Octopath Traveler: The Review
Octopath Traveler is the latest role-playing adventure from genre mainstay Square Enix, playable on the Nintendo Switch. Unlike the realistic graphics or anime styling of many modern Japanese role-playing games, Octopath looks and feels like a love letter to the bygone 16-bit era, a time which many consider the heyday of JRPGs. And, for the most part, Octopath takes what was good about its predecessors and builds upon it in a fresh, innovative way.
Traditional turn-based combat moves along at a swift pace, greatly aided by simple quality-of-life improvements, such as displaying the turn order at the top of the screen and the number of turns remaining for a status effect or enhancement next to a character’s name. Each enemy has a certain number of shield points, and your immediate goal in any encounter is to attack your enemies’ weak points in order to ‘Break’ that shield. Once a monster enters Break status, their defenses are reduced and they are stunned for several turns, allowing your party to pummel them with reckless abandon. Each turn, every member of your party earns a Boost Point, which can be used to attack multiple times per round or greatly enhance the strength of their skills. In addition to Breaks, making tactical use of Boosts will likely determine whether encounters end in your favor.
Another key feature of JRPGs is the job system, which is present in a surprisingly flexible way in Octopath Traveler. Each character begins the story with a unique job that follows standard role-playing fare: warrior, dancer, thief, etc. The classes feel well-balanced and allow for a wide variety of party combinations, depending on how you’d like to approach combat. Relatively early on, you unlock the ability to dual-class, effectively making party variations infinite. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I wasn’t locked into my choices for second jobs. You can switch them up at any time from the menu (outside of combat, of course). Active skills are dependent on the class you have slotted, but unlocked passive abilities can be equipped regardless of your current class.
As the (slightly silly) name implies, Octopath follows the journeys of eight characters, each with his or her own unique tale. In addition to having their own story, each character has a ‘Path action’ that can be used on NPCs, and a unique ability or action that can be used on the battlefield or in hostile areas. The Path actions, in particular, are a welcome addition to the genre. I often found myself taking my time in towns and settlements to actually interact with the resident NPCs (usually to rob them), rather than breezing through to my next objective.
Unfortunately, one of the places where Octopath really stumbles is the story. Despite being fraught with clichés, I enjoyed watching each tale play out well enough. The problem is that, tonally, the stories are all over the place, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were written by eight different people who never spoke to one another during the development process. For instance, in the first chapter, you learn how Primrose, the dancer, was forced into what is heavily implied to be prostitution after the death of her father, enduring the lecherous slobbering and thinly-veiled threats of her ‘Master’ in order to suss out her father’s killers. Contrary to the merchant, Tressa’s, opening chapter, where she tricks a band of slapstick-y pirates with a barrel of tranquilizer-laden wine in order to get back the goods they pilfered from her village. Now, I’m not saying that a dark story can’t have some humor or vice-versa, but this tonal ping-pong is not only jarring to the player, but undermines the world-building and narrative.
Another disappointment when it comes to the story is that the characters barely interact with one another, and feel mostly just along for the ride, even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense for their backstory. Therion, the thief, is quickly established to not be of the Robin Hood variety, and it’s hinted in the opening chapter that he lost his former partner in such a way as to engender serious trust issues. Why in the world would he let seven other people (most of whom are law-abiding citizens) tag along on his quest? Why would he care to help those seven solve their own problems? The only glimpse you get into the characters’ interactions are brief scenes of party banter that seem to only be triggered by having certain people in your party at the right time. In other words, it’s very easy, and in fact very likely, to miss these scenes altogether unless you’re referencing some kind of guide. While the fact that there is no central narrative was billed as a selling point, in my opinion it greatly hurts and limits the experience.
Another area where the game really falls down is sidequests. Sidequests, wisely, make extensive use of Path actions; however, that’s all they make use of. Every sidequest amounts to talking to an NPC, using the appropriate Path action on another character, and returning to collect your reward. That’s it - no exploration, no combat (aside from using Olberic or H’aanit’s Path actions allowing them to duel someone), nothing. I usually consider myself a completionist when it comes to role-playing games, but I only found myself completing these glorified fetch quests when it was convenient or I already had the requested item in my inventory.
Talking to NPCs, whether for sidequests or completing Path actions, does help flesh out the world beyond the eight main characters’ stories. While the world-building is not particularly creative (standard pseudo-Medieval European fantasy), there is a nice consistency across the various character paths that lends a sense of verisimilitude to the world. Most cities house a chapel to the faith that Ophilia, the cleric, serves, and you’ll encounter knights of the same holy order in every corner of the map.
Ultimately, despite some disappointing aspects, the fresh take on turn-based combat, absolutely gorgeous “2D-HD” graphics, and fantastic score more than make up for the lackluster storytelling and questing. If you’re a lifelong JRPG fan looking to recapture some of that old-school nostalgia or a newcomer looking to dip your toes into the genre, Octopath Traveler is worth checking out.
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