Eight strangers travel together in Octopath Traveler, combining their efforts to overcome foes and sharing their stories and challenges with each other. If The Canterbury Tales and a classic JRPG had a baby, it would look quite a lot like this game.
The most striking thing about Octopath Traveler is it’s gorgeous ‘HD-2D’ art style. It looks like a classic SNES game and a exquisitely crafted pop-up book has a baby. Your little 2D sprite wander around a 3D world that has the same style of routes and paths as you might find in an old JRPG, except they’re mapped onto fully 3D environments and there’s a hefty depth of field applied to the foreground and background, almost the extent of appearing like a tilt-shifted tableau. It’s utterly beguiling and it’s a real treat in how it takes what could have been a plain and simple looking game and creates a truly distinctive look.
Similarly unique is its structure, with the title referring to the eight otherwise unconnected characters and stories that are thrust together. It’s both freeing and restrictive at the same time, as you feel compelled to trudge through eight similar-feeling opening chapters in a row before embarking on the second leg of each story. You don’t have to, but you’re bound, to a certain degree, by how far you’ve levelled up your party.
With the opening chapters out of the way after the first 8-10 hours, it quickly opens up and affords you much more freedom, both in terms of the story chapters you take on and how you build your party of characters. Of the eight characters, you can only have four in your party at a time, and one of those will always be your starting character until you complete their story. That can feel limiting to start with, but as you head out from the middle of the map you should stumble upon the shrines that unlock these core eight jobs and allow you to assign them to your characters. Therion can augment his thievery with being an apothecary, you can make Ophelia a Warrior-Cleric. They can be swapped around at any time, spend Job Points to unlock the various abilities for when that job is equipped, and supplementary Support Skills that are unlocked for the character as a whole. There’s great depth here in finding ways that characters and jobs can interlink, which is simply a joy to discover.
Getting a balance and wide variety is all the more important when you consider the turn-based combat. Whether it’s the random encounters or the regular boss battles with their fantastic oversized sprites dominating the screen, you’re seeking to exploit their weaknesses and open them up to taking massive amounts of damage. These weapon and elemental vulnerabilities are initially a mystery to you, leading to the first few turns against an unfamiliar foe being more experimentation, but once they’ve been discovered it’s a case of using your breadth of attacks to break them, then unleashing your most powerful attacks.
That’s achieved through spending Boost Points to charge up attacks, which are earned at the start of each turn where a character has not just used a charged attack. This can make them strike multiple times, increase the length of a status effect, or simply amp up the strength of an attack. There’s moment to moment strategising as you plan out your attack, looking at the next turn’s order and figuring out how you can break an enemy, buff your allies, and use BP to pull off a charged attack or a job’s ultimate Divine Ability. It’s such a satisfying system that makes even the most straightforward random encounter get you to light up a few braincells.
You are, to a certain extent, beholden to the level gating across the world map. While you can typically punch a few levels above your weight, especially with the strong group healing Ophelia’s Cleric job offers and Cyrus’ powerful Scholar job elemental attacks, but you will want to grind to level up for certain areas and story chapters. The second and third chapters are scattered across a range of levels, letting you tie them together yourself much better, and perhaps settling on a foursome to play through their stories together.
There’s some nice ideas and writing there, with some of the characters and their stories contrasting quite strongly. Primrose’s story of vengeance is nicely played, as is Therion’s thief with a heart of gold and Olberic’s rather straight up story of honour and redemption. While The Canterbury Tales have seemingly been an inspiration here, the homage is taken too far by H’aanit’s character, who speaks in a forced feeling Middle English. It’s perhaps a rather authentic attempt to show how her tribe have lagged behind towns and cities across the land, but it’s painful to read and listen to with a modern day ear.
The real problem is these eight stories never really tie together, outside of the odd name drop and a hidden final chapter that finally reveals a meaningful threat to the world. There’s moments where you can trigger some party banter within your party, but they feel like lip service when each chapter depicts its lead as being completely alone outside of battle. You never really get the sense that they’re anything more than eight strangers that decide it’s a bit safer to travel in numbers.
The rest of the world is full of things to do outside of the main chapters and level grinding. There’s a number of challenging high level dungeons and bosses to take on and there’s plenty of side quests that are pleasingly open and lacking in direction – if a chef needs some ingredients, do you go and steal them using Therion’s Path Action, or barter for them with Tressa? They can just as easily lead to frustration when they’re too vague or ask for you to remember some random NPC on the other side of the world. You can check a journal, but a little more prompting wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Octopath Traveler is a wonderful collection of adventures and stories, but the quirk of storytelling that lends it its name is both its greatest strength and weakness. While the turn-based combat and ‘breaking’ enemies makes practically every battle engaging, the eight tales this game tells don’t really feel like they need to be told together. It’s a little unbalanced because of this, but this remains a charming, beguiling JRPG.