Octopath Traveler: A Flawed but Enjoyable Retro JRPG

Given the current state of the world, global pandemic and all, playing a long immersive video game seems like the perfect way to spend time. I recently finished the main quest for Octopath Traveler for Nintendo Switch, which took me about 60 hours to complete and, while I did enjoy it a lot, I have very mixed feelings about it. Although it possesses a very rewarding and addictive battle system coupled with gorgeous art and music, the story structure and a huge difficulty spike at the end make it hard to recommend, especially for the non-experienced in the genre.

The main appeal of the game is its retro presentation reminiscent of JRPGs of the 90’s. The sprites, music, gameplay, and overall feel of the game hits hard on the nostalgia if you’ve come across the classic SNES JRPGs like Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger. Having delved into this genre, especially when I was younger, I felt right at home with Octopath.

I’m drooling with this screencap.

The Good

Octopath Traveler is a fun game, plain and simple. The battle system is genius, with just the right balance of simplicity and complexity to be enjoyable even during regular enemy battles. Finding and exploiting weaknesses keeps you engaged with constant decision making, you cannot just spam the attack command and expect to win. The eight playable characters possess unique abilities, in and out of combat, and eventually you get a simple job system (think Final Fantasy V or Bravely Default) that allows customization for creative party setups and strategies.

During the main campaign the difficulty can be quite challenging, but not unfair. I didn’t feel the need to grind (although it is required for post-game) to be able to advance, but rather just change up my party, jobs, and skills. You are mostly free to go wherever you want and tackle whichever available chapters you wish in an open-world like experience. Later areas are gated by high difficulty, though, but the sense of freedom is nice to have.

The fully orchestrated music is outstanding. I will not go into technical details because other people have analyzed and clearly explained how it evokes classic RPG music while updating it for modern times. It suffices to say that it’s beautiful; the town and overworld themes (like Among Stately Peaks) are atmospheric and classy while battle themes (like Battle II) are catchy, epic, and full of energy to keep you pumped during the fight. It is so good it has become one of my favorite OSTs in recent memory.

Sound design is also remarkable. Listening to the crunch when breaking enemies’ shields or the exploding ice crystals of scholar magic never got old and gave me a steady dopamine rush that is hard to describe in words. You know a lot of care was put into the sound effects when the coin sounds when buying equipment at the shops feels so, so satisfying.

The art of the game, probably the game’s most distinguishable feature, is stunning (except for maybe the overuse of lighting effects). The spritework channels old school charm with a few special effects added to enhance and modernize the look, the extremely detailed boss sprites are particularly impressive. Gorgeous character portraits and the ending illustrations are small bonuses that are a treat to see.

Seriously, this should be in a museum.

As for the eight main characters alluded to in the title, I found all of them to be very charming and cute. They are very tropey, not overly complex, but their fun, distinct personalities make up for it. I set the audio to Japanese and the voice acting was enjoyable enough, especially during battles when they shout out their attacks or scream when getting hurt.

The Bad

So Octopath Traveler has a lot of things going on for it, but unfortunately the enjoyment is brought down by some clunky or plain bad design choices. This is all my opinion of course, but I’ll try to explain it the best I can.

Great, another unmemorable cave.

The (J)RPG genre has two main draws, gameplay and story. I’ve already stated how much I liked the battle system itself, but I cannot say the same for the story. As the title suggests, there are eight protagonists on their own journeys. Each one has to go through four chapters that encompass their adventures through the medieval-like continent of Orsterra, with their own background, motivations and supporting cast. This all sounds very interesting on paper but the main issue is that the eight paths never intersect, even when some events occur in the same towns. Sometimes a character states out their first impressions of a town even when they’ve already been there.

The eight characters do travel together, but their stories might as well occur in parallel universes. During the regular campaign (I know about the final dungeon, I’ll get to that) there is no overarching plot or event that makes it logical for these people to stick together on an adventure. There is a huge disconnect between each protagonist travelling with other three people but when story events happen they all conveniently disappear. I understand it is game logic, but I’m sure there are more effective ways to incorporate the whole party organically into each other’s events. The occasional (optional) group banter is amusing but doesn’t have a real impact on character development. There are some genuinely touching scenarios, like Tressa’s last chapter, and interesting moral dilemmas, like Alfyn healing a murderer or Primrose’s thirst for revenge, but it is not enough to be fully engaged with these people. It doesn’t help that the chapter structure is very flawed from a pacing perspective.

From the very beginning you can select whichever character’s Chapter 1 to tackle, and after completing their scenario the next one opens up, locked behind greater difficulty. The suggested way of playing is finishing everyone’s Chapter 1, then all Chapter 2’s, and so on, but since the stories are not intertwined, whatever story advancement is next for the current character will have to wait a few hours before resuming. Any momentum a story comes to a halt when you switch to another protagonist’s story, some of which might not be that interesting honestly (Ophelia’s second chapter is pure filler). In the end you have watched eight discrete stories unfold, but fed to you very slowly in small doses.

This game is also guilty of being extremely repetitive. Every chapter follows the same formula: you arrive at a town where your character needs to use their unique ability to find someone related to their story, after a few cutscenes you travel to a generic dungeon (seriously, the amount of events that happen inside bland caves is ridiculous) where you fight a boss, and finally return to the town to close the chapter with a few more conversations with a side character. Rinse and repeat 31 fucking times. If the battles weren’t so fun I wouldn’t have endured through half of the chapters. It does not help at all that dungeons have no personality whatsoever, with no clever puzzles or minigames or anything to spice things up, it is always a straightforward point A to point B with a few branching corridors with a treasure chest at the end.

Hope you love grinding if you want to see this.

And finally, that freaking final dungeon. After completing everyone’s Chapter 4, it turns out everything was indeed connected, you just don’t find out until after the credits roll. To understand more about Orsterra’s lore and the plot that links every character’s journey together you have to get to a secret final dungeon, accessible after doing a very obscure and kind of random sidequest. You fast travel to some old ruins in what seems like a cheap last moment addition. After a savepoint at the entrance, you have to battle again a buffed up version of the eight personal final bosses. There is no going back and no way to save, so you have to go through all the enemies in what could take more than half an hour to be able to face the true final boss. For the first and only time in the whole game, you are asked to form two parties which will face off against two separate, exceedingly difficult final boss battles. All the previous enemies you fought are nothing in comparison. The normal pace of the game makes it so you have underleveled characters, so you will be forced to grind to get them to an acceptable level, and still if you lose you will waste more time when you want a rematch.

I was unprepared and caught off-guard by this last boss, and the game makes it frustratingly punishing and time-consuming to have a rematch so I have no interest in attempting it again. This feels like such a slap in the face; respect my time, Octopath Traveler! And so my final impression of the game is tainted by this situation. Super difficult bosses are a staple of JRPGs but they are generally not integral to the main plot, but rather an extra diversion for those looking for an extra challenge. The last bit of plot should not have been locked behind this travesty. Luckily, Youtube saved me some very precious hours.

The Veredict

I don’t regret my time spent with the game; the art, music and gameplay are consistently good throughout. If you’re looking for a nostalgia-inducing sprite-based JRPG that will hook you for long hours, Octopath is fine. I just wish more was put into creating a good plot and more varied scenarios during story progression. The real final boss not locked behind hours of grinding would be nice too. The groundwork has been laid for something very special, an improved sequel has the potential to be a truly great game, or maybe they could reuse the engine for a remake of some SNES games if they don’t want to spend a FFVII Remake budget on it. If that doesn’t happen at least we got a stellar soundtrack.

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