The Long, Unending Introduction
The Octopath Traveler Chronicles: Week 1
I know I'm late to the party on this game since it's been out for a couple of months already, but I finally found the time to grab a copy and play. And man... this game is really freaking long. Wow.
For those not aware, Octopath Traveler is the newest Square-Enix JRPG, a game often billed as the next Chrono Trigger (from what I've seen so far, the game is certainly good, but I don't know if it's good enough to warrant that particular boast). In the game you play as eight different characters who slowly, over time, build a up a party together as they venture out an each follow their own plot lines, finding their own ways to make the world better.
What's interesting to me right now as I slowly play my way through the early game is that there isn't (yet) some epic, world-ending plot line that the characters all have to band together to solve. No, instead each character has more personal goals, from going out to be the best merchant, or to find their missing friend, or to discover the location of a long-lost, rare book. The fact that I'm not having to worry about the end of the world actually allows me to get more invested in the characters' normal lives -- this is the game we're playing so I should care about who they are and why they're out on their quest because their quest is what really matters.
As noted, I'm not that far into the game yet. I've played for about nine hours so far and have managed to unlock five total characters, completing each of their initial quests. Assuming at least two more chapters for each of the characters, plus the three I haven't yet gotten, that's easily 60+ hours of game play.
In that light, and considering how much time I'm going to invest in the game, here is my travelogue of Octopath Traveler:
H'aanit's Journey Begins
Before we can actually get into this journey, I first have to note that I was largely going into this game blind. While I'd rad a couple of reviews around the time the game came out, I didn't actually do any research into how the game played or things I should pay attention to before I played. In my head, it was a JRPG so I probably could just figure it out. Plus, of course, games don't tend to come with printed instruction booklets anymore, and while there was probably a booklet Online I could have looked at, that was simply too much effort.
Instead I simply popped the game in, let the Switch do an update for the game (plus an update for the console, and an update for the controllers -- I think it might have been a little while since I last used Switch), and then dived right in. From the start I had a selection of characters to play as; all I had to do was browse around on the world map until I found someone I wanted to try out, and then go from there. On a whim I picked H'aanit -- the game implied she was a kind of warrior and I tend to like warrior-type classes. Also, I normally play as ladies in video games just because I like to see how the game is written from their perspective -- very often it's done poorly. Square is no exception to this with plenty of female characters in their RPG repertoire that are either woefully underwritten, or woefully underwritten with big breasts.
H'aanit, thankfully, is neither of these things, although I wouldn't say she had a very interesting storyline either. As we watch, the Master Beast Master in her town (and I've already forgotten both the town's name as well as the name of her master, oh well) had to go off on an adventure and he left H'aanit in town to protect the place. If any monsters were to attack, it was her job to fend them off. Or, as the game put it more than once, "this job would normally go to the master, but since he's not here we'll have you do it instead." Thanks, game, for making H'aanit feel so special.
Of course, a year passes and the Master doesn't return. This was such a trope-ish development in the story that I was already guessing it would happen the second the game said "one year ago" and showed us the Master. Still, after a year, a nasty monster intrudes on the town and H'aanit, of course, has to go fight it. She saves the day, the villagers rejoice, and then H'aanit decides she has to go off in search of her Master and save him from whatever may have happened. So, yes, that now leaves her town short two beast-masters, a development no one in the village remarks upon at all. Maybe it's more peaceful there than the game let on.
As much as I didn't really get into her story (and the accent the hobbled her with, an olden-style speech pattern, just makes her story even more annoying), I did find her growing on me as a playable character. She is quite strong (at least in comparison to any of the characters I've gotten since), and her beast master abilities are awesome. However, the game does a really bad job of explaining them -- H'aanit starts with a couple of monsters already in her bank, and to get more (or replace the ones she's already used up) she has to capture them. I got to do this after an hour a experimenting with the battle system and realizing, "oh, hey, she can capture monsters. Right..." A little more tutorial in the early section of her game would have really helped me get a firm hold on all H'aanit could do. Once I figure her out, though, she's become my favorite character so far.
Ophilia, Our First Companion
With the first chapter of H'aanit's story out of the way (as I nearly nodded off during the cut-scenes -- seriously, her story is boring), it was time to find a second character to add to my rag-tag party. But, again, I ran into something the game didn't explain very well at all -- you don't get to just bounce between characters on the fly, magically warping around to all their stories. When the game was explained to me in reviews I just assumed you kick started each character and then, at some point, they all join together. Instead, the style of team-building is much more organic -- your character is done with their chapter, and then they venture out into the world, fighting monsters and traveling along, until you reach the next major town with a named character to add to your ranks.
I seriously wish I'd realized that if only because H'aanit is out in the middle of nowhere in comparison to some of the characters, and it took me a fair bit of traveling (and random encounters along with), to get to my next characters. Sportingly, the game ramps up most sections of the game (and the encounters within) to match with your characters and their experience level. Sure, there are zone that ramp up the difficulty past your level, but they're clearly marked so you don't just randomly stumble in there. If you stick to the paths, and follow the plots, you'll be able to steadily grow with the game without a lot of grinding.
Not that I didn't take encounters. Oh, did I ever. The game doles them out at a steady, but not overwhelming pace, so you'll end up fighting five or six packs in a zone as you explore it. I never felt overwhelmed by the packs, but they also had plenty of challenge to them mostly from the battle system itself (which I'll talk about in more detail in a bit). Suffice to say that I enjoyed slowly figuring out the battle system, capturing monsters and gaining levels, as I wandered across the world. Since every level I gained refilled my magic and health, there was very little penalty in taking battles along the way and grinding out a few levels in the process. It was organic, not forced, which is my kind of battle experience.
Eventually I made it into the snowy mountains of the next zone, and in at the cathedral of the next town (whose name I've also forgotten), I found my next character: Ophilia, the cleric. Ophilia's story was a little more interesting than H'aanit's, but only a little. She's a cleric of the church of the world, a set of guardians that protect and restore the Flame of life (or something). Ophilia was an orphan, taken in by the deacon of the church and his daughter, and the two accept Ophilia as family. Her new sister is supposed to be the next to go on pilgrimage and restore the flame, but when the deacon falls ill, Ophilia takes it upon herself to do the quest of the flame (so her sister can be with her father). And, thus, Ophilia becomes a hero and joined my quest.
As a cleric, most of Ophilia's power comes from healing the party (which she can do, and very well no less). She also does have access to light magic, and she can whack monsters over the head with her staff, two things I regularly had her do because, as I found out, plenty of monsters are weak to a good whack across the head.
It was around this time where I really started to figure out the battle system and the main game came into focus for me. See, each monster has weapons and magic they're weak against -- so a frog may be weak to axes, staves, and fire, for instance -- and they also have a certain amount of defense (represented by shield with numbers on it). When in combat your party and the monster party will get a randomized turn order -- your primary focus should be to find what a monster is weak against (represented by icons next to the monster sprite) and attack with those weaknesses, lowering the shield number by however many hits you do. Lower it to zero and you break their defense, stunning them for over a turn. With two characters, and larger monster parties, I started learning all the ways to break through defenses and stun enemies so I could capitalize on their lull in combat. It became very satisfying and quite enjoyable.
Plus, despite being the nominal healer of the group, Ophilia is pretty strong with her attacks. Between the two ladies I had in my party, I was getting quite a good group of attacks, a well rounded party that could take on all challengers. After finishing out Ophilia's first chapter (with a boss fight against some kind of guardian golem), I was ready to take on the world!
Cyrus Adds Some Magic
The next character around the map (as I slowly traveled clockwise towards the cluster of all my new characters) was Cyrus, the scholar. Although called a scholar, Cyrus is really our black magic (just without the swanky hat and blue cloak). Cyrus starts with three magical elements -- Fire, Ice, and Lightning -- and single-target spells to use these in combat (he can eventually earn multi-hit versions, although so far I only have his up to a double-hit in Fire). This is where the game, of course, started introducing more magical defenses for the enemies since I had someone that could capitalize on them (again, a good illustration of how the game is designed to grow with your party). The battles became a little more complex, the magic use a little more prevalent (but since I got a free refill every time I leveled up, and since consumable items didn't seem all that expensive yet, I had little worry about burning through my magic).
Cyrus's story focuses on his adventures in an academy. As the tutor for the local princess (and her lady-in-waiting, too, I think), Cyrus is fairly well respected in the city... well, at least by everyone except the headmaster, which has it out for Cyrus. While working on his studies, Cyrus finds out that an important tome is missing, so he takes it open himself to find out who stole it and get the book back. In the process of this, though, some rumors come to the headmaster that Cyrus might have been engaging in inappropriate behavior with the princess (read: sex). Although the rumors were lies and slander, Cyrus is still put on sabbatical. This honestly suits him fine as there are more books he wants to find out in the world, and more mysteries to solve.
On the one hand, Cyrus's story isn't exactly interesting -- just about all the plot beats are telegraphed, and even the mystery of who stole the book isn't much of a mystery. And yet, I found myself enjoying this story a lot more than Ophilia's (and a ton more than H'aanit's), and that's mostly because of Cyrus. The scholar is a delightfully oblivious ponce, a charming, smarmy brain who has plenty of quips but still sucks with people. He's my kind of person.
Plus, let's not undersell how useful Cyrus is in combat. His magic is very helpful, especially once I figured out how to power it up in combat -- this was the next major thing that the game tried to teach me early on but I didn't really get it until I experimented with it. Early on, the game tells you that as your character survives rounds of combat, a little meter will fill -- I can't remember what the meter is actually called, but I always thought of it as my "adrenaline gauge". Every character starts with one dot of adrenaline, and they gain another dot each round. At any time you can use these dots (with a simple flick of the R button, one flick per dot) to boost your attacks.
That's super handy and I liked being able to overpower my attacks against bad guys. Having H'aanit use her Wolf Bow against a foe weak to it, and then boosting it with three dots of adrenaline was great -- it took my one attack to four, and their defenses easily fell. I cackled with glee as monster died at my feet. But then I discovered that adrenaline could be applied to magical attacks as well, and not just spells but summoned beasts and other attacks as well. Cyrus was the character that clued me into it, and once I figured this out, even bosses trembled before me (taking out a boss with a frog monster, dealing two hits of 1,000 damage each, was so satisfying). Maybe I should have read the instructions before this, but I certainly enjoyed this organic way of becoming a total, freakishly powerful bad-ass.
Tressa, the Most Delightful Character Yet
Moving towards the coast, I came upon the next character: Tressa, the merchant. Honestly, I figured this would be the first character that I'd collect, play their story, and then shove into the bank once I got someone better. But then I actually played Tressa's plot line and she completely won me over. This girl, seriously, is so adorable, a bubbly mass of cuteness and quips. Playing through her story -- her town is attacked by pirates and she ventures out to a nearby cave to defeat the villains and get back her town's stuff -- I was just enamored with her energy. Her story was nothing really to speak of, but she was so much fun to have in the party I just didn't care.
Also, she's a great party member. Venturing towards her town (don't expect a town name at this point), I kept running into enemies that had a nature magic weakness (a little icon that looked like vines). Cyrus doesn't have that element in his repertoire, so I was at a loss as to how to get it. Was this something he'd earn over time as he leveled up? Nope, the "nature" icon was wind, and Tressa had it with her "Tradewind" powers. I had a new magic caster, one that came with a different weapon type (spears) who could also use bows (like H'aanit) and could add more magic to supplement Cyrus and Ophilia. Needless to say, those pirates didn't stand a chance and it was great!
The other thing I was amused by with Tressa was her ability to haggle and find good deals (and random money just sitting around). Tressa can go up to any towns-person and see what they have in their inventory (and sometimes it was pretty good equipment). This wasn't something I'd seen characters in RPGs before and it delighted me to wander up to people and rifle through their stuff, buying as I liked.
Plus, seriously, she's just a delightful character. The first time she said, "you got more than you bargained for," at the end of combat, I knew I had a permanent member for my party. Tressa is awesome.
Olberic, The Dour Hedge Knight
The final chapter I managed to get through in my first weekend of play was for Olberic, the Knight. Olberic is... well, he's just not interesting, either in play style or story. His adventure picks up years before we get him, at a point where he was still and official knight serving a liege-lord, the king of the realm. However, Olberic's brother-in-arms (dude whose name I can't remember) betrays the king and kills him, leaving Olberic a knight without honor (he had one job, protect the king, and he failed). Years later, Olberic is a hedge knight of a small town (I'm just going to assume none of these towns have names now since I can't remember any of them) when bandits strike. Olberic goes to fight the bandits and, of course, he suddenly gets wrapped up in a quest for revenge against his one-time friend. That's just how these kinds of RPG stories go.
Part of my issue with Olberic's story was probably because it felt like a less interesting version of Tressa's chapter, a storyline I had just played right before this one. There, Tressa had to deal with pirates terrorizing a town while here Olberic has to deal with bandits terrorizing a town. The two stories even use the same kinds of sprites, making this feel like a hollow retread of the merchant's more delightful story.
But there's also just the simple fact that with H'aanit in the party, Olberic doesn't have much of an edge (if you'll forgive the pun since he's a knight who uses swords). Sure, he has a sweep attack that can hit all the enemies on the screen, but there just aren't enough enemies that are weak to swords -- if his sweep attack could also lower enemy defenses more effectively, I might have used it more. Instead, I found myself using Olberic for cleanup with defenses were down, and relying more on H'aanit, Tressa, and Cyrus to be front line of attack.
Of course, I did make one critical mistake at this juncture that almost resulted in my first death: I moved Ophilia out of the party to make room for Olberic to give him his due time in the party. This removed my healer from play, but up until now I hadn't really had to worry too much about heavy hitters wiping characters in my party. And then I went up against Olberic's bandit boss and, wow, I really wished I had Ophilia back in my party. I managed to survive it, but it got pretty hairy there (and I had to use a bunch of healing items in my stash).
Then I found another issue: there's no easy way in the menus to change out your party. When I could figure out how to do it on the fly, I assumed it was like Chrono Trigger where I had to do it at save points. No dice there, though, as the save points are just for saving. After struggling through the menus for 15 minutes, I went Online and found that I could switch party members at taverns in town. I don't think the game every told me to do this, and I really hate talking to people in towns if I don't have to so since the taverns didn't seem to do anything for me initially, I didn't bother checking them later.
So yeah... maybe I need to explore more. Hmm...
Where The Journey Takes Us Next
The next character I'll be getting is Primrose, who I think is a dancer. I have no clue what she'll do, but I could potentially have a party of all ladies, and I'm totally okay with this. I still have to finish the three characters I haven't gotten yet, and then it's a matter of figuring out which character's Chapter 2 I want to pursue after that. Sooner or later, too, there's supposed to be class changing which just might make Olberic useful (although I'm not holding my breath). We shall see where we go soon enough...