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‘Octopath Traveler’ Review: Two Steps Back, Eight Steps Forward

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In the time since Final Fantasy’s release, the JRPG formula has seen countless iterations. Developers big and small have tackled the genre, expanding and experimenting on the simple turn-based formula of heroes fighting evil. Gimmicks were added, systems redefined, and stories woven into grand tales of intrigue, subterfuge, and wonder. Over thirty years later, Octopath Traveler brings it back to basics and focuses on the essence of the JRPG.

octopath traveler

Eight Paths, One Journey

True to its name, Octopath Traveler follows a cast of eight characters living across the expanse of the nation of Orsterra. Players traverse the icy valleys of Flamesgrace, the burning sands of Sunshade, and the serene beaches of Rippletide.

Each character sets off on a journey, a call to action rousing them to their feet. Whether it’s a thirst for revenge or desire for adventure, each of the eight heroes models after refreshingly simple archetypes.

While there exists a loose overarching thread, the game opts for a free-form approach with the narrative. Each member of the party has a unique storyline split up into four episodic chapters. In trading depth for breadth, Octopath tries for experimental storytelling that doesn’t always hit the mark.

One of the most glaring issues is how these stories largely exist within their own lanes. For the most part, there’s no interaction whatsoever between storylines. This calls for more than a little suspension of disbelief when you shepherd around eight people who travel together for no discernible reason.

“The basics of getting from Point A to Point B are there; you fill in the blanks.”

Yet for all its faults, Octopath does a wonderful job of building its world and characters in small, but meaningful ways. While overarching interactions are nonexistent, characters do speak to each other in small dialogue skits called “Travel Banters”. During the main questlines, party members weigh in their thoughts on current events.

This creates a loose notion of camaraderie that can be taken one of two ways: lazy or inspiring. As a lazy tactic, it certainly feels like a cheap way to tie everything together. It does little to change the fact that these characters have no explicit reason to be a team.

However, this approach allows individual players to come away with something different and personal. Imagination takes over as it pieces together seemingly disparate story elements. The basics of getting from Point A to Point B are there; you fill in the blanks.

octopath traveler

Fairy-tale Flavor

Despite some of the flaws in storytelling, Octopath Traveler’s narrative execution remains otherwise fantastic. Unlike many of its relatives in the JRPG genre, Octopath eschews the standard “save the world” epic.

Yet the game never forgets that it inhabits a world of swords and sorcery. Like many other tales of fantasy, it transports you into an exotic world through interesting hooks and relatable characters.

“What lies beyond the horizon?”

One appealing aspect of Octopath’s narrative is its focus on smaller, personal stories. No evil wizard-king is plotting the apocalypse, nor is there some foul demon corrupting the land. Octopath Traveler’s protagonists seek out simple things like duty, justice, and adventure.

Even though the main cast never truly ties their adventures together, Octopath employs a wide variety of tools in order to suspend disbelief. 2D spritework in 3D environments, NPC backstories, and free-form progression allow players to make of the game what they will.

By leaning on these simple, yet effective tools, Octopath lets “suggestion” do most of the heavy lifting. This gives the player enough contextual clues and information for them to infer meaning on a given situation. Where it existed in older games due to technological limitations, that approach comes back in Octopath as a deliberate stylistic choice.

Framing this nostalgically wonderful style is a vibrant orchestral score. Octopath Traveler has an incredibly varied soundtrack that shifts to reflect characters and mood in memorably subtly ways.

The 16-bit spirit is alive and well in Octopath. Though the game experiments with JRPG conventions, it never forgets its roots.

octopath traveler

The Tools for Success

How do you execute the JRPG formula? The basic premise amounts to your team fighting lock step with small groups of enemies, dancing turns back and forth. You see some places, dive some dungeons, and grab loot to see a list of numbers go up. Rinse. Repeat.

In seeking to capture the essence of 16-bit era games, Octopath has carried over some of the less desirable qualities as well. RNG once again rears its ugly head with random encounters and spotty enemy AI. Though they’re not game-breakers by any means, they create mild annoyances that non-JRPG fans may have a rough time dealing with.

Alongside these quality-of-life gripes is Octopath’s utterly formulaic gameplay loop. You repeat the same cycle of cutscenes, town exploration, dungeons, and the big boss at the end. Yet thanks to a few smart choices in design it rarely gets old.

Where many JRPGs typically experience some degree of fatigue in pacing, Octopath’s freeform structure mitigates much of that. The chapters are there to start up in whatever order you’d like. This leaves you free to do things like side-quests, optional dungeons, and farming at your own pace. You never feel like you’re diverting away from the “main game”.

Tactical Traveling

Here we get to the meat of Octopath Traveler: its combat. The battles offer a tactile satisfaction in so many different ways that it’s an absolute joy whenever the battle music kicks up. It lays out in the typical menu-enemy navigation format but adds a few different systems to give players more control over combat.

At first glance, Octopath’s battle screen looks like any other JRPG: your team on one side, the enemy on the other. Your party and the enemy alternate turns, tossing blows back and forth until one side reaches 0 HP. The key difference, however, lies in three distinct mechanics: BP, Breaks, and Weaknesses.

Weaknesses are a mini-game in and of themselves. Every enemy has a given amount of weapon and spell types they’re vulnerable (e.g. swords, axes, and fire). These weaknesses are initially hidden to the player, revealed only when they strike with the correct attack type.

This directly ties into the shield mechanic, which gives enemies reduced damage from all attacks. Every time an attack hits an opponent’s weakness, it ticks down the enemy’s shield counter. Should shields be reduced to “0”, the enemy “Breaks” and players have a full round to pound the snot out of them.

In the vein of Bravely Default’s titular system, players spend BP points to power up their abilities. It applies to both basic attacks and special abilities, which gives an incredibly broad set of options to plan around. It’s a simple yet effective system that applies to a wide variety of situations.

Different jobs further open possible strategies. Each character can take on a different subjob, meaning that they learn the skills and abilities of a second job. This makes for some interesting combinations, like Warrior Clerics, Merchant Scholars, or Dancer Thieves. Between BP, Breaks, and jobs, Octopath‘s combat is both deeply strategic and accessible.

octopath traveler

Carve Out Your Own Path

Octopath straddles this weird middle line of both restricting the players and giving them an immense amount of freedom. It breaks many of the classic JRPG conventions by allowing you to progress as you see fit. Yet, there are more than a few key spots where it relies on rather lazy mechanics to give players the illusion of choice.

Path Actions are perhaps the biggest offender of this design philosophy. Each character has a unique Path Action that ostensibly ties to their character. Flavor and mechanics-wise they fit decently well. However, their execution in the main story is contrived at best.

Outside of these instances, they’re rather fun tools to engage with Octopath’s world. Path Actions can be used on most interactable NPCs. You can gain followers, challenge them to duels, inquire about their history, or steal their possessions. It’s all fair game.

Despite being a linear game, Octopath lets players determine how they journey forward. The tricky thing here comes from the understandably contentious implications that arise from this. On the one hand, you have eight stories that do little to tie each other together. On the other, this freedom has created one of the most free-form JRPGs I’ve played in recent history.

Octopath Traveler proves that you can innovate a decades’ old formula. It doesn’t always get it right, but when it does it provides some of the most fun you’ll have with a JRPG. Take from it what you will.

octopath traveler

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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Game Reviews

‘Remothered: Tormented Fathers’ Review: I Want My Remummy

There’s merit to be had if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, indie horror game, but with so many flaws, I can’t recommend Remothered.

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Remothered: Tormented Fathers Review

It feels like a while since the ‘survival horror but you can’t fight back’ genre was at its peak, especially with the recent, tradition-tinged revival of the Resident Evil series, but back in 2017 when Remothered: Tormented Fathers was being developed for PC it was all the rage. Like any indie game that’s had even the slightest amount of interest or acclaim during the current generation, Remothered has received the now-obligatory Switch port. Although its modest technical requirements clearly made a successful transition to the platform more than manageable, they don’t help to hide the game’s very obvious shortcomings.

Players take control of Rosemary Reed in her attempts to investigate retired notary Dr. Richard Felton, who is currently undergoing treatment for a mysterious disease. Oh, and he has a missing daughter that he probably murdered. The plot of the game feels a little cliché, but it’s undoubtedly its strongest facet. However, suspending your disbelief at the ropy animations and dodgy voice-acting is needed to avoid being sucked into feeling like you’re watching Theresa May running around a big mansion trying to escape from a John Cleese impersonator with his arse hanging out. Alas, I clearly failed in this endeavor.

Remothered is essentially a game of ‘go there, fetch that, bring it here, use it’ with an added element of ‘don’t let the annoying old man kill you in the face with a sickle’. Yeah, one of those ones. The story takes place almost entirely within Felton’s huge mansion, and navigating the ol’ girl is by far the game’s toughest element. It’s made especially harder while you’re constantly on edge, trying to avoid the stalking lunatic without a map, weapons, or a proper objectives system. Be prepared for your bearings to be quite considerably lost.

There are a couple of ways to avoid that face full of sickle. There’s a dodge button (provided Rosemary isn’t too tired to actually dodge), a run button, distraction items, and defense items that will automatically be used to escape a grab attack if you have one equipped at the time. Remember those crappy bits in Resident Evil 4 where you had to play as Ashley? This is like that… for a whole game.

While a little tired in 2019, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the formula of the weapon-less survival horror game – it’s just that in Remothered, it’s not implemented all that well. Enemy AI routing is weird, which should be grounds for an unpredictable fright-fest, but leans more toward the annoying and/or hilarious. It seemed like the stalkers would either sit directly outside the room I needed to enter – barely moving and refusing to be distracted for longer than a few seconds before returning immediately to their original spot right on my current objective – or simply bugger off to another floor and never come back.

Even with his penchant to completely vacate the area, and despite his advancing years, Dr. Felton possesses supersonic hearing. It seemingly doesn’t matter how far away you are – if you run in this game, he will hear you. To make matters worse, the sound design just doesn’t make sense. With every press of the run button, enemy dialogue would instantly change to indicate they’d heard you and then loud footsteps would permeate every room you enter as if they were right behind you, when they most certainly are not.

It’s either a cheap scare tactic to give the impression of enemies constantly being within touching distance, or the fallout from a combination of naff sound design and the limitations of my Switch’s Pro Controller not having a headphone port. What makes it worse is that everything is so campy that it’s seldom scary in any tangible way. When the man trying to murder you is constantly shouting about how he hasn’t got anything to eat that isn’t moldy while you hide in his cupboard, it’s not exactly bone-chilling.

As a result of the big-eared murderers and their impeccable radar tuned to the sounds of running, I spent almost the entirety of the game… well, not running. Unfortunately, Rosemary walks slower than an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, and this made exploring the mansion a monotonous chore – especially when getting caught and subsequently having to run up and down floors to hide before slowly sneaking back to restart the investigation.

Puzzles are that old school type of obtuse where you’re tasked with finding everyday items to fix problems. The puzzle itself lies in realizing the item the developer decided should work, finding it in the giant four-floor mansion, and slowly returning to the its intended area of use without dying. For example, in order to get into an attic, you have to search rooms at random to find an umbrella to pull down the door’s previously-out-of-reach cord. It’s such a shame that Remothered eschews any type of self-contained puzzle for a string of confusing fetch quests, as everything feels more tedious than taxing.

It feels a little unfair to bemoan the lack of polish for a two-year-old indie game, but Remothered is full of niggling issues. Animations are janky, lip-syncing is non-existent, and the camera wigs out after the QTEs to fight off enemies have finished – always pointing you in the wrong direction. I also encountered a couple of game-breaking bugs where Rosemary did her door-opening animation without the door actually opening, and I couldn’t enter the room without rebooting the game. Lastly, and I don’t want to be too harsh to an Italian developer, but the in-game English is pretty abysmal, and lots of the game’s expositional notes and articles border on illegible through their poor translations.

There are some people out there who can’t get enough of the whole hiding under sofas schtick, but I like my survival horror games with better psychological tension, a (limited) means to fight back, and coherent puzzle-solving. There’s merit to be had in the game’s labyrinthine setting and short length if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, campy indie horror game in the Haunting Grounds model, but with so many flaws and such a frustrating gameplay loop, I can’t recommend Remothered: Tormented Fathers outside of anything other than morbid curiosity.

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