Friday, August 31, 2018

Octopath Traveler - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

I was very impressed by Octopath Traveler. No, scratch that—I still am. In spite of all of its shortcomings, there's just something about it that warms the heart and rekindles my love for turn-based JRPGs. There are a lot of reasons for this: the enticing visuals, the monumental soundtrack, the sterling localization, the humble sidequests... but most of all, standing atop Octopath's accomplishments, is the fantastic battle system. I cannot stress how gratifying it feels to win a tense and arduous battle in this game, all thanks to your team composition, wise item use, and cunning forethought. Like Persona, Octopath Traveler has the perfect blend of depth and danger—mechanics-focused RPG fans need to experience this game.

But—and this is important—Octopath Traveler is mired in shortcomings. For me, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, but there are definitely a number of things that can grate on the player over the 80 hour journey. Most obviously, Octopath is unapologetically repetitive: every dungeon follows the same formula, every main quest is structurally identical, and every town is built off of a single blueprint. There some minor tweaks here and there, but Octopath's design brush is monochromatic; best brace for bare-bones, naked tedium if you're considering jumping in.

While that's bad enough, what also hurts is that Octopath Traveler isn't a game about camaraderie so much as it's just eight individual stories tied together by brief optional conversations. You'd expect from the sweeping, emotional soundtrack that there would be a lot of character bonding, shared secrets, and commiserating over their loses. Moments like these do happen every now and then (in the optional conversations), but relegating the bonding off to the side makes it feel much less important and impactful. Most of the time, it feels as if the characters set off on their own quests and only meet back up occasionally to discuss their progress. You won't get a cutscene of one character comforting another after a devastating loss, or two of them sharing knowing glances before they rush into a treacherous dungeon. The inter-party dynamic feels very static and sadly immune from growth.

The character stories are fairly hit or miss as well, sometimes diving into some really heavy material (Primrose, Alfyn) and at other times completely skirting depth, content to say nothing remarkable (Cyrus, H'aanit). How much you'll enjoy a story can vary from chapter to chapter (Ophelia's Ch. 2 is lackluster filler while the rest of her story is fascinating), and even then, it might vary from scene to scene (and foe to foe!) Some of the stories that don't have anything noteworthy to say—like H'aanit's—can end up surpassing other more ambitious plotlines because they doesn't fumble their message or get overwrought in repetitive dialogue (Therionnnnn!) Rest assured, there's a handful of neat, exciting moments to be had, but they're in the minority; expect a lot of familiar paths to be tread here.

So far, it doesn't seem like the game is any good, does it? Thankfully, the battle system alone propels Octopath Traveler into the stratosphere of quality with its sublime BP system. You see, every turn your allies get one battle point (BP), and can store up to five each in reserve. When they go to make an attack or use a spell, you can expend up to 3 BP to super-boost your attack/spell's efficacy and longevity. On top of this, enemies have their own elemental & weapon weaknesses that can be struck a certain amount of times in order to reduce them into a defenseless state, wherein they take 50% more damage. So what happens is that, like Persona, battles have very clear pathways to success, especially when you try to time your party-wide BP bursts with buffs, debuffs, and shattering the enemy defenses. What strategy you come up with and classes you use can be the difference between an encounter that takes ten rounds to beat, and one that takes two.

The battle system reveals its strengths best when fighting the bosses in the latter half of the game. The first half has you facing off against very simple foes—you know, baddies that poison you, do party-wide attacks, summon minions—but the second half of the game (and the very final boss in particular) can do some gnarly things to stress-test your team composition. Maybe they'll randomize their weaknesses, obscure turn order, remove a party member, or spontaneously decide, "You know what? I'm going to do seven attacks in a row next round—deal with it." Since I tried to keep my party all the same level, and avoided grabbing end-game gear early, and fought all the secret job bosses with only the main eight classes, the struggle in this game was very real and very fun.

I also need to emphatically stress that Octopath's aesthetic is wonderful. It's a visually gorgeous game with plenty of moody environments, and the spritework for the bosses is downright phenomenal—half the fun was learning their mechanics, and the other half was seeing how they'd look. While the script has a tendency to repeat itself, the localization is worthy of heaps of praise, as they really go out of their way to craft some delicate and nuanced prose (it's not too often I encounter words I don't know in a video game!) And the music! The music! There's gentle woodwinds, invigorating guitars, delicate piano ballads, and some of the most jaw-droppingly-good string-focused battle music I've ever heard. The soundtrack is absolutely captivating and worth the price of admission alone.

It's not hard to get tangled up in Octopath Traveler's failures—there's plenty here to hem and haw over. There's a lot of asterisks one has to apply when they talk about how good the game is, but man, besides the stale dungeons and some ambivalent storylines, what Octopath has going for it is great. There were multiple points throughout this game where I realized I was having a better time than I've had with over half of the Final Fantasy franchise, and perhaps had there been a chance to allow the characters grow together, this would be a serious contender for my game of the year. As it is though, I'll just say it's a meaty RPG with amazing sprites, an unmatched battle system, and a soundtrack that's like an aural hug. And that final boss!—I need to end the entry here before I go on for three more paragraphs about how amazing that battle is! Octopath Traveler is a lovely game with a lot of heart... that I just wish had been better.

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