Gathere around the bonfire and allowen me to tell thee of a major game release in 2018 that follows RPGs of olde (Okay, that’s it for me trying to imitate H’aanit’s speech). It’s called Octopath Traveler, a throwback to classic JRPGs. Developed by the team that created the Bravely series, Octopath Traveler stunned old-school JRPG fans around the world with its beautiful backgrounds, charming sprite art, and twist on traditional JRPG gameplay. After demos released in September 2017 as well as June of this year, hype was high for this game among JRPG enthusiasts. I said it would be “one of 2018’s best RPGs” when I played the demo back in September last year; now that the full game is out, am I still riding high on the Octopath train?
Octopath Traveler is open-ended, and gives you the freedom of choosing how you want to tackle the game. There is no main protagonist, so there is no right or wrong way to start your adventure. You can go with the classic warrior or hunter classes like Olberic or H’aanit to have an easier time early on, or you can test your JRPG mettle by playing characters like Ophilia or Tressa; a priestess and merchant, respectively. Every character has their own individual story to tackle, with the other characters assisting if you’ve recruited them.
The individual character stories range from decent to phenomenal. Some tales I found more compelling than others, but they’re varied, if nothing else. Tressa’s desire to embark on an adventure to become a merchant pales in comparison to Primrose’s story of revenge, and the lengths she goes to to track down her father’s killers. Some stories start out mediocre, like Ophilia’s, but end up being great.
The main issue I often have with open-ended games is that the story usually suffers in some way, and Octopath Traveler is no exception. Since the game does not have a set protagonist, there is technically no right or wrong way to start. While this works from a gameplay perspective, it does compromise the narrative. Each character goes through their own story as if there were no other accompanying party members, tackling bosses ‘solo’. It took me out of the experience, seeing an individual character heading into everything alone, followed by the rest of the party inexplicably showing up during boss battles. The only interaction the party ever has with each other is travel banter during characters’ chapters. Most of the time, it’s just a thought one of them has about what is currently happening in their chapter. With this format, there is no real overarching story in Octopath Traveler until you reach the post-game dungeon, where everything becomes clear. Still, the post-game dungeon accounts for maybe 5% of the overall story, and happens so late that it may as well have not been there at all.
The way Octopath Traveler structures its chapters can become repetitive. Chapters usually follow the same pattern: arrive in town, talk to NPCs, use the character’s Path Action, watch a cutscene, then head to the dungeon to fight a boss. While this is standard for the genre, it happens so consistently in Octopath Traveler that it feels exacerbated. Chapters 2 and 3 feel particularly stuck in this formula, since you visit the same handful of towns repeatedly. Part of the fun of Octopath Traveler is walking into a new town and figuring out what you can use your Path Actions on; inquiring/scrutinizing for hidden items or info for side quests, finding out what you can purchase/steal from townspeople, and seeing if you can add a new powerful NPC follower. Chapters 2 and 3 don’t provide that same fun when you’re progressing through them.
Since Octopath Traveler is rooted in presenting an old-school JRPG, archaic issues are bound to arise. Random encounters feel more and more like a thing of the past with each passing year. Series like Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Tales, and even the upcoming Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee have ditched random encounters in favour of enemies present on the overworld. While I personally don’t have an issue with random encounters, I know this will likely be a sticking point for some. I can’t help but wish they took Bravely’s inclusion of a random encounter slider so one can fine-tune how often foes are encountered. Markers for side quests are also absent; while you can see who the quest giver is, it’s not explicitly stated how you go about completing side quests. There’s no marker to show you which NPC to interact with, and the game also doesn’t expressly explain how side quests work. Figuring out how to complete any given side quest may take a little while.
Octopath Traveler is a traditional turn-based JRPG, much like its spiritual predecessor Bravely Default. Taking cues from their earlier titles, the Bravely team has added a modified version of their Brave system into Octopath Traveler. After every turn, you get a ‘Boost Point’ that you can either use to chain multiple standard attacks together, or use a skill with increased power. You can use up to three Boost Points at once. Once a character uses any Boost Points, they won’t get one on their next turn, so you have to be careful about how you spend your Boost Points, and always think ahead to future turns.
Enemies have a Break gauge that is denoted by a shield icon with a number on it. Whenever you hit a weakness, the number goes down based on how many attacks you hit it with. When it hits zero: the enemy will be stunned, its defenses will drop, it will lose its turn that round, and it will also lose its next turn. Most of the time, breaking an enemy once will be enough to allow you to take it out. The game’s bosses add another layer of strategy to the fights. Bosses will charge up a powerful attack every so often that you can either take head-on, defend, or try to break its gauge before the attack lands.
Each character in Octopath Traveler has a default job assigned to them, but they can also take on other jobs. By visiting shrines around the continent, you can acquire new jobs that each character can use. There is no real penalty to assigning any character a new job, other than the fact that you can only assign the acquired job to one character at a time. Acquiring new jobs will allow your characters access to new skills and weapons, which will assist in being able to better hit enemy weaknesses in later chapters. It’s worthwhile to bring a varied team along so you can make sure you have all of your bases covered.
The first thing that likely grabbed anyone’s attention when it came to Octopath Traveler was its graphics. This game features pixelated sprites paired with exquisite background art. This style, which the developers have dubbed ‘HD-2D’, gives Octopath Traveler its unique style. From the snowy Frostlands to the dry Sunlands, the background art is absolutely stunning. Sand cascades off cliffs, water reflects the bright sun, and snow fails gracefully from the sky. Octopath Traveler’s visuals have the near perfect mix of old-school and modern art.
Octopath Traveler wouldn’t have that old-school JRPG quality if its sound department was lacking. Fortunately, Octopath Traveler is no slouch. Composer Yasunori Nishiki puts forth an incredible orchestral score. Right from the triumphant opening title theme, this game delivers. Some of my favourite music moments come from the start of each boss battle. Each character has their own theme, and that theme will play before the start of the boss fight, where it then transitions into the epic boss music of ‘Decisive Battle I’ or ‘Decisive Battle II’. You also can’t forget some of the town themes like the quietly epic ‘Victor’s Hollow’, the sultry tones of ‘Sunshade’, or the Mediterranean-inspired ‘A Sea Breeze Blows’.
The voice acting (what little there is), is pretty good. H’aanit’s fake Shakespearean English can be hit or miss, but I appreciate her voice actor going through that without giggling the whole time. I really wish that the game was fully voiced, since it was hard to tell when the game would go from a character making a general comment to going into a fully voiced speech. It took me out of the experience a bit. Also, how could you not love Tressa’s voice acting in both English and Japanese? She just sounds so happy to be a part of the adventure.
Octopath Traveler may not be the masterpiece we were all expecting, but it’s still a great game in its own right. It proves that there is still a place for old-school traditional JRPGs in the modern era, and you can still put your own unique spin on it. The Bravely team continues to impress, so let’s hope for their continued success.