“That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.”
–Ecclesiastes 1:9 [NKJV]
I am nearly certain that the third king of ancient Israel, when he penned the words above, did not have video games in mind. Yet, in one sense, the words of Solomon explain all there is to say about Octopath Traveler, while at the same time revealing themselves to be true in principle (i.e. generally) but unconcerned with categorical details within a tight context. They likely had no computer games in the 900s B.C. (unless you’ve been watching the History Channel’s alien documentaries) but they had actual games, undoubtedly. How long has humanity been at the act of playing?
That Octopath Traveler is nothing new should come as a surprise to no one. Octopath deliberately sets foot along familiar paths pocked with Japanese RPG pitfalls. Its combat and job systems will seem practically nostalgic to players of JRPGs from the ’80s and ’90s: it treads a set of linear routes, albeit in any order you choose; its dungeons are neatly laid out with dead-ends, treasures, random battles, and boss fights; its spells are of the average elemental sort; it uses experience points for its leveling system; its hamlets, item shops, and weapon vendors will all be familiar; it pulls from stock characters generously, though fortunately not as transparently as many anime-infused JRPGs (or shonen, as I’m supposedly supposed to call it?); it has drawn comparisons with series like Bravely Default and Suikoden, and of course Final Fantasy, especially since one of the collaborating developers was Square Enix. Even its pixel art will strike many as reminiscent of the 16-bit era, in which several tremendous JRPGs prominently figured.
Traditionalism, heavy strokes and a new coat of paint.
However… Octopath’s treatment of its pixel art will catch your eye. That’s because while pixel art itself isn’t new, this interpretation of its foreground and background depth and light is new. To my mind, it’s a combination of pixel art and shadow boxes (deep frames that emphasize forward and backward distance between framed objects or images). This shadow-boxing does point to my next point, which is that Octopath takes the old and tweaks it just slightly in order to be something new.
If art indeed involves copying and then customization — all of it part of one great family tree leading back to the first stacking of stone upon stone for the mere pleasure of it — then Octopath fits the bill. It makes no apology for dipping into the old pixel art pool, but it does interesting things with what it fished out.
Octopath Traveler takes great strides within the specific contexts of JRPGs and retro-inspired games, so much so that, by its conclusion, I began to think of a few of its elements as “experimental”. No, that’s not a superficial claim meant to conjure up a false sense of self-importance around this game; to suggest something may be better simply for being “experimental” is, I think, reaching, at the very least. And if not that, then pandering to those looking to validate their uniqueness as people through the niche and the unpopular, the anti-mainstream.
However, I really do mean that Octopath seems to find its way off the beaten path in a few, very distinctive ways, structurally and narratively, though these do not equate to automatic success or the highest quality game. Risk and reward. These are elements which are not new for newness sake nor even refined by nature of being new. They hit and they miss, and they are thereby interesting, even if the ultimate result isn’t a masterstroke.
Maybe the most important thing about Octopath is that, without foregoing tradition, it risks taking risks. This is true right down to its design in an industry and genre that can tend toward ossifying. There, I said it and I’m not proud of it. Ah well.
The visuals are of course a big part of risking risks, as is to some degree the fact that it was a Switch exclusive at launch, but a lot of the structural elements of the game are unique. For instance…
There are eight playable characters. That should be obvious thanks to the title!
Any single one of the eight playable characters can be picked first at the start of the game and so Octopath can be played through in any order of paths that you choose. Once you’ve picked your first character, that character will remain in your party until you have completed their storyline. Each character has a four-chapter plot and you can recruit other characters with your primary character by exploring the world, again, in any order you choose.
I felt a bit of paralysis (my own fault, not the game’s) when choosing my first character. How was I to know which stories were the strongest or which characters were going to ultimately be the most endearing or compelling? I could tell you which characters I thought were cool at first glance, “cool” being the quintessential descriptor that’s impossible to define, but I didn’t have much else to go on… Then I realized that the characters’ first name initials spell O-C-T-O-P-A-T-H. The title screen tips you off to this:
So my progression was what I considered to be the “regular” or “normal” mode: Ophelia, Cyrus, Tressa, Olberic, Primrose, Alfyn, Therion, and H’aanit.
I got my magic users right away since Ophelia and Cyrus are the white and black mages of the game, respectively. Tressa is a merchant class and Olberic is a warrior, and neither of those interested me much at first. Primrose and Therion, the dancer and the thief, were the two characters I wanted to play most next to Cyrus, but I had to go through Alfyn the apothecary (one of the least interesting characters to me) in order to get to thievery. At least one of my least favorite characters was the last to recruit, though: H’aanit the hunter with her bizarre manner of speech (seriously… whaten evenen isith thisen?).
Oh well… the conceptual art more than makes up for it.
Typically, JRPG players are treated to fairly linear stories which start with an orphan or the chosen one’s village that’s just been razed by an evil empire. That covers Breath of Fire all the way up to Final Fantasy XV, folks. These stories typically lean heavily on themes of friendship and getting along despite differences, and they lead up to a dramatic climax with the end of the world and/or existence at stake. Octopath isn’t like that. See how it shuns the structure of the JRPG?
Instead, players are offered eight vignettes, short stories giving glimpses into the lives of these eight characters and their individual destinies. Some of them do get quite heavy and some of them are dark while others remain lighthearted, but none of them singularly find themselves concerned with taking down a world-ending supervillain that’s going to drop a meteor on the planet or erect a monument to non-existence.
As such, the story or, more properly, stories of Octopath Traveler are more personal and in a sense private. They are still adventurous, but they aren’t as epic as the average high fantasy. Each character intimately explores their past, investigates current happenings, and journeys around the world until they find what they’re looking for (or until they find something else, entirely), but what should be said up front is that the eight paths do not narratively meet.
That was the biggest question I had before picking up Octopath for myself.
Now we should be specific here: when I say “their paths do not meet”, I’m excluding the fact that you can recruit the other characters into your party and enjoy their four chapters in any order you like. I’m also excluding the chit-chat between characters in your active party which occurs along various points in any of the stories. I am referring to the fact that these eight stories are not affected by recruiting other party members. Their outcomes are the same no matter who you recruit. The eight stories will maintain their four linear chapters exactly as they would even if you rocked it solo, apparently.
There is a single sense in which the stories do convene at a single point, though, and this is the only way in which the stories relate to each other, but more on that later under the Narrative section.
Instead of direct interference with each other, Octopath shares collective themes between its characters and the many NPCs you encounter: greed, loyalty, revenge, selflessness, corruption, and so on. I put the game down for many months (you’ll have to understand that playing eight characters’ stories of four chapters each back to back to back did become a little mundane after a while, given similarities) but I picked it up again to peel off the last few chapters of the remaining character, my least favorite of the crew: Alfyn the apothecary. I can say that I did enjoy the vestiges of his tale much more than I expected! I ended on a high note.
What I discovered, though, in reaching the end of these eight paths is that Octopath Traveler is about one thing: convictions.
Convictions, the persuasion of the soul, principles and core beliefs, really possessing them to an honest, earnest, and pure extreme is the one thing that most ties these characters together. Their convictions are what make these eight characters heroes and heroines, icons of our collective ideals. They have the luxury of maintaining their beliefs in a fictional world which can afford it. They are not so much player avatars in the old JRPGs with their mute protagonists; they are embodiments of virtues. As each character develops (some more than others), our perception of those ideals and virtues they represent develop with them. Octopath is, I think, an optimistic game at heart since it allows its octet of paragons to keep their principles even through the cruelest of hardships (mostly).
I’ve compared the eight stories to vignettes. Now I’ll compare them to ethical puzzles. This is the thing with possessing convictions: life apparently loves to furnish moral problems which seem to arise with no other reason beyond messing with one’s most closely held beliefs. We as humans know about trails by fire which prove if beliefs are worth holding. That’s a good thing for us, actually, agonizing as it can be to discover we’re wrong (or right!), and it’s a good thing for the peoples of Octopath, too.
Often, a character will begin their first chapter with a naïve or narrow view of the world. We see their town or village and their wants and needs with them through the lens of the smallest nucleus of their untested ideals. As they spread out and begin to explore the world on their adventure, their scope of experience and therefore the scope of their ideals evolves. By the end, they now have a deeper understanding of what it means to be them and we understand them more fully, too, including the virtues (or vices?) they each represent.
If this all sounds like it’s storytelling chops that’s too good to be true, consider that it’s a given that not all of the stories are equally strong and that their brevity doesn’t always capture the gravity, meaning, profundity, or permanence with the player that the developers were perhaps aiming for. Occasionally, a story may come off as too simple to belong in a world of grays. Others possess stories which just seem too convenient, foregoing living, breathing characters that experience pain for a rote lesson in the developers’ more transparent beliefs. I felt that some characters deserved stories that were longer while others benefitted from the relatively short excursion into the wild. It’s just four chapters each, after all.
Here are, I think, the principles, ideals, and virtues which each character most strongly represented. I’d be curious to know what you think and if you agree or disagree with my assignment of these to each character!
The official tag on Octopath’s graphics is “HD-2D”. At least that’s how its creators describe this look. High-definition two-dimensional graphics doesn’t really sum up everything special about Octopath’s visuals, though; you might be able to think of several games that utilize HD-2D. However, every gimmick needs a name.
“Gimmick” may be too snide a term for visuals this magnificent, but at least it highlights the peculiarities present: Octopath is less concerned with the cacophony of color which dominates vivid, acid- and candy-colored indies and titles occupied by pixel art, overlooking all the neons of green and purple, red and blue, or the palettes of yesteryear, for a more muted color scheme of browns and grays. Attention is instead paid to the depiction of light and portrayal of depth in the extreme foreground and background. Remember I compared it to shadow boxes?
The effect can be a little jarring at first. As your characters move vertically across their environments, objects in the foreground and background become increasingly clearer or blurrier. The blurring effect occasionally comes off as extreme, but I am guessing that it rarely ever affects the player’s navigation or sense of direction. It looks remarkable in the games many environments: villages, cities, forests, caverns, beaches, mountains, fields. HD-2D gives Octopath an immediately recognizable aesthetic, which is hard to say for many JRPGs these days.
Lighting is rendered liberally and beautifully in this game, just short of bloom lighting. Streams of sunlight, rays piercing leafy eaves, plazas and deserts bathed in the glow of day, your torch’s radiance surrounding your character, casting their shadow against the walls of the dungeon behind them… light is a living, breathing thing in Octopath. I would be very interested in seeing this art style in future games.
Octopath Traveler will undoubtedly remind many of the 16-bit era with its huge, detailed boss sprites; as the camera slowly shifts during the action of battle, a subtle perspective change occurs on the boss monsters, which isn’t always the prettiest thing to behold (imagine a large and detailed sprite with waves and waves of movement passing over it as the camera pans, as if it’s slowly undulating). Well, it’s a better solution for 2D characters in a 3D space than the pivoting sprites in the early 3D era JRPGs. And the enemy sprites themselves are usually gorgeous, if not downright impressive.
Elegant, whimsical, melodic, patient, manifold, adventurous, sonorous, regal… Octopath’s soundtrack is a reverie of what you might remember most from the Squaresoft days, delivered on the Switch by Square Enix and Acquire, and a comparatively young composer in Yasunori Nishiki. Nishiki’s composing discography begins around 2010 and includes titles like Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star and Gravity Rush 2; evidently, he did not compose during the era of gaming which Octopath’s music most properly channels, but his emulation of that time is on point. Nishiki’s music fuses Western composition with the occasional Eastern instrumentation. Even the length of some tracks is accurate.
Gone is the hyperactive techno-pop and J-rock energy which modern JRPGs have slipped into, generally speaking. You won’t find a vocalist reciting their ballad over the voice acting here. Octopath Traveler’s soundtrack positions itself prior to the “Fall of the JRPG”, if you are a believer in that theory. Therefore, instead, you’re presented with a sweet suite of beauty and menace, virtue and suspense, more along the lines of traditional drama. It’s difficult to draw comparisons to some of the heaviest hitters of yesteryear in the JRPG scene but Octopath comes pretty close to the likes of the Breath of Fire, Phantasy Star, Tales, Chrono, and (dare I say) Final Fantasy series. Saying “it could appear in a film” suggests the games in which music this good appears below movies, though Octopath’s OST may inevitably make the player think of theatrical film scores.
My only significant complaint about a soundtrack this rich in the appreciation of beauty is that there are few thematic elements which remain after the game is finished. The passage of time has aided us thusly, but I’m sure many reading this can instantly recall to mind the musical themes of characters in games released several decades ago. Sure, part of that is their repetition and presence in popular culture, but some of it is undoubtedly because of how certain themes were applied by composers and wed with iconic and memorable scenes. Sometimes it’s impossible to remember a scene without the accompanying musical theme (think of Aeris’ fate, for instance). Octopath wields a lot of peaceful and powerful music, but not much that’s immediately memorable or focused on the themes a character represents. Perhaps even the structure of the game prevents that sort of use of leitmotif from occurring, given the eight different and almost completely isolated paths; you’ll hear a character’s theme too infrequently. Dungeon and town themes would reasonably repeat more so than the themes of specific characters. It’s understandable, but one could wish for a more defining theme for great characters like Therion, Primrose, and Alfyn.
Oh and I almost forgot about the voice acting… I turned off that crap ASAP. I couldn’t stand the English hammy-ness. Soon as I heard a few of Cyrus’ “h’indeeduh” I gave up on it. It’s extremely on-the-nose and what’s worse, during regular, non-cutscene dialogue, the actors deliver a short line such as “oh yeah?” or “that’s right!” even though the text of their dialogue doesn’t contain those words. That’s pretty distracting, so I switched it to the Japanese voice acting after getting a voice sample of all the main cast, a la I Am Setsuna.
A common theme of this review: Octopath Traveler will be familiar to a lot of players. As a Square Enix game, it has a wealth of gameplay heritage to draw from. Sometimes it does so in interesting ways. Other times it simply stays the course.
As a JRPG, there’s an emphasis on party-building. You eventually have eight different characters to play with, each with their own base job class which cannot be changed. Cleric, Scholar, Merchant, Warrior, Dancer, Apothecary, Thief, and Hunter. Many of these will be familiar to fans of the Final Fantasy series, which has featured job classes since its outset, and you can find analogies to iconic classes like White Mage and Black Mage on this list.
Each job class earns its own set of spells and abilities, and one super skill at the end of their skill tree, and each class can only equip certain types of equipment (Cleric uses staves while Warrior uses swords). These affect how each class performs in battle. Each class also affects character stat growth, of course. The classes come with their own unlockable support skills, too: Merchant can increase the amount of money you can find, Scholar can strengthen his elemental attack, Warrior can take damage for allies, Dancer can gain a chance to counterattack, and so on. Combining these passive skills allows for some great customization.
Each of the eight jobs also comes with field skills, just to give even more variety. I was slightly disappointed to discover that there are really only four unique field skills, as each field skill is shared between two characters. Cleric and Dancer can compel NPCs to follow them anywhere, even into battle. Scholar and Apothecary can ask around to gain vital information or flavor text from NPCs, sometimes resulting in secrets being brought to light. Merchant and Thief can acquire items from NPCs, either through bartering at a price or a five-fingered discount. Warrior and Hunter can duel NPCs one-on-one and incapacitate them if they’re in the way. There is only some chance of success with these field skills, which goes down dramatically if you’re facing a rather canny non-playable character, but they make the game’s many towns hubs full of more than just dialogue boxes and your typical inns and shops. I enjoyed this part of the game and would love to see more dynamic and diverse field skills in any potential sequel or spinoff. Perhaps more than anything else, field skills informed the kind of parties I formed, since I wanted to be sure I could perform these skills any time that I needed to.
As you explore the lands and realms of Octopath, you’ll eventually discover the shrines. There is one for each of the eight base job classes. Finding these unlocks the base job classes as secondary subclasses for your party members. Ever dream up a Thief-Cleric? How about a Warrior-Mechant? I wonder how many eyebrows a scholarly Dancer would raise. This creates all manner of opportunity for experimentation! Characters who take on a subclass gain access to that class’s skill tree and support skills for even more mixing and matching. Some truly delightful combinations can reveal themselves. With enough grinding, a character can learn all the skills from every class.
But that’s not all… There are also secret job classes, aka the advanced classes. They are the Warmaster, Runelord, Sorcerer, and Starseer. Be forewarned, though, in order to gain access to these job classes, you will need to defeat some truly powerful secret bosses. Seriously, they are no joke. They do, however, provide some excellent challenge between or after completing the eight characters’ pathways. These can also be combined with the original eight job classes
Warmaster is the ultimate physical damage dealer, able to equip every weapon type while rocking a polymath’s selection of weapon-based abilities. Runelord is a support-type class that masters the elements, allowing your party to prey upon your opponent’s elemental weaknesses until you stagger them, enabling heavier hitters to bring even more damage to bear. The Archmagus is the most powerful magical job in the game and potentially the strongest class you’ll have access to in terms of damage dealing, with a slew of spells in its arsenal. The Starseer is the healer and buffer of the four advanced classes, combining the best of the basic classes’ support abilities, with some elemental wizardry for good measure.
Break an enemy by targeting their weapon-based or elemental weaknesses to dramatically reduce their defenses and temporarily stun them.
With all of this customization, there is still a late- to post-game emphasis on one party member dealing insane damage while the other members of your four-person team support, heal, and buff. This means there are very particular strategies with equipment, accessories, skills, and jobs to be studied, especially if you plan to conquer all the strongest end-game bosses. With eight stories of four chapters each and plenty of secrets to uncover, there’s lots of game-time to be had, even without side quests featuring as heavily as they usually do in huge RPGs these days (there are side quests but they can typically be resolved through an item or field skill, with the exception of a mission being the uncommon occurrence).
This be SPOILER territory. If you want to avoid them, you can Ctrl+f Accessibility to skip to the next section.
I’ll come right out and say it, the best stories are Therion’s and Primrose’s. The calloused thief bearing the scars of betrayal and the dishonored daughter out for vengeance in cold blood even at the cost of selling her body and soul are compelling stories for their short runtime. Cyrus’ adventure as a scholarly sleuth has many high points, and the latter parts of Alfyn and Ophelia’s tales evolve into something of note. I did not enjoy H’aanit’s story so much because of her dialogue (shutten uppeth, thou weirdo) and I can barely remember Olberic’s at all (his might be even more generic than his job class). Meanwhile, when the game isn’t generic or downright silly, it can surprise with heavier themes and darker tone.
Contrary to what you’ll hear most frequently as a criticism of Octopath’s narrative, the worst thing about it is not the fact that the characters do not interact. “Octopath Traveler never has your eight characters interacting with each other.” That’s frankly untrue reporting, Collider.
“Never” is a strong word, especially when the designers specifically developed a mechanism which highlights optional conversation, occasionally story-oriented, occasionally chit-chat, between your party members at various towns along a single character’s path. That actually is interaction. Of course, it’s not the most substantial interaction and far from normative for JRPGs and their quirky playable characters, but interaction it is, nonetheless.
There is also the matter of the Gate of Finis, and this is actually how all of the characters’ paths tie together. It is simultaneously genius in the complexity of its execution and disinteresting because it is by nature so peripheral. We might have expected as players trained by years of JRPGs to expect some final cataclysmic boss was behind the woes of all eight playable characters, but that’s not really the case.
Instead, various NPCs which you meet along the eight paths and which feature into the eight characters’ stories to varying degrees each play a part in the final dungeon and super boss at the Gate of Finis, a wretched haunt for a crazy boss rush and then the toughest fight in the game.
As you complete the boss rush, you get to learn about all the NPCs you met who tied all eight stories together, just not with the playable characters, explaining background and lore rather than the direct stories you’ve experienced. At this point, the game becomes less about Therion learning trust or Primrose seeking justice than it does about the artefacts Therion stole or the shadowy figures Primrose pursued. You’ll learn about things like Graham Crossford, who healed Alfyn as a child and whose traveling journal went to the merchant Tressa, was led to the Gate and transformed into a monster eventually known as Redeye that turned H’aanit’s master into stone. The party meets Graham’s son Kit throughout the game, a young man pursued by Lyblac who manipulated Cyrus’ administrator. Look it up if you’ve given up on the game. It’s an interesting way to develop an overarching story without the use of an intermingling cast of characters.
After all that, what is the worst thing about Octopath Traveler’s narrative if not its lack of interaction between its main heroes and heroines? Well, to my mind it’s the sheer amount of incidental storytelling. By that I mean that much of the game is driven by incident and coincidence than by character; things happen to these characters more so that they make things happen. It’s an all-too convenient, and in that vein transparent, method of storytelling. This is actually why Tressa’s story was among my least favorite. Not much happens in her tale already, but most of what does happens to her and she reacts rather than pushes against or toward, leaving the bulk of it without drive or tension.
The stories which are good in Octopath are quite good, but they represent less than half of the eight stories, by my account.
With much of the gameplay relying on tried-and-true systems we’ve seen now for decades, familiarity paves the way for accessibility, I think. There isn’t too much in the way of menu-sifting or grinding necessary to complete the main game; by the time you are on your 3rd and 4th sets of chapters, you’ll have a rather beefy set of characters at your disposal. Curiosity is, however, the rewarder of those who take the time to experiment with skills and classes. You certainly will not be able to conquer the late- to post-game difficulty curve without pushing your classes to their limits.
With eight linear paths of four chapters for each character, there’s not much that needs to be experienced over again, especially considering the odd tedium and pervading sense of having done this before with previous characters. “We’re going in circles!” It’s not exactly a one and done kind of game, as there’s much to discover even after the eight paths are over, but it is below average in terms of replay value, even for an RPG.
Octopath relies on a lot of old motifs, it’s true, but it also takes great strides to push a stagnating genre forward. The JRPG may be dominated by characters whose personalities are fully described by the color of their hair, so it’s refreshing to see a little more depth, even if the stereotype shifts from stock character in anime to stock character in role-playing game, fundamentally. As I mentioned earlier, the characters can be reduced to simple yet powerful ideals, if not clichés. Sometimes this means they are potent agents within their worlds. Other times it simply means they exist in a kind of vacuum, untouchable and isolated. When the characters in this game hurt, they hurt badly, and the story is all the better for it, but when they remain essentially unchanged, they couldn’t be any more boring.
Risks are good for video games, heck they are good for any creative art form, even when they don’t entirely pay off. Don’t be a pragmatist. If it doesn’t pay off, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entirely worth it. At least you have that brilliant HD-2D. Man, what an intricate sense of style.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Not all stories are created equal and with a game featuring an octet of them, there’s bound to be a spectrum of quality. Still, Octopath Traveler may appeal best to the demographic constantly pining for the days of yore. Sure it will never match or exceed the hallmark titles of the golden age, but maybe it will usher in a golden age of its own. There’s nothing new under the sun but new things in old contexts can find fresh details. Square Enix has perhaps reached a state of self-awareness in realizing that this is the kind of game that people still want to play, and hopefully Octopath’s sales success on the Switch is indicative of that to them.
“Life is a journey”. That was the final word that Octopath left me with. Indeed it is. I don’t think my life will break so easily into four chapters, but its moral and thematic hammer-falls over the importance of one’s convictions is something which resonated with this writer. Our beliefs are stronger for having been tested and in the journey of life, tested we will be. The question is whether we’ll make a path for ourselves like Therion’s or like Tressa’s. I mean, at the very least, don’t succumb to incidental storytelling.
Aggregated Score: 7.3
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