Octopath Traveler: Is It Worth Buying?

Why does Primrose give me the finger every time she levels up?

Sometimes good things really do come to those who wait.

In my last post on Octopath Traveler, I stumbled into a number of issues that made me question the game’s long-term viability. Would the repetitive nature of the chapters become tiresome over time? Would the linear feel of the environments frustrate players looking to explore? Would the slow drip of experience and job points make grinding even more aggravating than usual? And would the “unique” characters end up all feeling the same in the end?

When the official reviews came out, however, one major theme emerged: Yes, thing do get better over time. Thankfully, after sinking about fifteen hours into the game myself, I can confirm that this is in fact the case.

First though, let’s talk about the game’s atmosphere. I’ve heard a fair amount of complaining about OT‘s pixelated art style, and frankly, I think the complaints are a crock. The style was chosen specifically to honor the great role-playing games of the 8- and 16-bit eras (and to avoid any questions about whether the Switch had to horsepower to support the visuals), and it does just that, bringing to mind some the late-SNES-era classics like Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger. Those games, however, never had incredible lighting and water effects like Octopath Traveler does, and the characters look and feel a lot more expressive in their interactions than anyone on the SNES. (Heck, I’d go as far as saying even the Final Fantasy VII characters feel a bit wooden in comparison to OT.) The music is also sensational, always setting the perfect mood for the situation and environment. The more I played Octopath Traveler, the more engrossed I became in the world, and that’s exactly what you want out of an RPG.

But what about the linearity of the world design? While this is the case through most of the game’s opener, the few second-chapter areas I stumbled into really opened things up and allowed for some proper exploring and appreciation of the visuals. I can’t say whether this becomes a wider trend as time goes on, but I’m hopeful that it will.

Despite the formulaic framework of each character’s first chapter, I found myself looking forward to seeing how each PC got swept up into the adventure. Primrose’s exceptionally-dark tale turned out to be the exception rather than the rule, as most of the initial tasks focused on rescues and retrievals. With the exception of Therion’s tale (why exactly are we helping him break into a house again?), these origin stories felt genuine and occasionally touching, even if some of them were a bit boilerplate. I’m still sad that the job actions aren’t more unique, however, as character-switching is made fairly easy for you and you never felt like you were blocked from completing quests if you didn’t have the right ability immediately on hand. Still, even if characters felt a bit too similar at times, each one has enough personality to stand out from the rest of the team.

The combat system also grew on me, mostly because the game’s developers implemented a sliding difficulty scale that kicked up the challenge (and thus the rewards) for combat. As you accumulated more characters, the game slowly dialed up the strength of your opponents, tossing more and stronger enemies at you and beefing up the boss fights. The rewards for excellence in combat (more money/EXP/job points) also helped a lot as well, as they motivated me to develop better strategies to knock out enemies more quickly (even if said strategy sometimes boiled down to “Cyrus, do me a solid and just fry them all, would you?”). While I would have liked to see the game ramp up its difficulty a bit quicker (my first few characters were really OP by the last few intro chapters), there was a sizable level boundary outside the circle of first chapters that you could cross if you were really looking for a fight.

I still have mixed feelings about the job point system, but I do appreciate the level of customization the game gives to the players. Players are not restricted to getting certain skills at specific times, and can pick and choose which skills they want (or don’t want) in any order they choose. This is fine, but I found it a bit awkward to manage, and would just simply forget about the JP system for long stretches of playtime. I did like the secondary job options, however, as they allow you to take a Pokémon approach to party-building and alter your characters to optimize their type coverage…as long as you find the right shrines.

All in all, I can see why Octopath Traveler is selling like hotcakes, as it’s a solid take on a classic genre and fills the Final Fantasy-sized hole that Nintendo fans have been looking to plug since the 16-bit era. There’s a lot to like about this game, and not only would I call it a must-buy for Switch-owning RPG fans, but even players who aren’t on the role-playing game wagon should give the demo a shot, as its slow difficulty curve makes it a nice introduction to the genre. Personally, given the meager number of games I’m interested in this year, I’d say OT has a really good chance of claiming my ‘Game of the Year’ award for 2018.

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Song Review: Luke Combs, “She Got The Best Of Me”

What the heck, I’m always up for a good origin story.

Like the Force itself, there seem to be two sides of Luke Combs’s discography. When he’s tempted by the dark side, we get somber-toned, minor-chord-plagued laments about getting over a lost love (“Hurricane,” “One Number Away”), while on his brighter days we get fun, lighthearted tracks about…well, getting over a lost love (“When It Rains It Pours”). He’s returned to the light side of the Force for his latest single (and first from the new deluxe version of his album This One’s For You Too) “She Got The Best Of Me.” While it’s admittedly another track about getting over a lost love, just like with Star Wars the fourth release turns out to be the prequel, as Combs puts a unique twist on the topic by explaining how heartbreak inspired his musical career.

The production here splits the difference between the two sides of the Force: The overall mix sounds a lot like “Hurricane” with its prominent guitars (both acoustic and electric) and limited instrumentation (there’s a steel guitar and banjo here, but they’re barely noticeable behind the guitars and percussion), but the drums are real this time, and most notably the instrument tones are much brighter this time around. There’s still a minor chord that pops up regularly, but overall it strikes a nice balance between acknowledging the cloud and highlighting the silver lining:  The pain of the breakup still lingers, but that pain was the driving force that pushed the narrator onto the stage where he is today. It’s that positive vibe that sticks with the listener the most, and while it’s not the rollicking neotraditional sound of “When It Rains It Pours,” it’ll still leave you with a smile.

While Combs is a decent vocalist (neither his range or flow are tested here, but he delivers his lines competently and clearly), his biggest assets are his everyman charm and earnestness, and he puts these to good use on this track. I labeled this an “origin story” earlier, and the big question for a song like this is whether or not the artist can convince people that the story is actually true. (For what it’s worth, I couldn’t find any confirmation in either direction on the tale’s veracity.) For Combs, this isn’t an issue: He’s got enough power and charisma to get people to buy into the song, and if he declared this to be a true story, I’d totally believe him. For all the Star Wars references I’ve made so far, the best one might be how Combs’s ability to forge a connection with his audience feels eerily similar to Garth Vader himself.

It’s no secret that heartbreak has been a source of inspiration for country artists throughout the entire history of the genre, but “She Got The Best Of Me” makes the connection explicit: The narrator claims that he turned to the guitar as a means of coping with the pain of love lost at an early age. It’s not the most novel topic in the world and the imagery isn’t terribly evocative, but the writing has its moments (I like the “beating in this guitar” line), and the hook is at least better than some other recent wordplay examples (“Lose It,” “Take It From Me,” “The Difference”). Without Combs to breathe life into it, the song would honestly feel bland and boring, and it doesn’t do a great job of drawing in the listener and making them care. It’s a classic case of a singer elevating a song to greater heights then it would ever achieve on its own, and Combs and his producer deserve a lot of credit for it.

“She Got The Best Of Me” may not set the world on fire, but in the end it’s a solid song that speaks volumes about Luke Combs’s future potential. Put this track is someone else’s hands, and you’ve got some generic radio filler that no one will remember in about two months. Combs’s charisma, however, infuses the track with a bit more personality and meaning, and leaves listeners thinking “Yeah, I wouldn’t mind hearing that again.” I’m not sure what Force Combs has tapped it, but I hope he uses it for good.

Rating: 7/10. Three singles at 6 or above? Maybe Combs wasn’t kidding when he said This One’s For You Too.

Song Review: Eric Church, “Desperate Man”

For some, this song would a “desperate” attempt to remain relevant. For Eric Church, it’s just Eric being Eric.

After “Round Here Buzz” earned itself an #2 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart, Church quietly closed the book on the Mr. Misunderstood era and disappeared from the country music scene, presumably to work on his next musical project. Given how Mr. Misunderstood had been dropped into the hands of his fans without any advance warning, people knew that Church could explode back onto the scene at any time, and so the world waited with bated breath for his return. The wait ended last week, as Church announced the release of a new single “Desperate Man” to headline a new album with the same name. I’m not really sure what I expected to get from this song, but a bouncy sad song backed by a psychedelic disco-tinged mix was definitely not what I thought was coming.I’m not sure how good this song really is, but it’ll certainly get people’s attention.

Disco/R&B influences have been popping up a fair amount in country music recently, but non have had the strong retro vibe of “Desperate Man”—this mix feels ripped straight from a vinyl record from 1975. From the bongos and affected percussion to the waka-chicka feel of the guitars to the vocal screams and “ooh-oohs,” everything here feels transplanted from another era of sound. (However, it’s not all from the same era, as the spacious electric guitar seems to have been borrowed from Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives.) While the upbeat atmosphere seems like a poor fit for the melancholy writing at first glance, the bright instrument tones and faster tempo generate so much positive energy that it completely overwhelms the lyrical sentiment and turns the song into a rollicking good time. The narrator might be having a hard time getting over a lost love, but you’re too busy busting a move to care.

So much is made of Church’s “outsider” persona that his talent as a pure vocalist is mostly overlooked. The song traps Church exclusively in his upper and forces him to shout-sing a fair chunk of the song, but he does so without skipping a beat, adding intensity without ever sounding uncomfortable. Additionally, for someone who’s done as much work as Dierks Bentley at cultivating a rough-edged country-rock persona, he remains completely believable even with the unorthodox production style, and while lesser singers might be accused of ‘selling out’ by going in this direction, the whole thing feels completely natural here. Despite the slickness of the sound, there’s enough of an edge here to keep the tune in Church’s wheelhouse, and like Bryce Harper last night, he put on a good show.

I’m a little torn on the lyrics, which describe all the metaphorical (at least I hope they’re metaphorical) things the narrator has done to get a lost love off of their mind. On one hand, I love the choice of detail in the song, as lines like “walking glass barefooted” and scenes like the fortuneteller encounter invoke some surprisingly-vivid scenes into the listener’s mind, and really speak to the depth of the narrator’s mind. On the other hand, however, the song never actually tells you what the cause of the narrator’s pain is until the bridge (and even then it’s fairly roundabout, saying the narrator will be off their rocker “’til she comes back again”), making the listener spend most of the song wondering what the heck the commotion is all about. By the time the track gets to the punch line, the audience is so saturated by the positive energy of the production that they’ve stopped caring about the narrator’s plight. (To be honest, there’s also not a whole lot of story here at all, as the choruses just keep saying how desperate a man the narrator is.) There are definitely some interesting nuggets buried here, but given how orthogonal the sound and writing are, the track really lets Ray Wylie Hubbard’s ballyhooed contribution go to waste.

“Desperate Man” is a bit of a misnomer, as only an artist as secure in his place in country music and as wholly un-desperate as Eric Church is could have pulled off a musical shift like this without it feeling forced. Whereas some artists (most notably Miranda Lambert) seem to be struggling under the weight of their outside, independent status, Church is embracing the freedom of his position to do whatever the heck he wants to, and the result is a refreshing sound that, while I’m hesitant to call it “good,” is certainly good enough to intrigue me about what might be coming when Desperate Man drops in October. It’s a nice changeup to the steady diet of dark, generic guitar-and-drum mixes the radio is feeding us right now, and shows that even when Church borrows sounds and ideas from others, he somehow finds a way to make them stand out.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins on the stereo.

Pokémon FireRed Nuzlocke Episode #1: Over Before It Starts?

We interrupt your regularly-scheduled programming to bring you the following important announcement:

On that note…welcome to the first edition of Kyle’s Pokémon FireRed Nuzlocke journal! I have to say, after six separate trips through Kanto, I thought I’d seen everything that this region had to offer. I was wrong.

Anyone who’s ever picked up a Nintendo handheld is familiar with the classic Pokémon formula: Find six cool creatures, grind until they’re OP, lay waste to everything that stands in your way, and save the region/world/universe. Pokémon has never been known for its difficulty, and after beating seventeen different games, I could probably walk through any iteration of the Elite Four with my eyes closed.

Over the years, however, smarter trainers than I have come up with custom rule sets to inject some difficulty (not to mention some life) into the Pokémon series, all loosely grouped under the umbrella of Nuzlocke challenges. (Adventure Rules provides a nice summary of both the history of Nuzlocke challenges and some of the more-popular rulesets.) For those unfamiliar with the idea, Nuzlocke challenges are centered around two concepts:

  • Permadeath: If a Pokémon faints, it must either be released or permanently boxed, and can no longer be used in battles.
  • One-and-done: The only Pokémon you can catch in any specific area is the first one you meet.

Other rules involving nicknames, item restrictions, and tighter restrictions on usable Pokémon are often thrown in as well.

While I was a devoted watcher of Derrick Bitner’s Nuzlocke streams (and would still be a devoted watcher if I had better Internet), my only firsthand experience with a Nuzlocke run came earlier this year with Pokémon Ultra Sun, which went smoothly overall but came to an abrupt halt the moment I ran into Ultra Necrozma. Now, with everything healed up except my pride, I decided to take another crack at the Nuzlocke challenge and attempt to redeem myself for my Ultra Sun failure.

My opponent this time would be Pokémon FireRed, a GBA remake of the Kanto region that I picked up over a decade for the sole purpose of obtaining G1 starters for my Pokémon Pearl Pokédex. I’m probably a bit too familiar with the region from Pokémon Red/Yellow/Gold/LeafGreen/HeartGold/SoulSilver, and while I’m already on record saying I’m not terribly excited to go back through it again for Pokémon Let’s Go! Pikachu/Eevee, I figured a Nuzlocke challenge might be just the thing to spice up an old region, especially with the right rules.

While this challenge is just a vanilla Nuzlocke run at its core, I also included the following additional rules:

  • The boring rule: Item use is capped at a single item per battle. It’s no fun if you can just spam Full Restores all the time, right?
  • The interesting rule: Pokémon used as part of a winning team in any previously-played Pokémon game are ineligible for capture and use. What that means for me is, well…

More specifically, I’m explicitly restricted from using 50 G1 monsters, and implicitly blocked from three others (Raichu, Poliwrath, and Dragonite are still technically usable, but if all their pre-evolutions are blocked, how am I supposed to get them?) In a mostly-G1 game, this was going to lead to some interesting scenarios, especially early on.

With the rules and the game selected, all that was left to do was name my character and get this show on the road! Since I’d been playing a bunch of Octopath Traveler, I decide to name my Trainer “Ophilia” in homage to everyone’s favorite follower of the Sacred Flame. Sure, it’s a fake religion worshipping a nonexistent deity, but when it comes to Nuzlocke runs, you need all the help you can get.

Yay, the name fits!

I (Have To) Choose You…

After the requisite opening speech from Professor Oak, I was dropped into Pallet Town and directed to Oak’s lab to get my very first Pokémon! While there are lots of different ways to choose a starter for a Nuzlocke run, I had no choice in the matter at all: Charizard anchored my LeafGreen team, and Blastoise has shown up in my top six in three different games (#TeamSquirtle for life). Guess who that left me?

My brother was (and remains) one of the five Bulbasaur fans on the planet, so in the past I had always traded mine to him to raise. I immediately called him and asked if he would raise this one for me, but he claimed he was too busy raising my six-month-old niece, so I was on my own. *sigh*

Next came the gender reveal, in which two competing trends went head-to-head:

  • In all my G1 – G6 playthroughs, I had never gotten a female starter.
  • However, in my last two playthroughs (Moon and Ultra Sun), both my starters had been female. Could I get three in a row?

Drum roll please…

Girl power!

My plan was always to name my new monster after one of my favorite country music artists, but I’ll admit that I didn’t ever expect to name a Bulbasaur after Suzy Bogguss.

How Quickly Can A Nuzlocke End?

Believe it or not, I was really nervous about my first battle versus my Charmander-toting rival Cyrus (named after the academic from Octopath Traveler, not the boss of Team Galactic). When I originally picked Bulbasaur to transfer to Pokémon Pearl years ago, not only did I lose this initial battle (Oak covers your prize money, for what it’s worth), but the poor thing then got absolutely rekted by the Pidgeys and Rattatas of Route 1, fainting 2-3 times before I could catch enough Pokémon to make a full G4 transfer!

Sure enough, Cyrus’s Charmander did just enough damage with Scratch to keep the battle close, and when it landed a critical hit in Round 3, I wondered if history was about to repeat itself.

Things got real in a hurry.

Thankfully, Suzy’s Speed advantage carried the day, and I defeated Cyrus with only a single HP to spare. Did the developers give me a helping hand to spare me the humiliation of failure? Perhaps, but I’ll totally take it.

Look, But Don’t Touch

After my just-barely-a-victory, it was off to Route 1, the land of wimpy little Rattatas and Pidgeys that are just perfect for a rookie trainer’s first catch! …Except that my Raticate from Pokémon Yellow and Pidgeots from Pokémon Red and LeafGreen meant that every monster here was off-limits for my Nuzlocke run. Until I could get to Route 22 with a few Poké Balls, Suzy would be on her own.

Thankfully, Suzy fared a bit better than the last Bulbasaur I had dragged through here, and the local wildlife didn’t put up too much of a fight. I made it to Viridian City without much trouble, picked up Professor Oak’s custom Poké Ball, walked back down the Route 1 gauntlet to pick up my Pokédex, Poké Balls, and Town Map, and then went back up the road a third time to put my Poké Balls to use. By the time I got to Viridian City, Suzy was starting to feel OP, as her shiny new Vine Whip attack let her tap into both her Special Attack stat and her STAB bonus.

Wait, What Are You Doing Here?

My recollection from Pokémon Red was that Route 22 was a plentiful land of  Spearows and Nidorans, and with Fearows featured on both my Red and HeartGold teams, I had resigned myself to adding a Nidoran of some sort to my party. I walked into the grass (but not too far in; I knew my rival was around there somewhere), took a few cautious steps, and then…

Huh, that’s the oddest-looking Nidoran I’ve ever seen.

A postgame check on Serebii revealed that not only do Mankeys have a 45% chance of appearing on Route 22 in FireRed, but that neither male nor female Nidorans appear at all! Regardless, I was excited to add a fearsome Fighting-type Pokémon to the squad instead of another Poison type, and one Leech Seed and seven Growls later, “Hulk” (named as both a tribute to Hulk Hogan and the green Marvel superhero) was added to the team.

Unfortunately, at Lv. 3 with almost no Defense, Hulk fought more like Bruce Banner as first, and was nearly one-shotted by several Rattatas and Pidgeys when I went back to Route 1 for further grinding. Suzy took a lot of switch-in punishment for those first few levels, but eventually Hulk learned Low Kick and starting pulling his own weight.

It’s Better To Be Lucky Than Good

My last task before leaving Viridian City was to dig up Cyrus on Route 22 and once again show him whose side the Sacred Flame was on. I knew he’d be carrying two Pokémon somewhere around Lv. 10 with him this time, so I didn’t go back to Route 22 until I had a Lv. 10 Hulk to go along with a Lv. 12 Suzy. He was a bit farther down the path than I recalled, but he was there, and we quickly got down to business.

I knew I was in trouble the moment Cyrus tossed out a Lv. 9 Pidgey to match Hulk. Pidgeys know Gust by then, which meant that it was super-effective against every monster I had. That thing was about to wreck my entire party, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the Pidgey opened with a Sand-Attack (which ended up being meaningless) and then proceeded to Tackle Hulk repeatedly until I Low Kicked it into submission. The Sacred Flame was in my corner after all!

…Except that Hulk’s terrible Defense meant his health bar was almost red now, which meant (gulp) that Suzy had to come in to take on a Lv. 9 Charmander. This was it: Suzy would be force-fed a couple of Embers, and I’d have to administer last rites.

Four Scratches later, Cyrus was out of Pokémon, and I was really confused. He never used Ember at all! Not only was Suzy not rekted, but thanks to an early Leech Seed, she still had full health when the fight ended! I don’t know if the developers were afraid that new players wouldn’t have grasped the type system by this point and didn’t want to punish them, but I went into battle with the worst matchups possible and still walked away with an easy win.

Luck!? I’m calling BS on that one. The game totally pulled its punches.

In the end, though, I didn’t really care why I still had all my Pokémon. I was just happy that I did.

Conclusions

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with my team’s performance, and I think I’m set up pretty well for the next few challenges. Suzy is on her way to becoming the kind of all-around solid Pokémon that can anchor a six stack, and Hulk seems to be a classic “glass cannon” that gives me another feasible option against Brock when I get to his Rock-type gym. Over the long haul, though, I need to be careful about my team’s typing balance: Having Suzy, Hulk, and the inevitable Beedrill from Viridian Forest on the same team makes me really vulnerable to Flying types, and not every trainer will let off the gas the way Cyrus’s Pidgey did.

Tune in next time for more heart-stopping action as we make our way north towards Pewter City and our first gym badge!

Song Review: James Barker Band, “Chills”

It’s not good when a new artists sounds exactly like an existing one. It’s really bad when that existing artist is Granger Smith.

The James Barker Band is a Canadian group who got their big break by winning the “Emerging Artist Showcase” at the 2015 Boots and Hearts music festival, earning a record deal with Universal Music Group. They’ve already made a fair bit of noise on the Canadian charts, grabbing the #1 spot with “Chills” in 2017 and peaking at #6 with their latest single “Good Together.” Now, hoping to replicate the (moderate) success fellow Canadians High Valley and Lindsey Ell have achieved south of the border, the band has started shipping the radio-tested “Chills” to American stations (and taken out a surprising amount of ad space in Mediabase publications). Unfortunately, when I listen to the song, I seem to hear every artist except the James barker band, and there’s not enough here to push the track out of generic territory and make it feel unique.

I’d sum up the production by saying that it has the same stuff every other song does, it just seems to have less of it. It’s the same old guitar-and-drum mix you’ve come to expect from country radio (the major exception being the High Valley-esque banjo that jumps in on the first chorus, which rolls along fast enough to at least not feel token), but the percussion doesn’t have the same kick that the song’s contemporaries feature, and the electric and steel guitar don’t quite have the spacious feel that we hear in, say, Granger Smith’s “You’re In It” (hold on to that comparison folks, we’ll be coming back to it). The instruments also don’t feel as bright as you would expect, and the minor chords that anchor the song give it a much more serious feel than it should. Finally, the overall mix doesn’t seem to have the power and volume it needs to really drive its message home, and is overly reliant on its tempo to provide energy and build momentum. Take away the banjo, and your average listener probably couldn’t pick this song out of a lineup, which isn’t good for a band trying to introduce themselves to a larger audience.

If you had told me this was a new Granger Smith single, I wouldn’t have questioned you at all, as singer James Barker is basically a Smith clone (with perhaps a shade of Zac Brown thrown in for good measure). The song’s key feels a bit below Barker’s comfort zone, but he has enough range to (mostly) maintain his tone and clarity. Barker’s flow is a bit more impressive, as he handles the song’s rapid-fire portions without skipping a beat. The charisma question, however, remains just that: While he certainly comes across as believable in the narrator’s role, he really isn’t able to transmit his excitement to the listener. (He may get chills, but I just get bored.) The serious production and bland lyrics don’t help matters, but in the end it’s on Barker to really sell me on how special his significant other is, and he just doesn’t pull it off.

The most disappointing performance on this song, however, goes to the “band” component of the James Barker Band, as they’re so invisible on this song that even Brian Kelley feels sorry for them. Their sound is so generic and their harmonies are so weak and indistinguishable that Barker might as well be a solo artist backed by a random group of session players. In short, the band doesn’t do anything to justify its existence, and if the group breaks up in a couple of years, no one will even realize they’re gone.

Lyrically, the song is yet another Bro-Lite track that focuses on how the woman in the song gives the narrator “chills” as the pair go through the usual activities (night driving, club hopping, dancing, etc.). Outside of the woman’s clothing (it’s a little black dress instead of tight cut-off jeans—shocking!), the song is devoid of wit and entirely predictable, and while it’s not as explicitly objectifying as songs from the peak-Bro era, the usual creepy attitude is still there (when he says “We’ve got all night girl, there ain’t no rush,” you get the feeling he’s not interested in just dancing), and it’s still not a topic I’m terribly interested in revisiting. I’m also struck by how rushed the song feels, as it tends to jump from location to location and only spend a line or two talking about the drive, the party, etc. Pair it with forgettable production and vocals, and the listener ends up spending up half their time checking their watch and waiting for the next song to start.

“Chills” is just another song by just another singer backed by just another band, and while it’s got that generic Bro-esque formula that the US charts just can’t get enough of, I don’t see it making much of a splash below the 49th parallel. The genre already has enough acts like the James Barker Band, and this song doesn’t do enough anything to convince country radio to make room for them. Unless something changes—new sound, new members, something—the only chills the band will feel are those of the Canadian winter.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Song Review: Michael Ray, “One That Got Away”

Just when I thought Michael Ray might make something of himself…

Ray’s discography reads like an inventory list at a landfill, complete with hot garbage such as “Kiss You In The Morning,” “Real Men Love Jesus,” and “Think A Little Less.” However, with his second album Amos and its leadoff single “Get To You,” Ray had to chance to rewrite his story and take a few small steps towards making actual quality music. His latest single “One That Got Away,” unfortunately, finds Ray showing off that obnoxious, misogynistic Bro persona he broke in with, and the result not only has no business being on the radio, but it might just be the biggest piece of junk I’ve ever reviewed on this blog.

The production here tends towards the light, summery feel that “Kiss You In The Morning” had (in fact, they almost sound like the same song), but it’s more of a Metro-Bro mix than straight-up Bro-Country: The electric guitars sound slicker, and there’s a fair bit of synthetic percussion mixed in with the real stuff. The song features a piano and organ floating around in the background to give it a slight beachside flair, but otherwise it feels like the same, generic sound I’ve heard from the Bro crowd a hundred times before. It’s admittedly got some energy and bounce behind it, and it does establish a devil-may-care atmosphere that complements the lyrics (which is actually a problem when the lyrics are this terrible; more on that later), but it just feels like empty sonic calories, forcing a party when one it definitely not warranted.

Michael Ray officially assumes the mantle of “The Honey Badger” on this track, because he just doesn’t give a you-know-what (warning: NSFW language in video). He actually demonstrates some decent range and flow here, but his performance as a simple-minded, unsympathetic boor is so believable it’s disgusting. While there’s probably no elevating a song this poorly-written, there was at least a small chance to frame the narrator as the offended party and thus be a teeny, tiny bit sympathetic…except that Ray comes off as such a douche that by the end, you’re practically rooting fro the woman to dump him. There’s such a thing as playing a role too well (Jake Owen learned this the hard way), and Ray’s performance not only fails to connect with the audience, it actively pushes them away.

And then we have the lyrics…I won’t mince words here: In nearly two years of running this blog, this might be the angriest a song’s writing have ever made me. On the surface, the story is similar to Adam Craig’s “Just A Phase” (which isn’t a promising place to start): Guy meets girl, guy just knows girl’s going to leave him and tear his world apart, and instead of taking the initiative and actually doing something about it, guy just kicks back and enjoys the fruits of the relationships while it lasts, proclaiming that she will be “one hell of a one that got away.” Forget the narrator’s lazy attitude for a moment, or his blanket assumption about the woman’s feelings, or even the fact that the lyrics feature some really awkward analogies (“tax-free under the table”? Really?) What really aggravates me in the way he refers to the woman, especially in back-to-back lines as the song transitions from the first verse into the chorus:

Yeah but I’m gonna hold her like a trophy tonight
She’s decorating my car…

Excuse me? A trophy? Decorating your freaking car?! News flash, pal: Women are human beings worthy of respect, not prizes to be won, and they’re certainly not hood ornaments for your stupid ride! The guy’s celebrating this hookup like he won the goddamn Super Bowl, and he’s gonna milk his trip to Disney World for everything he can. This loutish attitude makes my stomach turn and my blood boil, and all four of the fools who wrote this song deserve to be slapped in the face and thrown into the nearest lake.

Dierks Bentley upended my “best songs” list last week, and now Michael Ray has done the same to my  “worst song” list with “One That Got Away.” This is a disgusting track whose mediocre, generic production winds up being its only redeeming quality, as Ray and his writers serve up such a pile of filth that even Jordan Davis would give them a disapproving look. As far as I’m concerned, Ray needs to get the heck out of country music and not let the door hit him on the way out.

Rating: 1/10. As a wise man once said, “Get that garbage outta here!”

Octopath Traveler: Even More Early Impressions

Flawless Victory.

Last fall, Square Enix gave us a brief taste of their upcoming RPG Project Octopath Traveler, letting players play through the opening chapters of two characters to generate some feedback and give us a sense of the story (spoiler alert: it got dark in a hurry). However, so much has happened between now and then (Super Mario OdysseyDragon Quest Builders, Kirby Star Allies, and on and on) that Octopath Traveler (they’ve now dropped ‘Project’ from the title) had been mostly forgotten by the time this year’s E3 rolled around. With its July 13th release date approaching, the OT team took the surprising step of releasing another pre-release demo, this time will all eight of its characters available to play. While the demo only gave you three hours to mess around with the game (though it was nice about it, and let me play through an entire character’s arc even through it went ten minutes over time), it gave me a better sense of how the full game would actually work.

The combat system is mostly the same as before, except for the addition of Job Points (JP). Instead of gaining new skills when a character levels up, these skills are purchased using the JP earned in battle. It’s a nice way to increase the customization potential of your team, but the amount of JP needed to earn new skills increased substantially as you progressed (30 for the first one, 100 for the 2nd, and so on), and when you earned maybe 4 or 5 JP per battle, it did feel like new skills were few and far between. (Random encounters seemed to be stingy in general, with both EXP and money handed out sparingly as well.) Beyond that, however, it was the same ‘find weakness, break defense, attack with reckless abandon’ combat from the original demo.

After playing through the dark timeline that was Primrose’s prologue during the first demo, I decided to start with the academic Cyrus this time around. While his search for a lost text was nowhere near as bleak as Primrose’s journey, there were definitely moments when the story veered in questionable/uncomfortable territory (in particular, throwing in a false accusation of student/teacher improprieties felt a bit tone-deaf in 2018). When I got to Ophilia’s story, I was impressed by how compelling it was despite it being so boilerplate (dying family member, traditional journey, etc.), but I was a little sad at how things would happen with her and Cyrus was just kind of there (and wasn’t mentioned in the post-intro cutscenes at all). This lack of character interactions during their individual stories seems to be a running theme based on the statements I’ve heard from actual game reviewers, and it’s a shame because those sort of vignettes can really elevate a game and give it more character (Miitopia, for example).

For better or worse, Octopath Traveler trims a lot of fat from your typical 60-hour RPG. On the plus side, a lot of NPCs just flat-out will not talk to your character (and those that can have a clear thought-bubble icon above them), which cuts out a bunch of the wasted time and pointless color text of having to interact with every freaking character in every town. On the minus side, however, the overworld felt incredibly linear and constrained, and thus most of the beautifully-designed environments are barely explorable (very similar to Mario + Rabbids, but without BEEP-0’s amusing anecdotes). Outside of the usual scattering of treasure chests, there was really no reason to wander around and investigate the world around you.

I was also a little disappointed at the many similarities between the character prologues. Every prologue is basically the same: You go through some cut scenes, you work your way through a dungeon, you fight a boss, you move on. While I appreciate the tutorial nature of each prologue (you don’t know exactly where any player will start, and you want to make sure they know about everything any PC can offer), it basically means that you play through the same dang tutorial eight separate times, which is bound to get old after the first few. Hopefully the game tosses a bit more variety into the mix for later story chapters.

More disappointing is the fact that each character’s “unique” abilities aren’t so unique after all: Primrose uses her ‘Seduce’ technique to make NPCs follow her and aid her in battle, while Ophilia uses her ‘Guide’ technique to…make NPCs follow her and aid her in battle. (In Cyrus’s case, his information-gathering technique is the same as Alfyn’s.) Although I really liked the depth and outright fearlessness of Primrose’s tale, I’m concerned that filling out eight backstories might have stretched the development team’s character-building skills a bit thin. (Thankfully, the characters play very different in combat, and there’s also a job-changing mechanic that adds even more variety to the characters and battles.)

Despite all my frustrations, I’m still pretty high on this game: Its combat system and character customization introduces some interesting strategy, the environments still beg to be explored even if there isn’t much point in doing so, and the character development certainly has its moments. However, I’m not sure pre-ordering it is the way to go (no matter how cool the special edition looks). Most gaming outlets will have a full review of the game dropping on July 12th, so waiting to get a second or third opinion on the game before diving in seems like the most prudent path.