Octopath Traveler Review
Original piece can be found at unchartedrupee.wordpress.com
Choose Your Own Adventure
The first time I saw Octopath Traveler, presented then as Project Octopath Traveler, was during the original Nintendo Switch presentation in January of 2017. It struck me and most of the game media’s interest immediately because of its art style that was both nostalgic, paying homage to seemingly both 16- and 32-bit era RPG’s, and fresh because it looked, in its own way, like a children’s pop-up book. I’ve had the game on my radar since, and although I downloaded both the demos the devs released before the game dropped, I didn’t play much of them before I picked it up about a week after its release in July of 2018. At the time, the games press was raving over Octopath, calling it an amazing game, and highlighting all of its wonderful qualities, of which it has many. But, for the most part, many outlets glossed over a lot of the glaring issues with the game which don’t show themselves until the player has spent ample time with the game. I’m here to shed some light on some of the issues this flawed but ultimately fun game has under the hood.
At the beginning of the game the player is tasked with choosing one of eight starting characters. Each one represents a different class, but each character is firmly that character. There is no character creation in this game. The reason for that, I’m guessing is that every character has their own individual story arch. I chose the hunter character, H’aanit, and boy, was that a rough introduction to the writing of this game. The characters in her town all speak a sort of riff on Shakespearean English. The writing for this specific portion of the game is terrible. Her entire story is unbearable because of the characters writing. Thankfully, her story arch is the only one that is written with that half-baked dialect.
A Story Worth Skipping
Every character in the game has a four chapter story, and each story chapter for each character takes about an hour and a half to complete. Factor in traveling around the world map at least once to unlock all the fast travel points and you are looking at about a 60 hour RPG. The first chapter serves as in introduction to all eight characters. You go around the map in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise fashion of your choosing and run into the eight different characters along your travels and hear their story before they join your party. I said the writing gets better outside of H’aanit’s story and it does, but not by a whole lot. The writing for every story beat is overly long, to the point where I skipped all the stories, even the ones I was mildly interested in for two chapters, after the first half of the game. It just wasn’t worth the wait. It seemed like I kept reading and reading and reading through scenes, and they were offering little to no engagement, drama, or interest of any kind.
The biggest bummer of the realization that the storylines all suck, isn’t that the storylines suck. They are skippable by pressing the B button for a few moments. What really sucks is that the structure of the game is oriented around the pacing of the eight storylines, and that structure is mind numbingly repetitive by hour twenty-five or so. I dare you to not feel fatigue after the second chapter of the game. Honestly, it gets so repetitive that I was left constantly wondering how in the heck this game scored so well across games media. Pacing and story are two huge things for JRPG’s, and from the start Octopath whiffs on story and the pacing fails to provide anything new after the first chapter. It’s only after the third chapter when you are rounding the corner to the last segment of the game you realize how they’ve duped you. Every chapter follows the exact same pattern. Go to a town, talk to a few people, see a few drawn out cut scenes, and walk through a very well designed dungeon that lacks much aesthetic flair. Yes, I threw in a positive comment there, because the dungeons in this game are one of its great strengths. They are short, sweet, and chalked full of treasure worth hunting down. This glaring redundancy, though, which often isn’t mentioned in reviews following Octopath’s immediate release, leads me to suspect that many game’s media didn’t finish all eight quests when they were reviewing the game. There is no way anyone could convince me they believe this game is a 9.3 out of 10 after slogging through all of these.
A Strong Backbone
Okay, that is most of the bad stuff out of the way right at the front. The thing is, behind the curtain of the horrendously paced storylines that dictate the poorly paced structure, Octopath is actually a pretty good game. The art style, which Square Enix has officially dubbed HD-2D, is gorgeous. I remember jumping from the N64 to the GameCube and just looking at the water effects in Super Mario Sunshine for ten to fifteen minutes thinking holy smokes, this water looks real! Well, it didn’t and neither does the water in Octopath, but it sure does look pretty, and the lighting effects are tremendous in every area. Octopath is pretty enough to sit and stare at for a few minutes without doing much else. It’s like playing a Super Nintendo game like Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger through rose-tinted glasses. The music is as good as anything I’ve heard on any RPG. We’re talking fully orchestrated pieces that fit the environments and characters they back up perfectly. If the devs had told the story silently with no dialogue and just used the music to convey the emotions of the scenes, this game would have netted a few 10’s from gimmick suckers around the web, and heck, probably even me. The music is that good.
Another shining feature of this game is its unique and fun turn based battle system that does enough to spice things up that it feels interesting and fun even 60 hours in. You have four party members with varying weapons and elemental attacks, and every enemy has multiple weaknesses to either a weapon class or elemental attack. It’s the player’s job to figure out what those weaknesses are, sometimes by visual indicators, but usually by guessing and checking. When you find out a monster’s weakness, it will show up under them permanently, so the reward for figuring out a monster’s weakness is having the knowledge to finish them off quickly the next time you come across that enemy type again. Every enemy has a guard that will break after you hit their weaknesses several times. When their guard is down, its open season and any weapon will do twice the damage. Each turn also nets the player a battle point, and you can store up to five for every character. When it is your turn to attack you can choose whether to spend your BP. You can spend up to three at a time, and each one gives you one more attack meaning you can attack four times in a row if you cash in three all at once. It is a fun risk reward dynamic that shines its brightest during longer and more challenging boss fights. In the later game there are also special moves each character can use that require three BP’s to use. They usually do very large damage and cost a lot of SP, which is this games version of magic points. Add all of that onto a pretty diverse job system that lets you find jobs on the world map and add one to each character in the second half of the game, and you can build yourself a pretty beefy squad. I’m currently rolling with a hunter/thief, thief/black mage, merchant/knight, and knight/apothecary set up, but I’ve dabbled in switching things around a lot. Tinkering with the jobs system is definitely one of the highlights of this hybrid portable RPG.
Gimmicks Gone Wrong
One last interesting feature is that every character can interact with the varying townspeople all over the world in different ways. The merchant can buy special products from people, and the thief can steal most of the same items for free (my favorite). The hunter and the knight can challenge people to fights (useless in my playthrough). The mage and the apothecary can learn detailed information about people that can lead to some treasures or get the whole party discounts (I used this on everyone). And the white mage and dancer can convince people to follow them into battle, working as a summon of sorts (useless). This was a genuinely fun mechanic, but like most things in the game, it got stale. At a certain point, I was just walking up to every person and stealing from them before shaking them down for info, which only required one button press from me. In a sense, it’s a game of luck, because each person has a success percentage tied to them, and if you fail four times your reputation in the town suffers. But spamming it until you get a person to crack is doable, because for a low cost you can restore your party’s reputation by paying off the local bartender. Which is honestly a magical solution.
I finished the main campaign of all eight characters at just over 64 hours. That was skipping every cutscene after chapter 2, so if you really take your time with the game and do all of the side quests, which I didn’t touch on because they are lazily issued and for the most part add nothing to the quality of the game, I’m sure you could spend 100 hours in this world. As far as post-game content goes, I know there are four elite job classes still available for me to go out and master, and they are hidden behind super powerful bosses. I tried a couple of them once and got wasted good. If you can beat those, more power to you and hit me up with some strats, because I’d like to see how powerful those elite classes are.
I know I was a bit harsh on Octopath in this review, but I don’t have harsh feelings towards it. The pros do outweigh the cons in this case, but I want people to know that this is not a game for people who do not enjoy JRPGs. It is not a quintessential game on the Switch. It is a game for people who grew up with a SNES or PSONE playing Final Fantasy games late into the night until their eyes got blurry. I am one of those people, and for me this game offered enough to squeeze enjoyment out of it. That’s what it’s all about, I suppose. Octopath doesn’t do much to progress the medium forward, but if it had come out in the SNES era it would have been hailed as a masterpiece. In that regard, Octopath may have accomplished what it came to do. It’s a little stuck in its old ways for a game made in 2018, and though that is kind of the point, in my opinion, it falls short of greatness.