characters in your party at one time, it’s entirely possible to have all eight jobs active within that party, so that you’re not missing out on any skills or abilities that your benched characters possess.

    Independent of their Jobs, each character in the game has their own unique Path Action, which is a special ability you can use on NPCs. For example, Olberic can Challenge any NPC throughout the world to a duel. Sometimes this is necessary to remove a character from blocking a door you need to get through, or you can just use it for additional experience. Tressa, on the other hand, can Purchase items from NPCs that may otherwise not be available to you. In each chapter of your character’s stories, you can expect to put those Path Actions to use to further the plot before moving on to the chapter’s dungeon and boss. Each chapter follows that same basic formula – watch dialogue scenes, use Path Action, venture through dungeon, fight boss, chapter complete. It’s formulaic to be sure, but it’s a loop that kept me going and never felt tired in the 60+ hours it took me to complete all 32 chapters.

    The combat in Octopath Traveler is a battle system that would make the likes of Bane and Ivan Drago proud, as it revolves around discovering and exploiting your enemy’s weaknesses in order to eliminate their defenses and "break" them. It’s a turn based system, and at the top of the screen you will see the order of turns that will take place for the current and next round. Each enemy has a shield next to their name with a number on it, and slots next to that shield with symbols that tell you what their weaknesses are. At the beginning, they’ll all be question marks, and you’ll have to discover their weaknesses either by trial or by analyzing them with Cyrus (or any character equipped with the Scholar class). Once discovered, the weaknesses for that particular enemy are known to you for the rest of the game, so there’s no need to analyze every time you encounter them. Now, each time you hit an enemy with an attack that they’re weak to, the number on their shield will subtract by one. Once you manage to get that number down to zero, the enemy will break. They are then vulnerable to your attacks, allowing you to deal more damage than you were before, and their turns are also forfeited for the current and subsequent round of combat, allowing you to let loose on them while their defenses are compromised. In addition to your character’s HP (health) and SP (points for your abilities), each character also gets one BP at the end of each round of combat. BP is used to boost your attacks, making them more powerful and allowing you to use them more than once per turn. Therefore, a basic tactic in a typical enemy encounter is to accrue BP as you whittle their defenses down, and once they’re broken, use your BP to charge up your attacks and unleash all your might en route to victory.

    All of this makes Octopath Traveler what I view as a phenomenal puzzle game. Every single encounter is a test of wits to assess the order of turns, what weaknesses your enemies have and which of your characters can exploit them, and the most efficient way to break your enemies to minimize their damage to you and maximize your damage to them. I’m explaining this stuff the best that I can, but just know that it all works in such a cohesive way that combat never gets old, and it’s always engaging and extremely satisfying. It forces you to think in every encounter rather than just mashing the attack button until your enemies dissolve and you get your experience and move on. Again, I’m certainly no lifelong expert of the JRPG genre, but this is undoubtedly the best turn based system I’ve ever come across, and easily makes Octopath Traveler worth the price of admission alone. I really can’t say enough good things about it.

    It’s also worth noting that Octopath Traveler is an absolutely gorgeous video game. It’s got a retro inspired aesthetic that takes advantage of modern hardware, creating spectacular looking scenery. The characters’ 2D sprites look great against the beautiful backgrounds, and the music also fits really well. It’s a unique style that I’ve never really seen before, and I often found myself stopping to take in the views across the game’s diverse array of environments. The animations that occur when you break enemies in combat is extremely satisfying, and so is watching them get pushed back and dissolve in a cloud of black smoke when they’re killed. On the other hand, the game’s voice acting ranges from decent to okay to occasionally bad, but they can be turned off in the options menu if you just prefer to read the text in dialogue sequences.

    One can make a case that Octopath Traveler is eight games in one, and that can be both a good and bad thing. The first time you finish a character’s final chapter, you roll credits. The next time, no credits, you’re just… done with that character. And then once you finally finish the 32nd overall chapter and have completed all of the character’s stories, what happens is, well… nothing happens. There are epilogue quests to be done, but the game never points you to them. It’s just you, the map, a journal of obtuse sidequests, and a head-scratching thought of "What now?" It’s a really anticlimactic way to cap off the game’s main campaign, especially considering those epilogue quests apparently tie the characters’ stories together in a way that they should’ve been much earlier. However, I only ever dabbled in these, and once I realized that they’re the kind of post-game, super difficult quests that are typically reserved for only the most dedicated of fans, I simply accepted that I was done with the game and moved on. It’s a really odd design choice to tie crucial story elements to what appear to be optional sidequests. I can understand some games hiding their "true" endings behind full completion, but this feels worse than that. I wish I had the patience and determination to make my way through those, but considering the game’s story never really hooked me to begin with, I didn’t feel compelled to see it through to its actual final conclusion. I completed my characters’ chapters, and that was that. Anything else would have to remain a mystery.

    But despite that, Octopath Traveler is certainly one of my favorite games of 2018 thanks to its retro inspired gameplay mixed with modern sensibilities and an absolutely stellar combat system that sets a new bar for turn based JRPGs. It’s a special game despite the lack of a compelling story or characters, and I hope that it’s just the beginning of a new franchise, as it certainly lays a fantastic foundation for future titles to build upon.

    Rating:   4.0 – Great

    Product Release: Octopath Traveler (US, 07/13/18)

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