A path worth traveling…
Square Enix’s inaugural foray onto the Nintendo Switch immediately captured everyone’s attention during its reveal early last year; with its pristinely crafted art-style, ode to traditional RPG design, and blissfully whimsical musical score, there was simply no shortage of interesting components to anticipate. Octopath Traveler is a gorgeous amalgamation of the RPG fundamentals of yesteryear and a conscious effort of modern polish and refinement. From a gameplay standpoint, Octopath Traveler is an excellent ensemble of the finely tuned elements you’d expect from a Square game – the addictive “break” mechanic alleviates the monotony of rudimentary battles, while the job system adds a significant layer of versatility and player flexibility that’s seldom found in the genre. With Octopath Traveler, you will undeniably come for the exuberant pixel art and the emotional musical composition but will ultimately stay for its addictive gameplay and simplistically complex battle system. To describe Octopath Traveler’s characters and narrative as disappointing would be a disservice to the emotional dissonance experienced throughout the 60 hour journey; there is a strong disconnect and lack of empathetic value as each character’s story is purely isolated, with characters having little no interaction with one another, resulting in the worst display of character development I have experienced in a video game. While some stories bear more emotional weight than others, they are still disjointed and uninspired, and pale in comparison to the simplistic standards of storytelling for any medium. Its narrative structure also struggles to find a sense of cohesion and focus, constantly fumbling on its isolated and disjointed nature. Octopath Traveler’s encompassing narrative is its biggest failure, and while its gorgeous ambience and finely tuned gameplay alleviate its shortcomings and carry the overall experience, its disjointed and apathetic structure leave a bad taste that simply never goes away. Negative qualms set aside, Square’s latest may not be their greatest, but it’s still an experience worth traveling.
Octopath Traveler is a beautiful game, its visual and audio prowess boast meteoric heights, transcending into an artistic ballad that is second to none. It’s at this presentation level that Octopath Traveler transcends the status quo, becoming a force to be reckoned with in regard to the harmonious nature of artistic simplicity and beauty. Its hybrid concoction of 2D and 3D visuals is an undeniable contributing factor to the game’s success, with its sprite designs tugging on our nostalgic heartstrings. This visual package is complimented with some of the most gorgeous lighting and particle effects to have graced this eclectic medium. Its graphical inspiration lies somewhere between the nostalgic prowess of the early Final Fantasy series and the contemporary dimensional pixel hybrid of Supergiant Games’ repertoire; it’s a brilliant homage and natural evolution to Square’s beginnings and is undoubtedly Octopath’s strongest asset. Octopath Traveler’s audio counterpart is just as strong, but slightly fumbles in certain aspects. The orchestral score is absolutely beautiful, a clear translation of audio bliss in the form impeccably constructed tunes that undeniably warm the soul and evoke a myriad of tangible emotions. Its whimsical and bite-sized nature acts as a minute double-edged sword; each track is relatively short, so its structure is incredibly infectious and well-crafted. However, since each track is structurally short by nature, the track is on a constant repeat loop, a loop that is far too transparent and juxtaposes its aforementioned impeccable design. The track could honestly loop five to ten times during a cutscene, depending on how quickly you’re able to read and transition the text-based dialogue. Again, this would not be an issue if the tracks were a little longer or if the loop was not so blatantly transparent, instead cleverly hiding its repetitive nature behind different layers of audio or extending the actual track to lessen the number of times it actually loops. This does not detract from the actual quality of the audio tracks, Yasunori Nishiki’s brilliant work is some of the best video game music in recent memory and should be commended nonetheless. The English voice acting is a notably poor and certainly detracts from the overall experience. It’s cringeworthy, and overly dramatic and/or apathetic; I highly recommend playing the game in Japanese as dialogue exudes a far superior quality, with each interaction feeling and sounding authentic and natural. The synthetic nature of the English voice-acting feels like a step backwards in regard to the excellent dubbed work in contemporary Japanese video games. However, nothing compares to the disappointing nature of Octopath Traveler’s narrative. As I previously mentioned, each of Octopath Traveler’s eight characters has a story of their own that never intersects with another. There is little to no interaction between characters, so the purpose as to why this band of eight different characters embark on an adventure together is rendered to poor writing. Why would Ophilia the cleric aid Therion the thief in his quest to steal a prized treasure from the Ravus Manor? There is absolutely nothing that justifies these combinations, and little to no character interaction translates to poor character development. Each story is completely isolated, with their own trials and tribulations of self discovery. The stories are notably personal and venture away from the ridiculous doomsday narrative that has plagued the JRPG scene since its infancy. Its simplicity is a nice touch and often results in a lot of somber moments of reflection and discovery, including some poignant interactions with NPCs. There are a few brief moments where some of your party members will banter with one another, but these selective instances feel very obligatory and tacked-on, lacking any form of charm or entertaining value. Lastly, each character’s story is broken down into four chapters – it is strongly recommended to tackle the same chapter for each character before heading to the next one. For example, you are strongly encouraged to complete everyone’s first chapter before heading to the second chapter of your chosen hero – each chapter is complimented with a recommended level, so for the ideal experience, you would tackle the chapters in the order that reflects to your current level. Chapter 1 is understandably slow as it strikes the familiar chords of all JRPG beginnings. You must endure the monotonous introductions of each character, as each beginning succumbs to formulaic and derivative tendencies. In short, you will experience the slow burn and initial banality of a JRPG eight times.
Despite its narrative shortcomings, Octopath Traveler absolutely delivers in the gameplay department. In a nutshell, Octopath Traveler is an ode to the tried and true turn-based combat system that was heavily popularized in Square’s early days. The visual structure and layout of combat is very reminiscent to Square’s original repertoire, hitting all the right notes of nostalgia but incorporating innovative concepts to construct an identity of its own. What sets Octopath Traveler apart from its renowned competition is three integral components: the boost point system, the break system, and the job system. Boost points (BP) are gained each turn and can be utilized to amplify your skills or unleash Divine Skills. BP can also give you the ability to use a normal attack multiple times on an enemy, a crucial strategy when trying to diminish your enemy’s shield. Each enemy will have a shield number, along with a few unknown weaknesses which are displayed as question marks beside the shield counter. Using the correct weapon and/or skill on the enemy will decrease their shield value by one and will permanently reveal that same weakness on the enemy for future refence. Once the enemy’s shield value is reduced to zero, they will be incapacitated and extremely susceptible to critical damage for the next turn. Its an engrossing mechanic that rewards experimentation, but also adds a nice element of tracking and support for future battles. The best implementation by far is Octopath Traveler’s job mechanic. Each job acts as a class of sorts, with their own set of skills, support (passive) skills, sets of weapons, and special abilities. H’aanit the Hunter can capture enemy beasts and use them in future battles, Pokémon style. Alfyn the Apothecary can use natural resources to create potions and other concoctions to aid the party in battle. Therion the thief has the ability to steal items and equipment from NPCs. Each character’s idiosyncratic gameplay value is profound and gives each of them a sense of weight and purpose, something the narrative failed to do. You also get the ability to assign secondary jobs to your characters, adding further depth, complexities, and combinations to an already robust system. Each main job can be assigned to any character as a secondary job and can be changed any time you are outside of battle. You are even able equip the support skills of a job when you are not assigned to said job. This sense of freedom and experimentation further cements Octopath Traveler’s standing as one of the most refined gameplay experiences that Square has ever crafted. Four secret jobs, which are immensely satisfying and powerful, can also be attained by completing optional dungeons. Dungeons, for the most part, are relatively disappointing due to their short and confined nature. Their sense of exploration is rather minute and surprisingly shallow, and by the time you find yourself enjoying the process, you’ll have reach the end boss of the dungeon, prematurely ending any sense of enjoyment. The random encounters, while an iconic staple of the JRPG DNA, are annoyingly frequent and bring light to the gameplay’s slight repetitive nature. Thankfully, certain support skills can be unlocked and equipped to reduce the rate of encounters, resulting in a smoother, more comfortable experience. Side quests encompass an obligatory and rudimentary quality, with their existence being reduced to shallow filler and poor design. They don’t detract from the core gameplay experience, but they also don’t add much in retrospect. Octopath Traveler’s sense of difficulty is far more forgiving and accessible in comparison to formulaic nature of the genre. The gameplay and combat were efficiently paced – due to Octopath Traveler’s flexible structure -, and boss battles provided the right amount of challenge, without being overbearingly easy or gratuitously hard. Only a few, optional instances provided a profound sense of challenge, through the difficult intricacies of optional dungeons and secret bosses. The main story offers a well paced gameplay experience that is both enjoyable to newcomers of the genre and veterans alike, while enticing optional challenges are sprinkled throughout the vivacious world to provide an extra layer of challenge and strategic complexity for those who want it.
Octopath Traveler is a beautifully constructed work of art that meteorically soars beyond the established heights of visual and audio design. Its pixelated, 16-bit inspired art-style is exquisitely crisp and runs smoothly, regardless if you are playing docked or in handheld mode. While certain audio elements are inconsistent and bear repetitive tendencies, they are impeccably constructed nonetheless and are a perfect companion to the illustrious visual work. Its narrative compound is by far its biggest shortcoming and arguably one of the biggest disappointments of the year. Its narrative is insultingly shallow, its structure is pathetically disjointed, and the whole ensemble creates one of the worst examples of character development in video game history. Despite the critical analysis on Octopath Traveler’s narrative experience, its gameplay counterpoint is unabashedly strong and rectifies the narrative’s disappointing existence. Its innovation twist on the traditional turn based combat system is sublime, the job system ushered in a form of flexibility that is seldom found in the genre, and the break system is a natural evolution of the renowned enemy weakness implementation that has become synonymous with JRPGs. Its an exceptionally well-paced and surprisingly flexible combat experience, one of Square’s most mechanically sound experiences to date, rightfully claiming a spot in their illustrious repertoire. While it might not be the successor to Final Fantasy VI, like we all hoped it would be, it’s still one of the most engaging and rewarding combat experiences in RPG history and one that should not be overlooked because of its shortcomings. Octopath Traveler is a journey that stumbles sporadically, but is a path worth traveling nonetheless.