Octopath Traveller: artistically stunning, narratively lacklustre.

Square Enix have been absolutely knocking it out of the park these last couple of years, churning out top quality titles – Dragon Quest XI, the Final Fantasy remakes, Nier:Automata, etc – like it’s going out of style. So when Octopath Traveller hit the scene in 2018, Square Enix’s new JRPG with a swanky multi-narrative premise, it was at the top of my to-play list for when I finally purchased a Nintendo Switch.

If there’s one inalienable truth in this world, it’s that everybody loves a multi-narrative RPG. After receiving such incredible reviews on Steam and Metacritic, my expectations for Octopath Traveller were sky high. A new JRPG that isn’t Dragon’s Quest, Final Fantasy or Persona? And a multi-narrative no less? Sign me the hell up.

I paid full-price for this baby – and I never pay full price for videogames, ever – especially so I could christen my brand new Switch with it. And now, almost 40 hours later, was it worth it?

Well…

Kinda.


Unique and beautiful graphical style

A whimsical fantasy world

To kick things off, let me start by saying that Octopath Traveller might be the most visually appealing JRPG I’ve ever played. It has an interesting half-2D, half-3D pixelated style, where sprites are rendered in 2D but the background is rendered in 3D, a little bit like Paper Mario. With a soft colour palette, atmospheric lighting and a blur effect around the border of your screen (which I suspect was actually implemented to improve the game’s performance on less powerful platforms like the Switch), travelling across Osterra feels much like walking through a dream.


Truly gorgeous soundtrack

It seems only right that a game with such whimsical visage would come with a soothing soundtrack to truly complete the aesthetic. Octopath Traveller opts for smoother, minimalistic melodies that are much softer on the ear than the high-energy guitar riffs or epic orchestral themes that JRPGs usually favour. Each character, city and region gets it’s own personal theme, each as lovely as the next, giving them all their unique character. Cyrus’ theme, Primrose’s theme, Oasis in the Sparkling Sands and the Highlands are my favourite. Even if you don’t play the game, I’d still recommend giving the full soundtrack a listen.


Innovative armour and boost systems

Combat in JRPGs frequently comes across as a little bit dated and repetitive, but Octopath Traveller’s combat has been given a fresh new twist thanks to it’s unique “armour” system. In this system, enemies will have a certain number of armour points that can be whittled down by exploiting their specific weaknesses, eg. fire magic, dark magic, swords, spears etc. Each successful hit will reduce the enemy’s armour by 1. When the armour is fully depleted, the enemy will be “broken” – it will be unable to attack until the next turn, and it will be left vulnerable to your attacks.

This adds a completely new layer of strategy to the turn-based combat; not only do you have to learn what an enemy’s weaknesses are, you also have to make sure your party is balanced so that you are ready to exploit as many potential weaknesses as possible. Breaking an enemy also interrupts any special attacks or charged attacks which means knowing how and when to break stronger enemies is a crucial part of your strategy.

Octopath Traveller also features a “boost” system. Each party member will earn one “boost point” per turn, which can then be used to power up your attacks. Boosting spells and abilities increases their power, whilst boosting regular attacks means you can hit multiple times in one turn. Knowing when to spend and when to save your boost points adds yet another layer of strategy to the combat.

With the “boost” system and “armour” system combined, Octopath Traveller’s combat feels far more versatile and engaging than other JRPGs, where winning is just a matter of picking your characters strongest attack and spamming it until the enemy dies. This simple but unique combat system was the first thing that really grabbed my attention during my playthrough. It’s great to see some innovation and creativity in the turn-based model.


Each class is uniquely useful – and you can mix-n-match!

Each character has unique abilities, both in and out of combat

At first glance, Octopath Traveller’s classes seem painfully standard – warrior, cleric, hunter, thief, etc. How unimaginative, I thought. However, in practice, each class is actually extremely well balanced, each with its own distinct strengths and weaknesses – which is quite a feat for a game with eight separate classes to design. Usually in RPGs with a wide variety of characters to choose from, some characters end up getting left in the dust because their class is unbalanced, or boring, or you don’t find them as useful as your other characters. You can’t afford to do that in Octopath Traveller, because every single class has a unique speciality that will sooner or later prove absolutely vital to your progression through the game.

But the most innovative feature of Octopath Traveller’s class system is the ability to assign each character a “secondary job” (or a sub-class, if you will.) This allows you a tonne of freedom to customise your characters, to diversify their skills or specialise them to fulfil an extremely particular function in your party. For example, you could mix your warrior character with the cleric sub-class to transform him into a paladin, with strong physical attacks mixed with healing abilities. Or you could mix your dancer with the scholar sub-class to create a dark-mage class, with elemental and shadow magic abilities. Or you could mix your apothecary with the warrior sub-class to create the ultimate tank/healer. The possibilities are (almost) endless; you can combine any two classes to make a totally unique class to suit your needs. I really dig this mechanic and it’s one of the game’s most well-implemented, stand-out features.


Levelling Part One — Random spikes in level necessitate grinding.

Octopath Traveller’s story seems to be constructed in a way that not just encourages, but flat out requires, players to spend time grinding. “The grind” is a frustratingly common feature of JRPGs (despite the fact that I have never met a single person who enjoyed the process of grinding) that exists as nothing but a cheap tactic to give the illusion of extra content; Octopath Traveller is no exception.

There were points in the story where there were be four levels difference between the average level of my party, and the next lowest-levelled chapter. I had no choice but to fill those gaps by grinding. I never fled from encounters, and I even turned off my characters special skill that reduced the likelihood of encounters, specifically so the levelling experience would be as smooth as possible – but it still felt like the game was constantly outpacing me. I could never move from one chapter onto the next without needing to stop and grind enemies first.

To make matters worse, because there are eight characters to level instead of the standard four, grinding through those level-gaps takes easily twice as long as you’d expect, because there are twice as many characters to level up separately (more on that later.)

I’ve nothing but praise for Octopath’s great combat system, but good combat will only carry a game so far – once the novelty of the armour system wears off at about a third of the way through the game, the need to grind levels becomes a major annoyance.


Levelling Part Two — Why the need for a protagonist?

Octopath Traveller is a multi-narrative game, but strangely, it still feels the need to have players choose one of the eight rostered characters as a “protagonist” at the start of the game. Aside from the fact that having a single protagonist in a multi-narrative game makes absolutely no sense and misses the point of the multi-narrative style completely, the only thing that distinguishes the protagonist from the non-protagonists is that they cannot be switched out of the party. This means that you can only choose three companions to take with you at any point.

But wait, there’s a problem here. There are three spaces in the party, but there are seven companions. The maths just doesn’t add up. One party member is always going to be left out and under levelled.

Why couldn’t the developers let us split the roster of eight down the middle and level them as two parties of four? Because of the protagonist, that’s why – a poorly thought-out feature that adds absolutely nothing to the story and leaves your party completely lop-sided, with one ridiculously over-levelled protagonist and an odd number of companions that are impossible to balance.


Octopath Traveller misses the point of the multi-narrative style

The reason multi-narrative stories are so captivating is that they allow the player to experience the same overarching narrative from a variety of perspectives. Each character will interpret the same events in completely different ways, allowing for a more complex, multi-faceted tale to be told. This is the magic of multi-narrative; it speaks to the human experience, the complexity of the real world, and the importance of perspective.

So you can imagine how surprised I was to find out that none of Octopath Traveller’s eight narrative arcs overlap at any point. There’s no overarching plot, there’s no deeper connections – it’s just eight separate individuals going on eight separate journeys that have nothing to do with one another.

Each character seems to exist in their own private world

Apart from the occasional bit of travel banter, the group barely interact with one another at all, or even acknowledge each others’ presence. They don’t appear in each others cutscenes, they don’t assist each other outside of combat, they barely even talk to one another. It’s unclear why the group are even travelling together in the first place, given that they have nothing in common and no reason to be involved with one another.

Yes, I completely understand that this is because the game is designed to be non-linear, meaning you can choose to meet party members and play through their stories in whichever order you choose; it would be impossible to programme cutscenes for every possible play-through. But for me, all this proves is that the non-linear style does not work well with multi-narrative stories. I think multi-narratives rely on a certain amount of structure, to facilitate more scripted events where players can see characters interacting.

Octopath Traveller could have told a much more ambitious, effective story if they had an overarching narrative to act as the glue that binds the characters and themes together. Instead, they chose to tell eight shorter stand-alone stories, none of which were quite interesting enough on their own to keep my attention for the full 60 hours I needed to finish the game. Chopping up and portioning out each character’s story made for a disjointed and lacklustre narrative experience, which is the last thing I expect from a JRPG where grand and exciting story-telling is a pillar of the genre.


Videogames Make Me Happy concludes… that this is not the way to make a multi-narrative.

Never has a game been so deserving of the title “mixed bag” than Octopath Traveller, a game with flawless presentation and number of clever twists on the classic JRPG formula, but with a poorly-optimised levelling experience and disappointing storytelling that never gets off the ground.

Playing through Octopath Traveller felt, at times, like opening a beautifully wrapped gift at Christmas only to find a voucher inside for a store you don’t even shop at. Why put so much care and attention into the packaging, if the contents would end up being so underwhelming?

That’s not to say that there’s nothing to recommend in Octopath Traveller’s core gameplay. The combat is truly excellent – it had to be, otherwise I wouldn’t have survived the hours of grinding I was required to do in order to progress. The class system is very creative and great fun to mess around with. There’s very little wrong with the game mechanically. It’s in the half-baked, unsatisfying multi-narrative that Octopath Traveller’s most surprising weakness lies. When I play a multi-narrative RPG, I do not expect the story-telling, of all things, to be it’s most undercooked feature.

Unfortunately, Octopath Traveller not as polished or finely-crafted as the graphics and soundtrack would have you believe, as exquisite as they are. 60 hours is far too much time to spend working through a story which completely failed to grab me, hence why I gave up at the 40 hours mark, when the narrative payoffs became too hard-won and infrequent to justify carrying on.

All of that said, I can still recommend the game to fans of JRPGs, particular ones who’re partial to a bit ‘o grind every now and then, if for no other reason than to sample it’s delectable art-style and creative combat. But, for me at least, Octopath Traveller fails in it’s name-sake premise – it fails as a multi-narrative.

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