GAME REVIEW: Octopath Traveler

Game: Octopath Traveler
Developer: Acquire
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Switch (Reviewed), Windows PC, Xbox One, Stadia
Release Date: July 13, 2018

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When Octopath Traveler released in July of 2018, it was immediately considered one of the Switch’s best third party exclusives. Just under a year later, the game saw the move to Windows, and about a year after that to Google Stadia. In March of this year, the title debuted on Xbox One, and we will likely see the jump to more platforms in the near future. With that being said, now’s the perfect time to delve into Octopath Traveler, and report to you why this is among the best RPGs of the last decade.

The game was originally announced in January 2017 as “Project Octopath Traveler.” While the name was obviously a working title, it perfectly encapsulated the adventure to be had, where the player embarks on a journey with eight distinct characters. As such, there was no reason to rename it, and the title stuck.

Octopath Traveler is undoubtedly an homage to the turn-based classics of the 16-bit era. Its graphics immediately bring to mind the beautiful pixel art of the mid-nineties, and the combat too harkens back to a time when random encounters could be swift and brutal, simple upon first glance yet complex once you really dig into it. But at its core, the game is much, much more than simple tribute. It’s taking that classic formula for an RPG and adding enough modern dash to produce a brand new dish. It doesn’t leave behind its roots like so many RPGs of today, but it takes that foundation and builds upon it.

The team behind Octopath Traveler isn’t in uncharted territory here. The lead producers, Masashi Takahashi and Tomoya Asano, are also the minds behind the Nintendo 3DS titles Bravely Default and Bravely Second: End Layer, two games that took a similar approach in celebrating the games of yesteryear with modern polish.

(Side note: view our review for both Bravely Default and it’s Switch sequel Bravely Default II.)

Nostalgia for this time in gaming history is also nothing unique: indie titles have embraced this for years, churning out stellar games such as Shovel Knight, Undertale, Bloodstained, and dozens more. But it’s rare to see this coming from a gaming studio of this pedigree, one that had a hand in directly crafting those classics that we long to return to, and yet Square Enix has done it time-and-time again.

Let’s get the most noticeable feature of the game out of the way first: the graphics here are nothing short of breathtaking. The blocky characters look ripped straight out of a Super NES game, and transplanted in a mesmerizing 3D world, where polygons instead of pixels craft the scenic landscapes, and the elements come to life: the water looks real enough to drink, each snowflake glistens with the magic of authenticity, and when a fireball meets its target, the flames never cease to amaze.

Again, this 2D-meets-3D aspect has been done before (just look at Paper Mario), but Octopath Traveler still captures something special in its art style. It’s familiar, yet wholly unique. It has the ability to make you feel like stepping back in time to your childhood, yet be completely foreign at the same time. The caring little details truly make a colossal impact: the way embers float in the air after a fire attack, how the trees sway in wind, how the dust kicks up when traveling down a dirt road. It’s all so very comforting, and will leave a remarkable impression.

Aside from the graphics, the star, or rather stars, of the game is your party of eight distinctive characters. The cast can make or break a Role-Playing experience. If you’re going to be embarking on a 100-hour journey, it certainly helps if those tagging along for the ride make for pleasurable companions. Octopath Traveler does a good job of bringing this ragtag group of eight together.

Instead of giving the player a clear protagonist to lead your party, the developers allow the player to choose with whom to begin their adventure with, and that initial character remains in the party until their story is complete. Upon starting the game, gamers get to read a short biography of each of the eight heroes, learn a piece of their back-story and get a taste for how their skills will benefit the party. Once that decision is made, the player is whisked away to that character’s corner of the world. Each character’s story is their own isolated tale, giving each party member their own motivations to set out for adventure.

After finishing the opening chapter, players are free to wander wherever it is that they please. The location of the other seven characters is displayed, but it’s never an obligation to seek them all out, though it certainly helps. Each of the game’s regions, dungeons, and story chapters have their own recommended levels, but it’s simply that: a recommendation. This open world aspect is just one of many ways the developers have injected a dose of modernization to this classic formula, and it really works well here.

Before we explore each of the individual characters and what makes them stand out, I want to talk about combat, as understanding that will help grasp the strengths and weaknesses of our eight travelers.

Battles are all turn-based, pitting up to four party members against any number of fearsome enemies. While gamers can choose to attack, cast magic, use abilities, or employ items, there are many other innovative features that the developers have employed to make Octopath Traveler’s combat remarkable.

All enemies have weaknesses, and are susceptible to a particular weapon or elemental type. Utilizying that weakness against a foe will deplete their shield counter. Once that counter reaches zero, enemies become stunned and lose a turn. In addition, all attacks against them do massive damage, and stunning enemies is essential to tackling some of the most imposing of baddies. This system is similar to those in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, as well as Final Fantasy XIII, although it’s still unique in its own way.       

Octopath Traveler also borrows the boosting method from Bravely Default, in a way. Each turn, characters will receive a boost point that they can store up to five of. At any time, they can use up to three boost points to enhance their command. This can mean performing a standard attack multiple times, or multiplying the potency of a magical attack, or increasing the odds of successfully performing an action such as “steal.” Players have to be careful though, because if they use an additional point they will not gain one for that turn. This technique adds so many layers of strategy to the game. Players can save their points to quickly deplete an enemy’s shield, or employ slightly more powerful attacks at greater frequency by using one or two points at a time.

With that being said, let’s take a closer look at our cast of characters. Each party member has their own class, complete with their own skills and passive abilities. Through battle, characters will learn skill points to unlock new combat moves. Most all of these abilities are available to purchase from the get go, and increase in cost as new skills are bought. This is a great way of allowing the player to determine how to build their preferred character.

As skills are obtained, passive abilities also become unlocked, and the player can equip up to four of these per party member. In addition, each character has two special abilities: their class talent, and a path action. These two abilities are perhaps the most unique part of each party member. 

I chose the merchant, Tressa, as my main character. Tressa is a young girl who has worked in her family’s shop in the small, seaside village of Rippletide all of her life. After successfully fending off a band of pirates that attack the village, Tressa musters the courage to pack her bags and set out to see the world. I felt a personal connection to Tressa’s story; I too grew up in a small town and wanted to travel when I came of age. It’s also such a simple, wholesome set-up that I think works wonderfully for a main protagonist.

Tressa is also moderately skilled in both physical and elemental offense, and has great support skills, something that fits into any party combination. I found her ability to gift allies with additional boost points to be indispensable throughout the game. I also particularly liked her talent for earning more money. The merchant can discover extra coin at random when exploring new areas, as well as receive more money from combat. You can never have too much coin, I say.

As for her path action, Tressa can purchase items from most any NPC encountered in the game’s over world. Spending coin to acquire rare weapons, quest items, or useful crafting ingredients makes her extremely fun to have when exploring, as you never know what you might find a townsperson’s willing to part with. As you level up, the chances to receive a considerable discount on buying these items increases, which is a cherry on top of this lucrative character.

The thief, Therion, is similar to Tressa in many ways. This knave prefers to work in solitude, but he has gotten himself into a situation that he just cannot accomplish alone. Therion’s path action of stealing is the opposite of Tressa’s. Most of the items that Tressa can buy from NPCs Therion can also attempt to steal. For simple items, there is little to no risk involved, but the more expensive the item, the lower the chances of success. Get caught five times, and you will have to pay a hefty fine. Therion can also steal from enemies in battle, his success rate growing the closer they are to zero health. This is immensely useful against bosses, as they often have the most valuable goods. Lastly, Therion is the only character capable of unlocking purple chests, which almost always contain unique or rare items and are located all over the world in both dungeons and in towns. The thief also has a robust skillset of weakening foes with penalties. For instance, he can reduce the defense of an enemy, or weaken their attack, making him formidable against some of the game’s most powerful adversaries.

Primrose is a beautiful dancer whose looks are as deadly as her sharpened dagger. Once the daughter of a noble house, Primrose witnessed the murder of her father at a young age. Since then, she has traveled the world, posing as a sultry dancer, seeking the culprits in order to bring them to justice. Primrose easily has the most fascinating story for me, as her tale is the most daring and filled with such grit that it could almost be mistaken for a film noir. The dancer is the thief’s foil, in that where Therion focuses on hindering enemies, Primrose excels in buffing party members. Her various dances can improve the strength, speed, and defense of the party, motivating them to fight even harder than before. As a dancer, Primrose’s path action is “allure.” This allows her to recruit NPCs found in the over world, and employ them in battle on her behalf. The success rate of recruitment improves as she gains levels, but attempting to recruit a powerful ally when encountered is almost always worth the risk.

The healer of the group is Ophilia. The priestess is the adopted daughter of the archbishop. After he falls ill to a mysterious illness, Ophilia embarks on a pilgrimage to light the sacred flames across the continent. Ophilia’s healing abilities effect the entire party, and she is massively valuable to mitigating damage when everyone has been weakened. She also possesses various light based elemental attacks which can be tremendously powerful when boosted. Ophelia’s path action is similar to Primrose’s, as she can use her guide ability to convince NPCs to join the cause. Ophelia can do this with a guaranteed success rate, but she can only recruit characters if her level is sufficient enough, meaning that she will often need to be many times stronger to recruit allies that Primrose can with moderate risk.

Alfyn is an alchemist that sets to aid those in need with his proficient healing aptitude. He is a master of employing items in battle, able to concoct potions from ingredients obtained in the journey. These vary from healing status ailments, to restoring magic points, to offensive brews that deal elemental damage. His healing abilities are arguably even better than Ophilia’s but they benefit only one character at a time. Still, because his mixtures give him much wider range than the cleric, Alfyn may prove to be the better healer in a player’s party. His path action is also greatly beneficial. Alfyn can inquire information from NPCs, obtaining advantageous information such as the location of secret items, increased inventory in town shops, quest details, and more. It’s always a great idea to have Alfyn go around town asking the townsfolk for info when visiting a new locale, though this talent does require Alfyn to be a certain level to question specific people.

Cyrus is a scholar of a prestigious academy, and has vast knowledge in casting magical spells. Cyrus uncovers a heinous plot at his university in which ancient, priceless tomes have gone missing, and takes a sabbatical to investigate the crime so that he can thwart the culprit’s evil plans. As the team’s mage, Cyrus can unleash powerful elemental attacks against an entire group of foes. His usefulness knows no bounds, especially in the early game, and a well-boosted spell can often wipe out an entire squad of baddies. Being a scholar, Cyrus can also ask questions of NPCs. His scrutinize path action can obtain the same information that Alfyn’s inquire ability can, the difference being that the scholar has a success rate determined by his level. While he can ask a wider range of people at an earlier time than the alchemist, the risk of failure may convince players to hold off until they have a surefire way of gaining knowledge.

The last two party members assume your tanking roles. Olberic is a warrior who once was a fearless knight for a now fallen kingdom, and journeys to capture those that betrayed his country. The warrior is a defensive powerhouse, able to equip the heaviest of armor, and has tons of health and defensive stats so that he may endure loads of punishment. He can also wield nearly every weapon type, excellent for cutting down an enemy’s shield. Olberic’s path action is called challenge. With this, he can take on NPCs in a one-on-one duel. This is handy when needing an experience boost, but is most often used to access secret paths or complete quests when such an NPC is blocking a path.

The final playable character is H’aanit, a huntress from the forest town of S’warkii. After her mentor goes missing on a hunt to bring down the fearsome beast Red Eye, she and her animal companion Linde embark to locate him and slay the creature for good. As a hunter, H’aanit has the ability to detain weakened foes and have them battle for her. This means that player’s can build a roster of fiends covering all manner of abilities, from healing, to attacking, to even magic casting. Coupled with her normal skills that focus on the use of arrows and axes, this can make H’aanit one of the most versatile party members in the game. Another useful ability is leg hold trap, which forces the target to wait until the end of the turn in order to act. This is beyond useful in boss battles, giving the player prime opportunity to weaken their shield and stagger the enemy. H’aanit’s path ability is nearly the same as Olberics, but H’aanit cannot duel an NPC on her own. Instead, she must rely solely on the use of her captured prey. Truthfully, I would depend on Olberic more so to do the duels as he is much more reliable, but H’aanit is exceptionally formidable in standard battle.

One criticism levied towards Octopath Traveler concerns its plot. For the most part, the game is comprised of eight separate short stories that exist independently from one another. There are some minor details that may blend into other stories, but you really have to look for them. The first issue with this is that there is a clear gap in quality amongst these tales. Some, such as Primrose’s and Olberic’s, are wonderfully crafted, packed with character development and emotional highs and lows. These are engaging stories that will have you pushing on to see their end. Others though, like Alfyn’s or Tressa’s, lack excitement and are far too predictable to become invested in. They would make for OK side adventures, but they’re just not the quality you expect for a main storyline.

The game also has a habit of showing its hand far too early. For instance, you may begin a chapter looking for an enemy spy. You are immediately then introduced to a new character that seemingly has nothing to do with the story. Anyone experienced in storytelling will automatically know that this inconspicuous character is actually the spy in question. This lazy writing can really dull the “surprise” twist at the chapter’s end. This happens multiple times, too, so much so that towards the game’s conclusion I felt as if I was just going through the motions with each character’s tale.

I also came to be disappointed with how little interaction the party members have during the bulk of the adventure. Their individual stories aside, I did expect more banter amongst the group between battles. Alas, there are only a few occasions when this happens, and they never occur organically. They all play out as little asides that have nothing to do with the current situation, and honestly they took me out of the experience more times than not.

Octopath Traveler does have voice actors that portray the cast with earnest, but they are underutilized. The voice cast is only made prominent during key story segments, aside from the typical quips uttered in battle. There’s no consistency with the voice over, either. Sometimes only a single sentence in a conversation will be spoken, while other times the player is forced to read halfway through an interaction. It made me feel disjointed from the game even more so than the party discussions.

An awesome aspect of Octopath Traveler is that your characters aren’t just stuck in their default class. As you progress in the game and explore the open world, you may come across shrines that allow you to adopt a second class, thus improving your stats and giving you access to all of that class’s abilities sans their path action and unique talent. With this, you can give your healer offensive magic to improve her usefulness, or perhaps let her take on alchemy so she can heal in any type of situation. Maybe you will want to make Olberic’s subclass to be a hunter so he can be the ultimate tanking machine, or possibly some healing spells so he can act moreso like a paladin. This level of customization really allows the player to take control and shape their team the way that they want to, something rare in RPGs like this.

It doesn’t end there, either, as there are four secret classes to be found towards the end of the game. These are guarded by exceedingly powerful bosses, but acquiring them nets you access to some of the game’s most useful talents, so they should definitely be sought out prior to the final missions.

Aside from the 4 chapters that make up each character’s story, there exists numerous side quests to tackle while on your journey. Most of these can be picked up in the two-dozen towns that can be visited, although some are discovered out in the wilds. These quests range from finding specific items for the quest giver, to slaying a daunting boss, or even acquiring an item from another NPC, either by stealing or purchasing it outright. Too many of these though are vaguely explained to the player, and it’s not always obvious what needs to be done. For example, someone may ask to be reunited with the love of their life, with no indication of whom or where that person is. The player may then need to use Alfyn or Cyrus’s abilities to ask around for said individual, and once located, recruit them to the party with either Ophelia or Primrose and guide them back to the quest giver. Side quests can be overly complicated, vague, and difficult in this manner. Plus, while the game has markers to indicate where the player must go for story quests, side missions are never displayed as such, so more casual players may be more than a bit lost when trying to find a solution.

Optional dungeons are also sometimes part of side quests, and can be a lot of fun to explore. Each non-civilized area of the world map contains a dungeon of sorts, and each dungeon is guaranteed to have at least one unique item hidden in its depths along with a good deal of other treasures. Player’s shouldn’t be foolhardy enough to think that these are unguarded however, as some of the game’s most fearsome beasts lurk in these optional dark caves, dense woods, and deserted castles. My one complaint with these is that the dungeons are often far too linear. There aren’t many branching paths as you may find in a game like Diablo, for instance, and after awhile their layouts become far too predictable for this reason.

Like any great JRPG, Octopath Traveler does have a fair amount of endgame content, some of which feels like it should have been introduced much sooner. It’s hard to explain without spoiling things, so forgive me for being a little vague. After finishing all eight character’s stories and watching the end credits, you can then undertake some new side quests to uncover one last dungeon. Within lies the true final boss, and revelations about the plot that honestly could have solved many of the criticisms I’ve spoken about previously. It’s just that this is all crammed in one area after the player has spent dozens of additional hours questing and leveling. Again, it just comes off as lazy writing, or an afterthought after 90% of the game was already finished and the developers needed something to pad out the experience.

I can’t end this review without talking about the fantastic music composed by Yasunori Nishiki. He is a relative newcomer to the video game industry, this being his first project in which he’s lead composer, but he has contributed to some other incredible soundtracks, such as Kingdom Hearts III, Gravity Rush 2, and the Final Fantasy VII remake. While one might expect grand, intense pieces out of a full piece orchestra, Nishiki surprises by crafting simple tunes with strong melodies. It’s another way of paying homage to the soundtracks of old, and genuinely sound like retro RPG music updated for the modern day. The score also does a wonderful job on bringing this complex world together, with themes for each character and leitmotifs for each region. The player can instantly make emotional connections when Nishiki introduces these themes and sounds at the appropriate time. It’s all just genuinely beautiful.

Verdict: 4.5/5 Stars

Octopath Traveler may not change the RPG world forever, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a fun, nostalgic experience that, despite some issues, never stops feeling like a warm hug for any gamer that grew up in the 16-bit era. Other players will also find a lot to love here, from the charming art style to the delightfully orchestrated music and engaging combat system. Although I selfishly wish that Octopath Traveler would have retained its Switch exclusivity (Nintendo always needs firm third party support), this is a game that deserves to be played by as many people as possible. Add yourself to that number, and embark on this adventure as soon as you can.

Josh Cornett is a lifelong gamer who enjoys games across all platforms and genres. He has gone by the alias of “Block” ever since college, when he was nicknamed “Blockbuster” for his extensive video game and movie collection. Currently, he reviews a wide variety of games on his Youtube channel, and talks about all things gaming related on his Twitter and Facebook pages.

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