Are JRPGs Dead? AKA I Just Played The Octopath Traveler Demo


#1

~Welcome to the Opinion Zone~

Disclaimer: JRPGs aren’t actually dead, it’s a catchy headline, got ya, the Persona series and Trails games are great examples of modern JRPGs that capture the magic of the classic genre we all love.

As a Switch owner in 2017, I’m pretty much jumping on any new exclusive game for the system I’m interested in. I’m also an old-school JRPG fan, so when I saw Octopath Traveller announced on the recent Nintendo Direct and that the demo was Out Now, I downloaded it immediately. However, I was cautious because it was the Bravely Default crew, and I really disliked how that one was written in some spots and padded itself out with unnecessary content. So my guard was already up.

It’s a pretty art style, though some of the pixel textures look weirdly blown up. It’s a really smart, neat and impressive way to take on the problem of mixing the old school with the new tech.

Not all of the areas look that good, but like, nice.

The music is also great. I have gone back to it on YouTube after playing. It was definitely the thing I liked the most.

The combat was pretty bare-bones. You have the standard turn-based JRPG setup except for two wrinkles–the not so unique concept of enemy weaknesses, and the more unique concept of “boosting”, an extra meter you can use up to have more attacks, or more powerful magic. But these enemies in the demo seemed so beefed up that I basically had to use boosting all the time, so it amounts to an extra button press. After only 30 minutes, I already wanted to run away from combat scenarios and skip them. Also, there’s random encounters, and all the smart advancements of Bravely Default, being able to control the amount and reward of encounters, seem to be gone???

The worst part of the demo, and what brought me to make a thread about JRPGs, was the writing-- both the dialogue and the scenarios I could see being set up. Hell, even the temp name of the game isn’t very imaginative. (I bet it’s not a temp name; remember, this is the team that made a game named Bravely Default after the battle mechanics and nothing else)

So far I only played the character Primrose, a dancer in a tavern who is enduring a gross, awful “master” and a less-than-flattering profession to hunt down the people who murdered her father. I haven’t tried the other story line, but I heard this was actually the “good” one. It proceeds in pretty cliché fashion with lines of dialogue so poorly written and uninteresting that it seems like a waste to have them fully voice-acted.

This all makes me pine for better writing in JRPGs, and my high bars are ridiculously high (FFVI and Chrono Trigger), but I think JRPGs deserve the kind of effort that gets put into other story-heavy games. Especially with many of the recent JRPGs that are specifically angling for that old-school feel, I feel the reasons I love these games are being COMPLETELY missed. I want engaging motivations, like FFVI’s bad politician about to become something a lot more apocalyptic, or Chrono’s looming future disaster that I can prevent…somehow. I want strongly defined characters that I will remember forever, like the endlessly and somehow endearingly horny Edgar from FFVI, or the tragic, Shakespearean-speaking Frog from Chrono Trigger.

So my question and reason to make this thread is-- what makes you love JRPGs, and what do you want to see in them for your love of the genre to continue? How could companies like Square Enix successfully revitalize the genre? Am I wrong–is Octopath Traveler exactly what you want?


#2

I don’t have a switch, so I haven’t played the demo, but I did watch a let’s play of it, and the writing didn’t strike me as that bad. It’s definitely very cliche, but at the same time, I dunno it’s just a demo, the kind of examples you cite from FFVI and Chrono about what you’re looking for could easily play out in the remainder of the game.

The reappearance of non-controllable random battles is a bummer though.

edit: I will add though that

There is a layer of tactics that goes into the boosting. Enemies have a guard level which, before you knock it down, your attacks do minimal damage so there is a risk-reward system of if you expend your boost to knock their guard down quickly you have less available to punish them when it is finally down.


#3

JRPGs just never quite had a revolution past say the PS1/PS2 era, at least talking about traditional, turn-based, JRPGs. They’ve evolved slowly but to me many of them never quite feel like they’re in this generation. And I know the one thing I enjoy the most is their story/characters, so I think you have a really great point.

There’s exceptions in the surrounding space like the Souls series, the first Valkyria Chronicles, sorta Final Fantasy? Fire Emblem too.

I’m in the middle of Tales of Berseria, and the story and characters are definitely the best part. It’s been mostly enjoyable so far but at the same time it can be a slog, especially because the story could easily be told in 20 hours, but it will probably end up being a 50 plus hour game.


#4

First and foremost i want cities to explore and people to talk to. Trails games are great for that, it’s crazy how even small events can mean new conversations for every NPC around and often NPCs will have their own little story that gets told with each update to their conversation text. Otherwise i think it’s the wanderlust you know, like that tension between moving forward because something greater than yourself requires your immediate attention and wanting to stay put and enjoy city life away from monsters and dungeons, JRPGs capture that tension very well.

I’ve never been one for JRPG combat but i’ve learned to enjoy it over time.


#5

I hope that the writing in the main game is better. I did think that what was showcased in this demo was pretty rough and potentially rushed for the demo, especially having the dancer friend, the most interesting link Primrose has in the world, killed and thrown aside in service of making the villain look more like a villain when he didn’t need that at all. With 8 different paths, it feels like they’re just making things harder for themselves, promising 8 unique stories as well. It makes me wonder if these stories will be more compressed, snappy RPG tales or if each of them will risk being a little bloated by time taken to level or wander through too-large areas with random battles.

I got the guard break thing, but maybe I just didn’t see the spice in it that would hold me through a lengthy game. I would just bide my time and do single attacks on an enemy until I broke them and then go full boost–it just felt like it made battles take longer, if anything. I’m sure it gets switched up more later on? I’m going to read reviews.


#6

I have a hard time thinking of Square JRPGs that didn’t exist either to push the boundaries of scope, or capture an idea that was decidedly contemporary (Kingdom Hearts). Something made by the core team in the last 10-15 years that was simply trying to be a new project they wanted to make, rather than a showcase of how cutting-edge their craft and cultural relevance are.

From the NES to the PS1 era (PS2 to a far lesser extent) they could afford to be way ahead of everyone else in terms of the sheer size of their projects and therefore dedicate a ton of time in making sure they were stellar games, but PS3 onward the rest of the industry caught up and vastly outpaced them in terms of project sizes and high quality asset pipelines.

The genre isn’t “dead” but the kinds of JRPGs being made these days are primarily focused on being good enough to be marketable, rather than the kind of wild trailblazing Square was doing back in the day. It’s not that they’ve gotten particularly worse (though they have started to shift more towards creepy anime fanservice rather than the pleasantly elegant western fantasy of older JRPGs), but that they don’t inspire the same level of awe because they aren’t made with the same highly polished craft.

The only games I can think of from the last few years that have captured the same feeling are Mother 3 and Undertale. They’re both incredibly innovative in their methods of storytelling, and show a real sense of craft and polish in their art design and mechanics. They also show that memorable JRPGs don’t have to be boundary pushers in graphical fidelity, they just need to maintain a consistent level of craft over a project with a large scope.

Also I hate to be a downer but for as wicked cool as the visual concept behind Octopath Traveler is, and the idea of character-specific narrative abilities akin to western RPGs, the demo painted a frankly pretty awful picture of what the final game will be. Primrose’s intro scenario is some goddamn hackneyed shit and the voice performances are bland as all hell. I can’t think of a more awkward gaming experience I’ve had than see a badly written JRPG try to deftly handle the subject matter of sexual harassment and abuse.


#7

Speaking of Chrono Trigger, in particular I find myself always really surprised that more of its conventions weren’t widely adopted, even ignoring the story and characters.

The combo attack system made new character combos fun to discover while also speeding up the battles. And the on-screen enemies got rid of one of the most infuriating aspects of JRPGs, at least from the perspective of someone who didn’t really grow up with them (True story: my first JRPG experience was the demo of FF7 on the PC way back in '98 and at the time I assumed that the random battles must just be a weird demo thing)

From that perspective it’s hard not to see this game as a throwback, taking some of the best AND worst aspects of those old games.


#8

For this genre to be dead they would have to keep pushing out low quality releases and for a time they were or at least took very long for a series to be made with the end product being out dated.

However, studios like Atlus, Level 5, and Nihon Falcom look carefully at what worked in the past and improve them with modern techniques. They also said, when making a sequel, they look to move it to the next level as to not just repeat the same game to avoid repetition that many games fall to.


#9

It’s incredible to me that more games didn’t take the very fun battle system of Chrono Trigger, something I’m newly wowed by every time I replay it. Like, I Am Setsuna might be one of the only ones, which is wild.

I’m just very disappointed that we aren’t fully breaking up with random encounters, especially in the next game from the team that already did it brilliantly. The graphics and music are pretty much the only positive throwback elements I can take away, and even the graphics didn’t shine in every environment.


#10

How are you able to infer it is not the case from a demo ? Keep in mind both FF6 and CT are showing what you depicted 5 to 10 hours into the game.

Both of these games are also defined by a focus on character interaction, and the very idea of Octopath Traveler is to make an interconnected storyline in the same way that wonderful SaGa games such as SaGa Frontier or Romancing SaGa Minstrel Song managed to deliver with 8 different scenarios.


#11

I don’t know, I feel like CT and FFVI both have pretty amazing first hours, as do quite a lot of JRPGs. They may not show the full scope of what I described in that time, but a lot of games show a lot more than Octopath Traveler has and if this is what they feel like putting forward in a demo, I’m not hopeful.

I haven’t played the SaGa games and from what I’m reading, it seems like they might actually be making quite a few references to those. I see. I want good games for the Switch, so I hope I’m wrong and they do deliver more in the full game.


#12

for me JRPGs live or die on their writing. Bravely Default had some great new mechanics with the encounter thing and the titular mechanic, and i also hated it because of the bad writing (namely the thing about repeating everything a billion times, and also just how much that game fuckin hates women), but Tales of Berseria is one of my favourite games of the past few years, despite how much I disliked the battle system, because the writing was so great.


#13

In terms of last generation, I thought Lost Odyssey was excellent with its little text vignettes, despite some issues with the pacing and difficulty curve. I appreciated the somber tone. I’m sort of hoping for a PC re-release, since I don’t have my 360 anymore.

I’ve never really been able to get into the Tales series aside from Phantasia way back when. (“Too anime” I guess you could say? But I thought Valkyria Chronicles and Ni No Kuni were OK.) I finished Symphonia back in college, but now any time I try to go back and replay it, the dialogue just makes me cringe. Maybe there are better entries in the series I’ve missed out on.

More recently, I thought Cosmic Star Heroine was pretty good.


#14

I only played the demo for 15 minutes, as I decided at that point it would be a purchase so didn’t want to spoilt the rest. I thought the writing was OK, but the voice acting was hilarious, particularly the young boy. Don’t get me wrong, a stereotypical British accent can be very entertaining, but him going all Cockney was really quite bad. But maybe I will get used to it.

As for the genre in general, having been playing these games for 25 years now I guess (yikes), I find myself less involved with storylines and characters now that I was when first playing through Chrono, or FFVII etc. But then I find that with books, and films, so maybe I am just a tired old git? That being said, I found myself weirdly invested in the main characters in I Am Setsuna, a game I think most would say is the very definition of a mediocre JRPG. So maybe I just have odd tastes.


#15

As far as battle mechanics go it feels like just a slight alteration on Bravely’s setup. Spending boost to power up attacks is fun but I liked Bravely letting you have those ‘boosts’ as turns instead so you could use different functions across 4 turns. I like though that boost points accumulate without you needing to pass a turn.

Random encounters feel quick at least, like Shin Megami Tensei quick in that you just go straight for a weakness and then wipe them.

Character specific interactions are neat though and I hope they’re all as interesting as the two we got in the demo.

Not much to say about the plot, it’s a demo so there’s not much to go on. I do sorta hope that each story is mostly contained though, I’d like it running like short stories instead of just a certain point in the game all characters just join forces against the world ender/god or something.


#16

I have not yet dug into Octopath Traveler (and likely will give it a miss, since I need something slightly different than what Square-Enix is offering from my JRPGs), but I do feel that there’s some salient points worth digging out that touch on your points.

I’m not sure Square-Enix’s JRPG direction has that much to offer. Whenever I see mobile adverts for their phone Final Fantasy or Octopath, the focus is on nostalgia and going back to games like Final Fantasy VI. I really can’t see this being the future of the genre. I understand why there is an appeal to it (JRPGs are less mainstream now then before; I’m sure they’re expensive to make), but going back to the well and dredging up its depths isn’t going to capture folks’ imaginations. The same goes for the writing—if it remains riddled with clichés, people won’t engage.

Secondly, and this one might be controversial, I don’t really see the need for voice acting in a game like this. This is totally a taste thing, but text-heavy games with voice acting rarely have much impact for me as opposed to being able to construct an idea of what they sound like for myself. I feel like voice acting exacerbates poor dialogue and can drag down the quality of a good line by adding in questions around the delivery.

And, finally, to answer the question of what I need to see in them… I’m honestly not sure. I’m at the point where JRPGs increasingly feel like something bound up in a particular time/place for me, and the occasional wonder-strike (Persona 5, NieR: Automata (if that counts), potentially the Yakuza games if those count and I ever play them) distinguish themselves by originality and reaching outside the genre conventions. A long-ass role-playing game where I learn from the role I’m embedded in? That just might be the ticket.


#17

I’m with you on the voice acting. With the exception of a few games that pull it off, I think the lack of body language in 2D games works against spoken dialogue. JRPG writing can also be pretty ridiculous, with a lot of made-up words. Hearing the silliness out loud only makes it worse.

I appreciate when I’m given the option to turn the voices off, especially when characters are yelling out their special moves over and over. I absolutely adore Skies of Arcadia, but if I ever have to hear “Moons, give me strength!” one more time… :wink:


#18

Oh yeah, Octopath’s characters also say the same line of dialogue every time they are ready to move in battle, which is multiple times per minute. I almost forgot… How silly of me.


#19

I still really love SNES-era direction style, though maybe more out of nostalgia than anything else. I feel like there’s still room to innovate within these bounds (see abstract RPG Maker/pixel horror games), but I doubt any studio would be willing to experiment in tone and style within these bounds today.

A more realistic thing I’d really like to see in terms of writing is more attention to player agency & worldbuilding. More diverse player positions and ways to explore the world basically, outside of the usual hero narrative.

And it’s def 100% possible, it doesn’t even have to be at the expense of the feeling of adventure.
I always think of 80 Days as a stunning example of adventure with a great deal of attention to the interaction between the foreign cultures and the player’s social position in the world. In a different context, Jack King Spooner’s Beeswing is an autobiographical game with heart-warming exploration of a Scottish village, sweet memories, and still lots of attention for the life of each NPC.

I guess this kind of ideas won’t come out of big-name studios, but at the same time, for smaller teams, it still seems surprisingly costly in terms of time and skills to make this kind of games.


#20

I played through both stories in demo. You right, Primrose’s part is boring and offensive. I mean, yes, you can make a story about an escort (she is, let’s not dance around it) and do it right, bit I just don’t trust them to pull it off. Second one is also about revenge and just boring. “Choose from 8 stereotypes!”, oh, boy.

I’m OK with not-so-deep combat. It engages enough of my brain to not be boring, but I can see myself playing something like that with podcast or audiobook. Boost mechanic adds just a bit of a strategy to a mix: you can “juggle” enemies with it. Interestingly, characters have abilities (well, one per character) that they can use outside of a combat. I encountered at least one situation where that triggered a side quest.

Overall, I don’t think I’m gonna buy it. Too many games, too many good games.

But, yaeh, no offence to anyone who likes them, but jRPGs, and all games from Japan in general, just a minefield right now. I’m really worried about “Xenoblade Chronicles 2” (something that is more up my alley), which seems to treat main female character as a mcguffin, and scantily clad at that. If it’s that bad as I fear it is, I would rather see my Switch gathering dust.


Demo of “project OCTOPATH TRAVELER” is out. What’s your opinion on demos?