One of the first games announced for the Nintendo Switch, Octopath Traveler had me intrigued from the moment I heard its ludicrous name. Developed by Square Enix and Acquire, it was published by Nintendo on July 13, 2018. As indicated by its name, the game highlights the journeys of eight disparate individuals. They travel throughout the continent of Orsterra in separate adventures inspired by golden-age JRPGs. Unique turn-based combat and addictive character development kept me entertained for the hundred hours I spent playing the game, even when the game’s storytelling underwhelmed me.
The game’s core gimmick was the eight protagonists and their unique storylines. Each character’s story played out across a four chapter arc that took me to multiple towns and dungeons across Orsterra. Upon selection of a primary character – one who was locked into my party until their story was complete – I recruited the seven remaining protagonists and undertook the introductory chapters. It was a little slow going during this phase of the game. The groundwork for each character’s journey was being laid at this point, and while the game had my full attention – I was absorbing the narrative details like a sponge – it wasn’t until I had a full party that the game’s battle system started to shine and give me something to sink my teeth into.
As I wandered dungeons to progress the stories – that is forests, mansions, and the occasional actual dungeon – I fought thousands of foes. Battles occurred randomly and played out in turn-based combat where I could see the order of all participants for the current and next turn. If not for the concept of “Breaking” enemies and “Boosting” actions, the combat would’ve grown rote.
In regards to Breaking enemies, each opponent had a certain amount of Shield Points that could be reduced when their weak points were attacked; that is, when they were attacked by a specific weapon or magic type. When an enemy’s Shield Points reached zero, they’d remain inactive for a turn and be more susceptible to damage. At this juncture, or maybe before if I wanted to reduce an enemy’s Shield Points quickly, I’d spend Boost Points to increase the number of times a party member struck an enemy with their weapon, or to power up special attack.
I found these two mechanics novel, but somewhat insignificant, until my party size reached the in-battle maximum of four characters. Then, and even more so later on when I started uncovering secondary jobs, the richness of combat strategy became apparent. With a full party, I could begin performing combos: Breaking enemies with weak party members then having their stronger counterparts follow behind with Boosted actions. This was very satisfying. I also began experimenting with my party composition and learning the perks, and downsides, to each character and their affiliated job. By the end of these introductory chapters, I was acquainted not only with the characters’ motivations, but also their practical use in combat. Things were looking up!
The second chapters expanded the game in a big way. In a basic, literal sense, the continuation of each character’s story introduced me to unfamiliar towns and dungeons, expanding the game world. Accordingly, this stretch of the game brought about scores of new enemies. This meant having to decode unknown enemy weaknesses, in effect continuously breathing new life into random battles. In the enemy-infested paths between towns, I began discovering secondary jobs, which in consideration of my completionist tendencies, opened an addictive new can of worms.
The unchanging primary job every character belonged to determined what weapons they could use and what skills and support skills they’d learn. The warrior Olberic naturally wielded swords and spears, whereas the cleric Ophilia was relegated to staves. Furthermore, the skills and support skills a character learned were generally tailored to one’s job. The former were simply the special attacks and temporary buffs triggered in battle while the latter offered a variety of permanent buffs: earn additional experience, potential chance of attacking twice, etc.
Finding secondary jobs broadened my party’s capabilities and led me down an obsessive rabbit hole of mastering each secondary job with every character. In the micro sense, I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment in mastering a secondary job with one of my party members. Unlocking additional support skills gave me a worthwhile reason to relish every battle and use characters I might not otherwise select. In the macro sense, it was incredibly fulfilling to fine-tune a diverse party and just absolutely wreck foes. The amount of time I devoted to this system above and beyond what was required is rivaled only by Final Fantasy V and Lost Odyssey, a pair of JRPGs that had similarly addictive character development and customization features.
The expanded realm also meant there were dozens of new NPCs for me to perform Path Actions on. Every character had a Path Action that allowed them to interact with an NPC in some minor way. In truth, there were four unique path actions, with a slight variation of each. The thief Therion, for instance could steal items from unsuspecting townsfolk whereas the merchant Tressa would instead acquire the same items through an honest purchase. I always looked forward to meeting new NPCs for this reason. What’s more, a new batch of NPCs meant I had a larger pool of resources to complete sidequests. Whether I was stealing items, gaining information through observation, or simply dragging one person to another, there were ample ways for me to spend my time apart from the core stories.
On that subject, few answers were found in the second chapters. Instead, new characters were introduced and the myriad plots thickened. By this time, it was becoming clear which storylines I was partial to. The dancer Primrose’s tale of revenge, wherein she eliminated a litany of dastardly chauvinists, highlighting her many sympathetic character traits, was a favorite of mine. So too was the scholar Cyrus’ quest to uncover, and store away, forbidden knowledge. He scoured the realm for texts containing dark magic, bearing witness to a few gruesome sacrifices in the process. Regardless of my enjoyment of individual beats within the stories, it was also becoming clear each character’s adventure followed a similar formula.
On the whole, I found the section of the game containing the third chapters direly underwhelming. The plot advances, like those in the second chapters, were minimal. And, for the first time, they didn’t see me traveling to new towns. Instead, I revisited towns that had previously played host to someone else’s first or second chapter. There was always a new dungeon to test my party, but without the opportunity to interact with new NPCs and explore new towns, I had to rely solely on the character development features to keep my interest. And that was made harder by the fact I bought a house during this timeframe.
After a couple months of stressful searching, my wife and I closed on our first home in late summer. Quite honestly, it was a dream come true, one of life’s ambitions that we can cross off the list. When the unpacking was complete, almost immediately I became engrossed in home improvement projects. Our house required little, but it was tasks like repairing the fridge, building a gate, and other general refinements that completely engaged me. For the first time in my life, I looked forward to shopping at home improvement retailers like Lowe’s. I walked down each aisle like a kid in a candy store, pondering future projects and seeing products with a new set of eyes. Eventually, I marked accomplished enough and was able to settle back into a regular schedule with the game.
Chapter four marked the conclusion of each character’s storyline and once again, I was traveling to new parts of Orsterra. For one final time, I was given the opportunity to explore new towns and interact with new NPCs; a late-game highlight. With the realm fully explored, any sidequests that had gone uncompleted could now be brought to a close as well. These rarely amounted to much – finding a quest item or locating a lost person – but they nonetheless offered an entertaining distraction, and usually good rewards. I needed any help I could get when it came time to take on the final foe of each storyline. These fights were lengthy affairs that required powerful offense and sound strategy. When all was said and done, there was still a secret connecting tissue yet to be revealed.
This was a game of eight disparate storylines, with eight travelers who only occasionally acknowledged each other’s presence (in this way, most story scenes played out awkwardly considering the three other party members accompanying the current protagonist). But, there was a secret post-game storyline that highlighted how everything, sometimes loosely, was connected. Accessible only when every storyline and sidequest had been brought to a close, the party’s true foe was revealed in a series of loquacious text dumps. Reigning victorious required me to undergo a boss gauntlet of souped-up versions of each character’s final adversary, before fighting a two-part battle, with all eight party members, against what is arguably one of the toughest bosses in any JRPG.
One last time, I went whole hog into grinding skills, support skills, and additional levels for every party member, not just my favorites. Strength alone wouldn’t win out, however. Besides having two full parties of exceptionally equipped combatants, I had to devise (or crib) a sterling strategy for each, and execute perfectly. Patience, I also needed patience. From the beginning of the boss gauntlet to the final two-part fight, I could not save. Therefore, when I died, I had to start all over, and this was an hours-long affair. Thankfully this only happened once. In my successful effort, after hours of grinding, nearly all was lost when the final foe one-hit killed half my party, and left the other half with 1 HP. By the skin of my teeth, I managed to hang on and come back for a euphoric victory. After all my effort, and nearly 100 hours of gameplay, my adrenalin was pumping in ways that harkened back to high score runs of Geometry Wars.
When the high was gone, the bittersweet revelation sank in that I was done with Octopath Traveler. What had been a constant for months was now over, totally. No longer would I enjoy the efforts of the grind: the customization I had over my party members and the dominance over my foes. It was a satisfying gameplay loop which encouraged me to relish every single battle, since I was always working towards some micro goal. The storylines on the other hand were a formulaic mishmash of highs and lows. There were genuinely interesting characters and moments but it all seemed extremely disjointed. And somehow, I’ve written all this without mentioning the remarkable visuals and stellar score. In an audio/visual sense, this is a game in the upper echelon. All things considered, Octopath is a fantastic gameplay-orientated JRPG with a novel storytelling gimmick that isn’t used to its full potential.