Why Octopath Traveler is a Critical Hit, Continued

Part II of III: The Gameplay

Last time, we examined the aesthetic of Octopath Traveler and how it simultaneously honored its inspirations and created its own identity.

This week, we pick up the nuts and bolts. An open world, a complex battle system, and multi-talented heroes lead us to the second reason why the title is so hot: The gameplay.

An Open World

True to its name, Octopath Traveler features eight protagonists who walk different paths of life. I mentioned some of them in our last article, and how they all have compelling stories. But how does the game let you explore these tales?

When you begin a new game in Octopath, you are presented with all eight characters and their own brief synopsis. Then you choose who to begin with — your primary character, or “main.” Regardless of whom you select, you are initially confined to a scene unique to each hero. The game fences you in a safe zone, a place where you can get a feel for the character’s strengths and abilities. You’re given ways to become familiar with Path Actions (explained later), and regional enemies are given weaknesses the local hero can exploit.

Upon clearing the first chapter, the boundaries vanish, and you are free to explore the land of Orsterra as you see fit. Naturally, the first instinct is to look at the world map:

Orsterra is a vast place, but it is cleverly-designed. Often, open-world games overwhelm the new player, confusing them with unlimited choices. Not Octopath Traveler. Orsterra is massive, but the starting map borders a lagoon in the center. This creates a ring-like world, suitable for linear exploration. But at the same time, it has branching paths along the way to provide freedom of choice.

Additionally, the map pinpoints where your next chapter will take place. This destination is placed far from the player, literally opposite where the first chapter occurred. Thus, regardless of whom you choose as your main, your journey will take you around the world. Along the way, you’ll build your party, find side quests, and hunt for treasure. It’s organic exploration.

This is refreshing, because with a few exceptions, you can go wherever you want. A warning message pops up when you’re about to enter a region home to monsters far above your level, but rarely are you barred from trying your luck.

Speaking of dangerous monsters….

The Battle System

Octopath’s battles are fought in a turn-based format. There are many who criticize this style as dated or archaic, but there are just as many who love it. Regardless, if Octopath Traveler was to reincarnate classic Final Fantasy and SaGa, it had to be turn-based.

As with the audio and visual design, the development team’s battle plan drew upon their childhood memories and their work histories. Producers Masashi Takahashi and Tomoya Asano came from the Bravely Default studio, another franchise inspired by classic JRPGs. Bravely Default’s name itself is a reference to its battle system, focusing on two important subsystems: The “Brave” mechanic allows you to take extra turns at the cost of sitting idle afterwards; and the “Default” mechanic lets you stockpile an extra turn while sacrificing your current one.

Octopath Traveler too builds its combat around two keywords: Break and Boost.

Your foes are many in Octopath, but their weaknesses are just as many. Each enemy you face has at least one weak point you can exploit, indicated by a specific icon. Whether it be weapons such as sword and bow or magics such as fire and ice, you have a litany of ways to debilitate your adversary. Once you’ve stricken these weaknesses a set number of times (a shield-shaped icon with a number gives it away), you achieve a guard break.

Breaking an enemy stuns it, forfeiting at least one of their turns and giving you a huge opportunity. You can unleash a massive offensive; you can heal your weakened party; or you can do a little bit of both. It depends on the battle. Minor enemies can be quickly dispatched with an all-out attack, but stronger foes like bosses will not fall so easily.

It’s important to know when to break your foes. It’s just as important to know when to boost your allies. Each turn, your party gains a little power orb (unless you spent an orb last turn). These power orbs can be cashed in to augment the quantity and damage of attacks, boosting a hero’s offensive capability by up to four-fold.

Paired together, the break and boost mechanics provides a huge depth to strategy and tactics. Do you juggle guard break on the multiple weaker enemies or the sole powerhouse? All at once? What about healing? Do you play the long game, or do you go all-in with boosts and risk having no resources upon the enemy’s counterattack?

Octopath’s fights are gripping. The personality of the boost and break systems keeps things exciting. And on top of tactical benefits, there are sensual payoffs to using these mechanics. When you boost, your character is enveloped in an aura of power, its glow differing in color and intensity with the amount of orbs used. When you break a foe’s guard, time slows down as you hear glass shatter and see the numeric shield explode to into shards. It’s rewarding. You feel powerful every time.

Characterization

Though you begin solo, soon enough you’ll recruit a team of heroes. Each has their unique skill set governed by their job, or class. As you win battles, you acquire Job Points you can use to further evolve each hero’s skills. But things really get fun when you unlock the job subclass system.

As I said, each character has their specific job (like Thief or Warrior). With job subclassing, you can attach a second expertise to characters, drastically expanding their potential. For example, you can create a Warrior/Hunter that hits like a freight train; or you can give offensive magic to your healer.

And on top of job-related skills, there are also support skills that give significant perks. Extra HP, augmented magic damage, even a way to reduce the enemy encounter rate. What’s special is that unlike job abilities (like special attacks), these support skills are applicable regardless of their second job.

This means you can train your characters in multiple classes and cherry-pick the best perks. While finite, the options are quite diverse when you factor in personal preference. I could spend quite some time explaining optimal character builds, but then we’d leave out another big factor in party formation: Path Actions.

Path Actions tie into the theme of eight figures walking different paths. There are the four noble characters: Alfyn, Olberic, Ophelia, and Tressa. Then there are the eight rogues: Primrose, Therion, H’aanit, and Cyrus. Each shares a similar Path Action to a hero on the opposite spectrum. An example would be Tressa, the young merchant who buys rare gear from NPCs; opposite her is Therion, the thief who steals what he wants.

If you’re wondering why in the world you’d choose not to steal, there’s a reason. Noble characters’ Path Actions are automatic successes, if you are within a certain level. Rogues may get a better haul, but your attempt is a roll of the dice and may fail.

You want variety, too. Active parties can only have up to four characters, meaning Path Actions will dictate your assembly. Why have two similar abilities when you can have four different ones? This is yet another dimension to how your team can be wildly different from another player’s.

Summary

Just like its presentation, the gameplay of Octopath Traveler comes from antiquity and modernity. It initially confines the open world so players can get their bearings, but paces it wisely. It relies on a dynamic battle system that appears simple, but keeps players on their toes and constantly engaged. And it brings a bevy of customization options to appeal to different preferences, letting you truly play your own way.

Taken as a whole, it is well-crafted to appeal to a specific audience. The pixel art grabbed the old-school gamer’s attention, but it’s these three schools of thought that really began the word of mouth campaign that now has Octopath Traveler selling out of physical copies.

But there’s one last reason it succeeded. And it’s deeper than the fine silk of aesthetics or the complex algorithms of game mechanics.

It’s heart.

In the conclusion of this trilogy, we take a look at the design philosophy that fueled this passion project. From personal inspirations to uncommon business choices that worked out for the best, Octopath Traveler’s creators are just as heroic as their cast of characters.

Join me next time, in the final chapter.