A Brief Review of Octopath Traveler
Disclaimer: As of the publishing of this review, I’ve played Octopath Traveler for ~50 hours and have completed twenty of the thirty-two chapters it contains.
The Japanese role-playing game constitutes a central building block in the evolution of videogame design: their cultural prime most influential when home gaming consoles were first finding their foothold in American homes. The dynamics of play afforded by the genre arise from engaging with deep and numerous systems of rules alongside the marrying of long-winded story-lines with turn-based gameplay. This lineage houses Octopath Traveler, and, like any JRPG styling itself as a descendant of the classics, its success lies in how it both honors and reinvents its pedigree.
Achievement it has found. Octopath Traveler dissolves the player into its experience by virtue of its striking art, possessing battle systems, magnificent score, and the large playground given to imagination through its storytelling. It is a remarkable example of the enduring JRPG tradition.
A single screenshot is all that’s necessary to convey the unmistakable art direction of Octopath Traveler. It’s exclusive vision is constructed through 3D environments combined with 2D character sprites, all rendered in richly-detailed pixel art. A low-flying camera places the player intimately in the world and gives the impression that the entire tale is watched through a peephole in a diorama. Enhancing the scenes again are camera effects like added depth-of-field and twinkling lens glare, as well as impressive volumetric lighting that casts dynamic shadows.
This presentation creates the tether between the game and the player, offering a smooth transition from our surroundings and into the adventure. The insane detail of the pixel art serves to draw the eye into the screen, and the wonderfully rendered materials, monsters, and characters stand at the forefront of commanding the player’s attention.
Overlaying the visuals is a full orchestral score of such quality that the only way it could find more praise was if it accompanied a first-party Nintendo adventure. Spotlighted in the full composition are wind instruments, string sections, piano, nylon-stringed guitars, and large drums. Different arrangements across over an hour of music pair with geographic locations and dramatic timing, intensifying a sense of place that adroitly encompasses the player.
The written dialogue of the player-characters and NPCs distinguish regions and provinces further. The use of italics, apostrophes, word choice, and sentence structure creates a tapestry of regional personality while defining Octopath Traveler’s overall style of fantasy. Written accents range from Gaelic to Germanic, changing again if spoken from a peasant or a lord, and speech at times feels Shakespearean and at others in the mode of A Song of Ice and Fire. It is the remarkable work of the localization teams that expertly keeps players submerged in its vibrant land, though it is easy to imagine some players would find it a turn off.
The careful words occupying Octopath Traveler’s dialogue boxes deliver much of the storytelling across the eight quests associated with the eight playable characters. The writing team avoids the impossible task of fleshing out lines for every hypothetical character combination and chapter context offered by the open story structure, and instead keep story beats focused to one protagonist at a time. Additionally, plot lines remain fairly local and honest when compared to the mythic proportions typical of JRPGs, allowing each fable to cleanly avoid melodramatic magnitude.
This decision keeps player choice robust and heightens narrative play to prolific levels. Tackling storylines in Octopath Traveler is akin to a comic book enthusiast deciding which issue to read next across multiple series. The content may be linear and rigid, but actions between narrative progression provide a playground for imagination. What is left open by the writers is back filled by the captivated player’s own inspiration. Party composition and ordering, job roles, and the reason to pursue this chapter over the next allow personal meaning to flourish as player’s envision a narrative of their own making. Over the course of your travels the 2D sprite you met at the beginning will have become a grown character in the end.
Beyond the text itself, the voice actors behind our eight protagonists and those they interact with contribute life to the narrative. Performances land in the skill-range of a senior college theater troupe, with stand out performances and plain delivery side by side. Even though the English cast renders the eight central characters with broad range, the Japanese counterpart more consistently builds emotional resonance. Both, however, contribute greatly to Octopath Traveler’s narrative immersion and enhance the connection with the protagonists.
Yet, outside the safe walls of town where the story unfolds, a different drama engrosses the mind. For all it accomplishes in its narrative execution, Octopath Traveler equals in its strategic combat systems and perfectly balanced progression.
An expansive range of tactical options available in battle are put into tension as players evaluate enemy weaknesses against the timeline of actions to come. Revealing the enemy AI’s moves grants a high degree of anticipation and planning, allowing players to make weighted decisions on how best to break the opponent’s guard for critical damage or brace for a long fight. Battle points accrue every turn and increase basic attacks, unlock devastating skills, or extend the duration of passive buffs when spent. All these aspects often crescendo into a moment where battle points and divine skills are unleashed in a single, board-clearing turn, delivering a heightened sense of satisfaction.
It is here that the wheels of progression begin to turn. The experience and job points rewarded are a primary factor in your party’s strength, but currency quickly becomes most coveted as gear sits at a high cost and boosts stats the most. The deliberate constriction on currency thereby forces the player to make interesting choices when purchasing and also ensures that the inventory never becomes oversaturated with healing items, which fortifies the overall difficulty.
Still, Octopath Traveler’s biggest strategic triumph comes in the form of the secondary classes scattered throughout the overworld. Once equipped to any character, an entire new skill list becomes available, giving the player an exhaustive amount of tactical approaches and party builds. While Cyrus began as my supplemental damage dealer, his added merchant class brought in extra income from stripping bosses of their cash. With the full expanse of class, skill, and gear combinations in play, creating your team can feel as deep and rewarding as deck-building in a competitive card game.
At this point, it goes without saying that Octopath Traveler is an extraordinary videogame. A natural tempo develops between battling, progressing story, exploring, and plotting your course. Whether a session lasted from one to eight hours, my occupation with the aforementioned modes of play remained equal. However, having the opportunity to be inside the game for those longer chunks exemplifies the steady rhythm offered by this game.
The adventure holds something like forty bosses, over five biomes for road stages, twenty hand-crafted towns and town battle stages, mansion and interior battle stages, optional end-game caves, a mountain of enemy designs that change with increasing power, scores of animated scenes, voice acted dialogue, and vocal barks for NPCs.
If that significant list of content gets your anxiety building, I understand. Yet we are saved again by slick UI which ensures players always have a map marker to work towards, know how to get there, and always understands which areas of the world they should stick to until stronger. It’s very friendly to new players.
When you take the reservoir of words necessary to briefly address all that Octopath Traveler offers and executes on, you understand the magnitude of its scope. The package is of such quality: no obvious bugs, menus are legible and quick, narrative play is open, gameplay is gratifying, a journal contains a complete summary of every previous story beat, and there’s not even a damn loading screen when switching between the voice casts.
But there is a flaw! I promise it’s not perfect. The exclusion of a compendium system, or a way to track how many of the game’s monsters you’d encounter, especially when a protagonist has the ability to capture creatures, is a massive blunder for the hardcore base. If anything I just want to stare at every sprite in the game and marvel at the pixel art. Oh, and a legend of status ailments I’ve encountered in the field would have been helpful.
In the end, Octopath Traveler is not only a ridiculous name for a videogame; it’s exceptional, and has solidified my recommendation for anyone looking to play a true JRPG of modern release. I feel grateful that it exists for us to play, and I am astonished by its ability to capture me from ordinary life.