In the sea of blockbuster video games, Octopath Traveler is an RPG more like an anthology TV show.
Octopath Traveler is intrinsically linked to the Switch’s origins. First unveiled during the early 2017 introductory blowout, the Square Enix-developed RPG is at odds with itself, giving off a shimmering 2D style that seems to be a throwback to the Japanese RPGs of yesteryear while also being its own weird, modern, and unique experiment. The end result is something more akin to an anthology television show rather than the big blockbuster movie that a lot of games aspire to be. I was enchanted by this deep adventure, but not so much in ways that rekindled SNES-era classics. Octopath Traveler is a beautiful and oftentimes majestic game, but it does it more on the strength of a dynamite turn-based combat system and a stellar presentation than a brilliant story.
It all kicks off by picking one of eight characters, split between different regions of the overworld. From there, you play through your protagonist’s introduction. After that, you are mostly directed to do the opening chapters of the seven other heroes. That makes the first 10 hours or so extremely heavy on exposition and also a harbinger for the flow of the adventure. Octopath Traveler is primarily not a game about saving the world from destruction. No, it’s smaller scale than that. The heroes have their own very personal short stories that are experienced through a series of chapters. The stories do not intertwine in any major way, though they share locations, lore, and a little bit more. If you’re seeking a cohesive, singular narrative, this isn’t the game for you.
In general, the chapters are all gated by recommended levels. Broadly speaking, the first chapters are for levels 5 to 12 and the second ones are geared more towards the 20s, and so on and so forth. In theory, you could take a few of the characters and grind to completion, ignoring some of the heroes entirely, but it is best experienced by getting the full party and tackling the chapters more or less in recommended level order. That stumbles upon a storytelling flaw, though. Getting lost exploring the overworld is easy, and oftentimes, you might have multiple hours in between a character's chapters. That makes it somewhat difficult to keep tabs on and stay invested in each tale because the plot continuously bounces between eight stories.
The characters all fit into classic archetypes, whether it’s a warrior, thief, or mage. In addition to their turn-based combat abilities, split into regular weapon attacks and special abilities, each character also has a Path Action outside of battle that provides a bulk of the overworld engagement, split into noble and rogue styles of four different actions that engage NPCs in combat, get items from them, bring them along as combat support, or uncover information. While I get a rush out of using Therion’s Steal to pilfer helpful items from townspeople, the Path Actions can become a little robotic as you engage every NPC with the various commands. They do lead to some fun side stories where multiple actions can be used to complete a quest in a different way. In the main story segments, they don’t get too in-depth, however.
While the Path Actions might not be as grand as planned, the turn-based combat is exemplary. At heart, it’s your standard JRPG fare, but it has many layers beneath it. The key aspect is enemy weaknesses. Damage an enemy using the weapon or magic type it is weak to and it will enter a stunned Break state where it misses a turn and takes more damage. Battling becomes about uncovering weaknesses and then pounding the crap out of them. On top of basic actions, each character has special abilities based on their job class, such as the Merchant’s ability to hire mercenaries into the battle for damaging attacks. H’aanit the Hunter can summon creatures that are caught during random battles. Alfyn the Apothecary can concoct various potions for restorative and destructive results.
The fights do take a while to complete, even the random overworld battles, but the map is easy to traverse and the dungeons are quick, so nothing is ever too dragged out. Also, the battles are always challenging to some degree unless you’re outrageously overleveled. When you do stomp an enemy closer to your level, it’s mostly because you executed a strong plan.
In addition to the base jobs everyone starts off with, the ability to multiclass jobs can be found by exploring the overworld, which lets you customize even more, so now your mage can heal or your warrior can be a thief as well. The entire concept is easy to grasp but carries a lot of depth with it. Playing around with different job pairings is rewarding and stumbling upon a combo that clicks is great.
Next to the battles, another wondrous thing about Octopath Traveler is the presentation. The music from Yasunori Nishiki is beautiful, blending delightfully with the marvel that is the HD-2D graphical style. The snowy areas in particular look stunning with shimmering dots of precipitating particle effects. The soft focus given to your characters make the rest of the world look painterly. Exploring the overworld is a constant joy.
While exploration is fantastic and engrossing, a lot of the story segments are a little overwrought. That’s partially because they’re so concentrated in distinct segments that are routinely cut scene-heavy affairs with minimal interaction. The writing is serviceable with some character’s threads being highlights, specifically Primrose with some loose shout-outs to H’aanit, Cyrus, and Tressa. Nothing is bad or uninteresting, but some definitely become hard to follow when you bounce between so many others so often.
But Octopath Traveler is much more than its peculiar vignette-heavy story that owes more to Dragon Quest or SaGa Frontier than Final Fantasy. It’s an elegant game packed with serene melodies, a simple yet deep combat system, and a stunning world to explore. The end result might not be the modern classic so many hoped for, but Octopath Traveler is an excellent RPG that’s only major sin is a loose story structure.