Platforms: Switch (reviewed)

Octopath Traveler is nothing if not ambitious. Instead of telling one story, it attempts to tell the story of eight different characters, each with their own unique gameplay mechanic. It’s certainly a lot for an initially simple-looking JRPG to tackle.

Some are calling it the second coming of Final Fantasy VI. Some are calling it a narrative mess that meanders around with no real point. However, neither side completely addresses Octopath’s true intent: to bring the traditional JRPG into a more modern setting. From graphics, to gameplay, to world construction, this is a game that does its best to take modern day game design practices and apply them to a 16 bit RPG format, and that is certainly refreshing to anyone who is looking for an old-school RPG fix.

Story

It would be a mistake to say that Octopath Traveler has one story. Rather, Octopath Traveler has eight different stories, and could almost be described as eight separate RPGs that allow you to trade characters and items between them.

The stories of the eight travelers never really intersect. Occasionally their tales will lead them to the same place, but always for completely separate reasons. There’s no universe destroying ultimate evil, no evil emperor or mystic prophecy tying everything together. Every tale in Octopath Traveler is personal.

People have been drawing comparisons to Final Fantasy VI (or III as it was known in the US,) because of Octopath Traveler’s unique graphic style, and multiple characters but it’s not really like Final Fantasy at all. It’s much closer to the SaGa series. It gives you this open world filled with characters and stories to experience, and allows you to approach those stories however you see fit.

In a way, this means that Octopath Traveler’s story is whatever you make of it. They range from dark political tales like Primrose’s escape from slavery, to goofy tales of adventure, such as Alfin’s quest to see the world. If you don’t like a particular character’s story, you don’t have to play any of their chapters. In fact, you don’t have to recruit them at all.

If you’re the type of gamer who absolutely needs to 100 percent a game, then Octopath Traveler might seem a little disjointed to you. Then again, Octopath Traveler also manages to tell so many stories in so many genres all at the same time. It’s a narrative feat that we haven’t seen since Live-A-Live, and that’s something to be praised.

Whether or not you enjoy Octopath Traveler’s story is really going to come down to your state of mind. If you really want everything to come together and get tied up with a nice little narrative bow, then you are going to be disappointed. However, each individual story is pretty solid. Just accept that you are essentially reading individual chapters in eight individual books, and you will have a much better time.

Writing and Voice Acting

I normally don’t separate story and writing in my reviews, but I feel like I needed to make a special exception for Octopath Traveler, because the writing is just godawful in places. The localization team tried way too hard. H’Annit in particular speaks in this strange broken middle/olde English dialect that is practically unreadable. I’m no linguistics specialist, but I guarantee that dialect never actually existed in any way shape or form in any region, in any time period, anywhere in the world. It’s all just fantasy jibberish.

Sometimes the writing doesn’t mesh with the voice acting. Alfin, for example, is written with a southern accent, but his voice actor never integrates this accent into his lines.

This is a problem that plagues most speaking roles. In Japanese, a dying bishop coughs and hacks out his lines of dialogue, barely able to speak. In English, he just calmly speaks in the same monotone dialect that everyone else speaks in. It’s not that the voice acting itself is necessarily bad, but it feels as if the voice director made no actual attempt to interpret these voices and lines of dialogue in a meaningful way.

However, the writing suffers even when you don’t throw voice acting into the mix. You kind of have to suspend your disbelief and pretend that the many travelers aren’t working together; otherwise many of these stories simply don’t work. For example, Tressa’s Chapter 1 is all about how a young merchant with no combat experience stood up to a thieving band of pirates using only her wits… if she is alone. If she has the party together, it’s a story about how a young girl paid a bunch of random murder hobos to ruthlessly slaughter the pirates that ransacked her village in an act of cold hearted revenge.

Inspiring!

Despite the writing issues, Octopath Traveler is an incredibly enjoyable game, just be prepared for some groan worthy dialogue. It’s clear that Square-Enix was trying to bring back the feel of old-school SNES RPGS but they might have gone too far. I don’t think anyone wants a commitment to the 16-bit aesthetic so thorough that the localization produces lines like “spoony bard” again.

Gameplay - Battle

It’s weird to say this about an RPG, but you aren’t necessarily playing Octopath Traveler for the story. You are playing for the gameplay, which is a brilliant marriage of concepts from the most successful JRPGs of the past.

On the surface, battles appear to be your pretty standard Final Fantasy affair. Every round you and the opponent take turns beating on each other in an order determined by your speed. Attack a bit, cast some spells, use some items, don’t die. You’ve done this before.

Dive a little deeper, and Octopath Traveler presents you with a number of interesting tweaks to the traditional formula that keep you invested in every battle. The most notable is the BP system, which was clearly inspired by Bravely Default. Every turn your character earns BP, and by spending BP you can upgrade your actions. Spend it on an attack to do more damage or attack more than once. Spend it on a buff to make the buff last longer. Spend it on healing to heal more. Every skill in the game can be upgraded with BP up to three times.

Then there’s the break system, which seems somewhat Shin Megami Tensei inspired. Every enemy has a number of shields and as long as their shields are up, they take reduced damage and can act as normal. Hitting them with something they are weak to removes a shield, and removing all shields “breaks” the opponent. A broken opponent takes full damage, cannot act on the turn they are broken, and cannot act on the next turn either. They are also more susceptible to skills like steal.

The game displays each enemy’s weakness below them, but they are covered up by question marks before you discover them. If an enemy has four question marks below their name, then you know they are weak to exactly four things among all the weapon and element types the game has to offer. This usually causes you to try out a variety of skills on every enemy you come across. For that matter, weaknesses are always displayed in the same order, so finding one will actually act as a clue to all the rest.

The combination of the BP and break system creates an amazing battle rhythm. Enemies and allies will trade blows, sizing each other up and searching for a weak point. Once it’s discovered, you will start burning your BP and laying on the damage. Sometimes you’ll save up everything for one decisive turn. Other times you’ll debilitate the enemy so hard that they never get to act.

But the biggest advantage of this system is that it makes no skill useless. You know how mages tend to never physically attack RPGs? Well that’s not the case in Octopath Traveler. If an enemy is weak to staves then you may blow all your BP on a multi-hitting stave attack. Even though it will do next to no damage, it might just break the enemy allowing your beefier physical units to step in and finish them off. Literally every tool at your disposal has a use, and it’s these tools that create the next biggest source of fun.

Gameplay – Skills

Octopath Traveler’s job system once again takes a cue from Bravely Default and Final Fantasy Tactics. Every character has a base job and that job brings with it a certain skills and abilities. Most notable is their path action, which allows them to do interesting things with every NPC.

Unfortunately, while there are eight travelers, there are only really four path actions. Therion the thief and Tressa the merchant can both get items from NPCs, and it’s always the same items. The only difference is that the Thief has a percentage chance to steal while the merchant can just buy them with money. While there are some items that just can’t be stolen, these path actions amount to being essentially equal.

The same goes for the rest of the path actions. Both Olberic the Knight and H’Annit the Huntress can fight NPCs in town, usually to obtain special items, complete sidequests, or open up secret passageways. The only difference is Olberic fights alone, while H’Annit can only fight using her band of captured animals. Primrose and Ophelia can both get NPCs to follow them, and Alfin and Cyrus can both discover hidden information from NPCs. The only difference between the two is that you either have a chance to fail (and are subjected to the same lost reputation system as Therion) or you are level locked before performing your action on valuable targets.

Characters become more diverse via their unique talents. H’Annit, for example, can capture any non-human enemy at low life and resummons them to fight for her later in battle. Alfin can mix items together to get advanced damaging and healing effects. Tressa cannot only steal gold and spend it to hire help in battle, but she can also use monetary themed skills like donating her own BP to other characters.

The skills in Octopath Traveler are incredibly diverse and useful. You have your normal magic spells and healing techniques, but you’ll also find skills that let you attack any time you use a non-attack skill that let you counterattack when certain conditions are met, even skills that change the way your base skills work. It gives you that Final Fantasy Tactics vibe of mixing and matching skills until your character is completely broken and overpowered. In a good way.

In the beginning of the game, this is actually a problem, because you are going to want to have at least one of the four types of path actions available at all times, but likely won’t be able to fashion a decent battle party out of those four characters. This problem clears up when you gain access to “job shrines” that allow you to multiclass. Multiclassing gives you the option to use all the equipment and abilities of whatever second job you choose, though you will  need to learn them all again. Later in the game you will gain access to advanced jobs that provide you either further customization opportunities.

And this is where Octopath Traveler really opens up. You can combine Olberic’s improved defenses with Primrose’s counter attacks to create an unstoppable wall that basically reflects damage. You can combine Alfin’s SP regeneration with Cyrus’s heavy damaging spells to create a perfect mage. You can stack every ability that earns you more gold, experience, and job points until every battle skyrockets you multiple levels.

The possibilities are endless.

Gameplay – Quests

I already covered how Octopath Traveler is essentially eight RPGs in one. What’s great about this model is that you can choose to play these RPGs in any order you want. Yes, Octopath Traveler is essentially as open world as JRPGs get. From the very beginning of the game you can wander around to any town. Granted the enemies there will likely be difficult to beat at low levels, but the option is still there.

This means that you can pick up any character in any order, visit shrines in any order, explore towns in any order, and forge whatever narrative you like. It’s fantastic for gamers who want to have a big living world to explore.

In fact, I’d say that Octopath Traveler is at its best when you are completing mainline quests. Most are attached to a town (which you can explore quite thoroughly with your path actions), and feature interesting dungeons with challenging bosses. You also always know where to go next, as all story quests show up as green blips on your mini-map. You can also fast travel to any town you have visited before, which is fantastic for taking on quests that let you backtrack.

Unfortunately, the same enjoyment cannot be said for sidequests. While sidequest starting points are shown on the map, most sidequests only ever give you one or two sentences of description, not nearly enough to figure out what to do.

For example, one person told me to guide them to a nearby town. I used the path action guide to get her there, but after speaking with everyone in town, the quest would not complete. I even tried to remove her from my party and still didn’t complete a quest.

As a result, the only sidequests I completed were accidental. I would wander around from town to town, following the mainline quests as per normal and every so often check in with sidequest points. Any time I completed a quest, though, the reward wasn’t even worth the minimal amount of effort I spent on it.

Eventually, I ignored the rest of them and focused mostly on the many different mainline quests, and even then, I was 20 hours deep before getting to any traveler’s second chapter. Octopath Traveler is huge, and that’s great. Expect a full playthrough to take 100 hours or more.

Presentation

Much has been made about the aesthetics of Octopath Traveler, and for good reason. It’s a beautiful game that expertly combines 16-bit spritework and full polygonal 3D environments. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly will make anyone who lived through the SNES era happy.

The music is universally amazing. It too harkens back to classic JRPGs, and while it opts for a full orchestra rather than 16 bit synth music, there are still the trappings of the 16 bit era here. You’ll hear lots of violins, flutes, and pianos for town medleys, and bombastic full orchestra pieces for battle themes. Unfortunately, there could have been just a little bit more variety in the battle music considering how high the encounter rate is, but that’s a small complaint about an otherwise fantastic score.

Difficulty

Let’s address the complaint that this game is “too grindy.”

Yes, the game gives you a recommended level for each area you might travel, and if you enter a high level area with low level characters, you’ll likely die. However, the open nature of Octopath Traveler’s world also allows you to exploit that.

If you decide to only grind on safe enemies until you reach the recommended levels for each area, the game will be a bit of a slog. Conversely, you can enter a high level area, treat a random encounter as a boss, get a huge boost of experience for winning the battle, and then fast travel to the nearest town for a rest at the inn. Following this method meant I was only a few battles away from any recommended level cap.

And I wasn’t even playing intelligently. Most of what I did was spam my hardest hitting moves hoping to win. When you factor in buffs and debuffs and the multidimensional job system into the mix, it should be easy to venture in to high level areas, even if you aren’t at the recommended level to do so.

Scratching the RPG itch

A lot of people expected Octopath Traveler to be a lot of things, which meant a lot of people were disappointed.

Octopath Traveler is not the next Final Fantasy. It’s barely a fantasy at all. Most of the stories are a bit more grounded and low-fantasy than the swords and sorcery high-fantasy of Square fame.

Octopath Traveler is not just a retread of the classic JRPG formula. A lot of its design decisions are taken straight from modern games, and its commitment to a more open world design does result in a less cohesive narrative.

Octopath Traveler is not a game that will end with you saving the world. It doesn’t even really end. The “end” is when you finish the story for the main character you chose at the beginning of the game. However, after the credits roll, there are still more stories to experience.

And that’s what Octopath Traveler is. Its eight stories, eight RPGs in one. It’s eight tales of eight travelers with eight different mechanical styles. It’s eight different skill trees, eight different stat layouts, eight different ways to play the game, all wrapped up into one awesome package.

There aren’t many games that can keep me playing for 50 hours straight, tell me I’m barely halfway through the game, and still leave me begging for more. Octopath Traveler is one of those games. While you might groan at the voice acting, moan at the grind, or squint your eyes in confusion at any piece of dialogue in H’Annit’s story, you’ll still end up walking away from this long, deep, and enthralling experience feeling with the feeling of having experienced a great JRPG.