Octopath Traveler (Switch) review
"From the people that have been naming Bravely Default games"
One of the first ďnewĒ games that I can think of that attempts to wrap novel mechanics around nostalgic sentiment is Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. 4HoL (which is as much Final Fantasy as Mystic Quest) features a fascinating combat system where all actions cost ability points rather than stamina or MP. An ability point is accumulated for each character every turn, so they need to save them if they want to build up to a more costly and powerful action. Each character had a class by wearing different hats, and they could mix-and-match abilities learned from different classes. Unfortunately 4HoL becomes an exercise in inventory management quickly, as the abilities and items a character can bring into combat are extremely limited and there is no shared party inventory for overflow. Hitting weaknesses and breaking defense feels satisfying. The background and foreground blur dynamically changes as you moved around the field, creating some truly gorgeous scenes. Massive, stylized bosses are reminiscent of Shibuyaís pixel art in pre-polygonal Final Fantasy
4HoLís novel combat system is essentially a prototype for Bravely Default and itís absurdly named sequels, another game that seems to be directed to the audience that loved classic JRPGs and lamented the draught of such games. Bravely Default features a ďbrave pointĒ system similar to 4HoLís AP and a complex class system reminiscent of Final Fantasy V. It has a sharper, more deliberate story, drops the inventory drama, and gives us a glimpse of what could have happened if the Final Fantasy series had it stayed with its original fantasy trappings.
Octopath Traveler shares a lot of key staff with both 4HoL and Bravely Default, including its producer Tomoya Asano, a man born in 1978. I canít find ages for many of the other key staff, but almost all of them have game credits attributed starting around 2000, suggesting they are similar in age. Octopath Travelerís primary composer, Keisuke Miyauch, is only 36.
The ages of staff are actually important here. Asano would have been just 16 years old when Final Fantasy VI was released. Miyauch would have been 10 when Romancing SaGa 3 came out. Octopath Travelerís team is the new generation of game designers who entered the industry out of love for classic 16-bit games. People of this age grew up with, were inspired by, and have been profoundly impacted by some of the best pixel-based JRPGs ever made, shaping their creative minds during formative years.
These are not people that make a retro-throwback like I am Setsuna, a game so self-consuming it literally name drops Chrono Trigger on the back of its case. Octopath Traveler is very much a new game, with its own identity, itís own art style, itís own soundscape, and itís own unique flavor of combat. It has its own story to tell. While many reviews of Octopath Traveler make comparisons to classics like Final Fantasy VI, make no mistake: Octopath Traveler might be inspired by love of those games but does not ape them in a shameless corporate nostalgia grab sort of way.
Octopath Traveler has its own ideas that it wants to share with you--ideas that were born out of love for the RPGs we all shared when we were young.
SaGa without the Kawazu Stuff
At a glance, Octopath Traveler sounds a lot like SaGa. Picking one of eight characters and adventuring in a world where you can ultimately recruit the others is the premise of Romancing SaGa I and III, and their successor SaGa Frontier.
Romancing SaGa pioneered what we now call ďorigin storiesĒ in RPGs. The player chooses one of eight characters and then plays through an opening prologue before heading into the main world where the rejected player characters can usually be recruited. SaGa Frontier takes that a step further by giving each character a completely different main quest, advertised as a ďfree scenario system.Ē With each of SaGa Frontierís seven characters having a distinct play mechanic, SaGa Frontier turns into essentially seven different short-length RPGs (8-12 hours, depending on experience).
Octopath Traveler takes the concept of SaGaís free scenarios and merges them into a single playthrough. Rather than being several short playthroughs, itís one 70+ hour, clearly sign-posted slog. While SaGa prides itself on not telling the player where to go or what to do, Octopath Traveler marks the start of every characterís story on its map. Though the player is free to do stories in any order, the stories themselves are entirely linear, offering no opportunities for meaningful player choices.
While I donít lament the days where progression was locked behind talking to everyone until you talked to talk one guy that let you initiate a different dialog with that other guy to unlock access to the place you already knew you needed to go to, I most definitely miss the thrill of stumbling on a new place and discovering it for myself. While thereís a lot to like about Octopath Traveler, thereís no sense of wonder. Even though the premise sounds like it was stripped right from SaGa, it is much more akin to a book.
Octopath Traveler never seems to decide if it wants to hold the playerís hand or cut it off. Sometimes I felt like the game was guiding too much; other times I feel like it forgot about me and just started playing with itself while I sat and watched. The chapter structure of each characterís story is laid bare right on the world map--it will literally say ď[Character Name] Chapter NĒ and even recommend a character level. For a game that seems to pride itself on being an evolution of the golden age JRPGs, I wish it had the courage to let me explore its world. Even though the player is allowed to choose which scenario to do next, thereís no sense of choice.
Within towns, each NPC has a bubble icon indicating that the player can interact with them, to distinguish actual NPCs from characters and art that sits in the background awkward cardboard cutouts throughout the world. Quest-giving and story-related NPCs will even have a different colored icon (and appear on the mini map) such that people become waypoints to run between rather than story elements.
Despite this, side quests still somehow end up being needlessly obtuse. The player generally needs to run around town and use path actions--character specific field abilities like stealing or learning secrets--on every character in town to locate a random thing to give to an NPC. The rewards are fine and sometimes thereís a little story vignette, but the way the player goes about it feels un-immersive and fetchy. I found myself button mashing through such segments, not really paying attention to what item I fetched or why I was giving it to some random quest giver that might as well have been named ďPeople I Donít Care About.Ē
Thereís one quest where I stumbled upon a guy named ďForest DwellerĒ next to a dead body. Mr Dweller was just standing there next to this corpse, pondering who it was and why it was there. Down the river, I found a cave with a guy that said he found stuff that washed up. I stole a journal from him and returned it to Forest. Mind you, I didnít get to read the journal or find out why this dead guy was there, but Mr Dweller found the corpseís name, buried it, erected a tombstone, and left. It feels like a writer came up with the scenario and story, started writing and was like ďoh, itís Friday afternoon--nevermind, quest complete.Ē
Un-immersive is the best way to describe Octopath Travelerís storytelling techniques. Each chapter has a predictable structure that never feels surprising, even when the story attempts to twist itself, you see it coming. Go to a town with a chapter waypoint; talk to the person with a green icon; do a quest around that characterís path action; go into a conspicuous nearby dungeon; fight a boss. Thatís the basic structure of all 32 chapters.
While I love a game focused on self-contained, character-focused vignettes, Octopath Traveler needs more variety to this rythme. Maybe donít always have a boss (or donít even have a town). Maybe give more flavor text or hints to the story in the preceding areas so that they donít feel so isolated. Or mix two character stories together so that the player needs both characters in the party to complete it. Beyond writing or plot, the structure of these stories is just too same-y, and thatís something that even a good story would struggle to overcome.
And make no mistake, the quality of individual stories strives for ďokĒ. Thereís a lot of trope stock personalities here, ranging from the loner thief with a sad past to the aloof academic mage that doesnít get people. Some stories stand out more than others, such as Primrose, who was born to a noble family and essentially sold into sexual slavery. Jumping around between characters really hurts the pacing, killing both the gameís difficulty and itís narrative focus.
The fact that none of these stories intersect is a glaring problem, and makes the lost potential so much more heartbreaking. Thereís some optional party banter starting around chapter 2 but itís sparse, not particularly engaging, and takes place on an immersion-breaking separate screen. There isnít even an attempt to make reason out of why these characters are traveling together or why they are joining the party. I get that the player could go through the game in any order, but even a ďhey, you look strong--want to help me with this thing?Ē would have been better than just having the character join.
With four chapters for each of the eight characters, plus side quests, plus travel time, Octopath Traveler is simply too long for its repetitive chapter structure. The first 10-15 hours make a great impression, but youíll need to shelf the game several times and return to it later to avoid burnout if you want to actually finish this slog.
Octopath Traveler actually seems to be designed with this type of play style in mind, with the start of chapters so clearly marked and with each chapter having a largely self-contained story, a player could bounce off the game at pretty much any time and not feel lost when they return. Designing a game to be bounce-able like that should have been an indication that something was not right here.
So I guess on second thought, letís leave all those waypoints there; Iíll need them later when I quit and come back later.
It is fascinating that even after decades, battle designers are still finding new ways to make turn-based combat fresh.
Octopath Travelerís combat is based around a turn storage system similar to Final Fantasy: Four Heroes of Light and a weakness exploitation system like Shin Megami Tenseiís press-turn dynamic. Every turn, a character is granted 1 BP that can be spent to make an attack more powerful. Unlike Bravely Default, which features a similar concept, BP are not turns that allow multiple actions nor do they allow future turns to be spent in advance, but rather they increase the power of actions. For example, Octopath Traveler does not feature tiered levels of magic spells (a la Fire, Fira, Firaga, etc) of increasing MP cost but rather a single fire spell that is made more powerful by spending up to four BP when casting it.
Every enemy has weaknesses to specific weapons or elements (and the game kindly keeps track of these for you). While a weakness will increase the damage an enemy receives, the primary reason the player wants to do this is to break an enemyís defenses. Hit weaknesses enough times and youíll see a satisfying ďBreakĒ and the defense icon next to the enemy will literally shatter. Not only will that enemy lose their next action, they will be left vulnerable to all attacks.
This is a great system that leads to all sorts of interesting choices. Do you want to spend BP now to shatter a defense faster or save it so that you can unleash hell after an enemy has been broken? Do you want to heal your party this turn or go offensive and break the enemy instead? The ebb and flow of battles is satisfying throughout the entire game, and new challenges are drip-fed through the game. In second chapters, for example, some bosses can be protected by weaker enemies; you can still damage them, but attacking weaknesses can no longer break them. A small change like that makes a huge difference in how you approach the battle.
The complexities of combat itself are intensified by just how few abilities each character will obtain. You can obtain most of a characterís primarily class abilities quickly, so the game loop becomes more about how to utilize abilities rather than grinding for new ones. More nuanced features like sub-classes that expand a characterís weapon proficiency and abilities are drip-fed throughout the game, making the combat systems feel very tight and deliberate.
One of the few deficiencies in combat is its duration. Since enemies often need to be broken before you can do substantial damage, even random encounters against trash mobs take longer than they should and later enemies and bosses tend to be HP sponges. Similar re-imaginations of classic battle mechanics (like Bravely Default) have abilities and features designed specifically to allow the player to blow through random encounters quickly and painlessly, but I found such fights still took a few minutes and a bit of thinking to get through. In this regard, Octopath Traveler reminds me a bit of Etrian Odyssey, but even in that series the player can speed up fighting and eventually blow weak enemies to pieces. Keeping the duration of encounters up seems like an intentional choice for Octopath Traveler as it is balanced by a fair (read: low) encounter rate and short dungeons.
Unfortunately the contagious blandness of the story structure infects the otherwise well-made combat. The difficulty of chapters and areas is partially scaled to your party, but not enough. When I recruited my fourth party member, I was appropriately leveled for a chapter 2 scenario, so I went ahead and did two of them. My party was then significantly over leveled for the remaining four chapter 1 scenarios. I found myself feeling frequently overleveled or underleveled for a given chapter or area--rarely did I feel appropriately leveled. Due to the non-linear nature of the game, there needed to be more nuanced difficulty scaling.
Easy combat is a common complaint against Octopath Traveler, but in this respect you can mitigate it by approaching the game differently. While most players will (by instinct) try to complete all chapter 1 scenarios, then all chapter 2, etc, combat is balanced to get a 4-person party and then complete their stories first, then go back and recruit the remaining four. This will let the player focus specific stories instead of bouncing around so much, and prevent the player from overleveling.
While overall, the various combat systems are deep, engaging, and have strategic appeal, they have enough complexity for a 30-40 hour game. Octopath Travelerís dragging length unfortunately takes its toll on battles, and by the 50 hour mark it will start to lose its appeal.
A Music Album (Free Game Included!)
The music of Octopath Traveler does the heavy lifting, telling its own story when the writing falters; when the bland scenarios fail to build sufficient tension before a boss, the OST does it instead. Itís one of the best scores of the past decade and Iím confident that in the years to come it will find a place among the pantheon of RPG music godliness. Itís that good and frankly it deserved to be in a better game.
What makes Octopath Traveler different from other modern orchestrations is that each track was composed with the same mindset of the legendary tracks of yore. Due to the limitations of cartridge storage, compositions in older RPGs needed to jump quickly into the theme of the track, utilize brief melodies that are memorable without getting annoying when they loop, and use confident, driving rhymes to add texture with limited sound fonts. Octopath Travelerís music sounds like remixes of a long-lost SNES RPG that we never played.
This isnít speculation on my part either; composer Yasunori Nishiki has described the process of composing the soundtrack in several interviews, often describing the influence of classic RPG music and how creating memorable melodies was a critical task. As games have shifted more toward cinema-like scores, we lost the simple hummable melodies that made classic RPG music so good.
Take the opening track from the title screen. It jumps almost immediately into a catchy and immediately hummable melody played by a flute. It sounds simple, inviting, and adventurous. After a round of that, some wild chords appear with the flute. Youíre still humming along, but youíre now hearing this rich orchestration filled with emotion. The focus on immediate, memorable, and prominent melodies is something thatís really been lost to RPGs since the 32-bit era.
The different normal battle themes (which youíll be hearing frequently) are fantastic. While still sounding very orchestral, they have deep, driving bass lines pushing the action along. As you branch into higher-level areas, new battle themes are introduced for basic encounters, ensuring that it does not get stale. More games need to do this.
Each character has a theme and a small motif that gets used throughout their individual stories. They center around a specific instrument and style. Cyrus the academic mage, for example, has a sophisticated waltz theme while Therion the lone thief has an old west guitar style that fits his character and locale brilliantly. Getting to know each character through their music is part of how Octopath Traveler tells its story--it arguably does a better job than the actual writing.
For example, there is one story where the kind-hearted Ophelia goes to save some kid lost in the forest. Turns out thereís a big ass wolf. Another kid steps in to save the first kid before Ophelia steps in to save them both. The setup is eye-rollingly lame except for one important detail and probably Octopath Travelerís greatest feature--itís boss theme.
Before each boss, there is a tense transitional theme that echos the current characterís theme. Itís usually short and tension building, made all the better because youíll only hear these themes immediately before a boss fight. Then, whenever whatever story thing is done (i.e. the player finished reading the last line of dialogue), the music doesnít stop--it seamlessly changes to a brief bridge piece while the battle UI and sprites are appearing, before dropping the boss theme sting. There are no pauses or discernible changes in track, so the effect is one seamless bit of music from story to combat.
I cannot express how jaw droppingly amazing this sounds when you play it. The first time I heard it, I thought it was a coincidence that the music lined up so perfectly, but itís not. Even when the story is being boring, this musical flourish will still run a chill down your spine. When that stupid wolf finally shows up and the chords start dropping, that wolf might as well be Atma and I might as well be on the floating continent watching the world fall to pieces again. The amount of skill it takes to make this work with eight different characters and multiple boss themes is nothing short of musical genius, and every time I heard it I was on the edge of my seat.
If this section doesnít have enough hyperbole, wait for this next sentence: Octopath Travelerís soundtrack is unmitigated, flawless aural sex and even if you hate RPGs or just hate this one specifically, you should slog through all 70+ hours anyway just to hear the music.
2D HD: Blast Processing for RPGs
While many RPGs have gone for a retro, nostalgia dripping look, very few RPGs manage to succeed without looking like gross amalgamations of smoothed-over pixel art for a crappy mobile game. Octopath Traveler finds a different way that feels at once evocative of the 16-bit age while also looking modern and beautiful.
The world of Octopath Traveler is like a collection of cut-outs made from a pixel scrapbook and a modern UI. It looks like nothing youíve ever played, with exaggerated light oversaturating fields, skillful blurring and focusing to create depth on a flat world, and some of the most beautiful water effects youíll ever see.
The battle sprites are highly detailed, massive works of art, like modern versions of the crazy Amono-inspired sprites Shibuya created during Final Fantasyís 2D era. They are bizarre, larger-than-life, and completely detached from their field representation. An early human boss, for example, is depicted in battle as a towering, grinning mad-man leaning back in a monstrous wooden chair and menacing a glass of wine. Itís the kind of madness youíd see a lot of in 16-bit games but fell to the wayside with 3D combat.
Walking through the world of Osterra is still nothing short of breathtaking. Stunning vistas and surreal water effects make the forays into otherwise due and lifeless areas between towns worth the trip. If you believe that not all storytelling needs to be done with words, then Octopath Travelerís landscapes may tell a tale where the actual scenarios do not.
Thereís a lot of faults with Octopath Traveler. Itís too long, its chapters lack rhythmic variety, the writing is tepid, thereís little player agency, and combat will inevitably become boring due to the gameís length.
Thereís a lot to love too. Itís been a long time since Iíve played an RPG that felt like an evolution in the way Octopath Traveler does. It picks up ideas from the RPGs that have stood the test of time and does something genuinely new. Despite its structural similarity to Romancing SaGa, despite the art similarities to Final Fantasy VI, despite the combat similarities to Bravely Default and Shin Megami Tensei, at no point when playing Octopath Traveler did I ever feel like it was a game I had played before. The fact that it takes old ideas and makes them new is a feat that countless RPGs before it failed to achieve. Where it falters, itís gorgeous presentation and evocative soundtrack pick it back up.
For a game built out of so much love for what came before it, I canít help but wonder what Octopath Travelerís legacy will be when compared to the pillars of the genre that inspired it--after all, those games are not perfect either. In a few years, will my daughter (currently 7 years old) have an experience with Octopath Traveler much like the experience many of us had with Final Fantasy VI or even Pokemon? Is Octopath Traveler good enough in the right ways to glimmer a life-long love of Japanese roleplaying games and act as a scale against which future gaming experience can be measured? Could it be that game to someone?
Octopath Traveler is so painfully, excruciatingly close to being that once-in-a-generation gaming experience--but it is not.
Hitting weaknesses and breaking defense feels satisfying.
The background and foreground blur dynamically changes as you moved around the field, creating some truly gorgeous scenes.
Massive, stylized bosses are reminiscent of Shibuyaís pixel art in pre-polygonal Final Fantasy
Featured community review by dagoss (September 16, 2021)
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