Just for the sake of symmetry, Octopath Traveler should get an 8 out of 10, right?
Killer 7 should get a 7, Half-Life 2 should get a 2 (out of 2), and The Little Mermaid on Genesis should get launched into a deep ocean trench. That’s how titles and reviews and quality all work. As spoken by Richter T. Scienceman. He has an online art degree.
Just in case you don’t read his column in Totes Science Weekly, I suppose I’ll run down the qualities of this JRPG revival that revives very little. Make no mistake, there’s a full meal of glorious game design and absolutely sparkling visual and audio. It’s only near the end of the meal that you start to taste some sour flavors and gristle.
Three paragraphs in and I simply have to talk about how visually attractive, original, and calming Octopath Traveler really is. Every 2D sprite casts a shadow as it animatedly skitters across twinkling winter plains that crunch with every step. Some of the same swishes between blowing sand in far-off dry basins as tumbleweeds float by. Experiencing the visual novelty of the pop-up book aesthetic Square Enix employs here is not only one-of-a-kind, but feels truly refreshing and original. It’s a style that doesn’t demand that you look into every crevice for a rewarding detail. Everything is simply floating by for your pace and your enjoyment alone.
Adding to that charge is the now-nostalgically-mandatory retro graphics. Their simplicity ensures that you’re not going to have to endure a lot of animations and the movements can stay in the now-timeless realm of flowing transitions. These graphics already represent a growing number of gamer childhoods, so having them appear inside of a genus born from animations coming to life feels like a stroke of brilliance in hindsight. Everything about Octopath Traveler haunts a house built by memories of playing on the floor with a bowl of chips in your lap and stretching bedtimes.
Music and general sounds come from the same vein with some subtle loans from certain SNES games. Characters are intermittently voiced as a way to highlight the more important scenes, but it just doesn’t work as intended. Grunts and moans aren’t the best way to communicate in general. Even cavemen had drawings – even a lot of SNES games had emojis above their heads! This isn’t a huge breakdown in the story so much as it’s just perplexing and rubs sore by the 40-50 hour mark.
As the name implies, Octopath Traveler floats you into the shoes of 8 protagonists that you collect one at a time. The hero you start with is relevant only if you find yourself drawn towards one specific class. Everyone will come to this party eventually, their own tales adding turbulence over 4 chapters. Each class represents a wildly different character and conflict across some slants on common stereotypes. The main healer is a kind soul. The warrior wants to put away the sword. You’ve likely seen the shells of these characters a few times.
Then again, there is an interesting energy emitting from each voiced exchange. The merchant Tressa has an infectious curiosity that fills out every horizon with possibilities. Then you have H’aanit that carries a quiet, strong demeanor befitting a hunter that’s spent much of her life in the brush, looking for prey. The range between is substantial and fully worth the cut swath. All of the actors/actresses seem to embody their roles to engrossing ends. So what seems old is given new life as you’ve never seen these characters quite as they are and certainly never heard them as vocally alive as they feel.
Each and every one of the final acts is where I have a big ol’ grievance to air with Octopath Traveler, namely because none of the stories ever coalesce. Despite having each character from around the 10-15th hour, you’ll never see them battle against a contextual enemy. That’s to say that your party of your choice will be present but they might as well be ghosts. Every story is set for a single member alone from beginning to end. Through my eyes, this is a crying shame that robs the world of Orsterra a deserved crescendo.
That overworld is absolutely blasted with locations and characters to discover. Not since Breath of the Wild has the Switch held such a massive wall of palettes and wavelengths to match. The silence of the snow, the echo of the mountains etc. all follow you and affect the baker’s dozen towns in vastly different ways. World balance is a wonderful experience that carefully segments enemies into the same zones as the ecosystems. Denizens dress and behave as you’d expect at the extremes of biomes with full dedication.
Throw that alongside the fact that each of the stories ends completely and utterly disparate from one another and you just have to wonder what it was all for. Such an approach closes the 8 main stories well enough but the world itself has zero closure. You could argue that there’s no real “beginning” to the story of the world either (not without jumping down a dark well of existential crisis at least) but I’d disagree there too.
I started as Ophelia on a whim and was quickly on my quest – despite the details or the quality, that was the beginning of this world for the player. It doesn’t have to be that a comet has been averted or the equivalent of a nuke nearly destroyed a section of the world. Take Ophelia’s quest to complete a holy pilgrimage; at the end, why not change some dialogue? Adding a word or two would show a certain effect on the land and the people that is completely missing right now in Octopath Traveler.
That’s not to say that nothing happens after the ends come and go. My favorite challenge to still take on involves one insanely cool boss hidden behind a string of other, secret foes. And those are set behind high-level dungeons that you have to scour the land to locate. There’s substantive content that represents, to me, the best of the game because of a certain thread that I’ve read lingers at the end of it all.
With those separate classes come various abilities that you’ll have to weigh as you roam through Orsterra. Ophelia is the early defacto healer in battle, but wandering the streets, she is a captivating sweetheart able to recruit villagers to follow her crusade. That villager then, depending upon their level, can become a valuable trump card to pull out in the middle of battle for tangible benefits. Everyone has their own special ability such as Tressa being able to barter for better prices and thieving Therion pickpocketing or opening certain chests. Every character, therefore, feels useful even if you don’t necessarily like their stories.
As you travel the world, you can find shrines that allow you to attach a parallel set of skills to the native classes. This is the magic of Octopath Traveler when it comes to battling as none of the characters ever feel locked. Ophelia can be a Thief or a Warrior with impunity, their unique passive skills making her a healing nightmare on the field. Those late-game dungeons offer you even more power to flex, creating a lot of synergy in battle that you can unload in slivers or a single haymaker.
You do that by chipping away at any defenses the enemy has with weakening weapons or elements. If you come up against a boss with a defense of 8, you’ll have to knock them all the way down to do full damage on their vulnerable beating heart. The weight of your risk and reward comes in your charge meter that means you could attack either up to 5 times or have a single attack with that multiple of damage. Then again, use it incorrectly and your whole party could get rocked by a charged attack. As far as rock, paper, scissor systems go, it’s a wonderfully modern.
Now let’s all pivot to the negative side of this issue: Changing out party members feels archaic and useless outside of battle. Yes, you can give Ophelia all those thieving skills, but she’ll never be able to do the native abilities that Therion only can perform. That can create these huge journeys back to a bar from the end of a dungeon to then a return for hidden booty. If you want that benefit, you have to have that original class member in your party. Does that not defeat half of the purpose of such a freeing “any class, anywhere” system?
And do not even start me on the side quests. Villagers are clearly marked and their words come out in a clearly typed font – that’s where the help stops. You’re expected to talk to every single denizen of every single settlement and weave a red-string web like a conspiracy theorist to find your overall objective. I’m not saying I need a tutorial to know where to take a lost old man. I just need a destination, or where to find the fish, or how to lead someone to talk to someone else. The fog that surrounds these objectives is massive and choking to where Google now thinks I’m stalking someone named ‘Octopath Traveler side quests’.
So, yeah, Octopath Traveler is a delightful visual and aural memory pod slammed into modern sensibilities. What didn’t quite make the full update or updated too much for its own good is as clear as day to me with a highway to an improved sequel hopefully already being built with a through lane. This experience really does feel like a drunken octopus. None of the tentacles talk, no one knows what the other is doing, and while we’re not going to drown, someone’s going to have to tow our sloppy-ass home.
Octopath Traveler Score: