Octopath Traveler is a very interesting game. I was originally only going to talk a little bit about it in a more general sense instead of giving a full review but after playing it off and on for the last few weeks I suddenly realized I’d accumulated 50 or so hours of playtime in the game. At that point I felt the game deserved an actual review instead and so here we are.
Octopath Traveler is a game that tries to hearken back to the old-school SNES days of JRPGs where sprites and beautiful enemy artwork were abundant. Despite the older games it tries to emulate, Octopath has its own unique graphical style that isn’t just “trying to be retro.” It’s one of the more perfect blends of retro and modern designs, unlike say Undertale that was fully pixel art. Not to say Undertale’s graphics are bad, but Octopath’s blend of 2D and 3D makes its landscapes pop and the beautiful art stand out.
Before I go any further in my review, I’m going to go ahead and give a mild spoiler warning for what follows – I’ll talk about a few plot details and the endgame and postgame content while giving a thorough overview of the whole game. So if you want to be surprised by gameplay secrets and what-not be warned I will go in-depth on them. I will try to keep any story spoilers as vague as possible, though.
Now let’s continue.
The premise of Octopath Traveler differs from most classic JRPGs that its imagery tries to evoke. Instead of one story about a plucky group of heroes trying to save the world, each of the eight main characters has their own four chapter stories that have some sort of personal tie. It’s a unique choice that is apparently similar to the older SaGa games (the only one of which I played was SaGa Frontier, a game a lot of SaGa fans regard as one of the worst or so I’m told). You can start with any of the eight character you so desire – each character has a specific job ranging from Therion the thief (my starting pick) to Ophilia the cleric to Olberic the warrior…etc. But be careful – the first person you choose ends up as your “main” character and they cannot leave your party until you’ve finished all four of their chapters.
Therion, my main character, leading the pack.
The general openness allows for a lot of player choice but also results in very little direction. Most players will end up collecting all 8 characters first and completing a bunch of Chapter 1s in a row due to the higher level suggestion of Chapter 2s – but the first chapters are all very similar to each other so it is easy to lose interest if you are intent on collecting every character before moving on. But since there’s no direction players could miss a very important fact – that the game gets much easier once you unlock the secondary jobs. Each character can take on a second job in addition to their first, which allows for some customization and access to skills that aren’t available in your main party. The problem is these secondary jobs are located in shrines in the Chapter 2 areas which aren’t terribly difficult – but people scared to venture into a higher level area may miss the secondary jobs as they make the rounds collecting all the characters.
The game introduces a neat concept called “Path Actions” that you can use on NPCs in the towns you come across. There are four types of actions, and each character has either the Noble or Rogue type of one of the actions. Noble actions are always successful but will have a level requirement – so Alfyn at level 20 would not be able to use his Inquire ability on a level 45 NPC. Rogue abilities, however, have a percentage chance to be successful and while you’ll have a better chance of succeeding at higher levels, you can still risk a failure and go for it at a lower one. If you fail too many types as a Rogue, though, you’ll get the town mad at you and will have to pay money to restore your reputation. It’s a neat little idea that lets you interact with NPC villagers more than a usual JRPG. However the path actions are mostly relegated to side quests or getting slight discounts on items or inns and it feels like a wasted opportunity.
I’m not sure why this old man has so much candy, but I’m totally taking it all.
The game’s openness is one of its biggest strengths but also ends up being its biggest flaw. The fact that each character is following their own story makes your entire party seem more like a Dungeons & Dragons party venturing out into the unknown and fulfilling quests with personal stakes instead of the typical hero from a small town adventures and saves the world plot. And that’s really neat. But because they wanted all the character stories to be completed in any order, the party interaction is minimal. Every time you start a new chapter, only the character whose story you’re following interacts with anyone in that chapter. You get occasional side conversations with your other party members – but they’re optional and never feel organically tied to the story. It also creates some weird story beat dissonance – in one chapter a character is stabbed by a villain and collapses, so the villain gets away. But you just finished fighting a boss with your whole party, so why would the other people just let him go?
In fact, while the path actions and choice of characters could set up some interesting dynamics, the whole game gets slightly repetitive after a while. Aside from one chapter of a character’s story, almost every chapter follows the same pattern: Arrive at a town, watch some cut-scenes, use that character’s path action a few times, watch some more cut-scenes, explore that chapter’s dungeon, fight a boss, watch more cut-scenes, finish. There’s no variation and some of the stories meander about with only a vague purpose. Alfyn in particular, while a great character, has absolutely no direction in his story – his chapter 2 was probably the most interesting part of his journey while the finale of chapter 4 was boring and uninteresting. Conversely, Therion’s story was kind of aimless for the first two chapters, but chapters 3 and 4 were very engaging and his finale was superb. (Therion’s chapter 1 also makes absolutely no sense if you don’t pick him as your starting character – another flaw in the storytelling.)
What saves the game is its battle system. The job system allows for customization and a wide variety of abilities and strategies during battle. The game has a break system that’s similar to the Shin Megami Tensei Press Turn system – every enemy has a defensive score that can range from 1 all the way to 12 for more difficult bosses. Each enemy also has set weaknesses to the six weapon types and six spell elements you can attack with in the game. Attacking an enemy with a weapon or spell its weak against will lower its defense by 1, and if you get it to 0 you “break” the enemy which stops it from attacking for the next turn or two, depending on when in the turn order you break them. Characters also have a boost mechanic which allows them to attack multiple times in one turn or cast stronger spells and you inflict way more damage when an enemy is broken as well.
The break and boost systems make every battle much more strategic than just mindless turn-based attack selections. Some bosses are very difficult and using the correct combination of boosting, breaking, buffs and debuffs will be the only way to survive. Octopath is one of the few JRPGs where I’ve found a use for nearly every skill in the game and different battles have required different strategies – I couldn’t just pick a favorite strategy and use it every battle.
A good example of a mass break during combat.
There are four secret jobs that are considered late-game or post-game content – you have to fight a boss to unlock each one and if you come into the battle unprepared the bosses will destroy you. One of them took me 5 or 6 tries to beat and it still took a solid 10-15 minutes to beat on my final try – a few times I died because I made exactly one mistake in my attack strategy which allowed the boss to team wipe my party. It was very challenging but also very rewarding to unlock access to even more abilities through these super cool jobs. I really appreciate Octopath’s effort to have challenging areas in the game that reward actual useful in-game content.
Now despite the game focusing on 8 separate stories, there is also a post-game dungeon that is only accessible after you’ve beaten the game with all 8 characters and completed some specific side quests. Once you’ve completed the requirements, you apparently get a final dungeon that has a more classic story beat of saving the world that ties all the characters’ individual stories together. I haven’t gotten there yet and a lot of initial reviewers of the game missed this content entirely. It’s also apparently even harder than the secret job bosses and requires a lot of skill – which is pretty awesome but also a little frustrating that you’ll need to grind all 8 characters in the post-game to very high levels to be able to finish the last part of the story.
As of right now I’ve completed 4 out of the 8 stories. My personal method was to complete all the Chapter 1s, then focus on my main party of 4 and finish all their stories. Now that I’ve done that (and beaten the secret job bosses) I’ll probably be taking a break from Octopath for a while – 50 hours is a lot of time spent. But when I’m hankering for more JRPG goodness I can come back to it and have 4 fresh stories to go through. It’ll be like a whole new game – and I think this a way the designers intended it to be played instead of grinding all 8 characters to appropriate levels at once.
All in all I consider this a pretty good game with some repetitive design flaws. It’s evokes nostalgia without relying on it – Octopath Traveler is very much its own game and can stand on its own merits without comparison to other games in the genre. The orchestrated music is also fantastic and the Octopath has some of the best boss themes I’ve listened to in a long time. If you’ve got a Switch and like JRPGs, it’s a must-have.
Octopath Traveler is a PLAY – just remember to pace yourself to avoid too much repetition.