One Game at a Time: Octopath Traveler
Approximate Time Played: 10 hours (Not including pre-release demos)
I didn't play any of the "big" 16-bit RPGs in their time. I had a PC and my friend had a SNES, later a PS1, so my experience with most of the 90s classics was through him. I would either watch him play most games or we would trade the controller back and forth. While I most fondly remember playing FF7, being as how it was the biggest game on the planet the year it came out, I spent a lot of time watching Matt play Chrono Trigger.
While Octopath is much closer to FF6 than Chrono, the sensibilities of the Square RPGs of the time are ubiquitous and their presence in Octopath is so obvious that it's easy to take them for granted. Octopath has random battles that take place on a "battle screen" like FF6 but instead of a huge overworld, there is more of a "dungeon tunnel" feel like Chrono: You move between towns into enemy-infested exploration areas, each of which is labelled with a "Danger Level" warning you as to the strength of the monsters within.
So is Octopath a marriage made in heaven between the two great Square RPGs of the 90s? Not at all and the differences are both to its benefit and detriment.
Of course, the game looks amazing. The decision to tilt the perspective of the world, from the classic top-down, slightly isometric view to a tilt-shift look with a heavy depth of field effect, gives the game a gorgeous dreamlike quality. The character sprites strike a cute balance from an almost chibi style for the heroes to the big, detailed sprites for the monsters. My favourite touch is the boss monsters, which are all twice the size of the normal monsters, even if they're just humans. The boss of Primrose's story is a big fat guy in a chair with a glass of red wine, and he looks amazing.
Which brings me to the big hook of Octopath: the octo-path. At the beginning of the game, you're given a choice of eight characters to start with. Once you pick your lead character, you are locked into having them at the head of your party, and the others become the NPCs you will recruit as you travel the world. Think of it like Mass Effect, if you could choose between Shepard, Garrus, Tali, or Liara to start with.
Unfortunately, the comparison ends there. Considering all the work that went into creating these 8 characters, most of whom are really well-written and developed, there is almost no interaction between them at all. When my main, Therion, rolls into a new town to meet one of the unchosen PCs, the same thing occurs every time: We play a brief introduction to the new character, often some running around town and talking to NPCs before being sent to a dungeon. At that point, the narrative jumps back to the present, as this new character has run into our party. What follows is simply a single line of dialogue amounting to "So, you'll help me? Great!" and the character joins the party. There is no dialogue between the characters, no need to convince Therion, the self-obsessed thief on a quest to pay off his debts, to gather snakebite venom from a giant viper in a cave. For a game with such lavish detail, such care given to its characters, each one exists in a vacuum and is slammed together in a way that is as purely mechanical as it gets.
I was expecting, with Octopath's focus on character and honouring the greats of the past, for an experience similar to the airship war room debates and family histories of FF6 or the Spielberg-like "friends on a journey" comradery of Chrono Trigger. I was at the very least expecting some incidental dialogue like Baldur's Gate or Pillars of Eternity. Instead, we get something more like Elder Scrolls: the world is just there for you to experience its content, with a certain ludo-narrative dissonance required to get through it all.
So far, having just completed each of the eight introductory stories, the game I'm most reminded of is The Old Republic, the BioWare-developed Star Wars MMO. My first ten hours with Octopath have felt very similar to playing all of the starting areas of Old Republic one after the other, with little to no story connection and the same gameplay loop for every one.
I know that it would have been a lot of work to have unique dialogue for every character to interact with every possible lead character, as well as to have interjections between whoever was travelling with you at the time but... not that much work. We've seen that many, many times, for years, in games with comparable budgets. As much as I'm enjoying my time with the game (The combat is really great, I'll touch on that more next time,) I'm having to stretch my imagination to fill in some of the gaps which, considering the era Octopath is invoking, isn't entirely unwelcome.
Update: After 14 hours
I've just completed Part 2 of Primrose's story after having previously completed Part 2 of my main man Therion's story a few days ago.
Pretty much immediately after publishing my last thoughts, the game opened up in a few surprising ways. Each Part 2 story quest has a recommended level attached to it but it was far above Therion, who will always be higher level than the rest of the party because he's locked in there. I was afraid this meant I had reached the dreaded 'grinding' phase of the JRPG, though I have issues with that term. It also proved to not be the case.
I have often heard fans of the old JRPGS lament the grind period, where you're forced to dash around the overworld looking for fights to get your level up before you can fight the next boss. Western RPGs often avoid this with sidequests or level scaling, so I have never really experienced this problem. For the JRPGs I've played the most (FF6, 7, & 15, and Chrono Trigger) I assumed I'd never gotten far enough in any of them to need to grind. Now I'm thinking that grinding is a misnomer.
I made a decision last year, around the time I decided to switch to the one game at a time model, to do as many sidequests as I could, with exceptions. I'm not big on crafting or collecting useless items, for example, but I'd do my best to see as much story content as possible. I picked some good titles to practice this with, namely Assassin's Creed: Origins and Yakuza 0, which feature side quests that seem worthy of the character and player's time and are fun to do. Breath of the Wild also has excellent sidequests that are worth completing. There's an argument to be made that BotW is all sidequests, I suppose, considering you can run right to the final boss from the moment you leave the tutorial area.
Part of this decision included not using fast travel. If I like a game enough to play it for more than a few hours, I like it enough to soak up the world, to treat it like an experience, and not just blast through it checking items off a list. I call the latter "Playing the UI" because the graphics, animations, sound, & music are all incidental, running the background to the climbing progress bars and increasing numbers. It seems a lot of people in the critical space play this way, a side-effect of deadlines and games critique as buyers guide. Octopath has a generous fast travel system, you can warp to any visited town, but I opted not to use it.
Crucially, while I arrived at Therion's Part 2 still four levels below the recommended level of 22, I was tasked with some errands in town in what has identified itself as the 'main story mission loop' of Octopath. While none of these tasks give XP, they do present lots of opportunities to gain items. Once you do enter the dungeon, while your party is underlevelled, the challenge is not insurmountable and the enemies give lots more XP than they do in the wild. By the time I reached the boss, I was still only 21, but the fight was the right amount of challenge.
Also new is the discovery of secondary jobs, allowing your characters to multiclass. This has made Alfyn, my Apothecary, much more useful as he is now also a Cleric, giving him potent all-heals for the party along with his base class' buffs/debuffs. I have also made Primrose a Scholar, giving her access to four different elemental spell types which target all enemies. She's a beast at taking out groups of weak monsters.
The stories are good, too, Primrose's is a pretty basic revenge quest but it's well written. The environments continue to stun (I was just in a snowy landscape cloaked in perpetual twilight and sparkling ice that was particularly breathtaking.) The 'dungeon tunnel' overworld I mentioned has opened up: both the areas leading to the Part 2 towns were much larger and wider than the beginning areas.