“What does it mean to play a role? In a vast world of adventure. The places you go. The deeds you do. The heroes whose tales you bring to life. Every road is yours to take. Embark on an adventure, all your own.”
When Project Octopath Traveler was first shown at the Nintendo Switch Presentation 2017, the role-playing game’s reveal had left us with more questions than answers. We wouldn’t have the chance to learn more about it until Tokyo Game Show 2017, but, until that point in time, it was the striking visual direction that had left genre devotees wide-eyed with wonder about what was next from the team behind Bravely Default: Flying Fairy.
It’s right that we should first marvel at Square Enix and Acquire’s technical wizardry in choosing to use Unreal Engine 4 to create what they, somewhat playfully, call HD-2D. This term has been penned to sum up the glorious sprite-work that can freely move around 3D environments which are further brought to life with smoke effects and other visual trickery. It reflects on golden days gone past but has been resolutely built to more modern standards – even if the relentless blurring in the background can detract. But, there’s far more reason to be excited about this latest Nintendo Switch exclusive thanks to the bold design decisions that have been made, even if some of these choices don’t quite deliver.
With eight characters that each have their own path to tread, the non-linearity to your adventure in the world of Orsterra can be seen as both a blessing and a muddled curse. Octopath Traveler bucks the trend to present you with plentiful choice. You will choose which protagonist you would like to start with – the most important decision that you will have to make relating to the game’s diverse ensemble, seeing as you will be unable to swap them out from the four-strong party that you will eventually command.
It can be seen early on that this freedom in choice is key to the experience, the developer leaving the player to choose which cities to set out for and which characters they want to recruit to their party first. Every character has their own brief backstory to witness for you to learn more about them before they join your merry band and set out on a journey to achieve their goal with everyone’s collective help. As with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, as unlikely a comparison as it may be, everyone will have their own stories to tell about who they chose first, where they went next and which characters they kept in their core party.
I chose Ophilia to start, a cleric that hails from the snowswept Frostlands where she dutifully serves the Order of the Flame. But when the archbishop, her adoptive father, falls ill, she chooses to take the place of her step-sister to set out on a perilous pilgrimage to complete the Kindling – a holy rite that must be carried out every 20 years. Ophilia’s tale is heartfelt and her journey arduous, and, while some characters have more lighthearted stories wrapped around their adventures – Tressa living out her dream as a travelling merchant or the apothecary Alfyn wanting to heal the world – the writers have not shied away from handling far darker and more hard-hitting themes.
Whether it be from playing the first Project Octopath Traveler Demo Version or the opening three hours in the Octopath Traveler Prologue Demo that lets you carry your save over to the full game, many will already be familiar with dancer Primrose and her vengeful quest to hunt down the three men bearing the mark of the crow that murdered her father. Cyrus searches for “From the Far Reaches of Hell,” a book stolen from the Royal Library that is believed to have ties to necromancy, Olberic hunts down the man responsible for slaying the king in a bloody coup, H’aanit must check on her master’s whereabouts and Therion must retrieve three dragonstones to remove a mark of shame.
You needn’t fret about missing anything, at least, seeing as you can experience every character’s story in a single playthrough. The separate chapters to each character’s story come with a Recommended Level, which, in terms of briefly explaining how you will tackle the game in entirety, will see you complete the first chapters before moving on to the second and so on. In many ways, this encouragement to explore every character’s story is understandable – especially as it’s something that will drive your time with the game while breaking it down into manageable chunks. But, despite recaps about what’s come before whenever you start the next chapter, it can also lead to the experience feeling largely disjointed.
If a particular character’s story fascinates you in Octopath Traveler, it feels unnatural to be unable to choose to focus on seeing it through to its conclusion. It’s like being sat with eight books and reading a chapter in one before forced to switch to another. This narrative structure is clearly experimental in approach but soon runs aground in other ways, too. Not only does it frequently lean on a need to grind seeing as inactive party members do not gain experience (leaving them worryingly under-levelled), but characters are completely absent in the cutscenes for each other’s stories. This betrays the camaraderie in grouping them together in the first place, with their interactions reduced to short, optional Travel Banter scenes that, while packed with witty remarks, fail to make up for it.
It’s an undoubted shame that Octopath Traveler jars in such a way, especially considering the individual tales that it has to tell often left me spellbound when I eventually got to see them unfold. Thankfully, it makes up for it in other areas, namely in learning the many gameplay mechanics that underpin the experience. As you journey outside of the small towns that let you heal up at inns, restock supplies and buy mightier weapons or armour, you will be hampered by random encounters in which you must pulverise your enemies in turn-based battles.
These inevitably call on your tactical ingenuity, but, breaking them down to their basic concept, are based on considering turn order, how to inflict Break on your enemies and how to then effectively use Boost Points to maximise the damage that your party can deal. The turn order, which shows the current and next turn at the top of the screen, is easy enough to understand, letting you work out how to chain your party’s actions and when to choose to defend. That’s important when your constant strategy is to exploit an enemy’s several weaknesses whenever possible, whether that be to specific weapons or magical elements.
It takes time to work out what these vulnerabilities are, and many will soon value having Cyrus in their party – who can not only reveal a single weakness for each enemy type as soon as the battle starts, but can use his turn to cast Analyse to unearth more as needed. Once these weaknesses are exposed, your challenge shifts to inflicting Break – a status that, if timed correctly, can leave your enemies stunned for two turns. The shield icon next to your enemies shows how many times you must exploit their weaknesses before Break is inflicted, which soon proves to be the most important thing to keep in mind. Once your enemies are in a weakened state, you will then want to use your Boost Points, accumulated each turn, to strengthen your attacks and spells, whether that be to call down cataclysmic thunder or seize a chance to heal your party.
I really can’t understate how phenomenal the battle system is, something that becomes all the more apparent when you eventually come face-to-face with the many bosses in Octopath Traveler. While dungeons, from ornately decorated mansions to unsettling forests, are labyrinthine but short, the fearsome bosses that await you are the toughest adversaries that you will face. These leave the developer with the chance to challenge you even more, whether that be introducing guards that must be defeated before a boss’s weaknesses can be exploited or a feral beast that will take longer to Break as the fight drags on. Even the soundest strategies can result in your party being wiped, and with such encounters lasting as long as 20 to 30 minutes in places, failure can risk frustration creeping in when you are denied the elation of bringing them to their knees. These boss battles are easily Octopath Traveler when it is at its best, demonstrating the intricacy of the game’s mechanics.
There’s much more to talk about: the buffs, debuffs and status conditions that are thrown in; Job Points that you earn in battle letting you unlock Skills and, in turn, far more beneficial passive Support Skills; and Secondary Jobs, unlocked once you stumble on their Shrines that are hidden in the world, that open up the potential for new strategies. It is undeniable that there is tremendous depth to the systems that whir beneath Octopath Traveler’s surface, leaving immeasurable room to work out how to approach the game in your own way.
When you aren’t treading the storyline you are free to explore the world, completing side quests that, admittedly, could use a few pointers to nudge you in the right direction, that can put Path Actions to use. For example, that can see you use Ophilia’s Guide to escort a lost grandfather back to his grandson, Tressa can randomly uncover money as you move between locations whereas Therion can unlock special purple treasure chests. Path Actions add more gameplay mechanics to the pile, and, just like the rest, will widen your options.
With eight characters and eight stories to be told, your adventure across the wondrous world of Osterra is breathtaking. Octopath Traveler is more uneven a journey than I had hoped it would be, but, accompanied with a mesmerising soundtrack from composer Yasunori Nishiki, it manages to rally itself together to readily enchant like no other. It is how traditional RPG elements are blended with new ideas that allow the concoction to result in something special, even if the approach to the story structure proves an Achilles’ heel to the experience.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Nintendo