Is it just me, or is it becoming an all-too-common sight where developers have a long, lovely streak of highly praised titles before entering a “meh” or even full-blown “tits up” mode? Companies such as Bioware, Bethesda Game Studios, and Square Enix have all proven to be capable of delivering within the upper echelon of RPGs time and time again, but arguably have seen a dip in that “wow factor” in recent years depending on whom you ask.
I’ve played Square/Squaresoft/Square Enix games for 25 years, and have always been one to get behind their new and upcoming releases despite any negative feelings harbored from their more recent games. But if I’m being honest with you (and more importantly, myself), nothing that Square Enix has done in recent years has really set my world on fire. Games like Bravely Default (published by SE), the Tokyo RPG Factory titles (under the SE corporate umbrella), and even Final Fantasy XV were okay but, for me, were just missing the things that used to be an instant hook, line, and sinker in days past.
But Square Enix had my attention from the very beginning with Octopath Traveler, and its initial demo all but confirmed that it potentially had the chops to be the next grandiose adventure for me. And man, was I right about the breadth of that adventure! Octopath Traveler has a lot to unpack – as in my piddly 40 hours thus far, I’ve only managed to scratch the surface of its complete, nostalgically modernized offerings. But a long game doesn’t necessarily equate to a quality one, much like how the Square Enix brand alone doesn’t automatically hold the amount of water that it used to. That said, you’re probably asking yourself this: was the long and excruciatingly painful wait for Octopath Traveler worth it?
Yes, but the average RPG fan should really know what to expect before diving head first into it. Let’s go ahead and address the lovely, pixelated elephant in the room before we get into the nitty gritty of this review. No, this is not a spiritual successor to Final Fantasy VI in any way, shape, or form, even though that was taken directly from the developers themselves in an interview. There are conflicting reports of that interview where it paints Octopath as the “spiritual successor to Final Fantasy VI from a game mechanic perspective”, but the majority simply state it to be a “spiritual successor” period. Regardless, it doesn’t change the fact that this claim is nonsensical at best.
Those not intimate with the golden era of Final Fantasies may take that sneaky and obvious marketing ploy at face value, and just assume it means it is a great JRPG. That wouldn’t be an entirely false conclusion to make, but it isn’t the most logical one either. Octopath Traveler is on the path to become an incredibly successful JRPG, but the comparison to Final Fantasy VI does more harm than good simply because any JRPG veteran will sniff out the overwhelming amount of DIFFERENCES between the two games (rather than the SIMILARITIES) almost immediately. The main distinction between these titles stems from its story architecture and delivery system.
If there’s one thing you take away from this article, let it be this: Octopath Traveler features multiple individualized stories that lack a trunk tying everything together. You don’t begin as a “Terra” and spend a large portion of the game befriending companions before taking on that ultimate evil. Octopath Traveler is exactly what it says: eight individual stories comprising of:
- Olberic, the once esteemed knight thats past haunts him with every step.
- Cyrus, a once well-respected scholar that is accused of wrongdoing that, in turn, provides an opportunity to reclaim an important artifact that was lost (or stolen) years ago.
- Therion, a thief that finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes job that perfectly suits his specific skill set.
- Ophilia, a cleric that takes on the burden of a journey meant for someone else in order to allow that individual to be by their father’s side in what appears to be his final days.
- Primrose, a dancer with her eye on expending revenge in the name of her father, no matter the personal cost.
- Alfyn, a green-eared apothecary who seeks to pay it forward by traveling the world to help those in need, much like the man who saved him many years ago.
- Tressa, an amateur merchant who believes the best experience in her trade will only be reached by traveling the world abroad.
- H’aanit, a huntress on a mission to find her missing mentor.
Judging by the given pool of characters, I’d like to think Octopath Traveler offers some form of a compelling narrative for all walks of life, whether you find yourself interested in only a select few protagonists, or want to experience them all. I was one who remained skeptical of many of the characters from the outset, and did not expect some to click going by their base synopses alone. But then, I found myself going from my initial “select four” mindset to “must unlock all now” in an instant. The introductory scenarios in Octopath Traveler aren’t laying the groundwork to stories that you’ve never heard before, but they are done so in a way that goads you into wanting more. Thereafter, each of the stories are broken down further into chapters, and it really gives you that sense of reading an interesting book that leaves you with no choice but to continue the next chapter.
Additionally, the individualized, chapter-based story system plays well for those who enjoy changing things up on a whim. If you want to go deep into Olberic’s storyline before jumping into the books for a bit with Cyrus, go for it! As long as you are of the appropriate level and are not currently in the middle of completing another character’s chapter, you can hop to the other scenarios at any time. Actually, you do have the choice to start any chapter regardless of level, but I would recommend against being severely underleveled unless you are just cruising for a bruising.
The mechanics driving the story in Octopath Traveler may be strange or bizarre to some, but they aren’t necessarily revolutionary as they share similarities to other RPGs—specifically for me, SaGa Frontier. SF, just like Octopath, allows you to select which character you will play as, and their stories are very much individual, contained narratives. There are instances where some minor story points overlap, or feature characters outside of your chosen main protagonist, but those are rare. The aspect of minimal character crossover/interaction is an obvious feature in Octopath Traveler, outside of the initial meet-up with each character and their occasional traveling banter.
Yes, while there isn’t an overarching plot point that ties all the character pieces together, you will occasionally witness brief exchanges between your active party members (maximum of four at any given time). This banter is always relevant to your current situation and helps spice things up a bit, but does end up feeling a little lackluster due to the nature of the individualized paths themselves. Even so, the added character relational development, albeit minor, is welcome for sure.
It’s because of all the points made so far that I was perplexed when Octopath was marketed as a reincarnation of sorts to Final Fantasy VI, which is very much known for its wide and varied array of playable characters whose individual stories interweave into such fine detail, that a comparison to something like Octopath Traveler is just silly. That’s not to say either story structure is better or worse than its counterpart. In fact, I think both avenues have their place and have an equal opportunity to shine when done properly. Octopath’s “choose your own character/adventure” take is something that is quite uncommon to see in modern JRPGs, and for that reason alone makes it a great thing. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue against the method of having a more linear, definitive, and ultimate goal.
The point I’m trying to make i this: Please, let’s just call things what they really are, and not say that something like a shovel is the same as a rake. Both tools have a purpose, but perform completely different jobs. In layman’s terms, Octopath Traveler offers multiple stories that many will find interesting, though less so to the individuals who were banking on a more narratively interwoven experience akin to the majority of JRPGs out there.
In many JRPGs, side content can often feel like an afterthought, whether it be from their laughable excuse for rewards, poorly designed supporting gameplay mechanics (ie. SLOW ESCORT MISSIONS), or lack of feeling organic to the game world. In regards to Octopath, I’d say they nailed all three of the previously mentioned points, and it’s even further elevated by one particular design decision. Octopath puts an emphasis on the whole “traveler” part from every angle, encouraging you to get out there with your map and discover things for yourself. In terms of side quests, it gives no freaks that you are used to playing games that have quest markers, or those that pre-circle your destination on the map for you. No sir, you get out there in the world and figure it out yourself!
In many ways, it hearkens back to the pre mainstream MMORPG era where you actually had to play the game and pay attention to your surroundings to figure stuff out. Who would have thought THAT would be fun?! And if you have grown fond of the quest marker style of system and are groaning at the thought all of this, stay with me! None of the side quests in Octopath Traveler are impossible to figure out, but they do require you to A) pay attention and B) completely uncover the world. Within the first few hours, you are likely to begin some side quests that can only be finished by finding Joe Bob on the other side of the world. Other times, the answer will literally be right in front of you, but won’t be obvious unless you are really making an effort to pay attention and make note of everything within your current area.
There are a metric ton of side quests, too, and even more will pop up after you’ve moved certain story points further along. This means that completionists specifically will want to frequently visit past locations in order to discover all of the side quests. The sheer amount of these are honestly a bit overwhelming at first, but luckily you have a journal you can reference in case you forget the gist of that one side quest (or twenty).
I feel my take on Octopath’s side quests could be considered a “git gud” gesture, but I can assure you that it is not my intent. Let me solidify that with this final piece of advice: I’ve found that the best way to approach side quests in Octopath Traveler is by accepting the fact that you won’t be able to finish each one as soon as you get it. Many require certain path actions (discussed later) to complete, and may be impossible to finish depending on where you are in terms of unlocking main characters. Others will have you going into dangerous locations that aren’t necessarily meant to be traversed as soon as you discover it.
To me, Octopath Traveler is a game that’s really not designed to be bumrushed as quickly as possible, at least from a story and side quest standpoint. Savor the journey and take things in as you go, and you will find those epiphanic moments of piecing together an old side quest in your backlog that much more riveting of an experience because of it.
While most will view the 2DHD graphics of Octopath Traveler as a love letter to those who adore pixel-based graphics (though a bit modernized), I expect a subset of individuals exist who have no real pony in the race and are scoffing at the full price tag as we speak. Although I can understand that point of view or a general distaste for pixel art, I would find it very hard to believe that someone could absolutely despise the graphics as a whole here.
The reason being that Octopath Traveler is just stunning. The masterful blend of retro-inspired sprites atop a three dimensional environment seasoned with more modern water, lighting, and weather effects just works, and works quite well. You will traverse arid wastelands, rocky cliffs, snowy mountains, lush hills, dank caverns, and more. As a fan of the NES/SNES-like aesthetic, I really appreciated the love and care that went into each and every location you explore.
But it doesn’t end there, fields of combat are equally pleasing to the eye. The variety of combat animations aren’t going to set any world records, but the ones present are done well enough. Outside of combat, however, is where the character sprites really come alive. During scripted events, both player characters and non player characters will come to life through nods, crouches, swordplay, and a host of other actions. The entire graphical toolset culminates into a truly breathtaking experience. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of the pixel-based aesthetic historically, do yourself a favor and at least give it a shot here. You may find it grows on you the more you soak it in.
Octopath Traveler not only delivers an aesthetically pleasing experience, but it also boasts an exceptionally crafted soundtrack. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily put it in the same category as other classic JRPG soundtracks, like Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, or any retro Final Fantasy, but let me explain. Octopath Traveler, by design, is something that I found to require my undivided attention at almost every turn. The level of engagement is multi-layered, and doesn’t really leave room for a lot of downtime. I find myself constantly thinking about my current goals, whether it be from a story completion perspective or just theory-crafting party optimizations on-the-fly. In older JRPGs especially, it was easy to notice the music when doing mindless things like grinding, or going from point A to B. There just wasn’t a lot of things to distract you from enjoying the music in comparison to more modern titles.
With Octopath, I found that the music is really well done, but not necessarily on a “stop-you-in-your-tracks” level. That could totally be an issue with me and my inability to focus on multiple things at once with this game in particular. I have no doubts that I’d fall in love with the soundtrack even more if I were to listen to it by itself. Hmm. *makes mental note to listen to Octopath Traveler soundtrack*
Octopath Traveler uses a traditional turn-based combat system that supports itself with its Break and Boost systems. Each enemy has an innate armor level that, while active, greatly reduces the damage they take from all sources until it is broken. “Breaking” an enemy consists of attacking their weaknesses, whether it be lightning damage, spears, bows, fire damage, et cetera, to the point where they lose all of the aforementioned armor points. When that happens, you will “break” the enemy, leaving them vulnerable to increased damage while stunning them for a short period of time. The nature of this system strongly discourages button mashing, which I totally dig, and makes even the most trivial of random of encounters a true joy to play. In more difficult fights, you will find it to be an essential, if not mandatory tool to exploit in order to come out on top, so get used to it early!
Carefully setting up these windows of opportunity never gets old, and are always well worth the wait. It is incredibly satisfying to time a break when a boss is charging up one of their more devastating abilities, or completely obliterating your opponent by emptying your boost reserves while taking advantage of various buffs and debuffs. The Boost system is a very similar to that found in the Bravely games. You will gain one of these boost points each time you perform an action (and don’t expend a boost point, or BP), and you can reserve up to five before additional ones go to waste. BP will drastically increase the potency of most abilities, whether it be offensive, defensive, or support (ie. buffs/debuffs).
One of the things I love most about combat in Octopath Traveler is that it naturally caters to individual, underleveled characters as well. I’m not crazy enough (yet) to keep all eight party members on the same level, but I am making it a point to experience all of their story content. That means that I might have a level 15 in my party of three level 40 characters. In most RPGs where that weak character will likely serve as a makeshift meat shield and nothing more, Octopath characters can easily contribute because of the Break system. They may not be capable of doing a ton of damage, but they still can serve by exploiting the enemy’s weaknesses, which in turn contributes to the entire party.
Genre veterans will likely have no problems adapting to the combat system in its entirety, and may find that some of the earlier hours are trivial in terms of difficulty. That is highly dependant on the paths you choose to take, of course, but I can promise you this: there are some mind-crushingly difficult fights out there too that will most definitely serve as a measure of tempering your ever-growing ego. All in all, the combative playground in Octopath Traveler is a joy to partake in, and one you are likely not to become bored of any time soon.
Octopath Traveler is all about the freedom of choice, exploration, and adventure in the way that you see fit. Those comfortable with a heavy dose of linearity in their games may be somewhat off put by Octopath’s free-spirited design, but I encourage you to at least give it a chance (there are two demos of this game for a reason). All of your classic, JRPG fares are still present, such as the previously-mentioned, slightly-spiced-up turn-based combat encounters, traditional equipment progression (via drops and store-bought pieces). New and interesting mechanics also come into play, like the Path system, which is essentially unique ways to interact with the environment around you.
For example, both Alfyn and Cyrus have the ability to perceive a deeper understanding of individual NPCs (ie. unlocking tidbits of lore of the NPCs and their surroundings). Primrose and Ophilia can coerce almost any NPC into following them, both in and out of combat. Therion and Tressa can obtain additional (and often rare) items from NPCs, though in entirely different ways. Finally, Olberic and H’aanit can challenge NPCs to fights, which are often key to uncovering all of a town’s secrets, or integral to completing certain side quests. While the thought of these alone aren’t going to necessarily blow your mind, in execution it makes you much more engaged and emotionally invested in each location.
Whereas in most games the NPC dialogue has a tendency to get lost in everything, being able to dig deeper into their backstories goes a long way in keeping you interested and wanting to know more. You’ll want to use these path actions at every opportunity, seeing as it often rewards you with information necessary to complete side quests, additional backstory to your current area, friends to utilize in and out of battle, and gives access to some powerful and useful items in an interesting, non-traditional way.
I really like the equipment system in Octopath, as it provides a fairly robust experience without the reliance of a crafting system. Crafting in games these days are a dime a dozen, but I do like them a lot when they are done well. However, it is saying something when a game doesn’t feature such a system and you don’t find yourself looking for one either. The list of equipment is massive, only being added upon with each and every village you visit. You will frequently find yourself hopping to and from all the towns you have unlocked in order to get a complete set of gear that suits your play style best. But don’t worry, fast traveling between unlocked towns is a thing, cutting down on the headache that excessive backtracking can bring to light.
If you’re wondering what I meant by gathering equipment based on your play style, let me elaborate. Each individual character has a main job, but can also be given a secondary job. These secondary jobs are scattered throughout the world, and individually can only be used by a single character at any given time. You are free to swap them in and out as you fancy though. Using a secondary job gives you some minor stat increases that are flavored around the job itself, and allows you to learn their active and passive skills. While you can only use the combat skills of the secondary job you currently have equipped, you can equip any of the unlocked passive skills regardless of the situation.
This system makes it possible to really tailor your experience to how you prefer to play. If you’re worried about homogenization amongst the classes, don’t sweat it. While it’s true that you can set up a party to do a lot of the same stuff, it never gets to the point where it feels like you have three carbon copies of a single unit. On top of that, most of the characters have special traits or abilities that don’t carry over to the secondary job system (like Alfyn’s Concoct ability), keeping the uniqueness across characters intact. Path abilities don’t carry over either, so that is also something to keep in mind.
Want to build a tanky merchant who’s as good at hiring help on the battlefield as they are swinging a great sword? Go for it! Want to make a mage who excels equally at weapons and spell? Do it! Much like the story design, the gameplay in Octopath Traveler is all about player choice. Again, it is entirely possible it may feel too “loose” to those who prefer more direction in an RPG, but I saw it as nothing but a breath of fresh air. Sometimes, it is genuinely nice to be left alone in a vast world, and have to figure out everything as you go (but not in an overbearing sort of way).
Octopath Traveler is an absolute delight, and is a must-have for anyone fond of retro-infused JRPGs in particular. Its lack of linearity in both a narrative and gameplay perspective may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but should be fantastic for those wanting something a bit different than the norm. Octopath Traveler is no doubt among my top Switch RPGs to date. My only hope moving forward is that the success of Octopath Traveler ignites a fire underneath RPG-centric developers that shows them what we want to see more of in the future, whether that is in the form of remakes of classic games or entirely new IPs. It doesn’t matter to me – bring me more quality, pixel-based JRPGs and I’ll gladly eat them all up.