Meditations on Octopath Traveler: A Buddhist Approach to Annoyance

What is there to learn from the games we do not enjoy? Square Enix's latest throwback to the classic SNES RPGs has me searching for a lesson.

Before I began Octopath Traveler, I told myself I liked it. 

Since completing Super Mario Odyssey at the end of 2017, I had been desperately waiting for something to play on my Nintendo Switch, and I was certain that a lengthy JRPG was exactly what I needed.

I was thrilled by the prospect of playing a full-fledged Square Enix title in handheld mode. It never crossed my mind that it would disappoint, and I was initially charmed by Traveler's simple stories, updated graphics, and reworked mechanics. 

However, after 30 hours and nearly half the game complete, I wonder if the Buddha himself could have maintained harmony with Traveler for more than 15 minutes at a time.

Still, I play on, though I now do so exclusively in the intermediary moments of my life -- the time before dinner or leaving the house for an errand.

Why?

As a meditator, I spend considerable time trying to understand my emotions. Often, this is an attempt to clarify why I am feeling agitated. And like many people I suspect, I find myself agitated frequently.

Renowned meditation instructor Jack Kornfield teaches an exercise that I find helpful for understanding anger and frustration:

"Imagine that everyone in the world is enlightened but you."

Now, when I encounter someone (or something) that I find irritating, I try to ask questions, such as:

Why did that Bodhisattva on the subway push past me so violently? Why will this small Bhikkhuni living in my house not pick up her stuffed animals? And why does every moment in Octopath Traveler feel like an eternity?

The best approach? Assume that they are trying to teach you a lesson.

I first started Traveler with the aforementioned three-year-old Bhikkhuni: my daughter.

We were asked to select one of eight classes: Apothecary, Cleric, Dancer, Hunter, Merchant, Scholar, Thief, or Warrior. My daughter selected Dancer, and Primrose’s story began.

Twenty-five hours later (and 24 and 3/4 hours after the little one had lost interest), I was checking how much used copies of Traveler were fetching on eBay. The full ramifications of our selection had sunk-in: Primrose and I were bound.

You see, while I now had access to all eight classes (to be used in an interchangeable party of four), no amount of insisting would ever convince Primrose to sit on the bench, and I had discovered that her in- and out-of-combat abilities left something to be desired.

We were entwined, and her shortcomings both exacerbated and emphasized the tedium that is Traveler.

Beginning with combat, each class can equip one or two of six weapon types, and each has its own set of combat skills -- things like elemental magic, potent weapon strikes, and healing.

In battle, each foe is weak to certain weapon and element types, and a specific number of hits from those types will "break" the enemy’s defenses. A "break" will cause the enemy to lose their next turn in combat, and all hits against them will do critical damage.

It is thus advantageous to be very aggressive in combat (or be able to heal the party). A bit of strategy is invoked to keep enemy defenses broken and damage maximized on the rounds when they are down. Additionally, you are rewarded for having a party that can deliver damage of as many types as possible.

Unfortunately, poor Primrose can only equip a dagger and deal Dark elemental damage. Her skills are primarily focused on temporarily increasing the stats of other party members, and these buffs always feel worse than if they were just damage-dealing skills.

On top of that, Primrose has the ability to "Allure" the non-player-characters you encounter, which allows you to summon the NPC in battle. These NPCs have their own damage type, which effectively gives Primrose a third option for breaking an enemy’s defenses.

However, you have no control over the NPC’s actions (the specific attack they will use or who they will target), and while they can be quite powerful, they are not useful when trying to employ a specific attack strategy.

This lack of defense-breaking options means that when Primrose is in your party, an already slow combat system feels even slower. And she was always going to be in my party.

To be certain, the tactical combat system is one of Traveler’s primary appeals, but its speed is one of the main reasons sustained play is challenging.

Nearly every combat encounter in the game requires some level of planning, and, as is customary in many JRPGs, I find myself wishing I could just press a button repeatedly until my weaker opponents fall down dead.

Even a general reduction in the number of hits required to break defenses would go a long way to making Traveler feel like less of a slog.

Around the game’s mid-point, Traveler does offer a solution to expedite combat: secondary jobs become available, which allow you to give each class the weapon types and skills of another class. Primrose now had the skills of the Apothecary to compliment her’s as a Dancer, and the combat became a bit less of a grind. However, this did not address Primrose’s non-combat capabilities.

As mentioned earlier, Primrose can "Allure" NPCs and summon them in battle. The Cleric has this ability too (though her’s is called "Guide"), and I have never found either particularly reliable combat abilities.

These abilities also have implications outside of battle. From what I have seen, they are exclusively used for the completion of side quests, and the idea that anyone could muster the energy and interest to complete anything aside from Traveler's main story is incomprehensible to me.

The other classes, in contrast, have useful out-of-combat skills primarily focused around helping you obtain items. It is preferable to have all possible interaction options available so that you can be certain to collect all of these items. However, with a character locked into your party, you have to constantly change party composition. Different parties need to be assembled for interacting with NPCs, pursuing the main story, or simply battling in the wild.

The problem is that you need to visit a town’s tavern to change your party.

Please let me change my party from the menu screen. Or give character’s equipped with a secondary job the out-of-combat abilities of that class. Or, better, both.

Other tediums persist as well.

The stories Traveler tells are actually quite likable, however, the delivery is as tiresome as needing to add the Merchant to my party every time I want to see an NPC’s wares or having the Thief to open certain chests, etc. 

These are small and familiar tales. Their simplicity is the appeal, and they are often quite sweet. But they come with seemingly endless exposition.

Traveler has a Teen rating, and there is no need to so methodically unfold such straightforward dramas to that demographic.

Now, with my grievances aired, what lesson is Traveler trying to teach me? Does it illuminate my inability to let go even when I know it is best? I told myself that I was going to like this game, and I am darn well going to!

Or is it a test in patience? Maybe I should embrace Traveler, Primrose, and my palpable boredom and see the game through to the end.

Or am I to learn that sometimes perfection is not necessary? Life may go on even if I do not interact with absolutely every NPC.

I. I. I.

My. My. My.

Mine. Mine. Mine. 

Perhaps a lifetime from now, I will emerge from a year in silent contemplation and complete Traveler in a single sitting. Tranquil. At peace. With no ill-will toward my daughter for selecting Primrose.

For now, it is probably best to let go so that Traveler can finally find its place at the end of its path to Nirvana.

Contributor

A stay-at-home-dad with a passion for meditation and video games.

Published Oct. 12th 2018

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