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Love letter to JRPG golden age has great combat but retro graphics highlight the genre’s tedium • The Register

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The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. 2021 continues to move slowly for the world’s biggest entertainment industry and while we did ask Square Enix for a copy of new looter-shooter Outriders, they blanked us. So instead we are picking up a style of game Square is better known for – Octopath Traveler, originally a Nintendo Switch exclusive now on PC.

The release of Final Fantasy VII in 1997 was a bit of a watershed moment for ’80s kids. The main character, Cloud Strife, gazed out moodily from the covers of various PlayStation and gaming magazines for months on end, and we all thought his ridiculous, spiky blond hair and oversized sword were cool as heck. Pretty much everyone who was lucky enough to own Sony’s first console grabbed the game, and it continues to hold a special place in the hearts of many.

If you live under a rock, Final Fantasy is pretty much the definitive JRPG (Japanese roleplaying game), a distinct take on the genre mainly characterised by turn-based squad combat, walking about pressing “A” on people and things, and reading a lot of dialogue.

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VII was a big deal because it was the first 3D game under the Final Fantasy banner. Not that we knew it at the time. In fact, the question of what happened to Final Fantasy I, II, III, IV, V, and VI was something asked retrospectively via Gameboy, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) emulators on our craptops years later.

Square – nowadays better known as Square Enix – had steadily been plying its trade since 1987 but it took VII to make 10-year-olds pay attention. More 3D titles followed: VIII and IX also on the PlayStation, X and XII on the PlayStation 2 (XI was an MMO and doesn’t count as a mainline entry), XIII on the PS3 and Xbox 360 (XIV was another MMO), right up to XV in 2016 on Xbox One, PS4, and Windows. The remake of VII also landed in 2020. This doesn’t include numerous spin-offs, sequels, and side games for various portable platforms.

At this point you might be wondering how they could keep a series going for so long, but each game featured a different setting and self-contained story, barring X and XIII‘s sequels, as well as the “Fabula Nova Crystallis” games (including XIII and XV) which claim to share a “common mythos”. However, the cliff notes were the same – heavy ladles of dialogue and story, turn-based combat, and pressing “A” a lot – with a few unique mechanics and systems thrown in each time.

But Final Fantasy wasn’t Square’s only JRPG franchise. Equal measures of nostalgia surround games like Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, and Secret of Mana. Even Nintendo’s Mario was given the Square treatment with Super Mario RPG on the SNES in 1996.

All the games were beautiful in their own way, particularly those on the SNES, which made the most of the 16-bit generation’s capabilities with cutesy sprites and colourful top-down-ish environments. Which brings us to Octopath Traveler and what appears to be Square Enix’s attempt to rekindle that old flame with a couple of modern twists.

A trap waits to be sprung by the thief Therion

A trap waits to be sprung by the thief Therion

Octopath originally came out as an exclusive for the Nintendo Switch in 2018. Now, I don’t own a Switch – not for lack of trying during the first lockdown – but as someone who chipped away at Square’s historic RPGs on emulators as a teen, I am very much part of the target audience. In 2019, the game finally came to PC, and this month 50 per cent was knocked off the astonishing asking price (£49.99!!!) on Steam. Since it came heavily recommended by a friend, I decided to take a look.

Primrose endures years of indignities in her search for revenge

Primrose endures years of indignities in her search for revenge

Octopath is a throwback to classic Final Fantasy in all but name. The game is set on a continent named Orsterra and the opening moments have the player choosing from one of eight characters scattered across the realm’s map. Each character fulfils a separate class or role, like mage, cleric or warrior, and each has their own origin story to play through. It doesn’t matter which one you pick as you’ll have to add each to your party as the game progresses, giving you a chance to see every playable character’s motivations, though certain choices make the first chapter a little easier.

From forest to desert to snow-capped mountains, Octopath has lots of different environments

From forest to desert to snow-capped mountains, Octopath has lots of different environments

Cyrus is a knowledge-obsessed mage who leaves his academy in pursuit of a forbidden tome that has disappeared from the archives; Ophilia is a healer-class cleric forced to embark on a pilgrimage in the place of her adoptive sister; Therion is a thief tricked into recovering long-lost treasures for a wealthy family; H’aanit is a hunter who leaves her village to rescue her mentor from a foul beast; Alfyn is an apothecary who wants to roam the world helping people like a healer who saved him as a child; Primrose is a noble disguised as a dancing girl who seeks vengeance for her father’s assassination; Olberic is a disgraced hedge knight who finds a path to redemption after the killing of his king; and Tressa is a merchant who simply wants to see more of the world outside her hometown.

Caves and dungeons often precede important battles

Caves and dungeons often precede important battles

Phew. They aren’t the most original or interesting premises ever written, but the storylines become increasingly interlinked as you plod through each chapter. This, we assume, is the titular “octopath”. Like Final Fantasy, don’t expect this to be a 20-hour job – that’s about as long as it takes to collect the full eight-man complement. With four chapters per character and an endgame hiding secret classes and bosses, Octopath could be anywhere from 50 to 100 hours long depending on your ability to grasp the combat mechanics and blend classes and abilities.

A typical boss plus minions encounter – shield shows protection levels and the squares below weaknesses

A typical boss-plus-minions encounter – shield shows protection levels and the squares below weaknesses

Although 80 per cent of the game is wandering around and spamming “A” or whatever the key binding might be through reams of frankly quite tedious exposition or dialogue, the battles are where Octopath shines – and they’re no walk in the park either.

As for those “unique mechanics” I mentioned, Octopath employs a weakness system where enemies and monsters have layers of protections vulnerable only to a handful of weapons or spells. Once these shields have been worn down, the enemy is weak to everything you throw at it, and figuring out how to exploit these flaws across multiple enemies with differing vulnerabilities at the same time is puzzle-like and exciting. There is also a cool “boost” mechanic where, if players save characters’ points each turn, they can power up attacks to do far more damage.

The '2D-HD' graphics give extra depth to each scene

The ‘2D-HD’ graphics give extra depth to each scene

Unfortunately, catering to nostalgia can only go so far. The developers refer to their neo-retro look as “HD-2D”, which is a little reminiscent of what the Valheim and Touryst (also first a Switch exclusive) teams have done – sprinkling advanced lighting and particle effects on top of some quite basic underlying graphics. The character sprites could have been lifted from Final Fantasy VI, but the environments are 3D polygonal. While pretty, the novelty wears off and soon it feels like you may as well be playing a SNES title.

There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but if you compare Octopath Traveler with the also story-heavy Final Fantasy XV, the latter’s stunning visual fidelity makes the onerous and complex plot a lot easier to swallow. Octopath lacks any such benefits, and at many points I wanted to skip through the constant yakking and reading just so I could get to some battles or a boss fight. A lot of the dialogue is fully voiced in the game’s more dramatic scenes, but after a while characters fall back to spouting little grunts, groans or phrases, leaving you to read what they’re actually meant to be saying.

Come the second chapter, characters actually start to acknowledge each other's existence

Come the second chapter, characters actually start to acknowledge each other’s existence

And that means a lot of pressing “A” while not much is happening. That said, dedicated JRPG fanatics chasing a hit of nostalgia will have already completed Octopath Traveler years ago, but for everyone else huge doses of patience are required – otherwise the game can be rather annoying and certainly isn’t worth paying full price. ®

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Rich streams on Twitch as ExcellentSword every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 8:30pm UK time. Column subjects usually end up on stream, so chuck him a follow to see how the games actually play, have a chat, or simply marvel at his luxuriant, golden beard.

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NFT trader OpenSea bans insider trading after employee rakes in profit | Non-fungible tokens (NFTs)

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A non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace has introduced policies to ban insider trading, after an executive at the company was discovered to be buying artworks shortly before they were promoted on the site’s front page.

OpenSea, one of the leading sites for trading the digital assets, will now prevent team members buying or selling from featured collections and from using confidential information to trade NFTs. Neither practice was previously banned.

“Yesterday we learned that one of our employees purchased items that they knew were set to display on our front page before they appeared there publicly,” said Devin Finzer, the co-founder and chief executive of the site.

“This is incredibly disappointing. We want to be clear that this behaviour does not represent our values as a team. We are taking this very seriously and are conducting an immediate and thorough third-party review of this incident so that we have a full understanding of the facts and additional steps we need to take.”

NFTs are digital assets whose ownership is recorded and traced using a bitcoin-style blockchain. The NFT market boomed earlier this year as celebrities including Grimes, Andy Murray and Sir Tim Berners-Lee sold collectibles and artworks using the format. But the underlying technology has questionable utility, with some dismissing the field as a purely speculative bubble.

The insider trading came to light thanks to the public nature of the Ethereum blockchain, on which most NFT trades occur. Crypto traders noticed that an anonymous user was regularly buying items from the public marketplace shortly before they were promoted on the site’s front page, a prestigious slot that often brings significant interest from would-be buyers. The anonymous user would then sell the assets on, making vast sums in a matter of hours.

One trade, for instance, saw an artwork called Spectrum of a Ramenification Theory bought for about £600. It was then advertised on the front page and sold on for $4,000 a few hours later.

One Twitter user, ZuwuTV, linked the transactions to the public wallet of Nate Chastain, OpenSea’s head of product, demonstrating, using public records, that the profits from the trades were sent back to a wallet owned by Chastain.

While some, including ZuwuTV, described the process as “insider trading”, the loosely regulated market for NFTs has few restrictions on what participants can do. Some critics argue that even that terminology demonstrates that the sector is more about speculation than creativity.

“The fact that people are responding to this as insider trading shows that this is securities trading (or just gambling), not something designed to support artists,” said Anil Dash, the chief executive of the software company Glitch. “There are no similar public statements when artists get ripped off on the platform.

“If Etsy employees bought featured products from creators on their platform (or Patreon or Kickstarter workers backed new creators etc) that’d be great! Nobody would balk. Because they’d be supporting their goal,” Dash added.



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British home computer trailblazer dies aged 81 • The Register

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Sir Clive Sinclair died on Thursday at home in London after a long illness, his family said today. He was 81.

The British entrepreneur is perhaps best known for launching the ZX range of 8-bit microcomputers, which helped bring computing, games, and programming into UK homes in the 1980s, at least. This included the ZX80, said to be the UK’s first mass-market home computer for under £100, the ZX81, and the trusty ZX Spectrum. A whole generation grew up in Britain mastering coding on these kinds of systems in their bedrooms.

And before all that, Sir Clive founded Sinclair Radionics, which produced amplifiers, calculators, and watches, and was a forerunner to his Spectrum-making Sinclair Research. The tech pioneer, who eventually sold his computing biz to Amstrad, was knighted during his computing heyday, in 1983.

“He was a rather amazing person,” his daughter, Belinda Sinclair, 57, told The Guardian this evening. “Of course, he was so clever and he was always interested in everything. My daughter and her husband are engineers so he’d be chatting engineering with them.”

Sir Clive is survived by Belinda, his sons, Crispin and Bartholomew, aged 55 and 52 respectively, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. ®

A full obit will follow on The Register.

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UN human rights chief raises concerns over AI privacy violations in report

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‘AI tech can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights.’

The UN’s human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for a moratorium on the sale and use of artificial intelligence technology until safeguards are put in place to prevent potential human rights violations.

Bachelet made the appeal on Wednesday (15 September) to accompany a report released by the UN’s Human Rights Office, which analysed how AI systems affect people’s right to privacy. The violation of their privacy rights had knock-on impacts on other rights such as rights to health, education and freedom of movement, the report found.

“Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times. But AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights,” Bachelet said.

“Artificial intelligence now reaches into almost every corner of our physical and mental lives and even emotional states,” Bachelet added.

Japanese multinational Fujitsu caused a stir when it announced plans to implement AI facial recognition technology to monitor employees’ concentration levels during meetings.

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The report was critical of justice systems which had made wrongful arrests because of flawed facial recognition tools. It appealed to countries to ban any AI tools which did not meet international human rights standards. A 2019 study from the UK found that 81pc of suspects flagged by the facial recognition technology used by London’s Metropolitan Police force were innocent.

Earlier this year, Canada banned Clearview’s AI facial recognition technology after the company violated Canadian privacy laws by collecting facial images of Canadians without their consent.

Bachelet also highlighted the report’s concerns on the future use of data once it has been collected and stored, calling it “one of the most urgent human rights questions we face.”

The UN’s report echoes previous appeals made by European data protection regulators.

The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) called for a ban on facial recognition in public places in June. They urged EU lawmakers to consider banning the use of such technology in public spaces, after the European Commission released its proposed regulations on the matter.

The EU’s proposed regulations did not recommend an outright ban. The commission instead emphasised the importance of creating “trustworthy AI.”

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