For all of the great things it does, there are an equal number of mediocre or downright disappointing aspects. That being said, it ultimately boils down to how much a player can tolerate the mediocrity to find the gem underneath it all.
It wouldn’t be too hyperbolic to say that expectations were high for Octopath Traveler. With graphical cues reminiscent of the JRPGs from the 90s and being developed by the team behind both Bravely Default titles, many hoped that Octopath Traveler would be akin to the classics from decades past, such as Final Fantasy 6.
However, while Octopath Traveler looks like a game from the JRPG heydeys (with a coat of 2018 polish), it likely won’t become a classic. Its story won’t impress everyone, the narrative structure is trite, and the characters are mostly walking clichés...and yet, for all of its faults, it’s still a very solid game. Octopath Traveler is very much an example of the good outweighing the bad, but not by much.
Graphics and varied environments
Let’s get this out of the way first: Octopath Traveler looks gorgeous. The game is described as being 2.5D, where the character sprites are all 2D, but they walk around in a 3D environment. The pixel art is very detailed, and the characters are unique and show decent emotion by way of exaggerated body movements, just like JRPGs of yore. There are vast improvements over those days though, as the game is built using the Unreal Engine 4, enabling the team to add a modern polish to the graphics.
The game features a number of different environments and locales, each with their own set of enemies. While this isn’t anything new to video games in general, the use of the Unreal engine adds more graphical effects that impart a much richer feeling to each environment. A forest is covered in shadows, making the area feel claustrophobic and dangerous, while desert areas are extremely bright, with the edges of the screen being portrayed in a mirage-like haze, simulating the heat of a humid day. Furthermore, some of the best areas are wide open, making the trek across them feel like a walk across the overworld map of an old JRPG, but with much more depth and detail.
The music for Octopath Traveler was composed by Yasunori Nishiki and, judging by his work here, his name will likely become increasingly well known. The music is nothing short of stunning. While the music hews close to the typical RPG conventions, with tracks that feature grandiose operatic vocals and melodramatic tracks that use the violin to elicit emotion out of the player, each track is still memorable and powerful in its own right. For example, the game’s opening theme starts with the flute and drums to set the stage of a grand journey, before additional instruments are added to elicit the idea of a grand, open world to explore.
As would be expected, each playable character gets their own character theme, with each theme being incredibly unique and suitable to each character’s attitude and origins. Cyrus’s theme for example, has a more consistent drum line, with a strong violin suite that rises and falls periodically, as if to showcase his own academic ego. Meanwhile Tressa’s theme is playful and serene, much more suitable to her youthful naivety. With a consistently strong showing across the track list, Octopath Traveler features one of the best soundtracks of 2018.
Some of the more memorable sequences of the game were its boss battles. While the chapter 1 boss fights are quite mundane from a gameplay perspective, the bosses toward the end of the game are far more enjoyable, with gimmicks added that make fights more interesting, if not more challenging. While some of the gimmicks may be mundane (e.g. all of the boss’s attacks cause poison), others are more unique; one boss locks out certain commands (e.g. no regular attacks), requiring players to change tactics and use other options. Another boss creates an aura halfway during the battle that continuously lowers the party’s maximum health, forcing the player to become more strategic and aggressive. Each late-game boss is almost a puzzle in and of itself, requiring players to adjust strategies on the fly as the battle conditions change. While the battle system itself is quite fun, even hours later, the boss battles add some much needed variety and are one of the high points of the game.
Each of Octopath Traveler’s NPCs have a small backstory, often a small paragraph but sometimes longer. They can be found by using either the “Inquire” or “Scrutinize” path action. Some of the backstories are mediocre, such as a teacher that retires to a small riverside town. Others are eye rolling: a guard in Cobblestone was a mercenary until he was injured by a knee wound.
However, there are some backstories that are quite sentimental; a girl was left abandoned by her father in the slums, so the other residents have been trying educate her to give her a chance to escape poverty; a mother had an argument with her son more than 10 years ago, and now wistfully wonders where he is; a brother lost his sister, and now turns to a life of crime to support himself. Instead of being random NPCs with a single line of dialogue, each NPC has a backstory that helps to make them feel more realized and part of the world they inhabit.
In addition, the post-game dungeon offers tantalizing details on events prior to the start of the game. Serving almost like a payoff to the 8 character journeys, these details help to tie the past to the present, offering revelations that are as elucidating as they are sentimental. While not all players will reach this point, as opening the post-game dungeon requires some unintuitive steps (short of looking it up on the internet…), the secrets in the dungeon show just how much care and thought the developers put into the history of Octopath Traveler’s world.
A static, yet changing world
While the NPC backstories are generally quite interesting, practically all of them stay the same over the course of the game. On the one hand, this makes sense, as most of the information from “Inquire” or “Scrutinize” are about an NPC’s background. On the other hand, some of the NPCs’ dialogue does change slightly after story events, so why couldn’t their information be updated as well? In fact, there are rare instances where “Inquire/Scrutinize” does yield new information, but these are the exception, not the rule.
However, one thing that does work quite well are the movements of NPCs. Some NPCs will move naturally as part of their side quest chain, which is quite typical in games. In some cases though, after chapters are completed, the number of NPCs in a town will increase as new NPCs appear. More often than not, the new NPCs open up new side quests to complete. However, sometimes these NPCs are from a traveler’s story, and may appear in an earlier town (for example, after completing Tressa’s chapter 4, an NPC from her story appears in Primrose’s starting town). These little changes help make the world feel more connected and like it’s continuously changing, even though things only change after a chapter is completed.
One of Octopath Traveler’s “points” is the fact that there are 8 playable characters with 8 individual stories to tell. There was plenty of pre-release speculation about whether the stories eventually intertwine. As many have already found out: no, the stories do not “intertwine,” at least in the typical sense. There are some common elements in each story that hint toward something, but each story is stand-alone and in no way does one story have an impact on another.
On that note, with 8 independent stories, are all of them winners? Unfortunately, no. All of the stories are simple, cliché journeys of self-discovery. Each character isn’t off to save the day from a world ending menace, but instead go out on their journey for their own personal reasons. While this was perfectly fine for me, I can understand how others may feel that the individual stories are lacking. The stories don’t buck trends, nor do they offer any morals that countless other stories have already told. In fact, it’s quite easy to predict how a Traveler’s story will play out, including the villain’s reveal and subsequent climax. There simply aren’t that many surprises in the Traveler stories, especially with villains that simply show up and aren’t very well developed before meeting their ends. That said, as repeatedly mentioned before, the post-game dungeon does have its own wealth of secrets that tie things together very nicely. Ultimately, for players who don’t mind the simple tales, or prefer personal stories over grand, save-the-world epics, then Octopath Traveler doesn’t disappoint in this regard (but it doesn’t impress very much either).
There are a lot of side quests, and while they are mostly of the fetch quest variety, they’re also mini puzzles on their own. While the game hints at the quest requirements, it never outright states them. Even in the journal, each side quest is detailed as a quote from the quest giver. As a result, some quests are quite tricky to complete, requiring items from the other side of the world to finish. Others have multiple endings, depending on how the player completed them. While there’s no “correct” ending, some conclusions are more fulfilling than the alternative, but require more detective work on the player’s part.
Fun battles, little grinding*
The battle system in Octopath Traveler is quite fun. The game is turn-based, with the party members and the enemies taking turns to attack, with the player/enemy order being determined by a character’s speed and buffs/debuffs. There are a number of different types of attacks, based on weapon and elemental spells, with each Traveler initially having access to only a subset of these types. For example, Tressa initially only has a spear, bow, and wind spells. Enemies have weaknesses that must be sussed out (and they remain unveiled for the rest of the game once known), and hitting a weak point drops the enemy’s “shield count” by 1. Once the “shield count” is 0, the enemy enters a “broken state,” where they can’t attack for 1 turn and any damage to them ignores defense/resistances and is doubled. Later on, characters can equip a “second job class” which expands their repertoire of attack types.
The flow of battle, then, is to find the enemy weaknesses, break the shields, and then unload attacks. Should the enemy remain alive and regain their shields, it’s just a matter of attacking their weak points to “break” them again and resume the attack.
At the start of the game, battles are quite easy as it’s a simple matter of finding the weak points, breaking the enemy, and then unleashing a full assault. Enemies do little damage as well, and there is little fear of game over so long as the characters are decently leveled and equipped. Once the player recruits more characters, the battles become more challenging, as the enemies scale their health, attack, and defenses, but are still quite manageable.
There comes a point when battles start to become mundane, especially once the enemy weaknesses are known. Notably, this usually happens once the party is around the same level as the enemy. The problem is further compounded when it’s noted that, while the story chapter 1 has a level recommendation of 10, chapter 2 is recommended at around 25, chapter 3 is in the 30s to low 40s, and the final chapters are all scaled to level 45. With mundane battles but high level recommendations, it initially looks like the player needs to grind to meet the recommended level.
However, playstyle and proper equipment generally supersedes character levels. Exploring new areas yields stronger enemies that not only give better experience, thereby increasing the rate at which levels are gained, but also leads to new towns which have much better equipment. With better equipment, the tougher enemies become much easier, and it’s entirely possible to tackle the story chapters below the “recommended level.” Should the player seek to further level their characters, it’s just a matter of more exploration and seeking out stronger enemies, including the mini “dungeons” littered around the world map that often have a chest or two with strong equipment.
*Note that there is one point in the game that some grinding is required to tackle optional, “hidden” bosses, as well as the final boss in the post-game dungeon (hint: all 8 Travelers will be involved in the battle).
One of the great selling points of JRPGs is the story and how the characters interact with each other and the story revelations as they come up. It is very disappointing then, that party interaction is almost non-existent in the game. The cutscenes in each story chapter always have the “main” character present, but none of the other party members in the group. As a result, the chapter cutscenes feel very isolated from the gameplay reality, where the player is running around town in a group of 4. It becomes even more disconcerting when, in cutscene, enemies talk about how the story’s Traveler is “rushing in alone,” despite there being 3 other people in the gameplay segment preceding the cutscene.
As with any game, there needs to be some suspension of disbelief for things to actually work; shooters often have player characters “heal” when they stop taking damage for a period of time, or NPCs run on loops until more story is played out. In Octopath Traveler’s case however, the game asks for a level of disbelief that is completely distracting from the experience.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t party interaction at all. Depending on party composition, after certain cutscenes there are opportunities to press the + button to “hear travel banter,” where the story’s Traveler and another party member are presented alone as they discuss the events of the preceding cutscene. These “travel banter” scenes are completely optional and range from the humorous (“what’s a brothel?”) to sincere (“you aren’t alone”). These cutscenes definitely help to develop a sense of camaraderie between the party members and are unfortunately the sole source of any party interaction. Note that there are also banter scenes in pubs, where there may be 3 or 4 characters talking to each other.
While most of the banter scenes are inconsequential, some of them are actually very relevant to a Traveler’s story. Without watching particular banter scenes, sometimes it feels like the characters are more aloof than they actually are. On the other side, some banter scenes add details that help to give story events more weight. Relegating such information to optional scenes, however, is just plain disappointing.
Noble vs Rogue? Doesn’t matter.
One of the big selling points about Octopath Traveler was the path actions, skills unique to each Traveler that enabled the player to interact with the world. While there are 8 “different” actions, in reality there are 4 with two variants for each, one designated as a “Noble” action and one as a “Rogue” action.
The general difference between Noble and Rogue is that Noble actions have a 100% success rate, but are gated by level (e.g. Alfin needs to be level 20 to Inquire certain NPCs), whereas Rogue actions can be done at anytime but have a chance of success, with the success rate increasing as the Traveler’s level increases. The consequence of failing a Rogue action is that the player’s reputation in town decreases, and if it decreases 5 times, all path actions are locked out in that particular town until the player pays gold to the pub owner to restore reputation. In effect, failing Rogue actions feels relatively inconsequential, so long as the player has enough gold to pay off the town (and to be fair, the chapter 4 towns have a cost of 100K gold to restore reputation).
As a result, there aren’t any story ramifications for choosing a Noble vs Rogue action, and the only gameplay differences are getting certain weapons or armor earlier than expected (which certainly helps with battles, but are not necessary). To be fair, there are certain instances where only a Noble/Rogue action is allowed, such as items that cannot be stolen or purchased, or items whose steal rate is locked at 3%, but these are rare and are the exception (but not exceptional). Furthermore, because NPC backstories or wares do not refresh, once an NPC has been Inquired/Scrutinized and relieved of their items (through purchasing or stealing), there’s nothing left to do with said NPC. Effectively, no matter the path action, the result is the same.
Note that Olberic and Ha’anit’s path actions, “Challenge” vs “Provoke,” do have some gameplay differences: Olberic can fight with his weapons and losing the battle doesn’t cause a loss of reputation, while Ha’anit can only fight with her captured monsters and losing does lose reputation, but otherwise the function and result are the same.
An endless journey
The game’s open ended nature is quite the boon at the start when the world is still unexplored and there are new places to see. However, at the end of it all, the game never really “ends.” The end credits do play out once the player has completed the “main” Traveler’s story (whoever was chosen at the start of the game), but that’s the only time it plays. There are still the other Traveler stories to complete and a post-game dungeon which ties up loose ends, but the credits do not play after them. As a result, there’s no sense of “finality.” The game becomes open-ended, but there are no challenges or end in sight, it just goes on and on. It almost feels incomplete, but never quite sinks to that level.
True to its name, Octopath Traveler features 8 individual travelers, each embarking on their own journey. For all of the great things it does, there are an equal number of mediocre or downright disappointing aspects. That being said, it ultimately boils down to how much a player can tolerate the mediocrity to find the gem underneath it all. There are no grand adventures to be had here, just 8 small ones. In the end, Octopath Traveler probably won’t go on to become a JRPG classic, but it’s a strong step toward greater things.