Octopath Traveler Demo Thoughts

With Octopath Traveler I think Square Enix has a potential system-seller on their hands. It’s an old-school RPG coming out for the Nintendo Switch next year, but it uses the Unreal 4 engine to make everything fancier looking. It’s the most intriguing game coming out for the Switch in my opinion, because it demonstrates the hybrid console/handheld mentality that I hoped to see more of. The Switch is in a perfect position to deliver a tidal wave of SNES/PS1/DS reminiscent games that work on either the big screen or the little one, combining 3D graphics and pixels for a blast of nostalgia that doesn’t feel dated.

I was surprised to learn that the game has quality voice acting, with major cutscenes fully voiced and normal conversations featuring text bubbles with small, slightly generic blurbs from the actors. If a character is apologizing, their text may be three sentences long but their voice will just say “Forgive me…” or something like that. It lends weight and tone to the characters without forcing you to sit through the dialogue. It can be nice to skim NPC text and move on, but that little voice work is enough.

Non-combat gameplay is straightforward: walking around and pressing one button to interact. And unfortunately the environment isn’t dynamic at all. Aside from doors and treasure chests there’s nothing to fiddle with, so you won’t be able to check things like vases, bushes, crates, bookshelves, etc. To make up for this, the NPC’s can be messed with in several important ways. Depending on which character you pick (or who joins your party later) you can do some radical stuff, like challenging them to duels and beating their asses 1-on-1, or bewitching them with your good looks and having them follow you around as a sidekick, even in combat. If you beat them in a duel, they’ll lay on the ground knocked out, allowing you to bypass whatever place they were obstructing, and sometimes its necessary to duel a person to progress the story. There’s something magical about challenging an old white haired lady to a duel and knocking her down after a completely one-sided fight. The warrior will congratulate them on their performance no matter what happens, making it somehow feel valiant.

The story is rife with cliches, but that’s not a complaint. Not only is it a demo, but both characters available are deliberately shallow at first while secretly having more personality lurking beneath. The warrior has a painful memory of a betrayal that he seeks to avenge, and the dancer is looking for the cloaked men who killed her father when she was a little girl. They have to escape their current small lives to pursue their deeper interest, and eventually their paths intersect. The characters and situations may somewhat predictable, but the writing is pretty strong. Whoever is localizing the dialogue does a good job balancing old-timey english with emotional finesse.

Combat is interesting, with a ton of potential for strategy. In the early learning phase when you don’t have a party things get repetitive, but that changes as soon as you have a friend. Unlike other turn-based systems, Octopath Traveler gives enemies a certain number of “defense” points along with a few “weaknesses” that can reduce those defenses to the point of “breaking”. Breaking an enemy means they’re stunned for a turn, but it also means they’ll take critical damage from hits until they recover. Once they recover from being stunned their defenses return to full, so you really have to make use of that opening. You can chain extra attacks on top of your regular one by using “Boost”, which increases by one per turn, per character. This means you can Break a +3 Defense by adding +2 Boost to your attack. It will shatter his defenses and stun the enemy, removing his damage from the equation when its the enemy’s turn, but if you just barely used up all your Boost to make him vulnerable you won’t have enough to make use of the opening. You want maximum damage during openings, but sometimes it’s too tempting to spend Boost on breaking somebody who’s being annoying.

Enemies often have amazingly high health, and some of your weapons may be outdated and weak, so this becomes a puzzle. If your sword has been upgraded and yet its not what your enemy is “weak” against, should you use it at all? Should you spend mana to do special attacks even when the enemy isn’t stunned or wait to use your Boost in conjunction with your Special Abilities when the guy’s defense is broken? You could suddenly be doing over a thousand damage at once, obliterating the enemy with a single massive attack, but slowly whittling down his defenses with a weak weapon will mean taking a lot of hits in the meantime. You can even Boost your guard ability, allowing you to mitigate those occasional super attacks from enemies that get telegraphed ahead of time. Simple resource management is always a fun addition, and Octopath Traveler opens up a wide array of possibility.

I enjoy the visual gimmicks provided by the Unreal 4 engine, but I think Japanese companies are having a bit too much fun with the gimmicks available. Focal depth blurring, glowing highlights around characters, dynamic exposure levels, and fog can add up to a mess quickly under the wrong circumstances, but when its calibrated correctly the world becomes moody and dynamic looking. A much better example of lazily abusing the U4 engine would be the upcoming Yoshi game for the Switch, where hideous assets are treated to basic physics and lighting systems, with a horrendous focal depth turning the background into a giant eye-straining blur. Let’s hope Square Enix figures out the right balance before the game ships.

The unfortunate glitch I experienced while playing made my character disappear from the screen, but still allowed me to move around freely — right through obstacles and pathing, all the way off the map! Random enemy encounters were still active, so I ended up getting in a fight without being able to see myself. The fight corrected the problem and I could see my team properly, but once the fight was over I was dumped in a lake that I could walk across, unable to get back to the main area or progress.

There’s plenty of buzz around this game already so I think Nintendo and Square Enix will make sure it has the funding and support it needs, and they’ll figure out a better name instead of the awkward working title they’ve got now. It would be nice if it ends up being less than full price, but with premium voice acting from a large cast of characters that’s doubtful.

My main concern so far is that there’ll be tons of overlap between the eight “paths”, forcing you to essentially replay the game eight times with slightly different starting points.

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