Whichever path you travel, this JRPG holds beauty and excellent combat in store.
After the credits rolled on Octopath Traveler, I took a 15-minute break before I sat back down, grabbed my controller, and went back to my save file to play more. This, in spite of the fact I’d played 53 hours on my journey to complete the path of Therion, the thief whose story I’d chosen at the beginning. The more I played, the more I loved it.
Going in, I’d expected little more than a charming but run-of-the-mill homage to the 16-bit RPGs I grew up playing. Instead, Octopath Traveler treated me to a stunning tilt-shifted art style and a deep battle system that made every encounter an exercise in thoughtful strategizing.
At first blush, Octopath Traveler is a sprite-based game that looks like it’d be at home in a Super NES Final Fantasy. But there’s more to it than that: Character are 2D, but they move and explore in a 3D world painted with 16-bit textures, with the exception of realistic sand, snow, and water. That lends it a delightful old-school charm while giving it a modern flavor.
Perhaps the most gorgeous places are the deserts, beaches, and snow-capped mountain areas.
But it doesn’t stop there. Everything in the world feels alive with subtle movement: pixelated trees rustle in the breeze; blades of 16-bit grass sway under a changing sky; shadows from passing clouds blot out parts of the landscape as they float, out of sight, in the skies above. Perhaps the most gorgeous places are the deserts, beaches, and snow-capped mountain areas. Individual grains of sand sparkle under the sun, and the snowy landscapes glimmer with life as light dances across individual snowflakes.
Lighting effects make the world even more dreamlike. Beams of warm sunlight shine through windows and interiors are lit by torch or a warm candlelight. During fights, spells paint the battlefield in light and throw realistic shadows on everything, adding another layer of beauty to an already gorgeous world.
The eight different tales told in Octopath Traveler aren’t particularly original, but they do manage a few dramatic surprises and are both well-written and voice acted. (You can switch the voice acting to the original Japanese, if that’s your thing.) Progression through one has no bearing on the other seven, and switching between them isn’t a requirement, but I still partially played through each character’s story while concentrating on the satisfying ending to Therion’s tale.
Therion is a thief, shackled literally with a symbol of shame in the early hours of his tale. His story never tries too hard to have a morality lesson or some deeper meaning, but it’s enjoyable, almost like a compelling but not-too-deep anime or comic-book, without seeming corny or overwrought. There are some twists and turns along the way, and the story feels absolutely appropriate in tone and substance, never taking itself too seriously but also not becoming silly or parody.
That’s just one of the eight, however. If I had felt so inclined, I could have completely skipped over the tale of Primrose the dancer or Olberich the Knight and called it a day. But of course, I went and finished Olberich’s story, too, and found it just as good. It’s one of a wandering hero, almost a ronin’s tale, and includes moments of betrayal and ultimate redemption. But doesn’t bog itself down trying to be anything more than an enjoyable, if uninspired, story.
There is no absolute evil against which our travelers must band together to battle.
If there’s one thing missing from Octopath Traveler it’s a unifying thread tying all the stories together. There is no absolute evil against which our travelers must band together to battle, no ultimate weapon or looming, world-ending calamity. Each self-contained story is charming and works well in isolation, but it’s a little disappointing that the characters only overlap superficially, joining your party when you encounter them in one of the many villages and cities.
Some of the sidequests peppered around the world are extremely simple: an NPC in a village asks you for an item another NPC is holding, or to locate a family member. Others can only be unlocked through character’s default special abilities, such as the Scholar’s “scrutinize” or the Dancer’s “allure,” among others, adding an extra wrinkle but not much in the way of complexity. They give tiny glimpses into the lives of Octopath Traveler’s NPCs, but I found myself wishing for more depth. As a completionist, these side quests call to me, but otherwise they’re not compelling. The rewards for completing them aren’t exciting, either – generally you get some money and maybe a common item. Some of the sidequests have multiple parts, but I never encountered one I felt I could lose myself in, like in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or Skyrim.
There are also dungeons, caves, and other areas to explore outside the main quest that you’ll find along the roads and paths of the world, and they’re usually filled with new enemies and loot. I always enjoyed discovering a new one, exploring its depths, and battling the enemies within. A fast-travel system makes revisiting villages and cities a snap, and those locations act as hubs for the surrounding areas. I do wish it let you jump directly to any visited location, but at least the hike from the hub is never too onerous.
The battle system shakes up the traditional turn-based or ATB combat we know and love from the 16-bit era.
The battle system, though, is one of my favorite parts of Octopath Traveler because of how it shakes up the traditional turn-based or ATB combat we know and love from the 16-bit era. Discovering and exploiting enemy weaknesses and learning to use each character’s strengths, abilities, and items to wage battle is incredibly fun. I love how it turns the RPG rock-paper-scissors trope of elemental weakness on its head and expands it into a system that requires experimentation, timing, and skill.
There’s a fantastic layer of strategy to battles that gives value to even the lowliest attacks, even in the late game. A wizard staff might only inflict a few points of damage, but if it breaks an enemy’s defense, it’s completely worth it to spend your turn that way. When’s the last time you used a staff in a JRPG for any reason other than you ran out of magic points? Now, you have a reason, and as a result each encounter required me to stop and think about the best approach. Do I spend my accrued battle points and swing my axe three times to break the enemy’s defense, or do I hold off and maximize my next attack and try to break defense with one of Alfyn’s elemental potions, or use Therion’s Steal SP attack to strike twice in one move? Discovering novel approaches to battles, experimenting with efficient use of spells and weapons, and uncovering the best strategies is hugely fun and feels like a masterfully-crafted tabletop game brought into the digital realm.
The host of different abilities and class-specific skills gave me so much room to experiment and crack the code of each battle that I felt a real sense of accomplishment whenever I worked out new methods of attack. But just when I thought I’d figured it out, Octopath Traveler added a whole new layer to battles with a job system.
I nearly squealed with delight (okay, I actually did) when I discovered my first shrine with a job-granting idol inside. Suddenly, characters who’d previously only fought with daggers could strike all enemies with a sword attack and purely physical characters could cast spells, shattering the defenses of hapless foes. Any character can equip any secondary job, (limited to one character at a time). Therion, who has only one elemental attack, could now add two more to his repertoire with the Scholar job, or healing abilities with Alfyn’s Apothecary job skills.
In my playthough I had eight jobs to play with and combine with my eight characters, but there are even more jobs I haven’t unlocked yet. They sit in shrines guarded by insanely powerful bosses who, even after 53 hours of play, I’m still not strong enough to defeat. I’ve tried, many times – and I expect I’ll continue to try for a good long while to come.