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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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How to keep a support contract • The Register

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On Call Let us take a little trip back to the days before the PC, when terminals ruled supreme, to find that the more things change the more they stay the same. Welcome to On Call.

Today’s story comes from “Keith” (not his name) and concerns the rage of a user whose expensive terminal would crash once a day, pretty much at the same time.

The terminal in question was a TAB 132/15. It was an impressive bit of kit for the time and was capable of displaying 132 characters of crisp, green text on a 15-inch CRT housed in a futuristic plastic case. Luxury for sure, unless one was the financial trader trying to use the device.

Once a day, at around 13:30, the terminal would hang. The user would have to reach behind it, power it off, wait a bit, and then fire it back up again. To placate the angry customer, a replacement was dispatched, and all was well. Until the problem started again. Another replacement was made. Another week or so went by with no complaints. And again, another call: the terminal was hanging. Same time. A few times a week.

“These terminals were in the thousand-dollar range,” Keith told us, so a monthly replacement cycle was not really an option. He even used one of the faulty units himself for a while and encountered no issues, which was odd in itself and, we reckon, planted a seed of suspicion.

As for the customer, he was raging by this point. “He was threatening to cancel our contract for his entire firm,” remembered Keith, which would hit the bottom line hard. A salesperson was sent out to see what was happening, but there was no failure.

A technician went out; again no failure. Was this a case of “Technician Syndrome”, where a problem cannot be replicated in front of service personnel? Maybe. Keith’s team were at their wit’s end while the customer had hit the end of his tether and gone beyond.

The solution to the problem was accidental. Keith was back on site, diagnosing an unrelated software issue, but could see the suspect terminal on the other side of the room. As he watched, the trader using the machine sat back for lunch, flipping through the pages of a financial newspaper. A phone call came through, and the trader slung the paper on top of the monitor, took the call, and then resumed work.

Oblivious to the newspaper.

A few minutes later there was uproar. The trader had stood and was slapping the side of the terminal, yelling all manner of not-safe-for-work oaths and casting aspersions upon the good name of Keith’s firm, the software, the programmers, and the computing industry in general. The cursing continued as the trader reached behind for the power switch, knocking the paper aside.

Keith had his solution. But was smart enough to know that a bland presentation of facts would probably not help. Instead, he arranged for his office to call the trader and tell him that a tech was on the way to help. He waited until the trader was distracted and sauntered over.

“Sure enough,” said Keith, “he said he was glad to see me but launched into a tirade again about the device’s many faults.”

He let the customer vent for a while, and surreptitiously placed the newspaper back on top over the heat vents on the terminal while pretending to examine the rear of the unit.

Now patience was needed. It wouldn’t take long – the terminal had, after all, only just recovered from its last overheating episode – and Keith encouraged the trader to unload all his woes and grievances.

The bug list was building as the screen suddenly flickered and locked up. “There! You see that?” exclaimed the user. Keith nodded and reached round the side of the terminal to cycle the power. Sure enough, it came back up.

Keith made a show of thanking the user for showing him the elusive bug and was staging a call with a co-worker, supposedly to prepare a replacement, when the terminal locked up again.

Keith wrinkled his forehead at the “mystery” before offering up an explanation.

“Ah!” he exclaimed, “Did you see how that flicker started from the top and moved to the down?”

Those familiar with the technology will know it was just following the raster pattern. The customer, on the other hand, did not.

“That is often a sign it is overheating,” said Keith, playing fast and loose with the truth, “but this office is cool?”

He pretended to be mystified until the penny dropped for the trader, who unleashed yet more expletives as he realised where he’d dropped his newspaper and snatched it away from the vents.

Feeling the volcanic heat spewing from the depths of the terminal, he turned to Keith, suddenly concerned: “Will it be OK?”

Of course it would. It had only been overheating for a short time every day. The apologies from the customer, who had “discovered” the problem, were profuse and copious. Keith excused himself, but not before rubbing a bit more salt into the wound by telling the user he needed to cancel the burn-in process of yet another expensive replacement.

As it turned out, rather than the customer cancelling the support contact, it ended up being extended.

“It was a good thing I’d let him ‘discover’ the fault,” said Keith. “If I had found it, he would have been very defensive and we still might have lost that contract.”

The minor bugs the user had reported while Keith had been waiting for the overheating to happen again were swiftly dealt with and the enhancement requests logged. Keith also reported back to his boss, who spent rather a lot of time laughing.

“It was a good day.”

Ever set the stage so the customer thinks they’re the hero of the hour? Or maybe you’ve wished all manner of unpleasantness upon your suppliers before realising the blame laid with you all along? Tell us about the time you picked up the phone with an email to On Call. ®

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NUIG to spend €5m on research to help address global issues

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Several key research areas have been identified by NUI Galway to work towards for 2026.

NUI Galway’s recently launched research and innovation strategy includes a €5m investment on support for its multi-disciplinary research teams as they grapple with several global issues.

The strategy, which lays out plans for the university’s next five years of research, focuses on six areas: antimicrobial resistance, decarbonisation, democracy and its future, food security, human-centred data and ocean and coastal health.

“As a public university, we have a special responsibility to direct our research toward the most pressing questions and the most difficult issues,” said to Prof Jim Livesey, VP for research and innovation at NUI Galway.

“As we look into the future, we face uncertainty about the number and nature of challenges we will face, but we know that we will rely on our research capacity as we work together to overcome them,” Livesey added.

The plan focuses on creating the conditions to intensify the quality, scale and scope of research in the university into the future. This includes identifying areas with genuine potential to achieve international recognition for NUI Galway. It also aims to continue to cultivate a supportive and diverse environment within its research community.

NUI Galway has research collaborations with 3,267 international institutions in 114 different countries. The university also has five research institutes on its Galway city campus, including the Data Science Institute, the Whitaker Institute for social change and innovation and the Ryan Institute for marine research.

Its research centres in the medtech area include Science Foundation Ireland’s Cúram and the Corrib Research Centre for Advanced Imaging and Core Lab.

The university will also continue to involve the public with its research and innovation plans through various education and outreach initiatives. It is leading the Public Patient Involvement Ignite network, which it claims, will “bring the public into the heart of research initiatives”.

Another key area identified in the strategy report is the development of partnerships with industry stakeholders. NUI Galway has spun out many successful companies in recent years, including medtechs such as AuriGen Medical, Atrian, Vetex Medical and Neurent.

According to MedTech Europe, Ireland has the highest number of medtech employees per capita in Europe along with Switzerland.

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France hails victory as Facebook agrees to pay newspapers for content | France

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France has hailed a victory in its long-running quest for fairer action from tech companies after Facebook reached an agreement with a group of national and regional newspapers to pay for content shared by its users.

Facebook on Thursday announced a licensing agreement with the APIG alliance of French national and regional newspapers, which includes Le Parisien and Ouest-France as well as smaller titles. It said this meant “people on Facebook will be able to continue uploading and sharing news stories freely amongst their communities, whilst also ensuring that the copyright of our publishing partners is protected”.

France had been battling for two years to protect the publishing rights and revenue of its press and news agencies against what it termed the domination of powerful tech companies that share news content or show news stories in web searches.

In 2019 France became the first EU country to enact a directive on the publishing rights of media companies and news agencies, called “neighbouring rights”, which required large tech platforms to open talks with publishers seeking remuneration for use of news content. But it has taken long negotiations to reach agreements on paying publishers for content.

No detail was given of the exact amount agreed by Facebook and the APIG.

Pierre Louette, the head of the media group Les Echos-Le Parisien, led the alliance of newspapers who negotiated as a group with Facebook. He said the agreement was “the result of an outspoken and fruitful dialogue between publishers and a leading digital platform”. He said the terms agreed would allow Facebook to implement French law “while generating significant funding” for news publishers, notably the smallest ones.

Other newspapers, such as the national daily Le Monde, have negotiated their own deals in recent months. News agencies have also negotiated separately.

After the 2019 French directive to protect publishers’ rights, a copyright spat raged for more than a year in which French media groups sought to find common ground with international tech firms. Google initially refused to comply, saying media groups already benefited by receiving millions of visits to their websites. News outlets struggling with dwindling print subscriptions complained about not receiving a cut of the millions made from ads displayed alongside news stories, particularly on Google.

But this year Google announced it had reached a draft agreement with the APIG to pay publishers for a selection of content shown in its searches.

Facebook said that besides paying for French content, it would also launch a French news service, Facebook News, in January – a follow-up to similar services in the US and UK – to “give people a dedicated space to access content from trusted and reputable news sources”.

Facebook reached deals with most of Australia’s largest media companies earlier this year. Nine Entertainment, which includes the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, said in its annual report that it was expecting “strong growth in the short-term” from its deals with Facebook and Google.

British newspapers including the Guardian signed up last year to a programme in which Facebook pays to license articles that appear on a dedicated news section on the social media site. Separately, in July Guardian Australia struck a deal with Facebook to license news content.

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