Octopath Traveler

This post contains a few major spoilers for the game. I recommend playing before reading.

When I write reviews, I usually like to use them as a thinking process for working out what I felt about the work I’m reviewing. Of course, I know before I start writing what I thought about a game, or film or TV show, and my notes usually give me an indication of where my train of thought is heading. But usually the act of writing informs my “thesis statement” as it were, about a game. But I think it’s bad form to end with your statement, so this time I’ll begin with mine; Octopath Traveler is a good game, but it’s not a game for anyone.

Let me explain; before I started to even review Octopath Traveler, I was told that it’s not a game for me, and that I wouldn’t like it because I was starting to be a bit annoyed at the repetitive nature of the game. I was told, both directly to me and through various internet comments, that the game is for those who want a game focused around the JRPG gameplay loop completely distilled, and that I simply wasn’t a fan of that gameplay loop, whether I thought so or not. Similarly, when I raised some concerns about the game’s story, I was told that it’s for fans of that kind of story. I think, however, that Octopath Traveller is really for neither. It’s a game that takes too many paths and fails to bring any to their completion. The JRPG gameplay loop is distracted by long cutscenes and the multiple stories are forced ungracefully into the gameplay. Both are also hampered by the bizarre structural issues.

With my point hopefully clear, I’ll return to my normal introduction. Octopath Traveler (henceforth Octopath) is a game that was released for the Nintendo Switch back in July. It was first pitched as a throwback to titles like Final Fantasy VI and other 90s JRPGs. I must admit to not having played many of those titles; my JRPG experience is more focused around games like Shin Megami Tensei and Pokémon, but I was initially attracted to Octopath thanks to its early proof of concept demo, which showed off striking visuals and an engaging battle system.

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The aesthetic is perhaps the height of this game’s charms, although even it isn’t quite perfect. The music is, for the most part, charming and beautiful, brilliantly evocative of whatever town or situation it plays in. The boss battle themes are some of the best I’ve heard in any video game, not just of the genre, and unlike JPRG hit Persona 5’s similarly stand out soundtrack, the battle themes change throughout the game, avoiding the chance of you ever getting tired of them.[1]

Of particular note is how the game utilises musical cues in dramatic moments – each boss battle is cued up with music starting in the overworld and smoothly transitioning into battle. Some battles even forgo battle music entirely, using a character’s unique theme or a tension theme to really ram the point home. Joyfully, this technique isn’t overused; it’s very carefully done to ensure maximum impact. Each character having an instrument and different boss battle lead in is also pretty clever, although it’s a bit of a shame their character themes are usually only heard at the end of the chapter. What’s especially heartening about Octopath’s music is that it uses a relatively unknown composer.[2] A throwback game like this might have been inclined to take the easy option to hire an industry veteran, but instead was a bit more daring in its hiring, which has certainly paid dividends.

The visuals are similarly impressive – they revitalize sprite-based graphics in such a clever way, and the ability to soften some of the more overbearing visual effects in the menu is a good touch.[3] The eight environments are all stunning, but it’s a real shame the game never fully makes the most of its “2D-3D” engine. Once it has shot new life into the standard JRPG areas, it feels content to rest on its laurels without providing anything new. Each dungeon is basically either a differently coloured cave or a mansion, and while the first time you walk into that it’s beautiful, the game very rarely expands on this, or offers much new (more on this later). A game with a confident visual style should always be looking for new ways to use that visual style in inventive ways – but Octopath never does.

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The battle sprites also borrow from traditional JRPG convention, with large looming villains and tiny heroes. It serves a double purpose of calling back to the game’s roots and creating imposing looking enemies, meaning it works both as nostalgic and practical. The boss designs are especially spectacular and brimming with personality, but the standard enemy designs fare less well. Not only are they less filled with personality, their designs are sometimes difficult to parse in sprite form. Enemies are often ranked variations on the same type (i.e. 4 or 5 increasingly difficult ‘lizardmen’ enemies), and that ranking is represented by more cluttered designs. These may have looked fantastic on paper but make less of a convincing case for themselves when seen in-game. Overall though, Octopath does a fantastic job in selling its new visual style.

The battle system is perhaps the final real winner of the game – it’s of similar style to Shin Megami Tensei’s “press turn system”, with the central strategy being finding and exploiting enemy weaknesses in order to gain extra turns for your characters and lower the defences of the enemies. In Octopath, hitting an enemy’s weakness a certain amount of times (represented by a number on a shield) will ‘break’ it, allowing you an extra turn and also lowering its defence. But it also borrows the waiting game idea from Bravely Default, so that you wait turns to build up Battle Points, and then can use those to gain extra hits or more powerful special attacks. I actually like the battle system more than most JRPGs I’ve played, because it interweaves the weakness breaking mechanic and the BP mechanic so seamlessly. Taken alone these both have the potential to create compelling battle systems, but Octopath manages to create what might be a better one by using both.

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Some fights, however, last a little too long because of it. Breaking an enemy is the key to beating it, but even some low-level goons need to have their weaknesses hit around 3 times before you gain that extra turn, so if you need to grind it can sometimes become a little tiring because of how long battles can last. Boss battles also suffer – you can have figured out the strategy to go with or the boss’ weakness pretty early and yet still have 20 minutes of mindless chipping away to go. There are disappointingly few moments where bosses significantly change up their strategy midway through fights, and when that does happen, the game normally makes sure to reuse its tricks for a couple other bosses. It’s true that something worth doing once is worth doing many times, but that can also take away from certain bosses’ uniqueness.

SMT negates this particular problem because it only takes one hit to an enemy’s weakness for you to gain an extra move, but Octopath can’t do this because it would make the BP system overpowered. BP would only be needed for doing massive damage, whereas in the current system you need to decide whether you want to use BP to break an enemy quickly by chaining multiple attacks or saving them up to deal more damage once the enemy is broken by more traditional means. So Octopath needs enemies with large shields that require a lot of hits to break in order to make battles interesting.

I think a way the game might have solved this dilemma is to take away random battles entirely and have a more structured way to dole out EXP and battles. While I don’t mind the random encounter system, it is a bit of a relic of the past. It’s not awful here – the encounter rate isn’t stupidly high, and you can reduce it further with a passive scholar skill, but it doesn’t seem to work with this style of long, drawn out battles that the Octopath system is built for. Random battles work well in a game like Pokémon for multiple reasons, such as the surprise of what you find in the long grass (because you can add any enemy to your team), but also because Pokémon battles can be short if you know what you’re doing. Octopath has long battles by design, so it arguably shouldn’t have included a system conducive to shorter battles.

While the inclusion of random battles is slightly more up for debate, there are some retro throwbacks that shouldn’t have made it this far into Octopath. Surprising your enemy or vice-versa is just an annoying feature, the purpose of which is clearly to shake up battles, but is so random as to make some encounters a chore. This might work better in a game with enemies on the overworld, but not with random encounters. If you’ve forgotten to save in a while and are coming off a long grinding session a bit weakened, you could lose a lot of progress just by stumbling into the wrong battle and not being given a chance to move before you’re decimated. You also shouldn’t be able to fail running away – and this game is even more punishing in that your characters lose a turn if you fail running. This is really just player unfriendly. It’s punishing you, sometimes very badly, for losing an RNG you have little control over. Both are systems seemingly borrowed from Octopath’s pedigree without having thought about whether those gameplay systems are actually good, or whether they come from a time of artificial longevity in video games through cheap difficulty.

Other retro throwbacks that shouldn’t have made their way in there include item shops that stock different healing items depending on the town, forcing you to fast travel randomly until you can finally find the one that carries the Inspiriting Plum variation you require. Items carried by team members that are not currently in your party are inaccessible, meaning that you must return to the bar to switch items. These complains may seem nitpicky, but they’re indicative of the sort of design decisions Octopath too often falls back on; that it doesn’t think enough about the elements it both borrows and creates.

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One of my biggest gripes of the gameplay is the levelling imbalance, but to explain that I need to talk about the bizarre structure of the game. So, it’s split into 8 characters. You first pick a character, then travel around the map finding the other 7 and completing all their first chapters. This first part is pretty good, because as you find the first four characters your battle and exploration tactics become more complex – more characters in your party and more options to interact with NPCs through “path actions” (more on these later). The placement of the characters on the world map means that you get all 4 path actions as you collect your first 4 characters, and there’s also some invisible level scaling that means the difficulty curve is steadily increasing.

After that the game ‘opens up’ so that all characters’ second chapters are available at once. The level scaling is now fixed with each chapter having its own set recommended level, so it’s not exactly open world, even if the map initially gives that impression. Instead, there’s a pretty fixed order you should do it in, and although you can cheese it a little, that doesn’t mean that’s the way the game wants itself to be played. This then continues until each characters’ third and fourth chapters, giving a total of 32 chapters (there’s also some optional post game stuff I’ll talk about later).

The way I played it was this – I did all the Chapter 1s, meaning my first four characters were slightly levelled above the others, even moreso because of an EX-granting enemy called a Cait I found during my 4th chapter. This was a bit of a mixed blessing, because even though my first four were correctly levelled, the next couple weren’t. Although I grinded with Olberic so I could use him instead of H’aanit, I didn’t do that for Cyrus, Tressa or Primrose. So, then I went through the game with my main party of Alfyn (you annoyingly can’t switch out your first character until you’ve completed their story), Olberic, Therion and Ophelia, switching out one of them for a really under-levelled character when I needed to do their chapter and just praying that character wouldn’t die.

This is probably the wrong way to do things, and it’s to the game’s credit it let me make such a mistake. But while I appreciate this, I also think the path I took will be a pretty common way to play the game, and that there are some simple fixes to improve the levelling issue. For example, each chapter one could make it so that you meet the character at a higher level depending on how many other characters you’ve collected in your party. JRPGs normally do level scaling of party members – not every Pokémon found in the wild is at level one after all.

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So, talking of structure and characters, let’s move onto them, starting with my first pick and main character – Alfyn, the apothecary. Choosing your first character is a bit of a gamble, given that you don’t know much about them beyond a short description and a nicely drawn picture. Maybe if there was a bit more description about the way their path action and battle actions affected gameplay, as well as some stats, it might be more of an informed decision, but I had to choose Alfyn based on my gut instinct. Knowing my gut, this is usually a mistake.

Alfyn’s story, like most of the stories in the game, starts with a character confident in their current position. Alfyn is one of the best apothecaries in his village, just as Therion is one of the best thieves and Cyrus a top scholar adored by all. But eventually a sense of boredom encloses these people, a desire to reach for more. Alfyn’s story is the least defined in this aspect. Rather than a certain goal pushing him to reach for greater heights, his story is just him travelling around the world somewhat aimlessly, pushed from town to town for no apparent reason. There’s a plot thread about his old master who inspired him, but it’s only mentioned briefly until the fourth chapter and post-game content. Alfyn’s third chapter raises some interesting concerns about the role of a healer, but his story is still the one with the least drive behind it.

This lack of a distinct path for Alfyn exposes some flaws of the open world. Octopath uses an open world in that all towns are connected, and you can run around the world without using fast travel. But the game’s stories are built around fast travel – Alfyn’s story doesn’t even tell you where he’s going next, so you sort of have to use the map to zip around. It doesn’t feel like a natural journey, but instead a series of mini-stories of Alfyn helping people like an apothecary version of the A-Team. So even though there is a large world to explore, the game feel more like clicking levels on a menu.

Alfyn (and Cyrus) has a ‘path action’ that lets you glean information from people. Cyrus uses this for his knock-off Miles Edgeworth impression of logic, while Alfyn just uses this to learn a little more about peoples’ backstories. Once again, Alfyn lacks clear definition in his story and path action. There’s nothing very ‘apothecary’ about talking to people, but at least it sort of fits with him being just a general mensch. It’s nice that every NPC has proper backstory written about them, but don’t think this comes close to the Dark Souls style of subtle world-building through item/character descriptions.[4] It’s true a lot of work was put into these descriptions, but sadly that doesn’t make them worthwhile. It’s rarely used for some clever puzzles, but most of the time it’s just that each character has a not-particularly interesting backstory probably written by some office intern.

Anyway, let’s talk a bit more about path actions in general. There are four path actions, each with two variations. These are: learning more information about NPCs; stealing/buying goods from NPCs; fighting NPCs and guiding NPCs around for use in battle. Although having two of each is a nice idea, only the buy/steal one has any real meaningful difference. You can either spend money to guarantee getting the item or take a chance at stealing it.[5]

Having to inspect every NPC in a town, however, quickly becomes a chore once you have all four path actions. They are rarely used for clever puzzles, and even then only in sidequests. In the main story, path actions are always used just to tell you where to go next. Even attempts at puzzles using the system are hampered by the game telling you who to use a path action on next with a green bubble. Here’s an example – in Primrose’s chapter two you need to enter a carriage. The owner of that carriage won’t let you in, but talking to him reveals he’s in debt to the bartender. Instead of letting you work out you need to guide the bartender to him, the bartender’s location is marked on the map, he has a green bubble above him, and every option other than guide is greyed out. It’s nice that each NPC is so fleshed out but it’s sadly so often not worth the hassle.

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After Alfyn I went to Therion the thief. Therion’s quest for the magical dragon balls (yes, seriously) gives him a much better motivation for travelling the world, but his whole shtick is at odds with travelling in a group. The dialogue sets him up as a lone wolf, someone wary of travelling with other because of former betrayal. There is a bit of “ludonarrative dissonance” (if you’ll excuse the term) with most of these people travelling together, but it can be solved by a little head-cannoning. I saw someone compare it to a D&D party, so I do get the idea of enjoying the characters being a bit at odds with each other, but there are still moments that stretch even the most generous suspension of disbelief. Returning to Primrose’s chapter two, the carriage you eventually get let into takes you and you alone into a top-secret brothel. Were Primrose travelling alone it all makes sense, but she’s part of a large motley crew, and even with the bartender’s approval the guard wouldn’t be letting you all in. Another example of this is in Therion’s Chapter Three. A character literally says to you ‘You were foolish to come alone’. Well, he’s the foolish one for not seeing the conga line of people come in behind me. Moments and lines like this do not need to be in a story that is about 4 people travelling together. There’s a difference between leaving things a bit open to player interpretation and wilful snubbing of the core conceit of your game, and Octopath seems too willing to partake in the latter.

Therion’s plot is seriously melodramatic, featuring all sorts of fun tropes, from the lone wolf thief to the story of betrayal. Whether it’s Ophelia’s father’s tragic death or the story of Olberic’s friend betraying him and his king (lots of betrayal in this game), it’s rare to find a story in Octopath not plagued by a bit of hammy melodrama. Like many others, I appreciate Octopath aiming for smaller scale stories, but even that is sort of undone by the secret final dungeon and how a lot of them end. Sure, Primrose’s story is about her taking down small-scale pimps, but they all turn out to be part of a shadow cult by the end. There’s slightly more character focus in the stories of Octopath, but given that the characters are mostly a collection of tropes I’ve seen before, it’s hard to get too invested.

I think the writing in the game is fine – considering the sheer volume of text there’s bound to be a few awkward lines, and Octopath does have a few too many, but generally it’s salvageable. That is, aside from H’aanit the hunter, who speaks in strange semi-Shakespearean English which is exclusive to her one tiny forest town. It’s seriously awkward, and reads awfully out loud, although luckily switching to Japanese audio alleviates some of those problems.

After H’aanit comes Ophelia the cleric. At the end of Ophelia’s story chapter about her dying adopted father and distraught sister, you must go through another cave and fight a huge golem for some religious ceremony. The game is so wedded to the “route to dungeon -> dungeon -> boss” formula for most of the game that it slots them in whether they fit or not. Ophelia shouldn’t be fighting so many big beasties, but the game can’t come up with anyway more inventive for her to get EXP so it’s another massive monster at the end of another similar dungeon. Tressa suffers a similar fate – at the end of her third chapter, a final encounter with a giant poison tiger comes out of nowhere. It isn’t at all foreshadowed or mentioned, but the game needs a big beast, so it simply forces one in. This even applies to the final bosses of some chapters. There’s a palpable sense of disappointment fighting an ‘Ogre Eagle’ in Alfyn’s final chapter because it not only seems to appear in the story for the worst reasons, it fails to fully capitalise on the interesting themes raised by Alfyn’s story.[6] It smacks of creative laziness, especially when compared to another character’s continuous inventive deconstruction of the game’s formula.

The whole experience also suffers from a sense of either the developers running out of time or lacking a certain creative energy. 32 chapters is a lot, and it’s shocking how little variation there is in them. Of the 32 chapters, only about 3 or 4 divert from the chapter structure set up in the very first chapter. That’s a tiny percentage, and it’s no wonder some critics have bemoaned the game’s repetitiveness.

Dungeon design is also creatively a bit bankrupt – it’s all caves or forests and it’s always a twisty road with a few hidden paths to chests and around to the save point before the boss. There’s also normally a ‘road to the dungeon’ area which is normally just a straight-ish line to the cave entrance. It’s all so rote even by the time you reach each character’s second chapters and shows no meaningful signs of progress as the game continues.

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Cyrus the scholar’s story about a missing evil library book starts in the city of Atlasdam, the ‘biggest town in the region’. The towns in Octopath are generally well-designed, and they each take care to have a notable landmark. But it’s not quite enough to stop them falling into the trap of similarity. Each has the requisite shops needed, and then a few houses that are either empty or plot-important and can’t be accessed until a certain character’s chapter. The churches all look the same, and although the idea of segregated living is interesting in developing the economic situation of the fictional world, it’s not interesting enough to simply be repeated in a bunch of the game’s towns without much expansion on in the story. Cyrus is clearly rich, and Alfyn is a bit poorer etc, but this never really plays into how the townspeople treat you or anything.

The two characters with the best stories are perhaps Tressa the merchant and Olberic the knight. Tressa’s story is light-hearted and without much consequence. It’s also surprisingly funny at times, which is always a plus in my book. If a game like this wants to not focus too much on story and instead wants to put effort behind crafting an engaging combat system, maybe a story like Tressa’s is perfect for it, because a lightness of tone and a simple story supports a game which is more focused on the gameplay. Any idea that the developers might have ever intended this, however, is negated by the fact that the cutscenes take up way too much time. Sure, you can skip them if you need, but they really shouldn’t be this long for a story this light.

Olberic has the simplest design and backstory but also manages to have the most unique chapters. Perhaps the fact that he’s the most basic class of JRPG character, the fallen knight, meant that they put an extra bit of elbow grease into his set-pieces, but his chapters are fantastic. The first follows the Octopath formula to a tee, but the second throws it out of the window for a boss rush, where you can use the path actions to find out the opponent’s weaknesses before battle, but you aren’t specifically prompted to do so. The third chapter is somehow even better. It starts with another boss rush, then a standard dungeon followed by boss, and then a one-on-one duel with your rival. Moments like this show creativity in using the game’s systems and are all the better for it. Both Tressa and Olberic’s stories then, show the game either crafting a story that benefits its gameplay, or changing the gameplay formula to benefit the story.

In contrast to popular opinion, my least favourite story was that of the final adventurer I picked up; Primrose the dancer. Like Persona 5, Primrose’s story tries to incorporate some pretty gruesome sexual assault storylines. But Persona 5 focused a lot of time on getting its abuser, the PE teacher Kamoshida, right and properly developed. Beating him feels satisfying, but the effect he caused is still there, and it takes hours to get to him. Octopath rushes its first pimp character, and then makes the other one in Primrose’s second chapter even more despicable. So I guess there’s a natural raising of the stakes, but the fact that these villains get so little time spent on them feels manipulative, like it’s just using sexual assault as a short-hand for a bad guy without properly examining the effect of Helgenish’s actions. This problem is compounded by Primrose’s path action, which is to use her sex appeal to have NPCs join your team. It’s a bit troubling to say the least, and I think that it shows reasonably well that sexual assault isn’t something that should just be thrown into a story to up the stakes, but should be used a bit more carefully than it is here.

Tonal whiplash is also a problem considering you can go straight from Primrose’s first chapter to Tressa’s second chapter if you wanted. The chapter structure doesn’t allow for a flowing narrative, it’s all stops and starts, which isn’t conducive to a consistent tone or even to a coherent story, given that you have to remind yourself of what happened last time. It makes the stories feel a little disjointed.

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Moving onto the second chapters, the game does finally allow interaction between characters. That the characters never talk much is something that’s been heavily criticised, but being generous to Octopath, I could say that that’s reviewing something not in the game, so I can’t be too harsh. The devs wanted to tell 8 separate stories, not one big one. But from Chapter 2 onwards you are occasionally prompted to ‘press + for banter’. The banter scenes aren’t great but bafflingly they’re all consigned to a strange nether-dimension, where two characters are whisked away for a small chat about the current situation. There are occasional ‘tavern banter’ sections with more than two characters in your party, but even though they happen in a fixed spot, it still whisks the conversation away to another plane. The game has already got lengthy cutscenes, and the legwork of writing all these banter scenes has been done – the simple step of putting these conversations in the cutscenes would do wonders to avail criticisms of the characters not feeling like a team.

Although the game doesn’t contain any real interaction between the cast or stories, critics post-launch were berated for neglecting to mention the appearance of a post-game dungeon. This is completely hidden for a lot of players in the game, given that it requires the completion of two seemingly random side quests to access. Nevertheless, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it, given its discovery prior to me playing the game. Now it’s also worth noting that the final boss is insanely difficult and I haven’t beaten it yet, but the lore moments are more accessible. The Graham Crossford revelations are genuinely pretty good at tying together some of the character’s stories, and it re-contextualises some boss battles[7] and story beats, which is a lot of fun. But it’s not a cure-all to the valid critique that the stories still feel very disjointed. Most of my problems don’t come from the fact that there isn’t some cool lore tying together Tressa’s diary and Alfyn’s saviour, but from the fact that the stories are wildly differing in tone and that there are story beats that simply make no sense in a game about 8 people on a journey together. So yes, the final dungeon is a good addition, but no, it’s not a fix to a lot of complaints.

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I like Octopath Traveller, and I won’t deny it’s a fun game that I had some great times with. There’s a lot in it to enjoy, and the high sales have proved a market for a throwback JPRG like this. That said, there’s something rather sloppy about a lot of the game’s major design decisions. The battle system is engaging and interesting, but it feels out of place in a game with the structure of a more retro-JRPG. This game was, according to developer interview, developed first with the idea of making a love-letter to the games they grew up with, but it’s worth saying that had they started with the idea of this battle system, I doubt that some of the systems in this game would be present. Likewise, had they begun development with the idea of making a game based around eight characters, I imagine the story structure would be far different, because it’s hard to imagine this being the first choice of structure for a game with “eight unique stories” as its core conceit. So there’s an element of moving the genre into the future with some of the design decisions of Octopath, but the game also feels significantly held back by its past.

So Octopath Traveller has some good ideas. It has a good idea for a battle system, a good idea for having multiple stories, a good idea for making a retro JRPG. Sadly, though, it consistently fails to reconcile these good ideas into something truly great. Much like the game’s eight distinct stories, the small successes of Octopath Traveller never truly coalesce into a satisfying whole.


 

[1] To my mind They Who Govern Reason may well be the greatest boss battle music in any video game I’ve heard.

[2] Yasunori Nishiki has worked on a couple of anime, but this seems to be his first major composing job on a video game.

[3] It’s worth noting that this option was a response to player feedback on the demo, which is something I’d love to see more games do.

[4] Finally I manage to cement myself as a proper game critic with a Dark Souls reference. Hopefully my parents are proud.

[5] If you fail stealing it a few times your reputation in town can be damaged, but simply paying off the bartender will repair it, which is a nice touch.

[6] Speaking of Alfyn’s Chpater Four, I’m not even sure where to start with his strange mind palace recreation of events in order to remember about the Ogre Eagle’s existence. It’s incredibly strange and forced in the worst way. Alfyn being the first character I picked and the first character whose chapter four I finished was a bit of a disappointment given that I like him as a character and his middle chapters are so strong.

[7] In particular the Red-Eye fight takes on a slightly more disturbing edge

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