Octopath Traveler is a Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG) developed by Acquire and published by Square Enix for the Nintendo Switch in 2018. It was ported to PCs the following year on Steam, and all of my experience with the game is based on the identical Steam version. In big picture terms, Octopath Traveler combines together two main elements: a nostalgic art style using 2D sprites designed to replicate the console RPGs of the Super Nintendo and Playstation eras, along with an open-world environment that follows eight different characters as they each explore their eight individual stories. It's an unusual combination for a game released in 2018 and Octopath Traveler definitely stands out as a title, something that looks like an indie project despite coming from a major publisher. While it doesn't succeed in everything that it sets out to do, Octopath Travel is an excellent entry in the JRPG genre, mixing together solid storytelling with entertaining (if not entirely innovative) gameplay mechanics. This game was a hit in terms of public reception, reaching over 2 million in sales and leading Square Enix to greenlight a mobile game and an official console sequel. Time will tell if this ends up turning into a major series or flames out in popularity.
The first thing that anyone notices about Octopath Traveler is the art style. The developers went with a retro look for this title, animating all of the characters as 2D sprites set against 3D backgrounds. This is a callback to the popular JRPGs of the 1990s, the period when the genre was arguably at its height, and my impression of Octopath Traveler is that it looked a lot like a modernized version of Chrono Trigger. Anyone who happens to like pixel artwork will be in love with Octopath Traveler, as even the 3D environments are designed to look like they were created out of pixels. The 2D sprites used for eah character have received a tremendous amount of artist time and attention, with dozens of animations for all of the major characters. There are also tons and tons of NPC sprites, far more than the simple palette swaps of coloring that used to be the norm in earlier decades. The use of sprites in this game wasn't due to technological limitations, instead serving as a deliberate choice taken for artistic reasons, and it very much works in the game's favor.
The backgrounds in Octopath Traveler are particularly beautiful, and when combined together with modern lighting and environmental effects, can look nothing short of beautiful. A lot of the action in Octopath Traveler takes place in different manor houses (which function as another type of dungeon), and these mansions are rendered in elegant detail with fancy paintings on the walls, luxuriant banquet tables, marble fireplaces, and so on. There are plenty of the standard RPG locations as well, your forests and caves and beaches and mountains and whatnot, each of which has its own gorgeous lighting and shading effects. It's impressive how the 2D sprites are able to fit seamlessly into these environments without looking out of place, moving smoothly from one location to the next without ever becoming jarring. I'm not a big graphics guy and I don't really play any of the games that try to push the envelope on visuals, but for my money, Octopath Traveler is one of the best-looking games that I've seen in ages. It's not just nostalgia for the Final Fantasy games of twenty years ago, Octopath Traveler genuinely looks great.
I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the in-game map used in Octopath Traveler. The map can be accessed at any point in time with its own button, and it starts out as a blank canvas with only your starting town revealed. As the player travels around the world, the blank spaces are slowly revealed and the full extent of the map becomes apparent. The visual aesthetic of the map looks like one of those early depictions of the world from the 16th or 17th centuries, complete with little animated ships moving in the seas and "monsters" at the edge of the world. The developers also wisely integrated the map into the gameplay, as Octopath Traveler allows the player to "fast travel" to any town that they've previously visited at any point in time. There's no tedious backtracking through areas with weak enemies, no need to wait for an airship to unlock restricted regions. The player can visit any town in the world from the start of the game, and once they've made it there, they can warp back at any point in time. The player will therefore want to keep revealing more of the beautiful map design and keep pushing into unknown territory, never wasting their time with pointless travel. It's a very smart form of design integration.
There are eight different characters in total in Octopath Traveler, each with their own unique story and abilities. This is where the game derives its name, as the word "Octopath" not only refers to choosing one of eight different paths, but is also formed by combining together the first letter of each character's name. (Ophilia + Cyrus + Tressa + Olberic + Primrose + Alfyn + Therion + H'aanit = OCTOPATH.) Since this is a JRPG there's a lot of focus on the plot of these individual stories, and by and large the storetelling is decent, if not spectacular. There's certainly no shortage of content here, as my initial non-variant playthrough took something like 60 hours to get through all four chapters for all eight of the characters. Quantity doesn't necessarily mean quality though, and I found the story elements to be a mixture of hit and miss elements, some working well and some not so much. There's a wide variety of goals among the eight characters and some stark differences in tone between their respective storylines. Some of them are basic and familiar to the JRPG genre: Ophilia is undertaking a pilgrimmage to different cathedrals across the continent to help her family, and Tressa is a young merchant out to make a name and prove herself for the first time. Others have significantly darker elements, such as Cyrus stumbling upon a cult that engages in human sacrifice on his quest for knowledge, or Olberic hunting down and killing the man responsible for slaying his liege lord. Alfyn seems to have no reason at all for his journey and wanders aimlessly from town to town curing the sick and drinking alcohol. Some people have criticized Octopath Traveler for having such wildly different tones between different stories, but I applaud the developers for mixing together some very different plot threads.
The most noteworthy story from a plot perspective belongs to Primrose, a dancer embarking on a quest for revenge against the man who murdered her father. Primrose's story becomes shockingly brutal almost immediately, and contains murder, prostitution, and rape as major thematic elements. I was legitimately stunned at where the writers went in the first chapter of her story, not something I was expecting to see out of a game of this type. Unfortunately this comes at a cost: the treatment of women in Primrose's storyline is abysmal, constantly objectivized based on their appearance and abused by various different men. It would help if Primrose wasn't forced to wear a ridiculous dancing outfit at all times; her Chapter 2 storyline takes place in a snow-covered village and Primrose's sprite just looks absurd there. Everyone talks constantly about how beautiful Primrose looks, to the point where it starts to become creepy, and while I appreciate her willingness to murder her enemies with extreme prejudice, the ending to Primrose's story is dreadfully bad writing that makes no logical sense at all. I'm not going to put spoilers here, but suffice to say that when the only possible explanation for events is "the villain is insane", you've done a crummy job with the writing. This is one of those times where some of Japan's cultural attitudes towards women don't come off looking very good.
Octopath Traveler includes voice acting for some, but not all, of its dialogue. It's common for a lot of the game's text to have a brief phrase voiced out loud while the rest of the text goes unread, with only the major cut scenes having everything voiced. You could equally argue that this was a lazy shortcut to skip out on voicing everything or a smart way to save costs and either would be accurate. I grew up in an era where everything in RPGs was text-based so voiced or not voiced doesn't matter to me personally. The voice acting itself ranges from solid to excellent depending on the character, and there's some really good stuff at times from the actors. (There's also some fantastic villain scenery-chewing as well, with the actors fully aware of the fact and embracing their role with gusto.) At no point in time does the voice acting in Octopath Traveler slip into the Final Fantasy 10 cringe-inducing range, which is about all that I ask for from a game. As far as the music goes, it's mostly the standard orchestral pieces typical for RPGs. The Octopath Traveler soundtrack is good enough that I often listen to it on YouTube in the background when doing work, but it's not terribly innovative or noteworthy. Music and sound are not the primary reasons to play this game.
From a gameplay perspective, each of the eight characters has two unique abilities. One of these is their "Path Action", an out-of-combat ability that can be used to unlock some kind of benefit for the party. Unfortunately there are really only four of these, as the same abilities are doubled up and shared between pairs of the characters. Cyrus and Alfyn can Scrutizine/Inquire about NPCs in town, finding out more information about them, revealing hidden items, and unlocking more equipment for sale in town stores. Ophilia and Primrose can Guide/Allure NPCs into following them around, after which they can be called on in battle to use some kind of attack. This is highly amusing to see in practice, getting the town's innkeeper or whoever to follow you around and then attack monsters in combat. Tressa and Therion can pick up additional items from NPCs via either Purchasing them or Stealing them, either paying gold for a guaranteed item or rolling the dice on the steal chance. There are some extremely strong weapons that can be picked up early in the game if you're willing to savescum a bunch of times at 3% steal odds. Finally, my favorite path action comes from Olberic and H'aanit, each of whom have the ability to fight NPCs. Yes, you can attack basically ANYONE in this game and force them into a duel, knocking them out afterwards on victory. The developers specifically block the path into some hidden rooms with strong townsfolk that have to be challenged and defeated, and even when it doesn't yield anything useful, pounding the living daylights out of an elderly man who's done nothing wrong is endlessly entertaining. Some of the NPCs clearly don't want to take part in combat and call you out as some kind of psychopath in their brief dialogue before the fight begins. This is something along the lines of "Final Fantasy meets Grand Theft Auto" and it delighted me more than it should have.
Anyway, while it's slightly disappointing that there are only four true path actions, each of them taking two different forms, the amount of programming that went into them was enormous. There are hundreds upon hundreds of different NPCs scattered across the 24 towns in Orsterra, and every single one of them has to have four different path actions to interact with. They all have unique background descriptions from being Scrutinized/Inquired, they all have different items to be Purchased/Stolen, they all have different in-battle actions when Guided/Allured, and they all need to have AI scripting for a round of combat when Olberic or H'aanit decide to Challenge/Provoke them. Yes, there's some duplication to these systems, but the amount of effort required to make them function is still very impressive. Or maybe I just had way too much fun clobbering random townies across the continent, I dunno.
In addition to their out-of-combat path actions, each character also has a secondary ability named a Talent that can be used in battle, and these are in fact fully unique and not shared with anyone else. Some of these are more useful than others, especially Alfyn's Concoct that basically duplicates the Chemist's Mix ability from Final Fantasy 5 (if not as crazily overpowered). Others are more in the "nice to have" category, like Cyrus and his Study Foe talent that reveals one enemy weakness at the start of each fight, or Tressa's Eye for Money that causes her to randomly find currency lying around. H'aanit has the most unique ability in the form of Capture, which allows her to become a Pokemon trainer by capturing and releasing monsters in battle. It requires a lot of setup in advance but can be very strong when prepped with the right enemies. The respective talents of the characters help to flesh them out a bit and make them more distinctive. Talents are one thing that can't be swapped between characters at any point in time and they look to be worth exploring in more detail in variants.
Each one of the characters also embodies one of eight jobs, and it's in this respect that Octopath Traveler is most similar to past JRPGs. These jobs will be familiar to past fans of Square Enix games, with names like Warrior and Thief and Hunter showing up, and each comes with inherent stat boosts, weapon types, and learnable skills. Each job starts out with two skills unlocked and can learn up to five more skills along the way, followed by an eighth "Divine Skill" that only unlocks after all of the others have been learned. Outside of the final Divine Skill, the skills for each job can be unlocked in any order and this is one of the best aspects of the Octopath Traveler gameplay. The cost of the skills in each job goes up in exponential fashion (required job points: 30 JP, 100 JP, 500 JP, 1000 JP, 3000 JP, then 5000 JP for the Divine Skill) so it really matters quite a bit which ones the player chooses to unlock and in what order. The Divine Skills that unlock upon mastering a job can break the gameplay in various different ways and are highly useful in taking down some of the difficult lategame bosses. With each job having its own roster of skills, there's a lot of content to be explored.
As characters unlock their active skills in a job, they also start picking up various passive job skills as well. There are four passive skills for each job, and these passive skills unlock after learning four, five, six, and seven active skills respectively. There's never a need to grab the expensive Divine Skill to unlock all of the passives for a job, although I kind of wish that there was a fifth and final passive skill for mastering a job completely. The passive skills are a highly interesting bunch, with everything from basic stat boosts to status protections to things like allowing characters to exceed the 9999 damage cap. Passive skills can be mixed and matched throughout the game, with a hard limit of only four equippable per character at any point point in time.
Like most other games with a job system, Octopath Traveler allows characters to change their jobs and start learning skills from other jobs. This requires finding shrines hidden across the landscape in the second ring of cities, with eight shrines for each of the main jobs and four additional endgame jobs that require defeating very difficult bosses to unlock. I was disappointed to find that there are only twelve total jobs in Octopath Traveler, and since four of them are hidden endgame content, for the vast majority of the game there really are only eight of them to work with. Furthermore, active skills can never be moved around between jobs, only passive skills, which means that the options for mixing and matching are significantly more limited than in something like Final Fantasy 5. Each character always has the skills of their basic job, and then they can effectively subclass a secondary job to go along with it. But that's it: characters can only change that subclassed job to something else, never dropping their starting job, and never having the active skills of more than two total jobs (basic and subclassed) at a time. For all of the great stuff in Octopath Traveler, this is a real weakness in the gameplay. It seems like it would have been pretty easy to have a few more jobs and to allow more combining of skills before different classes. I'm hoping that the sequel in production right now does more to develop these ideas further.
Let's look next at how these jobs function in terms of combat.
Battles in this game are based around a system with twelve different types of damage. Each enemy starts the fight with a certain number of "shields", which are easily visible on the battle screen. The goal of combat is to "break" the enemy by removing all of these shields, leaving them in a defenseless state where they take double damage. A broken enemy loses all remaining actions on the turn in which they are broken, plus all actions in the following turn, and battles largely revolve around setting up situations where the enemies are first broken and then hit with various flashy attacks while they are stumbling around dazed. The next question then becomes how to break those shields, and this is where the twelve different types of damage come in. Every single enemy in the game has a weakness to at least one type of damage, and typically more like two to three damage types. Hitting an opponent with that type of damage destroys a shield; remove all shields to break them completely. There are six physical damage types (swords, spears, daggers, axes, bows, and staffs) and six elemental damage types (fire, ice, lightning, wind, light, dark) that together make up a full dozen. Monster weaknesses will show up with a question mark at the start of combat and have to be revealed through trial and error, filling in the associated symbol of that damage type once revealed. The twelve damage types always appear in the same order that I listed them above, and learning the order in which they are listed can be very helpful in terms of figuring out what's missing. For example, if the second weakness is listed as spears, the missing first weakness has to be swords because nothing else can ever be listed to the left of spears. Determining the weakness of each opponent is a large part of the fun in battles.
The other major element to the Octopath Traveler combat system is the presence of the boost system. Your characters always start each battle with one boost point (BP) and gain another point at the start of each new round of combat. Characters can invest up to three boost points to make a particular attack stronger, and the special Divine Skills can only be used with an investment of the maximum 3 BP. Boosting an attack is generally like making an additional attack of the same kind, with the maximum three boost points typically doing about 4x normal damage. (The amount of extra damage from boosting actually varies by the skill involved but 4x damage for 3 BP spent is a good approximation.) Almost every action in the game is boostable - literally everything you can think of aside from defending or using items. Boosting a default attack causes your character to make multiple swings with the selected weapon, and it can be highly useful to attack three or four times because each hit that lands will break a shield. Boosting attack skills will increase their damage, boosting healing skills will increase the amount healed, boosting status buffs and debuffs will increase the number of turns that they last, and even boosting something like H'aanit's monster capturing will increase the odds of a successful capture. You can boost anything and it will make the ability better. Be aware though that characters do not gain a boost point on the turn after spending BP, and there's a limit of holding 5 BP in reserve after which the meter can't go any higher. Thinking carefully about where and when to boost makes for interesting and fun decisions throughout combat.
There would be no gameplay without opponents, and Octopath Traveler has an extensive bestiary for players to test themselves against. There are several hundred different monsters in total, each with their own attacks and their own damage weaknesses, with the developers squeezing out some additional enemies by making minor graphical tweaks and numbering them. In other words, expect to see "Bandit I" and "Bandit II" and so on, each of which will have slightly different abilities and damage weaknesses. Octopath Traveler also has many, many bosses to contend with, 32 of them just for the main storyline and then another two dozen or so optional opponents and endgame superbosses. The artwork on these enemies is again made up of 2D pixels, but my goodness, these are some beautiful examples of pixel artwork! Bosses are particularly gigantic and fill up most of the screen to allow room for more details. The in-battle graphical effects for various skills are not done with pixel artwork, and instead look more like traditional graphical effects from a game published in 2018. Spells are appropriately flashy and fill up the screen with flames or dark energy or whatever, while monster attacks are correspondingly deadly-looking. I didn't find the enemies to be too difficult with my non-variant party, at least outside of the endgame superbosses, but keep in mind that I've been playing this type of game for decades. Your average player might have a rougher time because Octopath Traveler doesn't pull its punches. The bosses were appropriately challenging and some of the endgame stuff will really test players to see how well they've mastered the combat mechanics.
There are no barriers on the map to prevent the party from traveling around the world to each town (although some story-related sections are locked away until activated by the plot), only a little notification of the difficulty rating of each area before entering it. I was able to walk straight from an area with a difficulty rating of 7 into an optional side dungeon with a rating of 44, which immediately squashed my party with extreme prejudice. I love the fact that Octopath Traveler doesn't force the player into going anywhere in particular, and it's actually never required to pick up any of the other seven characters beyond your starting individual. (You do need to have them in your party to experience their storylines, so a solo game will still grab them and then haul around their corpses for the rest of the journey.) Now the plot within each chapter is indeed linear, painfully linear in fact, but Octopath Traveler allows the player to skip those chapters or experience them as desired. This is the most open-world JRPG experience that I can remember coming across, in a genre known mostly for its linearity.
One of the biggest criticisms of Octopath Traveler from reviewers was the fact that the stories of the eight main characters don't link together in any way. Ophilia's conclusion to her Chapter 4 storyline has nothing to do with Primrose's conclusion to her Chapter 4 storyline, and so on. However, this is actually not the case at all; the hidden endgame content finally pulls back the curtain and reveals what's been going on the whole time, and it turns out that all eight storylines are part of a single unified whole. So while this reviewer criticism is partly unfounded, I do share their sentiments in questioning why this highly revelant plot information is secreted away in a place where most players will never see it. Why are players forced to solve a series of not-at-all-straightforward side quests to unlock the final area of the game where all of the big secrets are revealed? That should be the culminating part of the story, not a hidden side mission! It's baffling to me why the developers decided to set things up this way. The true ending to the game was far more satisfying than the individual character stories, many of which finished on an ambiguous note. It's like the developers wrote a novel and then hid the conclusion from the readers - what were they thinking?!
That gripe aside, it should be obvious from the tone of this review that I had a very positive experience with Octopath Traveler. The art style of the game looks amazing, exploration is lots of fun, the character building has some depth to it, and the battle system is unique enough that it kept my interest over the course of Livestreaming the game in bits and pieces over four months of real world time. While I wouldn't put Octopath Traveler on the same level as the best Square Enix games from the 1990s, it's still an excellent game in its own right and a great title for those who miss the gameplay from some of those classic titles. If you grew up playing Secret of Mana or Final Fantasy 3/6, you're definitely going to like this game and it's worth a purchase. For those who are a bit younger and more used to games from the current generation, this would be a more cautious recommendation. Check out some footage of someone playing the game on YouTube or Livestream and see if it's something that looks entertaining. There's a lot to like here but Octopath Traveler isn't for everyone.
One final important point: Octopath Traveler is ripe for variants. Expect to see reports incoming on this website now that I've finished the main game and started digging into the mechanics. This should be fun.