You think you know pressure? Try being the linchpin


Octopath Traveler (2018)

It’s a privilege sought by many but achieved by few. To be conferred such a status suggests to all lookers that you are the highest value male in your social group. That brings with it female adoration, several cries of you being a legend, and more than a few free drinks. It does of course saddle you with a large burden of expectation, too much for many men, and one bad performance could see you stripped of your title and rendered just another contender, making up the numbers. I’m talking, of course, about being the linchpin of a night out.

What could be more important? The linchpin is charged with bringing the whole night together. You’re the one that the entire group looks to for a clue, or maybe you’ll even serve as the liaison between two entirely different social groups on more ambitious nights out – the 12 Pubs of Christmas is your classic example.

But most people have had a taste of all this, since you automatically have to shoulder linchpin status if you fancy having a birthday party or a stag do. Still, at least on those occasions the pressure’s off you. Unless of course the rest of the people on your stag strip you naked and crucify you on a traffic pole, then take and share photos of you – that does tend to bring about a social pressure or two.

A big worry when you’re linching a night out is the venue you choose. You’ve gotten all the people together, and if you don’t live in a Cameron Frye museum type of house then you may even have everyone over at yours. The lads all look top notch in their Primark shirts, and the girls if a) you’re lucky enough to know any and b) have them turn up, they’ll look more incredible than anything you’ve ever seen in your life. Eventually though, as the pre-drinking wears on, it’s all eyes on you and time to clamber into more than one eight-seater taxi. But where to?

Now I cannot stress the importance of the venue enough, because that dictates how everything will turn out and I do mean everything. Da Vinci’s Last Supper would’ve been worth nowt had Jaywick been visible through the background window, and you wouldn’t get much of a Sistine Chapel effect on the ceiling of Scotland’s roughest pub, the Brazen Head nestled in the Gorbals. The venue says a lot about your character, although if you’re stuck then it’s probably wise to kowtow to the majority female decision here.

So many things that can all go wrong, but even if you get the venue, the crew and the times all correct, and even if you’ve regulated your own drinking to hit that perfect sweet-spot between confidence and drunkenness, otherwise known as ‘optimal social lubrication’, things can still go sour on you. As any leader knows through bitter experience, it won’t be your fault if craic doesn’t materialise. Never your fault. It’s the fault of your crew. 

After all, that’s the worst fate that can befall you in the linchpin scenario – groups of different backgrounds who don’t mesh, they don’t communicate, they may outright not even talk to each other. Speaking as a well experienced linchpin, pubmaster and raconteur myself, this means I get some pretty bad déja vu from Octopath Traveler.

I must say that the graphics in this look the biz. Not every game needs to push the envelope of realistic looks, and certainly not when the game is question is a Switch exclusive. The 2D HD sprites immediately put you in the mind of the SNES Final Fantasy games, and it’s small wonder that it had people immediately clamouring for Final Fantasy 4/5/6 and even Chrono Trigger remakes in the Octopath style, rather than the guff sprites that disgraced their mobile versions.

There’s a stylised blur around everything as well, which is a bit much for me but you can tone it down in the options menu. You’ll definitely want to do this so that you can properly take in the graphics. I must say, the deserts, snowfields and seaside areas that you’ll be running around in are pretty juicy, the kind of artwork that never ages. And when it comes to enemy encounters, you’ll also be smashing up some of the nicest sprites in recent memory.

Unfortunately this is also where things get a bit tedious. I daresay we’re a bit beyond the days of random encounters haranguing you as you cut about the world, especially when these battles can take their sweet time to get through. Every monster in the game has a number of weaknesses that you’ll need to exploit, be they Axe or Sword or Tequila (sorry, I’ve still got my linchpin cap on). Tickle at their weaknesses long enough and the monsters will break down and refuse to communicate, making them easy prey to dance all over (the cap’s not coming off).

Whatever about blasting through the enemy weaknesses, the battles can still get monotonous and a little slow, even if customisation options come up later in the game. It’s the bosses that you really gotta watch out for, they can get pretty nasty. I do love when an RPG can challenge you to put some strategy together though, rather than just accept you blindly mashing the button in the hope that your numbers are bigger than the enemy’s. I’ll give Octopath p(o)ints for that.

That’s the flow of the game, almost in its entirety. It’s a long old slog, an 80-hour stint of hitting up a new town, watching a few scenes, looking at equipment you probably can’t afford but will definitely need. Then you go and rumble with the boss, assuming they don’t rumble you out of the arena first. That’s Chapter 1 for your first character. You’ll do the exact same thing for the remaining seven characters, and then repeat that entire flow three more times for Chapters 2, 3 and 4. Then you’ve won, but the storyline still isn’t the grand epic you might have hoped for.

The mini-stories that the Chapters are built around are mildly interesting, but it’s all too disconnected beyond some occasional “party banter”, which is really just a few pleasant conversations between two of your party members. There’s only a few dozen of these, whereas the Tales games have a cohesive group and skits out the wazoo.

I suppose there is the advantage that, unlike Tales or Xenoblade or even Fire Emblem, Octopath isn’t very anime and the voice acting is actually quite good. That’s a definite advantage, because it’s not really in a linchpin’s remit to start lecturing the rest of the group about anime now is it?

The premise of Octopath Traveler is good, the graphics are terrific, there’s a lot to like about the soundtrack even with some repetition, and I’d certainly recommend you at least try the generous demo from the Nintendo eShop. Like constant nights out as acting linchpin though, it all becomes a bit by the numbers.

13 March 2020

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