Octopath Traveler has been at the forefront of JRPG fans’ minds since it was first revealed during a Nintendo Direct in late 2017. Fans were giddy with the prospect of 16-bit sprites and beautiful particle effects combined in what appeared to be a nostalgic return to form from the company that helped shape the genre. With eight separate playable characters, each boasting their own tales, there is a lot to be excited about. Now, after two playable demos and nearly 100 hours, I can confidently say that despite a few issues, Octopath Traveler is one of the most enjoyable, memorable RPGs Square Enix has delivered in years.
Spiritual Content: The people of Orsterra worship a pantheon of gods. There is a god that represents each job class in the game and characters can invoke their help for their divine skill. The most notable god is Aelfric, the Flamebringer, whose church is setup much like a representation of the Catholic church. The world of Orsterra is also full of magic which, unfortunately, also involves the occult. There are elements of demon worship, human sacrifice, and transmutation.
Violence: Though it’s never particularly gory, there are some heinously violent acts committed throughout the entirety of Octopath Traveler. Some scenes depict stabbings, while others allude to human sacrifice with corpses strewn about the area. Otherwise, the violence in the game is largely relegated to animated slashes and blinking foes.
Language/Crude Humor: There are a few mildly crude jokes here and there, but by-and-large, the humor is safe for all ages. Neverthless, the game does use some strong language. Alfyn, the apothecary, uses an altered version of G*dd*mn, adding an ‘s’ because, hey, there is more than one god in Orsterra. There are no f*ck bombs, but expect to occasionally run across a d*mn or sh*t.
Sexual Themes: The sexual content in Octopath Traveler is mild, though it’s alluded to as being more than that. Primrose is a dancer who was enslaved. Men ogle at her and her artistic depictions represent a lady with a classic gypsy outfit, midriff showing. Her special world skill, “allure” allows her to recruit NPCs to the party for a short period. Another related storyline also tracks with a group of women who explicitly call themselves whores and escorts. Nothing explicit is ever shown.
Drug/Alcohol Use: The party often likes to meet up at the tavern to unwind with ale and mead between story beats. Some characters are shown getting drunk or spiking alcohol. There are no drug references.
Positive Themes: There are positive, redeeming qualities to each character. Honor, the pursuit of knowledge and purpose, a thirst for adventure and life’s zeal, and friendship are just a few of the qualities the Octopath team portrays. My personal favorites, though, are with Alfyn and Ophelia, whose primary purposes are to help others as they go. They get involved in the lives of the people they cross, selflessly going out of their way to resolve a conflict or offer healing to those in need. It is each of these traits that make the stories in Octopath Traveler impactful.
Octopath Traveler has been making waves since its first reveal. In this day and age, when everyone is pushing the boundaries of graphical fidelity, polygon count, and frame rate, it would seem to be a risky move for a major company like Square Enix to dedicate resources to something that rewinds the clock a quarter century. However, for many like me who grew up with games like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana, retro style is in vogue.
First and foremost, let’s discuss the narratives and storytelling. As the name implies, there are eight characters, each with their own stories, characters, plights, and villains. Each character’s story is comprised of four chapters, and each chapter follows the same basic arc. You show up at a place and get some story about what pertinent events are going on there relevant to the hero you are currently focusing on. You will then have to use that character’s unique world ability—stealing as the thief, having folks follow you around as the dancer, or dueling NPCs as the warrior for example—to solve a story problem. After that, you will be sent into a dungeon-like scenario where you will square off with that chapter’s boss. While the format is formulaic, each of the characters’ stories are well-told and vibrantly brought to life with excellent voice acting.
“Choose your fate. Eight stories await.” As much as I love the characters’ tales and how they’re told, there are significant problems with Octopath Traveler‘s overall narrative. The setup for heroes joining one another is as weak as each of the 8 uniformly saying they have a problem. Beyond that, the only interaction we see between characters over the course of the 32 playable story chapters are occasional side-conversations between party members. They’re a welcome reprieve that offer a bit of camaraderie to the team, but it’s a downright shame the eight stories didn’t weave together. I was expecting something clever and thought-provoking, like a George R. R. Martin novel, with each character’s story weaving into a beautiful blanket tapestry. What we have are 8 separate threads. By the time there is a chain of quests that tie in every character together at once, one will have to have completed the game almost to 100%, with up to 100 hours of gameplay invested; that’s a true shame. Still, what is here is great. I hope we get to see this aspect better handled in a sequel, even if it’s a Final Fantasy-styled sequel with a whole new cast and world.
Over the last few years, JRPGs have felt as though they’ve drifted away from their origins. Many have steered away from turn-based combat, including genre juggernaut Final Fantasy XV, opting instead to try appeasing western audiences with a more action-oriented approach. Octopath Traveler pulls back on those reigns, re-instituting turn-based combat with the “Break” system—one of the most clever turn-based combat mechanics in years. Each enemy has a number of defensive points and weaknesses. As you attack, if you strike one of their weaknesses, it unveils said weakness permanently and decreases their remaining defense points, which are visible to you. When you’ve abused their weaknesses enough, the enemy will “break,” losing a turn and making them more vulnerable to damage and effects.
At the same time, our party of heroes gains “break points” each turn. Up to four at a time can be cashed in for additional swings at your enemy or amplified skill effects. This gives you the opportunity to break an enemy more quickly or dish out massive damage in a single turn. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it system, as break points reset with each battle, so there’s no reason to leave any on the table. It gives the combat a unique twist that’s both fun and addictive, letting you play with your quarry and feel them out until you decide it’s the right time to strike. I believe it sets Octopath Traveler apart from other games in the genre, and I would be excited to see this combat mechanic in other games in the future.
One of the coolest aspects of Octopath Traveler is the job system. Like Final Fantasy V or FF: Tactics, you can unlock jobs in order to give characters sub-classes. This allows you to cross-pollinate, covering all 8 jobs with only four party members. As you fight, you will earn job points on top of experience and money. These can be cashed in to learn new skills and—more importantly—pick up new assignable passives to equip. If all that weren’t enough, there are even a few hidden jobs you can pick up through your journey, which are worth the challenge to acquire. In the future, perhaps we will get to see even more job classes and mix-and-match options to keep things fresh.
Octopath Traveler is a striking game. The game combines two-dimensional sprites with three-dimensional worlds and some depth-of-field effects to give the game a unique feeling that makes areas feel much more explorable than a plain 2-D world could. On top of that, the particle effects, water physics, and other modern wizardry built in the Unreal Engine modernize the retro RPG in a way that will suck you in. It’s like looking at a pop-up story book. In fact, the collector’s edition of the game comes with a pop-up storybook and a scene with each character! On top of the visuals, Octopath‘s sound design is top-notch. True to any iconic Square-Enix RPG, the game features a tremendous rolling orchestral score with tracks you’ll recognize years down the line. The stories are brought to life with wonderfully done interlaced voice over work, too. This is how the modern retro RPG should look and feel.
With nearly a hundred hours into the game, I feel Octopath Traveler has accomplished what it set out to do. They’ve wonderfully delivered a modernized retro turn-based JRPG. The game both looks and sounds beautiful and the gameplay mechanics both innovate in meaningful ways while keeping things familiar. The game can be a bit grindy at times and the narratives ultimately fail to interweave, which ultimately prevent a great game from being immaculate. When it’s all said and done, Octopath Traveler is easy to recommend to anyone looking for that retro RPG feel. If you own a Switch and enjoy meaty RPGs with plenty to do, this is one you should definitely pick up.
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The Bottom Line
Octopath Traveler is a great game that shows the market still craves what classic JRPGs offer. It innovates in clever ways while keeping the nostalgic heart engaged. The individual stories are well-told but the core narrative never has them intersect in any meaningful way. Still, if you're looking for something to spend plenty of hours pouring yourself into, Octopath is a fun, beautiful way to do it.