Opinion: Critiquing the Path to Octo by Paving Good Intentions
NOTE: This is an opinion piece by ReallyPassionateGamer. A full review of Octopath Traveler will be written and published within a couple weeks of the game’s release.
After some discussion, the previously-released articles in this series have been consolidated alongside those that were yet-to-be released. This decision was made because the intention and delivery of the article was lost or confused when being divided into segments. The resulting article is lengthy, but its purpose is to offer an alternative perspective on the nature of role-playing game development, marketing and promotion, and design when approaching and appreciating new titles, such as the soon-to-be released Octopath Traveler.
The opinions and oft-facetious quips presented in this article do not reflect those of the entire SwitchRPG staff, but seek to create a varied and respectable forum of discussion surrounding releases. In the author’s youth, it was a rare and exciting moment to have the opportunity to discuss a title with those who expressed similar interests and tastes, and in the media surrounding video games, discussion can often peter out quickly with the imminent release of the next new, hot product. The author hopes to encourage an extended dialogue of RPG design with this and subsequent articles. Enjoy!
Opting for Skepticism with Octopath Traveler
Summer may be hot, but it is a brief repose from academia for students and educators, as well as a season where most attempt to stay cool rather than become heated. Because of this, many entertainment industries attempt to capitalize on an increase of free time with summer releases. The movie industry focuses on big-budget action titles, while many broadcasters roll out new television seasons and series. Video game publishers sometimes release new games, I guess, despite summer not having many consumer-friendly holidays.
When a summer release does approach, however, you can expect a fair bit of buzz about it, and Octopath Traveler is no different. If you follow social media accounts with a penchant for Role-playing games (or visit databases for Switch RPG releases), you may have seen some hype for this new Square Enix title. Some claim it’s a classic in the making. Others have pre-ordered its collector’s edition. Some have even announced that it is going to go down as 2018’s Role-playing game of the year, which is somewhat bold, considering Croixleur Sigma could potentially drop this year and utterly decimate the competition.
While that last statement may seem ludicrous, it is no less valid a statement than the aforementioned praise regarding Octopath Traveler. While one does have a playable demo, some might argue that knowing as much as we do about Square Enix’s 2DHD job-based project is just as much a cause for alarm as the Gaming Nexus review for Croixleur Sigma stating: “The presentation is top notch, but there’s not much below the surface.” (Link: ) Square Enix has its fair share of diehard fans as well as its skeptics, and it is with great hesitation that I admit I fall into the latter category. This is primarily the reason that I cannot fathom some of the bold claims leveled towards Octopath Traveler, and this is coming from someone who has played the game’s demos. Those who have followed my library of acquisitions might know that I have played – and enjoyed – titles like The Legend of Legacy, Devil Survivor Overclocked, and Solatorobo. So, why is it that Octopath doesn’t excite me?
There are a number of reasons. However, I am not the kind of person to attack one’s tastes, nor am I someone who would let discussion devolve into name-calling over a video game. That isn’t my style, and the over the course of this eight-installment article, I will attempt to cover several reasons why I find the more extreme positive reception – or perhaps, pre-reception – of Octopath Traveler to be unfounded, and why I advocate for any game release to be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. We here at SwitchRPG love RPGs and we know that our audience does, as well, but there are a few aspects of Octopath Traveler’s media coverage, fundamental game design, and public reception that can lead to toxicity in both consumer practice and the discouraging of discourse. My intention is to encourage intelligent discussion of Octopath Traveler, nostalgia, and Role-playing game design with the following articles, so I hope you will stick around to hear more.
Craving a New Classic with Octopath Traveler
No game is perfect, except for Final Fantasy IV, VI, VII, X, Chrono Trigger, Vagrant Story, Phantasy Star IV, Xenoblade Chronicles, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Etrian Odyssey IV, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, Tokyo Mirage Sessions, and of course, Witch and Hero II.
This is the burden that every Role-playing game from a major developer or publisher must take on as they are released into the public. This is not exclusive to this medium or to the RPG genre – platformers, first person shooters, and even subsequent releases in specific series have to deal with this problem. When a developer intends to create a solid Role-playing experience, they must start with the foundations of the genre itself: world design, narrative structure, combat, and character progression, among others. But these elements can be executed in a myriad of ways that result in vastly different kinds of experiences. Some emphasize story and exploration, others the minutiae of the moment-to-moment gameplay.
The approach that I find to be the least appealing is one that I have referenced in the past: aspiring to meet the standard set by hallowed titles in the genre. This is not to be confused with making iterative improvements upon a tried-and-true formula, which is also problematic, but not the focus of today’s article. I am talking about making a spiritual successor, or evoking a classic. This is a critical aspect – and in my opinion, flaw- of Tokyo RPG Factory’s mission to create retro-flavored Role-playing games. To imply that a game is reaching to meet a standard created by a previous game is an unambitious and ambiguous objective. It opens up all sorts of murky discussions that don’t exactly hold water: what makes a game a classic, for example, and how much of said classic is the result of specific creative forces? Never mind the actual term “classic,” which is usually used to insinuate that a product stands the test of time, which doesn’t work too well in a medium that is less-than-half a century old.
This is further complicated by being a product of a specific publisher or development studio. For example, famed game designer and director Hironobu Sakaguchi is no longer a part of Square Enix, but many might argue that his influence greatly contributed to the successful elements of the more popular Final Fantasy titles. However, claiming to make a spiritual successor to one of his projects implies a sense of design and ambition that aligns with his own, and that is a bold claim for a new developer.
Of course, attempting to retrofit the best elements of a particular title onto a new release may be a safer and more concrete method of obtaining a similar feel- except that does little to account for new developments and concepts that have been introduced in the years that followed the original title’s release. Even when disregarding the numerous issues that might occur on the development side, a vocal fan who claims that a game can become a new classic before its release is completely misunderstanding the meaning of their words.
In short, it is better to simply state that a game’s aesthetics or mechanics are appealing to you, rather than attempting to use more definitive and nebulous blanket terms. Likewise, developers should aspire towards making something that is unique and caters to their own tastes, rather than setting themselves up for eventual comparison and potential failure with similar claims. Some of my more recent favorites have honored the favorable elements of past titles while introducing their own personality, all the while remaining humble. This is partially why the independent video game development scene can surprise and delight, and why risky gambits like Kickstarter can set a product up for failure.
Trusting in Nostalgia with Octopath Traveler
Building upon all of this, it is important to highlight the danger of nostalgia in Octopath Traveler’s design and marketing.
Video games often rely on nostalgia in order to generate sales – Nintendo themselves have been using the same familiar characters and gameplay mechanics since their first successes. This idea can become problematic in Role-playing games, however, because of the formulaic staples and strategies that helped establish the genre. Simply put, math is sometimes hard, so creating new damage calculation and character-statistic and growth algorithms can be a tedious and time-consuming process, especially as one of the primary aspects of a game’s design. Likewise, turn-based battles offer a reliable sense of ebb and flow, and programming hitboxes and frame data can be an arduous task. Therefore, Role-playing games are often firmly rooted in the concepts and traditions of older titles by nature, iterating and improving with only one or two elements rather than completely overhauling the formula. Risky gambits can result in titles like The Last Story, a game with a wholly unique combat system that has not seen reuse since.
Square Enix, however, tends to use nostalgia in a different way. Overarching motifs like crystals, character names, recurring deities, and character archetypes are peppered throughout their Role-playing releases. Character designs pop up and are modified to fit the aesthetics of a particular title. They have a series that is now a nostalgia-trip for those who played the original entries back at their release, which feature the nostalgic inclusion of animated and beloved characters from popular media and the company’s own releases. It’s called Monarchy of Circulatory Systems, or something like that.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Nostalgia sells, and we are all victims of the ploy. Mention Paper Mario, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, or Ys to me and you might find yourself on the wrong end of a raging torrent of nostalgia. But the more you lean on nostalgic elements, the more risk you place on neglecting certain demographics and even elements of game design. In the case of storytelling, some bemoan the departure from a series’ established norms, as is the case with the recent Star Wars fan-wars. Sometimes presenting too similar a narrative or character creates unfavorable comparisons. In the case of gameplay, we need look no further than Square Enix themselves: Final Fantasy Explorers was a neat little twist on the Monster Hunter action-RPG formula, except it placed so much emphasis on an exploitable job system, the companies’ successes in the MMO sub-genre, and an oddly superfluous Trance mechanic that it failed to execute the action-based combat and satisfying grind-heavy elements of the game it emulated.
Where does Octopath Traveler fit into this discussion, however? There are no familiar Final Fantasy characters, crystals are nowhere to be found, and Bravely Default’s brave system is too new to be considered its modified implementation to be a throwback. The strongest ties that one might find to previous titles are its job system and aesthetics, and the fact that the developers claim it is a spiritual successor to Final Fantasy VI. But outside of its admittedly neat art style, there seems to be very little that sets this game apart in a new or exciting way. The over-reliance on older, nostalgic systems may ultimately result in a familiar experience, one that breaks almost no new ground.
There is an argument to be made for comfort-food video gaming. Dragon Quest is so predictable in its combat, monster design, and character progression and dialogue, that the game sometimes seems to play itself. Pokemon is easily picked up with each new installment for the same reasons. But both games also use their unique and sometimes traditional systems as a springboard to introduce new elements, as well. With Octopath Traveler, one might strip away the 2DHD aesthetic only to find a rather basic foundation underneath.
“But what about the narrative structure?” Some might argue. It is different! It is new! It is the least nostalgic element of the game, and it has been a huge part of the marketing push!
Original Ideas in Octopath Traveler
Let’s talk about the nature of “an adventure all your own.” This is another impressive claim, giving Octopath Traveler at least six different narrative origins. Wait, no, sorry. It’s eight. Yes, being able to start the game from any of the eight party members’ perspectives is a relatively unique concept, but all signs of its implementation seem to imply that, rather than create additional layers of complexity based on player choice, the developers have decided to settle with the bare minimum, in terms of storytelling. Outside of small vignettes where party members share dialogue with one another (similar to the party chat features of Dragon Quest and Bravely Default), all scenes that are of narrative consequence take place from the perspective of a single party member, no matter how many you have recruited. In other words, this system designed to encourage player choice actually only yields one reward, that being their choice at the start of the game. In that sense, the freedom of choice allowed in Octopath Traveler is seemingly original, but its execution is flawed.
Likewise, the game’s break mechanic – nullifying defense via exploiting specific weaknesses with certain abilities – can be seen in just about any other Role-playing game. However, while most games leave the idea of weakness exploitation up to the player’s intuition and interpretation, the break system in Octopath Traveler actually adds yet another layer of complexity atop the concept. Unless an enemy’s defenses are “broken” via exploiting their particular weaknesses, all damage dealt is given a significant reduction, meaning even the traditionally exploitative tactics (such as using magic on heavy physical armor, or elemental spells on opposing element types, or even specific weapon selection) cannot truly have an effect until after the enemy is broken. In addition to this, the “break” period only lasts until the enemy’s next turn, meaning it is best to play conservatively until the enemy is broken before laying on the damage.
While much of this might sound complex, it seems this is the limit of how enemy encounters are designed. There are no moments where, upon putting up a shield, an enemy’s weaknesses alter. Likewise, while enemies have specific break weaknesses, the player is free of having similar tactics used against them. Whereas a party could be wiped out by an enemy starting a Session streak in Tokyo Mirage Sessions, the enemies in Octopath Traveler cannot break the player’s party members. For the Role-playing fan who delights in the complexity of combat, this apparent lack of depth is troubling.
Problems Emerging in Octopath Traveler
For a title with such a bold aesthetic choice, Octopath Traveler’s implementation of original ideas seems tame in comparison. Titles like Bravely Default at least made the Brave system one of risk and reward, unlike the safe Bonus Turn system on display here. The choice to start with a particular character has little effect on the overarching narrative – indeed, if there is one at all. Though each character has their own field “gimmick,” these must be used to complete a great deal of side-content. The job system, while one that is very rarely seen outside of Square Enix titles, is reminiscent of concepts found in titles like Final Fantasy V, Bravely Default, and even the more recent The Alliance Alive, which offered much more drastic alternatives in experience acquisition.
The problem that begins to emerge in the picture painted is one of identity. Does Octopath Traveler wish to be a story-light, job-based Role-playing game? If so, why is there the emphasis on storytelling, and why is the setting so straightforward, and the party interaction and relationship-building so negligible? Is it attempting to be a retro-throwback to earlier Final Fantasy titles? Why then is the narrative so splintered, and the combat system rigidly turn-based, unlike the ATB systems found in older titles? Does it want to have an emphasis on gameplay or story, when both have relatively light amounts of depth?
A statement was made claiming Octopath Traveler’s total playthrough time ranging somewhere between 40-50 hours, and while that seems like a reasonable amount of playtime (and surprisingly faithful to the length of older SNES-style RPGs), older titles were able to cram much more unique settings and gameplay mechanics into their package than this title. Much of its foundation as a retro-aesthetic, classic gameplay experience seems to be the bare-minimum representation of those ideas, as the game’s 2DHD graphics are still grounded in a high-fantasy world, and the battles do little else but add another layer of ebb and flow atop tried and true turn-based mechanics.
Still, because of the free demo experiences that Square Enix has offered and the feedback they have taken in response to the reception of the title, many feel that this game is striking a perfect balance between complexity and simplicity. While Octopath Traveler is a full-priced, 60 dollar title, it is important to acknowledge that, outside of the claim that it is a “spiritual successor” to Final Fantasy VI, there has been little indication that this title is meant to be an ambitious big-budget project. Except, of course, that it once had the surname of “project.” However, my question is this, and it strikes at the core of what I feel is a crucial problem with the title: if you are not seeking to do something ambitious with narrative, combat, or gameplay, why make a new title to begin with…?
Accepting Legacies with Octopath Traveler
It may seem as if this whole tirade has been very down on Octopath Traveler, and I do apologize if my critique seems harsh. However, as a fan of both sides of the spectrum of Role-playing games – the narrative heavy, straightforward gameplay titles, as well as the lighter-narrative, complex gameplay entries- I am a bit befuddled by the middle ground that Octopath Traveler takes. Its gameplay is simple enough not to require loads of explanation, but I cannot imagine where complexity could be hiding. Its narratives are segmented with somewhat silly voice-acting and copious amounts of melodrama, but there is a lack of any cohesion. Some might argue that the idea of a band of travelers working together to solve each individual character’s issues is an appealing concept, and I agree. However, I find the execution to be lacking, here.
Once again, Square Enix is a publisher with an incredible legacy of rich narratives and compelling gameplay, and within the realm of Role-playing games, it is hard to argue their influence. However, this legacy is a double-edged sword: it sways consumers with nostalgia and also creates substantial heights that can be difficult to reach. Many of the publisher’s most prolific titles, like Vagrant Story, Chrono Trigger, and Xenogears, broke from the familiar and embraced the weird in order to deliver vastly unique experiences. With Octopath Traveler, all of the elements that look to be unique are simply twists upon an established formula, encouraging a single player choice and then falling back on familiar concepts.
Of course, when discussing legacies, it is important to factor in one particular history- that of the author of this article. Sure, I claim to advocate for unique products, yet I’ve owned Pokemon titles from generation 4 through 7. I want unique concepts, but I am perfectly fine with playing Etrian Odyssey III, IV, and V. I want more from a turn-based battle system, but I also lament that Paper Mario’s combat system isn’t more like The Thousand Year Door. I scrutinize Square Enix, but I have played only a handful of Final Fantasy titles. Perhaps the problem here isn’t that Octopath Traveler is a middling or poorly-made title (although in any case, I would never state that Octopath Traveler is poorly-made. It is clearly a polished title that performs well.) Perhaps… the problem is me?
Each gamer brings a history of titles with them to the table, and their tastes largely determine how strongly a title appeals to them. Should you want a slower-paced, job-based Role-playing game, or one where you can fully explore each of eight party members’ individual narratives, this game could certainly be the one for you. If you enjoy a high-fantasy setting and have a nostalgic penchant for pixel-art, Octopath’s aesthetics will likely set your world on fire. But, if you love Final Fantasy VI, and are looking for an alien-setting with complex magic, lore, and battle mechanics that are character-focused rather than job-based, Octopath Traveler has little to offer. If you are looking for a successor to Final Fantasy titles like VI, VII, VIII, and X, this game may leave you bewildered.
Tempering Expectations with Octopath Traveler
So now, we come to the most important aspect of this discussion. Not about highlighting what doesn’t fit with my particular tastes, or why I believe certain design choices are unambitious. Not singling out the moments of questionable marketing and media surrounding this specific title. Not even acknowledging that Square Enix has developed and published more unique, sprawling, complex, and radical titles in the past, or that they tend to fall back on similar mechanics and motifs. Instead, I want to talk about tempering expectations.
A long, long time ago, during an era known as the seventh generation of video game consoles, Square Enix released a game for the Nintendo Wii called Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers. The game focused less on team-based dungeon crawling and instead featured many motion-based mini-games and set-pieces. Despite having an immense amount of appreciation for the original Crystal Chronicles, this title intrigued me simply because it was set in the same universe and had a unique aesthetic, and I eagerly awaited its release.
If you aren’t a history buff, you may not know that The Crystal Bearers received very middling reviews upon release. Its current 66 percent metacritic score reflects this very well. Although I was disappointed to hear this, I still went out of my way to get the game and play through it. And, well, I enjoyed it. I found parts of the music, gameplay, and world design enjoyable to play through until the very end, which certainly wasn’t perfect. However, looking back on (and returning to) The Crystal Bearers, there is something about its charm and design that still appeals to me. I would not go as far as to say it is a classic, but it is beloved by me for very specific reasons.
This is the sort of reflection I find to be healthy when discussing and analyzing a video game: admitting and acknowledging flaws while still being able to see the positive elements. No game is perfect, though many appeal to our tastes in ways that make them extremely memorable and turn us into strong advocates. However, being a strong advocate of a title before it is released is a dangerous path to tread, as it turns consumers into martyrs and sometimes damages the perception of the gaming community. Role-playing games rarely reach very high review aggregates, such is the nature of a niche genre. Those that do are either beloved enough to receive a vast amount of coverage, or marketed well to a wise enough audience to receive similar treatment. I do not expect as low a score for Octopath Traveler as that of The Crystal Bearers, but I feel this way partially because there is nothing offensive about the former, rather than it being something outstanding. I may end up eating my hat, and believe me, I would enjoy doing so. Not eating a hat, I mean. Being wrong about Octopath having nothing outstanding. But as of right now, as we fast-approach this title’s release, I ask that you all temper your expectations, rather than build this title up as the definitive Role-playing game on the system. Remember, Croixleur Sigma is still in the works.
Hearing Both Sides with Octopath Traveler
Maybe more important than tempering expectations is the act of expressing one’s opinion. I am lucky to have written about design choices and analysis of video games and other mediums for long enough that I was given the opportunity to become a staff writer at SwitchRPG, I err towards explaining my views via a combination of terminology and opinions. The legacy of Role-playing games in my library has helped me pinpoint what elements about Octopath Traveler appeal to me- largely its aesthetics- as well as those that I find troubling. As reviews and impressions begin to trickle out regarding this new Role-playing game, I hope that we can use this website and community to voice our own opinions regarding Octopath Traveler, whether they are positive or negative.
Some views may be largely subjective. For example, although I find the quality of the voice samples to be high, the over-dramatic performances mixed with what I consider to be a decent script have made the cutscenes a bit difficult to stomach. Others might find these performances to be perfectly fine. Although I believe Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has some moments of good voice acting, there are others in the game that are absolutely terrible, and none of what I have heard in Octopath can be compared to those samples. Let’s use the evidence we have seen from other titles in order to inform our opinions of this game moving forward. Perhaps we will find that this spiritual successor has a successful spirit of its own.
Either way, I appreciate the chance to voice my opinion in this series of articles, and especially those who took the time to read through this lengthy overview of Octopath Traveler. I will not be getting the game right away when it releases later this week, but I will be keeping a tempered, tentative eye on it as the months pass and opinions solidify. I only hope that you have found this article enlightening in regards to Octopath’s design and my own tastes as a reviewer and gaming enthusiast.
Now I’m going to go play Final Fantasy VI.