Eight is Enough
This post is part of a series called Reviews You Can’t Use, in which the author switches his secondary job to Game Critic. Thankfully, unlike in this game, it doesn’t require him to change outfits.
About three years ago, I was really worried for Nintendo. Following the — let’s not sugar-coat it — failure of the Wii U, I began to wonder if Nintendo had fallen too far behind the gaming public and had entered into irreversible irrelevance. I started to believe that the best way forward for them would be to move out of the video game hardware business and become a third-party publisher as SEGA had at the turn of the millennium. Worse, I feared that they might instead lean entirely into mobile games. (I don’t really like playing games on my phone. I don’t think this makes me cool or a more “legitimate” or “hardcore” gamer.) But then, in October 2016, Nintendo hosted a press event that seemed impossible.
It showed us a device that seemed like something a child would dream up but that an electrical engineer would laugh at: it was a home console that you could play on a TV and then just pick up and walk away with, still playing it. I immediately wanted to try it out, and I wasn’t the only one: the Switch, like the Wii, couldn’t stay on store shelves.
(Of course, the Switch is possible because mobile chipsets have become so powerful in the rather large amount of time that 1080p has remained the minimum acceptable quality for content, and one could argue that once you take away the controllers, there’s nothing hardware-wise that Nintendo did with the Switch that wasn’t already done by a handful of failed Android micro-consoles. Still, in that case, maybe the impossible thing was that Nintendo took an idea tried and failed so many times and made it work.)
The hardware was what intrigued me most about that presentation. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild intrigued me second-most. In third was Project Octopath Traveler. (You can see its announcement at 1:47:13 in the video.) It featured an eye-catching art style that blended pixel art with 3D environments. Its music was majestic. Its promise was to create an SNES-style RPG for a modern console. That’s a tough needle to thread, but I held out tentative hope that Square Enix would deliver on it. After all, everything else in the trailer was so perfect! Oh, except the name was a little weird, right? Project Octopath Traveler? It’s wordy. It’s trying too hard, right?
“Don’t worry,” Square Enix said, “that’s just a working title. The final game will be called something else.”
“Thank God,” I chuckled upon reading it.
The next revelation came almost a year later: September 2017. Square Enix released a demo of the game, still in development. It was surprisingly robust, taking you through the entire first chapter of a couple of characters. I played it, and I felt really impressed in a way that a demo had never made me feel before. The presentation was flawless, and the gameplay had a certain je ne sais quoi that other attempts to make a retro RPG had lacked. Everything seemed to be on-track.
Square Enix asked for feedback on the demo, and the community gave it to them in spades. And we were all shocked to see that Square Enix was responding to it! They promised to tweak the combat and to make it easier to move around and skip cutscenes. I always get nervous when companies respond too earnestly to media fans’ feedback because design by committee is a dangerous strategy for creative works. What are fans but a committee of millions? But I had faith. Everything had gone so well so far.
Except for the name. They still hadn’t decided on a replacement for Project Octopath Traveler. “Oh, well,” I thought, “whatever they eventually come up with will have to be better than what they have.”
March of the next year was when they hurt me. Square Enix cushioned the blow by announcing it at the same time as more promising details for the game, but they could not totally distract me from it: the final title of Project Octopath Traveler would be… Octopath Traveler.
They followed this announcement with an even more extensive demo version of the game, which even supported importing demo data to the real game. It was the perfect demo. One of a set of flawless gems that surrounded the enormous, flawed center stone that adorned this game: its overwrought title.
When my friends asked what games I was looking forward to, I would tell them this one, my voice straining the way I imagine it would if I were compelled to read out my own drunk texts in court.
Still, I looked forward to the game. And with few exceptions, it delivered.
What is [sigh] Octopath Traveler?
The name of Octopath Traveler, while terrible, is not inaccurate, and you can learn a lot about the game from it.
As you can see in this handy diagram I repurposed from a transportation planning meeting, the “Octopath” part of the name means “eight paths”, and that’s because there are eight (8) main characters in the game, each of which has their own story, or “path”, to complete. In the course of doing so, they travel to places and hence become “travelers”.
Go ahead and take a moment to think about that if you need to. I know it’s high-concept stuff.
As it happens, “Octopath” is also an acronym for the eight protagonists: Ophilia, the cleric; Cyrus, the scholar; Tressa, the merchant; Olberic, the warrior; Primrose, the dancer; Alfyn, the apothecary; Therion, the thief; and H’annit, the huntress.
Don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense right now. I’m sure you’ll get it as time goes on.
In addition to a unique storyline, each traveler has their own unique abilities (well, some are more unique than others) that can be used in battle and in the overworld. For instance, Therion, the thief, can steal items from NPCs in the overworld, and Cyrus, the scholar, can automatically glean information about enemy monsters at the start of combat. Additionally, at the start of the game, each traveler has a unique job with a unique moveset, but as time goes on, you unlock the ability for each traveler to take on someone else’s job in tandem with their starting job.
Outside of this, the game plays exactly like an SNES RPG. You move a sprite around a town and talk to people to move the story along until you find out that there’s something you need to do in a nearby field/ruin/cave/forest. You go to this… let’s call it a… dungeon, and walk through it, randomly encountering enemies, until you reach the end, where you encounter a stronger enemy. Once you beat them, someone gives you the name of a new town to visit. Repeat until the credits roll. Needless to say, along the way, you’ll fight a lot of battles.
The Battle System
This is a game that lives and dies (pun sort-of intended) by its battle system. If you enjoy it, you will enjoy this game, even if it’s not perfect. If you hate it, you will hate this game, even if you love the rest of it. You will, after all, spend a lot of time battling.
The battle system is fully turn-based, and it distinguishes itself from others in the genre with its Break mechanic: every 30 minutes, the battle will stop, and your party will have the chance to stretch, get a drink, and use the bathroom if needed.
I kid. Although if you do a lot of gaming, you should consider adding a break mechanic like that to your life! Instead, the Break mechanic in Octopath Traveler gives each of the enemies you fight a set of weapons and/or elements that it is weak to. If you attack an enemy’s weaknesses enough times, you’ll break the enemy’s guard and lower its defenses for the next turn. And you’ll want to do that a lot. Enemies’ defenses are stronger in this than in comparable games, so it’s legitimately difficult to defeat enemies that the game considers appropriate for your level without breaking them.
Additionally, your party will accumulate BP (Battle Points) over the course of a battle. BP in Octopath Traveler works somewhat like BP (Brave Points) in another Square Enix release, Bravely Default. Your party starts each battle with 0 BP, and each party member gradually accumulates their own stash of it as the battle goes on. Each time a party member uses an attack or ability, (s)he can cash in up to 4 BP to make it stronger. In Bravely Default, a party member gains BP by Defaulting, that is, by doing nothing for a turn. In Octopath Traveler, it’s a bit easier to get BP. Each party member gets 1 BP at the beginning of a turn unless they already have 5 BP or they used BP last turn. Having played both games, I think the Octopath system is a real improvement. Bravely Default made me guess constantly when it’s most efficient to charge and when it’s not worth the trouble.
When combined, these two mechanics give the battles in Octopath Traveler rhythm that most RPG battles don’t have. Your party can stop enemies from launching powerful attacks using the break system, and your attacks do a lot — a lot — more damage if you use them when the target is broken and you can put BP into them. In other words, the order that your party does things in matters a lot more in Octopath Traveler than in most RPGs. I was never driven to get out a pen and paper to plan a battle, but I did, on a couple of occasions, have to put down the controllers for a couple minutes and talk out to myself what I needed to do on the next turn. I also like how this sense of rhythm made me pay more attention to characters that focus on buffing other party members. In a battle where most turns are the same, it’s hard to tell when it’s worth buffing the party instead of just attacking. In a battle where some hits count much more than others, buffs are definitely more satisfying.
The downside to all of this is that easier battles in Octopath Traveler can feel tedious. In most RPGs, once the enemies in an area are a little weaker than you, you can attack them blindly and more or less win their battles on autopilot. In Octopath Traveler, even enemies that pose almost zero danger to your party can take a long time to beat if you don’t break their defenses, and breaking defenses takes more time and thought than blindly attacking. This is probably the most common criticism of Octopath Traveler: it’s too grindy.
An Authentic Facet or a Fixable Issue: The Grind
It’s true. If you don’t take active measures to reduce the grind in Octopath Traveler, there’s a good chance it’ll get to you if you’re at all sensitive to that kind of thing. Fortunately, the towns in the game give you plenty of resources that makes grinding levels less important. You can buy equipment there, yes, but you’ll get far more from subjecting the townspeople to your party’s unique talents: stealing, bargaining, seduction, interrogation, and provocation. Of course, using all of those actions on all of the townspeople takes a while, too. But there’s a solution to that, and it’s as old-school as those SNES RPGs that Octopath Traveler tries to emulate.
Cheat. Just go ahead and look up who has the good stuff. We had player’s guides or GameFAQs back in the day. Well, nowadays, we have rents and mortgage payments. And you can absolutely, 100%, save scum. You don’t even have to quit the game; there’s an option in the pause menu that takes you right back to the title screen.
Will this compromise the sense of accomplishment you feel from this game? I can’t say. I’m not a psychologist. But what I can say is that I won’t judge you.
The Vast and Shallow Story
All in all, Octopath Traveler is not a game with many rough edges. Its problems are not things that were done hastily or carelessly, which could have been good if given a bit more time and effort. Its problems come from decisions, consciously made and executed as well as they could be. One, as discussed above, was to make the battle system as faithful to the SNES RPG style as possible. The other was the choice to make the storyline fully modular.
What does that mean? It means that there are eight stories (truth in advertising!), each with four chapters, and you can complete that total of thirty-two chapters in any order you want, so long as each traveler’s story is in order. In other words, you could play how I did, completing every character’s chapter 1, then every character’s chapter 2, and so on, or you could play all of one character’s story, and then all of another character’s story, and so on. What’s nice about this is that if you like a certain character, you can play more of their story without having to wade through stories you don’t care as much about. At least, you can do that in theory.
What complicates this is that as the game goes on, it gets harder. You’re probably not shocked to hear that! It’s generally how games work. But the difficulty is not as cleanly modular as the story. All of the second chapters have stronger enemies than all of the first chapters, and all of the third chapters have stronger enemies than all of the second chapters. So while there are there are no literal barriers preventing you from completing all of a character’s story at once, to do so would be very difficult. It would most likely require you to grind levels, which is probably less fun than and not much of a time savings over playing a story you care less about! Ultimately, the only freedom that this fully modular story will afford the average player is that if they are especially excited about certain characters, they can play those characters first within each tranche of chapters.
If such a tranche system were enforced in the game, or even if the game only made you complete all of the first chapters before doing any others, the game could avoid what I find to be its biggest weakness: none of the 8 party members interact with any of the other party members’ stories in any meaningful way. They can’t. Because it is technically possible (but hellaciously difficult) to pick a starting character and complete that character’s story without finding any other party members, no character’s story assumes that any other party member even exists. While the eight travelers each grow over their respective quests, they don’t do that based on anything another party member said to them. When important, life-changing moments happen in a character’s story, that character is alone, even if they just fought for their life with three other characters at their side. When I switched characters at the beginning of each chapter, it was even funny how my last character, with hopes and fears and urgent motivations, would suddenly flatten into a completely static background character capable of saying nothing more than, “Hey, let me know if you need help!”
There is one small way in which the travelers interact with other travelers’ storylines: Travel Banter. Occasionally, while you are playing a chapter in someone’s story, the UI will prompt you to press the + button to watch Travel Banter. Then, the game will play a small conversation between the character whose story you’re playing and one or more of the other party members. These are not unpleasant, but never memorable. Similar optional dialogue exists in Final Fantasy IX and in Tales games, and frankly, Octopath’s is never as interesting.
There’s no tearful goodbye between the party members at the end of Octopath Traveler, and it makes perfect sense, because there’s barely any evidence that any of the eight travelers become close to one another at all.
Still, all of that is me agonizing over what might have been, and that’s not fair to review on because we don’t know what story would have come out of a different set of constraints for this game. Nonetheless, I can point to a couple of concrete instances where this strategy hurt the plot, and I know it.
Spoilers begin here.
Ophilia (the first O in OCTOPATH) is a cleric, and her story involves carrying out duties for the Church of the Sacred Flame. In her last chapter, she is jailed by a cult, and the leader of said cult comes to taunt her in her cell. As he walks into the room, Ophilia catches sight of him and gasps, “Mattias?!”
At which point I, too, said, “Mattias?”
The game had flung me into my own personal Keke Palmer moment. There he was, the Big Bad at the end of Ophilia’s story, and I didn’t even know who that man was. (Sorry to that man.) I took to Google, and after a minute, I had jogged my memory. Mattias was a merchant, who had appeared in each previous chapter of Ophilia’s story. The reason I didn’t remember him is that his role in each previous chapter was to show up, have a friendly conversation more or less unrelated to what was happening to Ophilia at the time, and then disappear. Now, I want to mention while I’m on the topic that I had more or less decided by his second appearance that Mattias was evil, and that is a writing problem, but it’s not one related to the modular plot. The problem caused by modularity is that so much time had elapsed between his unremarkable appearances that I forgot who he was.
Another example is Tressa’s story, which one could say ends with a more intense form of the same situation: Tressa’s final boss, Esmeralda, is a woman she’s never seen before. Now, as someone who has played three chapters of all of the other travelers’ stories (which you almost certainly are by the time you fight Tressa’s final boss), you won’t have seen Esmeralda before this point, either. However, you will likely deduce from her all-black clothing and her singular focus on acquiring artifacts that she is part of a group called the Obsidians which features more prominently in other travelers’ stories. As you play through Tressa’s final chapter, this is confirmed.
Her entering Tressa’s story isn’t really a problem. It’s not a plot hole, and I’m not going to say that it’s even dissatisfying to have Tressa’s final boss be a previously unknown character. My issue is that no one else in the party — not one of the seven people that Tressa has trekked around an entire continent with, one of whom lived her life with the singular focus of destroying the Obsidians — feels the need to say to Tressa, who is 18, by the way, that the woman that stole her journal is very likely part of the Obsidians. Tressa also might have been able to put that together herself, given that she was present for the other stories. But the game makes it pretty clear that this doesn’t happen! After Tressa beats Esmeralda, the last thing she says about her is, in so many words, “Gee, what a mean lady! I wonder what her deal was!”
Segregation of gameplay and story is nothing new in video games. Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps Final Fantasy VI, which I will defend vociferously, did the same thing, and I just don’t remember it. But if I’m able to clock who the bad guy is in the second chapter and then forget who he is by the last one, even though he shows up in every chapter… I feel like that has to be questioned.
Spoilers end here.
What I’m saying, in too many words, is that the story accommodates some very difficult paths through the game to the clear detriment of the most common paths. The individual stories vary in quality from fairy tale-caliber to reasonably compelling. It’s far from bad, but don’t play this game exclusively for its story.
Octopath Traveler is a genre piece. Within its genre, it’s one of the best pieces of recent memory. Nonetheless, it doesn’t transcend that into the realm of universal appeal. If you like these retro-style RPGs, play it. It won’t hurt you the way most other recent attempts at a retro-style RPG have. Unless, of course, you’re the kind of person that could yell at length to no one in particular on the internet about the plot of a game like this.
Then, it might hurt you.
Worst-case, you could just enjoy the soundtrack. It’s great!
Final verdict: 6/8