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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (346)

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Armada 4/5
RiME 2.5/5
Song of the Deep 4.5/5
Shadowrun: Hong Kong 4/5
Destiny 2 4/5
Shadowrun: Dragonfall 4/5
Shadowrun Returns 3/5
Kirby Star Allies 3.5/5
Dark Quest 2 3.5/5
Never Alone 3/5
Octopath Traveler 3/5
Guacamelee! 2 4/5
The Incredible Adventur... 4/5
Fallout 4 3/5
Tomba! 5/5
Odallus: The Dark Call 4/5
Dragon Quest Builders 4/5
Call of Juarez: Bound i... 3/5
Drakkhen 3.5/5
Unravel 3.5/5
Zero-K 2/5
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes... 4.5/5
AereA 1/5
Arcanum: of Steamworks ... 3/5
The Yawhg 3.5/5

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Octopath Traveler   Nintendo Switch 

Eight ‘Meh’ Stories, One ‘Blah’ Adventure    3/5 stars

After many years of experimentation and dalliances, Square-Enix, the corporate conglomeration made up of two of the three best RPG publishers in the history of videogames (the other being InterPlay), finally figured out that people do indeed like RPGs and that maybe, just maybe, the company should go back into its wheelhouse, clear out the cobwebs and mummified rat carcasses, and produce some new games in their signature genre if they want to remain relevant. Starting with “I Am Setsuna” from their new subdivision, Tokyo RPG Factory, and continuing with the long-awaited release of the flagship title, “Dragon Quest 11,” Square-Enix has continued the RPG drip-feed of the last few years with the Nintendo Switch exclusive “Octopath Traveler” (“Octopath”), developed in collaboration with Acquire, a developer better known for ‘Tenchu,’ ‘Way of the Samurai,’ and ‘Akiba’s Trip’ (uh oh!). Square-Enix hasn’t been on great terms with Nintendo since the two companies’ public ‘divorce’ in the late ‘90s that occurred due to both some dumb comments made by Nintendo’s then-president as well as the N64’s unsuitability for big, multi-CD spanning games with CD audio, pre-rendered backdrops, and gobs of FMV cutscenes.

Needless to say, the release of “Octopath” as a Nintendo exclusive had the legion of fanboys beside themselves with ecstasy, lavishing the game with praise and drowning out the few dissenting voices. However, I listened to the dissenting voices, as they expressed concerns about the game’s balance and pacing. Unable to decide who was telling the truth, I couldn’t bring myself to buy the game outright at the ridiculous price all Switch games maintain, so I borrowed a copy to see for myself. My ultimate experience with the game ended up as a mix of both surprise and disappointment, though thankfully not regret.

Presentation
“Octopath” has an intentionally retro look, dubbed ‘HD-2D’ by the developers, combining simplistic 16-bit style sprites for characters and enemies with polygonal environments. The textures plastered over the polygonal environments are also rather low-fi, giving the game the look of a SNES RPG that magically transformed into a 3D pop-up book or diorama. There are a number of interesting camera tricks employed in “Octopath’s” unique look, such as a heavy depth-of-field effect that makes both the foreground and background incredibly blurry, honing the players focus directly on their characters and their immediate surroundings. Ultimately, the visuals come across as quite good, very stylish, and utterly unique… but I can’t help but question the low-fi sprites and textures. Why not use high-fidelity Vanillaware-style sprites and textures? While it is true that 16-bit style sprites continue to look good and, as a technology, aged far better than early-revision polygonal graphics, cleaving so strictly to visuals from the late ‘90s instead of showing just how amazing up-to-date sprite-based games can look feels like either blatant nostalgia pandering or a cost-cutting measure (probably the former, since the last time most Nintendo fans played an RPG was when the genre looked like “Octopath” on the SNES).

Audiowise, “Octopath” is acceptable across the board, but never really exemplary. The game is partially voice-acted, with a typical cast of anime dubbers (and anime dubber sound-alikes, as I could have sworn I heard the dulcet tones of Dan Green a number of times, but never saw him in the credits). Cutscenes are voiced line-for-line with the written text in characters’ speech bubbles, but in-betweener scenes are not. Instead, these scenes are partially voiced, with characters often saying the first few words of their written lines, a one-or-two-word interjection, or (uncomfortably) something similar to their written lines, but completely different.

The soundtrack is decent, but nowhere near ‘Final Fantasy’ or ‘Dragon Quest’ at their heights. At best, there were two or three tunes that struck me as particularly pleasant, with the rest just blending innocuously into the background. I never once found myself humming along with the soundtrack, which is a bad sign.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with “Octopath.” Like several other recent games, Square-Enix has been promoting it as a ‘complete’ release, with no add-ons, DLC, or other nonsense in the works. Interestingly, this is one of the game cartridges that comes with a forced update to the Switch’s firmware. I was dubious about the update process, but it was ultimately painless and surprisingly FAST. It took less than a minute to flash the console’s firmware from the game card.

Story
“Octopath” tells the stories of 8 travelers whose initials happen to be an anagram for the word ‘OCTOPATH.’ There’s Olberic, a wayward knight from a fallen kingdom who struggles to find meaning in life after failing his liege. There’s Cyrus, a handsome, young university professor who stumbles into a conspiracy whilst trying to check-out a library book from the college’s special collection. There’s Tressa, an almost-loli tween merchant who wants to prove herself to her merchant parents by going on a grand adventure before taking over the family store. There’s Ophilia, an adopted priestess who must go on a once-in-20-years pilgrimage on behalf of her adopted sister who wishes to remain with her father, the bishop, on his death bed. There’s Primrose, a noblewoman turned exotic dancer after being sold into slavery after the fall of her house, and whose story primarily exists to show how ‘dark’ and ‘edgy’ the writers could go, with themes of rape, prostitution, female oppression, and revenge. There’s Alfyn, a folksy yokel who somehow managed to pick-up the complex chemistry skills required to become a traveling apothecary, and whose gormless altruism is challenged at every turn. There’s Therion, a thief who gets out-foxed by another thief, and roped into retrieving some stolen family jewels for a noblewoman. And finally, there’s H’Annitt, an apprentice huntress and speakener of yon olde Englishe, who sets out to find her master after he disappears whilst on a hunt for a foul monster at the behest of the church.

Each of these 8 characters, thus, has a reason (some far more compelling than others) to leave their familiar environs and set-out on a journey across the known world. In their travels, these characters all happen to visit the same cities, and thus join forces, as traveling with a group is always better than traveling alone. Unfortunately, the story structure in “Octopath” is incredibly open and non-linear, thus rendering all of the characters irrelevant to stories other than their own. If a player isn’t required to pick-up certain characters in a certain order, there’s no way to write meaningful interactions between their distinct plots, making “Octopath” feel less like one big game than like 8 small ones that kinda/sorta happen to take place in the same world at the same time. The closest any character gets to interacting with others during their own narratives are during so-called ‘travel banter’ scenes, which must be triggered manually by hitting the + button when the easily-missable prompt appears on screen. Travel banter consists of 2-4 characters standing in a void, exchanging comments that tangentially relate to whatever just happened in the current story, but never delve much below the surface.

Thus, each character has their own self-contained scenario focusing on their exploits. Each of the 8 scenarios is exactly 4 chapters long, with each scenario clocking in at less than 10 hours (even for dawdlers). Each chapter in each scenario is also ridiculously formulaic: A chapter begins with the central character entering a new town, after which point the player needs to sit through a rather long-winded cutscene that sets the premise for the chapter. Once the player is back in control, they must use the central character’s Path Action (more on that later) to figure out how to proceed, then enter a dungeon full of random encounters, which culminates in a boss battle. The player then gets to watch another long-winded cutscene as the chapter ends. Repeat ad nauseam 32 times. Of course, with the character level requirements jumping drastically between each chapter in a given character’s scenario, no player will actually play through each character’s story from beginning to end in one go (well, no sane player), but will instead play 8 different, unrelated Chapter Ones, then 8 different, unrelated Chapter Twos, and so on, breaking up the narrative flow and necessitating the summary of previous events that pops-up at the start of each chapter.

In addition to the heavily formulaic story chapters, the player can also participate in a rather large number of side quests by talking to NPCs with brown speech bubbles over their heads. These side-quests are tracked in the game’s journal, and are spread out all over the world map. They are typically unrelated to the core narratives of any characters, and can be completed or ignored largely at the player’s leisure.

Out of the 8 central stories that make-up “Octopath’s” ‘narrative,’ such as it is, I only found about half of them to be interesting, with an even more dismal half of that number to contain a likeable/relatable/interesting protagonist. Indeed, with how formulaic and uninteresting the stories are in “Octopath,” I actually found myself dozing off during cutscenes, which never happens to me, and shouldn’t happen during the presentation of a well-structured, well-paced narrative. I found that “Octopath’s” style of storytelling reminded me a LOT of the first few seasons of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” TV series. I was on the fence as to whether I was enjoying the slow burn, with gobs of disparate characters doing their own things and never really getting to a main point… but the penultimate season of the show finally drew all of the loosely-woven threads together and created an interesting tapestry as a result. I was expecting a similar thing to happen at the end of “Octopath,” with the handful of interesting and somewhat-connected story threads from certain characters’ scenarios coalescing into an epic final chapter where everything comes together and suddenly makes sense… yet that never happened. Instead, “Octopath’s” ‘grand’ finale consists of a completely optional non-sequitur boss rush that only becomes available if the player hunted down a seemingly random assortment of side-quests. And the reward for the slog of a grind to prepare for this boss rush and the hours of (save point free) time it takes to get through the finale? An item that disables random encounters. And no bonus ending. After the incredible epilogue in “Dragon Quest 11,” this coda at the end of “Octopath” is just insulting.

Gameplay
As its looks imply, “Octopath” is a retro-inspired turn-based RPG. The core gameplay revolves around guiding a group of characters around a large open world, filled with (invisible) random encounters, and cities populated with NPCs who might know important pieces of information.

Combat revolves around a fairly basic initiative system, which shows the order in which each character and enemy will act in the current turn as well as the next turn. As combatants’ turns come up in the turn order, they get to make a move. Characters controlled by the player can attack with one of their equipped weapons – and, in a novel twist, every character in “Octopath” can equip multiple weapons at the same time and choose between them – use one of their class skills (which require the expenditure of Skill Points, as per the standard for the genre), defend, or attempt to flee. The first negative comments I heard about “Octopath” involved how drawn-out and sloggy the random encounters were, with trash enemies possessing over-inflated amounts of health. I am pleased to say that this assessment was blatantly wrong, and must have come from someone who didn’t understand “Octopath’s” combat nuances (or who was using a poorly-chosen party).

In a unique take on traditional turn-based combat, in which enemies typically had hidden weaknesses to certain types of attack that could be exploited by the player to defeat them more quickly, “Octopath’s” enemies all have a number of weaknesses that the player must exploit in order to defeat them efficiently. These weaknesses include every type of weapon in the game (Swords, Spears, Daggers, Axes, Bow, Clubs), as well as six magical elements (Fire, Ice, Lightning, Wind, Dark, Light). Once an enemy’s weakness is discovered, it is always visible underneath the enemy (even in subsequent encounters with the same type of enemy). Attacking an enemy with its weakness damages its Guard, which is a stat represented by a shield located next to the enemy’s weaknesses. Once an enemy’s Guard reaches 0, that enemy’s Guard is broken, and they spend the next turn stunned and vulnerable to all damage (indeed, the best strategy is actually to break an enemy’s guard before its move during the current turn in order to make it skip two turns instead of one). Once an enemy is broken, the player can use characters’ Bravery Points, which accrue at a rate of one per turn, in order to boost their attacks against the broken enemy, dealing massive damage, and defeating it rather quickly. “Octopath” is not a game that rewards frugal use of Skill Points, but instead rewards liberal and constant use of the party’s most powerful skills, thanks in large part to the low cost and commonality of consumable SP-restoring items. Playing “Octopath” correctly, most random trash encounters are over in 2 turns.

Each character in “Octopath” has their own unique Job. These Jobs give the characters their core set of skills and cannot be changed. However, by exploring the open world, it’s possible to find Job Shrines that allow the player to add a secondary Job to each character (though each secondary Job can only be attached to one character at a time). In addition to the 8 basic Jobs possessed by the 8 protagonists, there are also 4 hidden Jobs that require the player to defeat a fairly tough optional boss to acquire them.

In order to unlock skills for characters, the player must spend Job Points (JP), which accrue alongside traditional Experience Points by winning battles. Unlike many of the worst Job systems to appear in Square-Enix games of the past, “Octopath’s” system is fairly liberal, as JP simply accrues for each character, and the player can spend it freely between any combination of Jobs, without having to earn it while actively using a specific Job. Each Job has 8 JP-purchasable skills, and in the process of unlocking these, 4 separate Passives become available. Each character can mix-and-match up to 4 Passive skills from any and all Jobs they’ve held, which is the extent of the game’s character customization, since only the skills belonging to a character’s base Job and active secondary Job are available during combat.

As mentioned in the Story section above, characters can perform what the game dubs ‘Path Actions’ in town. In essence, Path Actions are the type of NPC interactivity that players of PC RPGs have been familiar with for decades already: Things like pickpocketing or bartering, squeezing NPCs for more information than what they’ll share freely, and even things like recruiting (almost) anyone in the game as a temporary party member or beating up random NPCs to make them stop blocking a doorway or path. These types of activities are a great addition to the console RPG formula, and it’s about time someone at Square-Enix (or Acquire) got around to playing ‘Baldur’s Gate.’

Sadly, the overall playability of “Octopath” is somewhat hampered by a couple of needlessly-archaic holdovers from the past. While there are 8 playable characters in the game, only 4 can be in the player’s party at any given time. Idle characters are just that: Idle. They sit in the pub all day doing nothing, so they don’t share in the Experience or Job Point gains from the active party. Thanks to some characters being much more useful in combat than others, it’s very easy to reach the end of the game with four level 65 characters and four level 40 characters. And because customizing the less useful members of the cast into more useful roles and Jobs requires JP, that means that there will be plenty of fruitless grinding for anyone who wants their team to stand up to the boss rush coda and a handful of other optional super-bosses. This end-game grind wouldn’t be quite so deplorable if there was an efficient way to do it, but there simply isn’t, as open world random encounters top-out at level 50, and the cat-like cait monsters, which serve as “Octopath’s” Experience-laden version of Metal Slimes, are hideously unpredictable in their appearances.

Overall
When Square-Enix and Acquire strove to create a new retro RPG that hearkens back to the Golden Age of the 1990s, they seem to have forgotten the most important part: The story. “Octopath Traveler” is an eyecatching, competently made, and fairly well-balanced game… that is an absolute snooze-fest of a bore. Between the lack of likability amongst the plethora of protagonists and the disjointed-yet-highly-formulaic plotting, I never found myself wondering, “What happens next?!” as I so often did during the reign of the SNES. Instead, I found it rather difficult to pick the game back up after a break because it was just so, so uninteresting. H.A.R.D.-heads who get off on grinding-up their RPG parties to take on optional super-bosses will, of course, find something to like in “Octopath Traveler,” but those expecting an epic tale filled with twists, turns, and great character development should look somewhere – anywhere – else.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 2/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 3/5

 

 


Recent Comments
Comment On Review

dbarry_22

dbarry_22- wrote on 02/05/19 at 09:38 AM CT

 

I have to say I spent a grand total of 1-2 hours solely dedicated to grinding in the game to up my levels for the boss rush. While there are no specific enemies you can seek out that will give you tons of experience, there are two accessories you can obtain in the game that will each boost JP and XP by 50% for the whole party in any given battle. Not only that, if you unlock one of the secret classes there are passive skills you can learn that will also boost each by 50%. That means with those two things you can double your experience and JP for all battles. If you go to the right area and quickly dispose of all your encounters and you can level up characters extremely quickly. And, if you want to take some risks you could always try bewildering grace with Primrose which could randomly give you HUGE experience bonuses. I thought I'd share that because I completely disagree with your experience obtaining thoughts.

And while you love to refer to "fan boys" in your blogs and reviews constantly I hope you're aware of that you are a "fan boy" of Dragon Quest. Without the epilogue to shake things up, DQ 11's story is about as predictable and shallow as they come. When the initial credits rolled I was actually disappointed. If you want to experience the good story of DQ 11 you have to play the epilogue, honestly I consider it an essential part of the game and not "bonus" content.

But, I do generally agree with the story telling. Octopath could have been much better, not sure that's enough to downgrade it to a 3/5, but that's up to you.

Lastly, I LOVED the soundtrack in Octopath. DQ 11's soundtrack was average at best, probably the most disappointing part of that game.

 
 
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