JRPGs are not normally my cup of tea. Looking for more justification of my Switch purchase, however, I stood reluctantly at the counter of my local Best Buy, copy of Octopath Traveler in hand.
Octopath Traveler is a hugely anticipated new JRPG from Square Enix, releasing exclusively for the Switch. The “Octo” in the title refers to the conceit of the game – play as eight characters with their own unique stories. Not having played the demo for the game, that was the extent of my “Octopath” knowledge.
As I approached the counter of the aforementioned store, the clerk’s eyes lit up. “What character are you picking as your MAIN?” he asked with excitement.
For someone who has admittedly never completed a Final Fantasy, that question of hero choice would be an overwhelming one. I was informed by the clerk that the decision of who to choose to start was critical, since that person would remain in the party for quite a while.
Choosing your primary hero character
After getting home, booting up the game, and deliberating, I chose Cyrus (the Scholar) as my primary hero. Cyrus’s storyline can best be described as some sort of weird Evil Dead / Summer School mashup. It’s a light-hearted bookworm’s tale.
Rather than place the focus on a major doomsday scenario, Octopath turns attention to the simpler tales of the eight characters. On paper, I love this idea. I had a similar reaction when I learned that Spider-Man: Homecoming was a closed narrative and not an epic struggle for the salvation of the universe.
Additionally, the developers did a great job in making stories optional, for convenience. You can skip any cutscene in the game, and many pieces of dialogue are housed behind user-initiated conversations.
With the flexibility in storytelling, I have completed the main quest for Cyrus but honestly couldn’t tell you anything about Ophilia, aside from the fact that she is a fantastic healer in battle. I didn’t want to explore her story, and that is okay… I guess?
All of the optional content begs the question, “Why?”
While everyone will have different opinions, I did enjoy a few of the storylines compared to others. Alfyn the Apothecary’s encounters with the various different evils of modern medicine felt unique enough. The revenge story of Primrose the Dancer was a highlight. Olberic the Warrior defied the doldrums of “another story about a chivalrous-to-a-fault knight” for me.
For the duds, I would start with H’aanit, who is a cool character in combat but a grating Shakespearean horror off the battlefield. Therion’s thieving tale is another that I could not get in to. I would add more detail to the why, but I skipped all of their stories from early on.
The “Octopath” name and concept dilutes the gameplay and story. If we play “the chicken and the egg,” I am unsure if the name Octopath Traveler birthed the need for 8 characters/stories or vice-versa, but it does not feel graceful in execution.
Characters don’t impact each other’s stories
A primary reason why I cancelled cutscenes with reckless abandon is because, to my knowledge, characters have no impact on each other’s stories. As a player, you are meant to buy the fact that each character fulfills their quest entirely by themselves. This is at odds with the selling point of the game — eight characters traveling together. A major element of “role-playing” is interacting with a group of people, and this barely happens in Octopath Traveler.
With characters, this is inexcusable. You mean to tell me that not one of the eight people had an impact on the decision tree of their peers?
I spent most of my 45 hour play-through thinking imagining this tale as one with only four characters. I have a few reasons to come to this conclusion:
There are only four “in-town” abilities
When interacting with the people (and animals) of the numerous towns in the sprawling world of Octopath Traveler, each of the eight characters is given a unique ability. Unfortunately, half of the abilities are repeats of the other.
Let’s use my character Cyrus as an example. Cyrus has the ability “Scrutinize,” which gives the player a percentage chance to investigate each NPC (non-player character) and potentially learn some valuable information. Alfyn has the ability “Inquire,” which has the same effect as Cyrus’s ability, but replaces the percentage chance with a level cap. If Alfyn is level 20 and the NPC requires you to be level 21 to “Inquire,” you cannot. If his level is higher, it is an automatic success.
Confused? Whether or not you prefer the style of Cyrus or Alfyn, the reality is that having both in your party is a waste of a precious ability slot. Why ever put them together? Because you can only have four characters in your party at a time, I was punished for ever using Alfyn and ended up using the characters with better abilities almost exclusively.
The Therion Effect: Where possible, having Therion in your party is recommended. His “Steal” ability is an overpowered version of Tressa’s “Purchase,” and he is the only character who can unlock the purple chests found throughout the world.
I found him to have more utility than any other single character.
There are only four characters allowed in a given party
The four character limit applies to combat as well and is made worse by the class.
Octopath Traveler decided to go back to the 1990s with a leveling system that does not provide experience to the characters who are not in the party. I’m guessing the intent was to expose the player to all eight stories and allow characters to be at a decent level for each of their four chapters, but it can mean a bit of a grind to get less favorable characters up to speed.
Additionally, there is a case to be made for grouping the battle abilities of the characters together, similar to how we grouped the in-town abilities above, here is how the battle abilities are similar:
- Tressa / Therion
- H’aanit / Olberic
- Cyrus / Primrose
- Ophilia / Alfyn
Okay, the Cyrus / Primose thing is a bit of a reach, but I found that a great party was a buffet of one character from each of the four bullets above.
Secondary Jobs make characters redundant
Compounding the “too many character” syndrome is the introduction of Secondary Jobs in the middle of the campaign.
Secondary Jobs allow each character to add the job of one of their compatriots as a secondary class for us in battle. In my experience, this lead to four of my eight characters feeling all but useless, since I had slapped their best traits onto one of my preferred heroes.
The Combat of Octopath Traveler
If my review has come across as negative, it is because I have focused on the elements that don’t work. The reality is that there is a lot to love about Octopath Traveler.
First, Octopath Traveler provides a ton of content for the price, which is a win in itself, in a world of micro-transactions and season passes.
Second, Octopath Traveler looks and sounds amazing. The presentation of a pseudo-children’s-pop-up-book is neat and the soundtrack is equally inspired. This lags just behind Dragon Ball FighterZ for most bonkers use of Unreal Engine 4.
Most importantly though, the combat of Octopath Traveler succeeds on all levels. Square Enix has stolen from a number of other RPGs to deliver a system that is consistent fun.
Combat is turn-based, like many traditional JRPGs, but applies the boost system of Bravely Default, the weaknesses system of the Persona series, and some fairly interesting jobs/classes (Apothecary, Dancer, Hunter), with their own unique passive abilities.
Without spoiling all the fun of discovery, I can tease that eventually a player will be expected to manage their boost points, buffs, debuffs, enemy shields, specific turn orders, etc.
What makes the combat of games like Persona 5 and Octopath Traveler fun is that one miss can result in a quick Game Over. Even the smallest enemies hit hard. Putting together the perfect chain to break a boss’s guard is not stylish – it is necessary for survival.
The best vote of confidence I can give Octopath Traveler is that the battles were always fun and challenging without feeling frustrating.
Is Octopath Traveler worth your money?
Octopath Traveler has plenty of limitations and is perhaps forgettable, but that does not mean it should be ignored. It is the first JRPG in which I saw credits since Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King on the Playstation 2 and is a testament to the strength of the combat system and of the world.
If you have a Switch and enjoy RPGs to any degree, this comes with a recommendation to buy, just don’t expect the next Final Fantasy VI.