Octopath Traveler Review
Published on August 6, 2018
Release Date:July 13th, 2018
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Square Enix, Acquire
Announced last year, Octopath Traveler set out with the promise of revitalizing our love for classic JRPGs. At first glance, its 16-bit pixel graphics in tandem combined with turn-based combat pays homage to traditional JRPGs. What sets Octopath Traveler apart is its eight characters with their unique story paths. During your playthrough, you will get to decide which character story you want to pursue and when. With its unique story progression system, just how far does Octopath Traveler push forward the genre?
The game’s presentation, dubbed “HD-2D”, will instantly enthrall you with its hybrid of retro 16-bit graphics and modern graphical features. As you travel the world, water joyfully shimmers in the sun, grass sways in the wind, and the snow sparkles in the moonlight. This modern upgrade may seem bizarre at first but ends up creating a realistic world that lives and breathes along with your band of travelers. The game also makes heavy use of depth of field which blurs distant objects and helps create a sense of depth as your 2D characters navigate a 3D world. Completing the meshing of the old and the new is the gorgeous 2D sprite work, especially with the boss designs.
The final finishing touch is the addition of a lighting system. It enables the world to tell a story on its own. As sunshine pokes through the slats of a window and shadows protrude throughout dimly lit caves by bright lantern’s, the world’s lighting alone can communicate feelings like loneliness or danger. Lighting also plays a key role during combat as your spells and abilities will shower the battlefield with gorgeous effects.
To top it all off, Octopath includes a stellar soundtrack that is easily one of the best this year. Each character has a theme song that uniquely resonates with their personality. Additionally, each map region has a specific track that evokes the spirit of the environment around it. Most impressive of all is the battle music. As you progress further in the game, the battle music gets intense thus increasing the tension. Also, during the boss fight for each chapter, each character’s theme also transitions into the battle music making the fight seem both personal and epic.
But what is an adventure without characters? As implied by the prefix “octo” in the title, Octopath Traveler has eight characters each with their unique personality and story. Take Olberic for example. He is a former knight that places honor above everything in life and vows to protect those who cannot defend themselves. Olberic’s character contrasts heavily with Therion, a thief who grew up with nothing and lives by the mantra that you should trust no one and only look after yourself. Even though these characters are opposites from one another, the grouping of them, as well as the six other travelers together, create some great interactions. Unfortunately, the game does not capitalize on this mechanic enough, and conversations between characters are limited to specific moments during the individual story arcs as well as when certain special conditions are met.
Regarding the individual stories arcs, the writing isn’t exactly unique and is somewhat predictable at times. However, each story also contains its fair share of plot twists and can even get surprisingly deep. Each character will battle not only with those who get in their way, but also themselves as they confront their identity and morality. Short cutscenes are the main driver for the story, and while they do a serviceable job, the intermittent use of voice acting can be jarring. While the game seems to reserve full voice acting for the moments with the most tension or action, voice acting may suddenly appear part-way into a cutscene only to fade away after ten or so lines. The English voice acting itself is pretty good for a JRPG, but the game also has the option to switch the language to Japanese.
As for the story, Octopath Traveler’s gamble for eight different stories ultimately falls short due to a lack of consistent quality. With eight different storylines, the amount of variability between character motivations, the dialogue, and the events that unfold leaves the player craving one particular story but having to slog through another. Although the game lets you tackle the stories in any order, the game is designed with playing all eight characters story arcs in mind, resulting in players having to grind for levels if they skip any of them.
In addition to their unique stories, each character in Octopath also has a unique ability called a path action. Path actions allow characters to interact with NPCs in the world in a variety of ways. For example, Therion the Thief can steal items from NPCs and Alfyn the Apothecary can inquire additional information from NPCs. While path actions are useful for helping your party overall, they are also the primary method of completing the side quests in the game.
The game has around 100 side quests, and like the main story, most of them fall short in their execution. Most of them involve a simple path action of fighting a character or retrieving an item. While the writers tried to give each side quest a unique and touching story, it ends up failing simply due to the brevity of each quest. Worst of all is that the rewards from the side quests are generally lackluster and do not provide EXP. For all its shortcomings, the one feature I did enjoy about the side quests was how the game expects you to figure out how to solve them on your own. For example, someone in a town might say they are looking for a specific aquatic creature, and it is up to you to use your intuition to go to the fishing village and find the right merchant.
Although the story and side quests might be slight misses, the crown jewel of Octopath Traveler is the combat. The turn-based combat entirely revolves around the break mechanic. Each enemy in Octopath is vulnerable against certain physical weapon types as well as certain elemental magic types which are displayed as “?”s until discovered. When you attack an enemy’s weakness, their breaking point (the number in the shield) decreases by one. When their breaking point hits 0, an enemy will skip one of their turns with the added effect that they will be vulnerable to all attack types as well as take extra damage.
With the standard inclusion of HP and SP (essentially a mana pool), each character in Octopath also has a unique resource called BP (boost points). In general, each character in your party gains a boost point every round (a round being after every member of your party has acted) unless they used a boost that round. BP is the main influencer in strategy as it can be used to either amplify the strength of an ability or be used on a basic attack to multiply the number of attacks (thus doing more damage to their breaking point). Do you use your BP to break the enemy now and use the extra turn to heal or do you endure another hit with the hopes of unleashing a massive attack next turn? In addition to the strategic use of BP, the game lets you see the turn order at the top of the screen for the current turn and the next turn, allowing you to strategize for the perfect opportunity to strike.
Finally, the addition of the job system is the icing on the cake for the game’s combat. The game has eight normal jobs such as the Thief, Cleric, and Hunter. Each job has access to a certain skill set of weapons as well as that job’s abilities. The ability to mix and match each character with a second job allows the player a large amount of customization on how you want to play the game. The two-job system is also important since you can only use four of your eight characters in a party at a time. Even though half your team is always on the bench, you can always equip your active squad with the missing jobs. In addition to the eight base jobs, the game also has four powerful advanced jobs that are unlocked by beating optional high-level bosses that are geared toward battling the post-game content.
Each battle in Octopath requires you to think and can’t be beaten with spamming the same simple attacks. Every new enemy type you encounter is a balancing act of finding out their weaknesses, exploiting them, and using your BP to finish them off. Boss battles take it one step further by shielding and changing their vulnerabilities as well as unleashing charged attacks that require you to break them to cancel the attack. In the end, the combat system in Octopath is one that is easy to pick up, yet hard to master as sometimes even one bad turn can spell disaster for your party.
Although Octopath Traveler has its flaws, primarily in the story department, it’s a game that is greater than the sum of its parts. The presentation of the game is extraordinary, the characters are likable, and the combat is addicting. If you are someone who is looking for a deep and engaging story, then this is not the game for you. But if you are a player that loves JRPGs that is looking for something a little different, this game won’t disappoint.