The Pitfalls of Abstraction: An Analysis of the Battle System of Octopath Traveler

The gaming industry can at times be heavily reliant on nostalgia. Legacy games from the 90s and 80s experience revivals at a regular rate and sometimes even genres that have fallen from popularity can return to the forefront of the public’s attention. Enter Octopath Traveller, the recent RPG hit from the developers Square Enix and Aquire. From first glance, it’s obvious that the game harkens back to 16-bit RPG classics such as FF6 with a sprite based art style and a non-spatial turn-based battle system. While the former is certainly quite the sight to behold, with it’s pop-up book approach and the way the aesthetic informs exploring the areas the players finds themselves in, it’s the latter that makes me wonder if some design choices are better left in the past. 

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What RPGs, whether played on the table-top or LED screen, share in common is that their all abstractions. They don’t capture the concrete realities of living in their chosen settings for players to interact with but instead communicate the general ideas of these actions apart from concrete reality. Perhaps that was a bit to abstract as well, so allow me to give an example. Say I was learning to play the piano in real life. Such a task would involve improving my execution of playing notes and scales (i.e. learning how to press down on the key, how hard to press it for the desired dynamics, when to move my thumb so I can play notes further down the scale, etc.) and as I continually practiced these aspects correctly my skills with instrument would improve, as noted by the audio feedback generated from my playing. Contrast this with a hypothetical, non-spatial Piano RPG. Here the player encounters scales and compositions at random, with each note assigned as one option in a menu. Execution of each note requires little skill, needing only a simple selection, and as the player continues to encounter and conquer pieces of music they will “level-up” and increase stats such as precision or dynamics which are represented by one-dimensional numerical values which endeavor to note an increase in ability.

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Thats RPG’s in a nutshell, abstractions on the actions they wish to convey. But as my detailing of the hypothetical piano RPG implied, this translation can result in a loss of depth and complexity, a problem I believe Octopath Traveler suffers from. 

How do you defeat enemies in Octopath Traveler? You obviously have to get their HP down to zero, but at the start the damage players can do to their opponents is minuscule and since they share the same turn as the players they can’t necessarily heal in response to enemy attacks as effectively as in other RPGs. Enter the break system, where by attacking enemies with their given weakness the player whittles at enemy defenses until they erode completely. Once this happens, for the rest of the turn and the next the enemy that is broken is unable to preform actions, making him a sitting duck for the player to do massive damage upon. While skills exist in the game that serve to attract enemy attention, increase party member stats temporarily, or inflict status ailments onto opponents, all of these mechanical aspects conform around the break system rather than represent alternatives to it. 

With such a dominant plan of attack and the bottlenecking of alternatives, this leads Octopath Traveler to have the following repetitive gameplay loop:

  1. Discover enemy weaknesses which will be automatically revealed in successive encounters of that particular enemy upon discovery.
  2. Exploit enemy weaknesses to break the opponents, using healing and status affecting skills to manage the party and mitigate the damage received by enemies.
  3. Once broken, tap into your bp reserves liberally to do massive damage to your opponent while also healing the party to prepare for the next turn.

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An oversimplification? Perhaps, but one I still feel is on point. As I played through the game up to 110 hours, this is the strategy that the game kept pushing me to adopt in my play. A march towards a break, accomplished by a simple attack-attack-heal loop with a few status skills thrown in. While the game occasionally complicated this loop with it’s bosses, which would often change their weaknesses or cover a certain number of them given certain conditions, it was too little and repeated itself for nearly every boss fight once it was introduced, making it lose it’s luster. This accompanied by a nonexistent range in skillful execution made the combat flat. And at risk of repeating myself, this stems from the developers choice to abstract the combat rather than represent it concretely.  

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Ironically, most of the game’s complexity and depth that I experienced was in the menus, equipping my party with weapons, armor, and classes to alter their stats. Although all the complexity offered here is that of a math problem, though one of the player choice. As typical in RPG’s the choices on offer with such manipulations is largely whether you want to maximize a characters strengths, minimize their weaknesses, or something in between. For my play through I chose the former, I will admit to enjoying the discrete choices on offer. However since stats are one dimensional, it’s not immediately clear to the player how such changes impact a characters effectiveness in combat. What’s the visible difference between a 131 and a 150 Evasion stat? Seems like my character is being hit just as often as before. Such a disconnect can make these efforts in mathematics seem rather fruitless in the end. 

Now everyone who has been following this game even casually is aware of Octopath‘s success, both critically and financially. And that’s fine. I’m not here to diminish anyone’s feelings towards a work they like. But when I talk to others about this game, or observe conversations regarding it on the internet, the praises seems to center on either particular narrative moments or the freedom it grants player in choosing the order in which to experience said stories. Quite frankly these seem to be very shallow praises that ignore how the game as a whole works and the feelings it imbues to it’s players. Regardless of the quality of the narrative-focused bits, when the majority of players time is spent engaging in the story of one-note gameplay, that represents a bit of a failure.

Moreover, it makes me question the value such abstractions bring to a game. While the 8-bit and 16-bit eras were limited in the scale of worlds, enemies, and conflicts they could convey, making the abstraction of a non-spatial, turn-based, RPG make a degree of sense, that isn’t really true now. Games and the machines that run them have proven their ability to craft concrete fictional realities at a massive scale, actualizing the potential of gaming as a half-real medium. This makes the experiences that Octopath and others like it offer appear rather antiquated, and while I won’t say such pursuits are never worthwhile as franchises like Pokemon have proven such a format can provide deep strategic gameplay, it makes me wish at the very least for developers to be considerate in decisions on whether to abstract or not abstract.

 

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