Sometimes a development codename is good enough that it sticks, and this is true of Octopath Traveler. Coming from some of the minds behind the excellent Bravely Default and its sequel on Nintendo 3DS, it’s a JRPG that lets you follow eight distinct characters and their distinct stories in and across the continent of Orsterra, featuring a gorgeous HD-2D art style. It’s an intriguing setting and design choice, giving players the freedom to travel, recruit and follow each character as they see fit, but it’s also one that makes the game’s opening feel like you’re running in circles.
Each of the eight opening chapters has the potential to be the very first chapter that you play, and so it has to introduce you to the character, their situation, their unique abilities and ease you into the game’s combat. The second chapter for your first character is then marked on the other side of the world map, giving you the opportunity to meet and team up with some of the other characters along the way. Each time, you effectively see an opening to the game play out before you again, and having collected my first four characters, I was eager to move on with the second chapter of one of these stories. H’aanit and her tribe’s awfully localised “Ye Olde English” almost made me want to move on from the game altogether, throwing extra letters into words until they lost almost all meaning.
The problem there was that by the time I had my first full party of four characters I was only at level 13 and every second chapter on the map was well over level 20. Either I could grind random encounters and enter more dangerous areas to level up, or I could grind through the rest of the one note character introductions. I chose the latter, and I feel certain that a lot of other players will do the same, grinding through a tiresome opening 7-10 hours.
The saving grace through all of this is the game’s twist on turn based JRPG combat. Every enemy that you encounter has a number of weaknesses (which are initially a mystery) and layers of armour that can only be chipped away by exploiting them. Removing all of their armour leaves them stunned until the end of the next turn and boosts the amount of damage they’ll take in that time. You have the turn order displayed at the top of the screen, so ideally you want to break an enemy at the start of a turn to get as much damage time as possible.
However, timing this and building up your attacks is just as important. Each turn your characters earn a Boost Point (BP) up to a maximum of five, and can spend these to either unleash multiple standard attacks or augment skills to be more powerful or have longer lasting effects. You could spend BP to take off multiple layers of armour, save yourself from a tricky situation by boosting your healing abilities, poison an enemy for eight turns instead of two. It’s an excellent and engaging system, even when simply grinding for experience and Job Points (JP) to spend.
The boss battles stand out because of this, even when you feel like you have the measure of them. They consume half the screen compared to your party of tiny pixel art figures, and there’s always the feeling that they can spring a surprise or pull out a new attack. Their most powerful attacks are typically signposted a turn in advance, giving you an opportunity to try and stun them.
By the time I had assembled all eight characters, my lead was still only level 17. That’s despite your first character always having to be in your party. This in itself is a design choice that really hampers your possibilities with picking your party of four to tackle higher level areas, and can easily leave you regretting your first choice. Mine was Therion the Thief, who has effectively ended up being a tank and all purpose damage dealer for my group, but I was lucky in picking him and not Tressa the Merchant, whose weapons and skills offer far less flexibility with the rest of the party. As it is, I felt pigeonholed into having Ophelia and Cyrus in my party for their powerful healing and group damage spell casting.
Thankfully, the possibilities grow exponentially as you branch out from the centre of the map and head toward those second chapters, meaning you can save an initial choice you disliked. You can find the shrines for each of these eight jobs and unlock them to become a secondary job for your characters. This allowed me to broaden the weapons and types of damage that each of my party can output, and even though I’m largely sticking with a set group of four characters, I can take on most opponents.
There’s some really intriguing and powerful combinations to explore, especially as you unlock skills within a job, and that job’s support skills. Support skills can apply to the user, to the group, and even affect getting around the game world. A particularly useful one sees Cyrus’ Scholar job passively reducing the number of random encounters as you explore, for example, but Primrose’s Dancer job can earn a small amount of Skill Points (SP) at the end of each turn, making her an outstanding support character that can augment her allies with dancing and never run out of SP to spend on them. Combine the Dancer job with one that leans heavily on spending SP, and it can create some formidable combos.
While my party’s skills and abilities have come together nicely as I’ve explored the various stories, I don’t feel as though the characters have. The best way I can describe it is as if these are eight stories for secondary party characters. There’s the knight seeking redemption, the high-born exotic dancer seeking revenge, the merchant wanting adventure, and so on. There’s some good writing, but there’s no central crisis to unite them and so they come across as a motley crew of strangers who, for some weird reason, are journeying together. There are little moments of party banter that you can trigger in the middle of a character’s chapter, but I wish they’d perhaps taken a leaf out of Fire Emblem’s book and let me engage in these character moments of my own volition, possibly boosting some kind of link between the characters and some more meaningful bonds.
While I’m quite deep into several of these stories at this point, I’m not yet ready to leave a score at the bottom of a review. The game’s repetitious opening chapters (and H’aanit’s terrible writing) were a real grind, but it grows once you get past the opening ten hours or so. There’s a great depth to the jobs system and the possibilities they offer you in combat, and it’s this that I’ve found has really grown on me as I’ve played.