Octopath Traveler is the closest Square Enix has gotten to creating a truly great classic RPG again. Bravely Default had excellent combat, but its story was a repetitive nightmare. I Am Setsuna was just kind of a travesty all around. I skipped over Bravely Second and Lost Sphear, but I hear they’re just more of the same. By comparison, Octopath Traveler still has a disappointingly weak story—but it’s just so darn fun to play.
Eight boring, unrelated stories
Octopath Traveler features eight main characters with eight distinct storylines. You begin the game by selecting one of the eight, and then you are free to explore and recruit the other seven characters (and experience their storylines) at your leisure. Despite this, characters’ stories never overlap except for an optional postgame dungeon, and it’s never explained why (for instance) an honorable knight like Olberic would team up with a thief like Therion. Thus, the establishment of the player party is completely arbitrary, and you just have to accept it.
If the storylines were otherwise exciting and imaginative—like in Live A Live or SaGa Frontier—it would be a forgivable quirk. But that ain’t the case here. All eight stories are dull, plodding amalgamations of tropes that other games have used so much better. There isn’t even much humor to be found, which is a shame since unexpected joviality was a hallmark of classics like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. I almost never skip cinematics in an RPG, but I did it without guilt at some junctures during Octopath Traveler.
The English localization is hit and miss too. The voice acting ranges from “fine” to “infuriatingly poor.” Additionally, the localizers went overboard with trying to give certain villages a distinct manner of speech. There was one area where I became so distracted by the purposely weird styling of the text that I could no longer follow the story.
Nothing about the narrative of Octopath Traveler warrants celebration. But the main characters themselves come with unique abilities that put a fun twist on RPG adventuring. Two of the characters can essentially challenge any random NPC to one-on-one combat; this is helpful for gaining experience or physically moving someone who is blocking your path. Two other characters can discern important details from townspeople, such as the location of hidden items. Another two characters can obtain items from townspeople, by purchasing or stealing them, respectively. And the last two characters can make an NPC follow them around and even help in combat.
Sometimes the narrative forces you to use these mechanics, but most of the time they’re just an optional extra layer to the game. It benefits you to use almost all of these abilities, but if you ignore them, that’s fine too. They seem to exist strictly as a fun bonus, giving seasoned RPG veterans something to do beyond talking to sterile NPCs. It’s frivolous, but in a good way.
A gorgeous reinvention of 2D
The good news is that, where the narrative fails, almost everything else about the game succeeds. For instance, Square’s much-touted “HD-2D” is a spectacular success. Attractive, PS1-quality pixel art stands up on a three-dimensional plane or is plastered like wallpaper onto geometric shapes. Real-time lighting effects on the pixel art make the environments pop, and other effects (like sparkling water) come together to portray the game as something truly fresh and modern. I look forward to seeing many more games work with and evolve this new HD-2D style.
The soundtrack does its best to complement the visuals, but in truth, it just sounded to me like every other soundtrack I’ve heard in an RPG lately. It’s got moody songs, vibrant songs, and sometimes it throws in an electric guitar as an attempt to get zany, but it was totally unmemorable for me. Like too many modern video games, Octopath Traveler’s soundtrack sets the mood but never dares to get very melodic.
Endless paths to victory
The combat system is the cornerstone of Octopath Traveler, and it’s extremely satisfying. It basically just retools features used in other Square games, but to outstanding effect. Each of the eight characters has a distinct job/class, but eventually, you can assign a second job (one of the existing eight jobs) to each character. Combine this with the fact that each different party combination comes with its own strategies, and there are dozens of ways to approach any given battle.
Combat makes use of “boosts” and “breaks.” Each turn, each party member receives a boost. A boost adds more power to whatever attack or ability is used, and upward of five boosts can be stockpiled. Timing the use of your boosts strategically is the focal point of combat, because attacking your enemies enough times with their weakness (whether a weapon type or magic) “breaks” them. Broken enemies will take much higher damage from your attacks, and they also lose their turn. So you have to think about whether to spend boost to break enemies or to hit enemies as hard as possible when they’re already broken. It’s a brilliant mechanic made all the more fun by the variety of choice.
You can rely on old strategies to win battles if you want. I used the traditional knight and mage characters as my major damage-dealers, for instance. But there is also a huntress character who can capture animals from combat and deploy their attacks in other battles, and there is a merchant who is basically a walking support unit. If you want to experiment in battle, Octopath Traveler will offer you countless ways to do so, and it’s all just plain fun.
A connected world
In the beginning of the game, when you are collecting characters, the difficulty of enemies scales with you. But after a certain point, every area just has monsters of a set level, and the game always warns you of that as you arrive. As long as you stay in areas of an appropriate level, the game typically isn’t difficult. However, characters not included in the player party don’t receive experience, so some level grinding becomes inevitable.
Interestingly, money is not always abundant either, so you really have to be frugal about what you decide to buy. Octopath Traveler finds lots of little ways like this to put wrinkles in the RPG experience.
But as you travel the game world, there’s one unfair, unspoken rule that the game abides by: You must always bring Therion, the thief. There are chests in the world that only he can open, so if you don’t bring him, it means you will have to backtrack later if you care about opening them. It was a very poor decision for the game to punish you for not bringing one specific character everywhere. Fortunately, this is just one nitpick.
A new hope for RPGs
Octopath Traveler isn’t perfect, but its major faults mostly pertain to the story. Beyond that, the game looks beautiful in a distinct way, interacting with NPCs in the game world is goofy fun, and the combat system is a multifaceted and rewarding revamp of Square Enix’s previous offerings. When you put it all together, Octopath Traveler is an engaging RPG with a unique identity that it can be proud of, even if its narrative falls far short of Square’s other classics.