the *other* eightfold path (no not that one)

Octopath Traveler (2018) is a Japanese Role Playing Game developed by Square Enix, wherein the player is put in the role of one of eight adventurers, each of whom begins their journey in different ways.

Live A Live (1994) is a Japanese Role Playing Game developed by Square, wherein the payer is put in the role of one of eight adventurers, each of whom begins their journey in different ways.

A few months back a follower on my Twitch channel used their channel points to request that I stream the former, and I was excited to give it a go. I had heard that it was visually gorgeous, with some nice nods towards SNES-era pixel art, and a really engaging battle system. It did cost $90AUD (!!) but I was glad to dive into it.

To put it briefly, everything I said above held true about the game; it looked beautiful, and battles had really cool mechanics. However, I left feeling pretty disappointed because of a few reasons which I hope to get into below. I got to the credits screen just going “huh. that’s it?”.

Coming away from that experience I was reminded of a game I’d seen speedrun, probably at RPG Limit Break or similar, which struck me as the same basic formula, which looked equally as beautiful and seemed to me to be a real blast. So for this post I’ll be comparing the two head to head, which I think is a pretty good way to illuminate some of the problems I found in Octopath Traveler.

The version of Live A Live I’d seen speedrun was the original Japanese Super Famicom version, and the version I played was a fan translation rom-hack by the Aeon Genesis crew. Live A Live has never been localised by Square, so this is kind of a bootleg, keep that in mind as we continue.

Also in Octopath I only got as far as what the speedrunners would call an any% run. I played until the credits rolled. At this point I kind of said “thank fuck, I finally finished this”, knowing full well that the game’s “true ending” required a 100% run. But I really didn’t have another 30-40 hours in me. I might write an addendum to this post if I ever get around to doing the true ending.

Graphics

Okay, so let’s start out with Octopath Traveler’s absolute strongest point, it is fucking gorgeous:

Orlick boss fight – Octopath Traveler

What Square Enix have done with this game is a really really tasteful blend of FFVI-era sprite art with modern 3D lighting, animations and backgrounds. The result is a delightful kind of collage-effect, which Square Enix have trademarked a term for: “HD2D”.

Over-world backgrounds really shine in this format, with simple pixel-art set-pieces, trees and fences etc, given depth and shadows. It feels like a living diorama.

Alfyn’s scenario – Octopath Traveler

In between chapters and such there are a few feature illustrations which again, are breathtaking, and I think give a similar sense of expansiveness and scale that Yoshitaka Amano illustrations have lent to the Final Fantasy series for so long. The feeling that the game is simply a retelling of an actually epic world, which is obviously constrained by its format.

Feature illustrations of Ophelia and Cyrus – Octopath Traveler

The meta-textual implications of a constrained video game telling of a story too immense to contain (lmao) are obviously troubled with a game which so purposefully recreates the constraints of 90’s RPGs. But nonetheless the sense of grandeur really comes through in these illustrations.

The visuals of Live A Live are similarly a real strong point. Live A Live is told across eight different time periods, and each of them has a really distinctive art style.

Caveman scenario – Live A Live
Near future scenario – Live A Live

To complement this the Aeon Genesis team behind the localisation romhack also implemented custom fonts for the English dialogue:

Near future scenario – Live A Live
Ninja scenario – Live A Live

There are some really impressive monster sprites too, not least of which is the final boss:

Final boss – Live A Live

I don’t think there’s heaps more to be said here, other than the fact that by 1994 Square had totally refined their visual designs for the SNES/Super Famicom, and games like Live A Live, Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger are all examples of the mastery of this platform. That, and Octopath Traveler does a great job at paying homage to this golden-era of JRPG pixel art.

Octopath Traveler: Graphics 5/5
Live A Live: Graphics 5/5

Sound

For both of these games the sound is a really strong point.

Personally, I’m not really a fan of the big orchestral pomp of the Octopath Traveler theme, but it does set expectations that this is going to be a journey of epic scale:

Octopath Traveler – Main Theme

The battle themes are really catchy too:

Octopath Traveler – Battle I

They are also good to meow along to:

meow!

My only quibble with the battle music in Octopath is the repetitiveness, which is kinda saying something from an avowed 90’s RPG fan. I can sit through 40 hours of most Final Fantasy battle themes pretty comfortably, but I did tire of these tunes (of which there are 3, excluding boss battles!) I think that might be related to some issues I had with gameplay to be honest, but all the same, after a while these tracks did end up grating on me.

I think of all the environmental music in Octopath Traveler, my favourite pick would have to be the Frostlands theme, really really classy stuff:

The Frostlands – Octopath Traveler

The voice acting though? Unbearable. I lasted precisely 103 seconds with the English voice track on, it was so unbearably cheesy:

Immediately after this scene I opened the settings and turned off the English dub

Some of the Japanese dialogue was fantastic however. I specifically loved Susanna’s Japanese voice actor in H’aanit’s chapter 3 section:

Susanna is amazing in Japanese

To be fair, perhaps the English voice acting contained similar gems, and maybe if I actually spoke Japanese I’d be cringing at the Japanese dialogue, but I simply could not abide with what I experienced of the English dub.

Over on the Live A Live side of things the music is equally amazing. Live A Live’s composer, Yoko Shimomura, had previously composed for Street Fighter II and would go on to do soundtracks on Super Mario RPG, Parasite Eve, the entire Kingdom Hearts series and Final Fantasy XV. Her work on this soundtrack is fantastic, with really bombastic bass lines, so much energy, and such great usage of the Super Famicom soundchip.

Some favourites:

Wait For Truth – Yoko Shimomura
Go! Go! Buriki Daioh! – Yoko Shimomura
Native Life – Yoko Shimomura

Both of these games sound great, and again Octopath Traveler does an amazing job of modernising the best aspects of the 90’s JRPG sound. Minus one point for the awful voice acting.

Octopath Traveler: 4/5
Live A Live: 5/5

Gameplay

Here is where things really start to diverge.

Battle

Octopath Traveler’s battle system is really interesting. The turn-based battle system has a kind of cyclical pattern, in which you whittle down your enemies’ defenses, while storing up your energy to unleash on them once they’re weakened. It’s a really fun take on a more classical battle system than the Active Time Battle systems that Square Enix are renowned for.

Live A Live’s battles are likewise turn-based, but more about positioning and range. Battles take place on a grid and moves are varied between close-range physical attacks, projectiles with specific trajectories, and area of effect attacks. Moving around on the grid seems to take time, so an enemy can attack you while you are moving, but this doesn’t cause you to lose your turn, if that makes sense.

Each battle begins with the party at full-hp, which means that aggressive play is rewarded. Over all the layout of battles was very reminiscent of Chrono Trigger, which it turns out Live A Live’s director, Takashi Tokita, would go on to direct the following year.

Classes/Jobs

Each of the eight characters in Octopath Traveler specialise in a class, and as the game progresses you unlock access to dual-classing, in a system I found very reminiscent of Final Fantasy V. Each character can learn skills from other classes, but the class has to be “equipped”, so if your Cleric maxes out Alchemy as a secondary class that’s great, but if you want to learn Hunter skills then you can’t use anything from the Alchemy class. A little bit less flexible than FFV, but still really fun.

Live A Live’s job system is a lot more akin to maybe Final Fantasy IV, where each individual has their own move-sets that are unique to them. Except moreso, there is no generic “fight” command, instead there is a fight menu! One character might have a “Low Kick” and another one has a choice of several pistol shots, while another might have area of effect healing, or access to elemental traps. This fits in well with the episodic nature of the scenarios, as each is more or less tailored to the abilities of that scenario’s protagonist, and part of making your way through each scenario is figuring out how your character fights best. Some scenarios rely more on healing items, some benefit from nerfs and buffs, some from just fast damage output, others from having access to elemental magic. You only get a chance to customise your party in the finale scenario, which is great because you’ve just spent a chapter of each character as your main, and now you get to explore all of the awesome combinations!

Progression/Difficulty

This is where I find that Octopath Traveler is seriously lacking. And it’s kind of a doomed project, I don’t know how you’d fix this, because it’s in the name!

You can choose any of eight paths that belong to the eight main characters, and unlock parts of their story in basically any order you choose. Each character has four chapters of increasing difficulty, but each chapter 2 scenario is equally as difficult as any other chapter 2. What this ends up doing is kind of tragic. The first time I entered a chapter 2 scenario it was a significant step up in difficulty, which I really enjoyed. I needed to grind for the appropriate experience and equipment and come up with a strategy that would get me through. Problem is, that once I’d done that I was already at the level I needed to be to defeat the next chapter 2. By the time I got through my fourth chapter 2 it was way too easy. And then I emerged in a chapter 3 scenario, and the gameplay became rewardingly difficult again, until it wasn’t.

The worst part of this was in chapter 4. To finish the game you need to complete four characters’ stories through to chapter 4. Well I did that, but because all chapter 4 scenarios are equally as difficult as each other, the final chapter, the conclusion to my main character’s scenario, was an absolute cakewalk. The real “final boss” was like 20 fights ago, everything since then was a breeze. The credits rolled and I was like “what? was that it?”.

I said I don’t know how to fix it, but here’s two proposals:

  1. Implement a scaling difficulty system à la Final Fantasy VIII (this would suck)
  2. Beef up your main character’s final boss, so that their final fight seems more significant

Both of these solutions are hacky as fuck, and I think the main problem is in the game’s design, the “freedom” of the non-linear plot comes at the expense of meaningful challenges.

Let’s see how Live A Live went about implementing a very similar design.

As I’ve alluded to, Live A Live begins with seven scenarios, which you can complete in any order. The difference is that these are discrete stories, with no crossover of party members, experience or items. This frees the game up considerably compared to Octopath.

Leveling up is unpredictable, in a good way, unless you’re already familiar with the game’s mechanics you’ll just pick up new techniques every couple of levels, some of which are extremely useful, some of which have more subtle strategic benefits. Some characters benefit a lot from gear, others more from stat boosts from leveling. The caveman scenario has a pretty cool crafting system, which enables you to upgrade weapons etc. The wrestling chapter has the protagonist playing a kind of blue mage role, wherein he learns new techniques after others use them on him. The ninja and cowboy scenarios both have a lot of ranged attacks, which are aided by consumable battle items. The sci-fi chapter has only one mandatory fight and no real leveling to be spoken of.

In short each scenario has it’s own quirks and gimmicks, which keeps the admittedly simple battle system fresh throughout the game.

In terms of actually making your way through the game, I did find myself absolutely stuck in a few parts, and made the heartbreaking decision to consult a walkthrough to point me towards the next plot trigger. I’m not sure if this is an artifact of the fan translation not making certain things obvious enough, or just typical 90’s JRPG brutality. I did feel like an absolute failure though.

Twice I had to consult the internet with help with bosses. In one case the boss was vulnerable to being one-shotted from behind, but otherwise invulnerable, and I just hadn’t figured that out. In the wrestling chapter I kinda blazed through the main campaign and found myself with way too few techniques to actually defeat the final boss, the internet said I was boned in that situation. Luckily from the save/load menu you can choose to reload the scenario from the beginning, which is very short in the case of this particular chapter.

Octopath Traveler: 2.5/5
Live A Live: 4/5

Story

Okay, this is the most glaring issue with Octopath Traveler: the stories (that I have played through) are just hollow and lacking in any narrative tension. Maybe I chose the weak stories to play though? Again, I have not completed this game to 100%, but I feel like a 40-hour playthrough is enough to start having some opinions.

Octopath stories I played

I’m going to go through the four stories I completed, just for thoroughness, this might give you an idea of why I’ve come away feeling the way I have. Maybe characters like Primrose have better stories, but I haven’t experienced them.

Tressa

Tressa was my main, I thought I could vibe with her, being a seasoned retail professional myself. Her journey is typified by chasing her vocation, as a merchant, but I really couldn’t latch onto why her mercantile skills were that special. She meets a famous adventurer, who tells her that sentimental value is the best value, and she goes looking for some Maguffins. On the way she meets Ali, whose sales tactics are impressively charismatic, if a tad dishonest, but Tressa ends up beating everyone at the special market at the end of her story. The goal of the market is trying to find an object that will please the disabled daughter of this super wealthy guy. Tressa offers a journey of her travels, which the disabled girl will be able to use to experience the broader world from the comfort of her corporeal confines. So sentimental value is the best, knowing what makes a customer tick is priceless, and Tressa wins. Then we fight some baddies who were introduced kinda late in the plot and Tressa wins.

I fail to see where the tension is in this story, and it’s hard to really connect with the whole merchant vocation thing as a driving factor. Didn’t get it and I couldn’t kick her out of my party!

Therion

Therion is a thief who gets caught by a formerly wealthy young lady’s servant in their mansion. The servant is also an ex-thief. Therion is affixed with a bracelet which signifies his capture to fellow thieves and is a source of shame. The bracelet will be removed by the lady if Therion can gather the four Dragon Balls. He does so, and fights baddies who would use the Dragon Balls to do evil, returns them to the lady and when she goes to remove the bracelet it turns out Therion had already broken the lock, he just wanted the excuse to help the lady or somesuch. The idea is that Therion was once betrayed by his partner-in-crime and now doesn’t trust anyone, after defeating his former-friend his journeys have taught him that trust and benevolence aren’t so bad.

No tension whatsoever, and the character development at the end is too subtle a difference. He’s supposed to be some cool-aloof criminal, who is secretly soft at heart, but they simply don’t execute it well.

H’aanit

H’aanit is a hunter with an affinity for wild animals. Her master goes to fight the terrible monster Red Eye but is turned to stone in the process, leaving H’aanit to travel and track down her master, cure him and defeat the beast. H’aanit is very uptight and formal, while her master Z’aanta is seemingly unreliable, a bit of a drinker and generally much more free-spirited. Along the way she runs into various people who’ve known Z’aanta in very different ways to H’aanit, and H’aanit learns to respect her master as having many sides which she hasn’t seen. A witch gives H’aanit medicine which can help prevent the Red Eye’s curse, but the only way to cure her master is to defeat the beast itself. H’aanit wins and everyone goes home happy.

This story is fine, no real problems, not super compelling, but fine nonetheless.

Ophelia

This I think is the most interesting story. Ophelia is a shy nun, who lives with her best friend Lianna at the church. They are both orphans and refer to each other as sisters. Their adoptive father is the priest of the church. There is an annual pilgrimage from their town to the shrines of all the other towns, wherein a chosen one takes an ember from The Original Flame, and shares it with everyone to rekindle the other flames. The priest would normally do it but he’s fallen ill. Lianna is the chosen one, but she doesn’t want to leave her father-figure in his time of need. Ophelia does something blasphemous and leaves on the pilgrimage in her sister’s stead, without the blessing of the church. People are shocked, but ultimately accept Ophelia’s drastic actions. A guy named Mattias is suspiciously helpful, and it turns out that he’s a satanist who is trying to extinguish the eternal flame and use the power of evil.

In the end Mattias uses Lianna to steal the eternal flame and corrupt it, in order to grant her any wish she wants, which is to cure her father. But it’s all wrong, and Ophelia uses her amazing pastoral skills to talk Lianna around and stop the evil from winning. Then we fight some bad guys and win.

This is the most interesting story, because there is betrayal and high stakes, and the theme of accepting death as the right, but awful decision, is pretty compelling. Not a mind-blowing story, but decent.

Live A Live stories

These are all pretty great. There’s just so much range. The cowboy story, and especially the caveman story are played for laughs, both pretty brief chapters with a few gags and gimmicks. The king-fu story has some really unexpected dark twists. The near-future story tells the tale of a giant gundam powered by the human spirit to take on an evil syndicate hell-bent on turning humans into machines. The wrestling chapter is kind of a street-fighter knock-off, which goes suddenly sombre. The ninja story details an assault on an evil clan who are imprisoning people using evil magic.

The sci-fi chapter in particular is amazing, it seems like a cute story about a robot in space, and quickly becomes a murder-mystery who-dunnit Ridley Scott paranoid nightmare. Genuinely scary!

The eighth chapter, which is unlocked after you do the first seven, is set in a Final Fantasy style setting, with knights and castles and mages and such, and it too, delivers such a gut punch of a story. Simply amazing. And a really tasty touch, that they didn’t give Square stans the FF nostalgia up front, you had to earn it.

All of these tales document the recurring evil that is Odie, or Ode, or Odeo. He pops up in every age to try to destroy humanity and humanity struggles to prevail.

I’m being vague because I don’t want to give stuff away, and that reveals something about this comparison, where the Octopath stories were to some extent predictable, and lacklustre, I genuinely don’t want to spoil the Live A Live stories. I want you to experience their unfolding. I don’t think knowing the endings ruins Octopath narratively, but there are actual stakes in Live A Live!

Plus there’s variety! Each of the segments is short and satisfying, you don’t find yourself getting bored or just Too Settled In, because the pace is nice and quick! And generous! Each of these stories gives you so much and the next chapter is going to reveal something different!

Whereas I’ve spent 40 hours finishing half of the available stories in Octopath, and I was genuinely relieved to be given permission by the credits to not continue. A longer game is not necessarily a better game. Upon release Live A Live was criticized for being too short, but I feel put next to Octopath we basically get proof of this tweet:

(full acknowledgement that working for square in the 90’s was probably not a communist utopia)

Octopath Traveler: 2/5
Live A Live: 5/5

Sundries

A few gripes here and there:

Ocopath Traveler kept forgetting my custom controller layout (swapping A & B to be more like a SNES layout).

Octopath Traveler audio would freeze whenever it was not the currently focused window, meaning if I ever went to type anything in chat the stream would go quiet. I tried fixing this with a mod but it didn’t support windowed mode which I use for streaming.

The Live A Live romhack had a couple of bugs in the menu, text overflowing boxes, unresponsive in spots until you hit a button.

These are all pretty okay bugs for a free romhack, but I resent paying $90 for a game that doesn’t remember my bindings.

Square then and now

I think these two games represent the decline of Square over the past couple of decades. Live A Live was Square’s B-team, the A-team was working on Final Fantasy VI. Takashi Tokita, Nobuyuki Inoue and Yoko Shimomura would go on to work on huge projects following this game, but Live A Live was definitely not what we’d call a AAA game at the time.

Octopath Traveler is similar in the sense that I have no idea who worked on it. It does seem to be Square Enix’s B-team. But they’ve been tasked up with delivering an 80-hour game, one that is simultaneously nostalgic and faithful to the golden age of JRPGs, while presenting a sleek and schmick enough veneer to justify the $90 pricetag.

Ultimately the humble goals of Live A Live, a decidedly short game, deliver so much more, in almost every way, than what Octopath Traveler delivers.

Live A Live (1994) is a Japanese Role Playing Game developed by Square, wherein the payer is put in the role of one of eight adventurers, each of whom begins their journey in different ways. It’s free and it’s far better than Octopath.

Overall Scores
Octopath Traveler: 13.5/20
Live A Live: 19/20

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