What is in a name? Some JRPGs have absolutely weird names that never seem to get explained. Octopath Traveler is quite a mouthful, but it at least makes sense. Octopath, besides being eight paths, is the first letter of each character’s name: Ophelia, Cyrus, Tressa, Olberic, Primrose, Alfyn, Therion and H’aanit. What happens in a world where you pick whose story you want to follow? It really is up to you as you travel the world in a setting where, for once, we are dealing with the plight of a few rather than some grand world-threatening event or bad guy and the game is much better for it.
Octopath Traveler’s combat is an absolute joy, once you come to grips with how everything works.
Pick your path
The premise of Octopath Traveler is that you get to pick whose story you want to follow and what interests you. There are eight playable characters and each has a full story to explore and the game allows you the freedom to choose. The first character you pick becomes your main character and they can’t be removed from the party, but after that it is up to you to find the other characters and help them start on their journeys. Will you get a party of four and ignore the others? Will you finish all eight characters’ stories? Each character has a unique job, skill and passive that makes their addition to a party useful for fighting monsters or for acting in towns and I enjoyed the focus on a myriad of stories, rather than a sweeping narrative about a world-ending disaster where the stories of the characters and their motivations and conflicts merely become window dressing to a bigger event.
Here you have a knight looking for his purpose in life, a thief forced into a job, an apothecary who wants to heal as many as possible, a noblewoman who will do anything to avenge her father’s death, a merchant who wants to experience the richness of life and more stories are waiting to be explored. Some will take you to distant lands to fight against tyrannical lords, others will have you risking life and limb to gather ingredients to heal someone. Each character has a reason for walking their road and the variety of their reasons for doing so makes for an interesting collection of tales. For a long time, I kept wondering when the end game would show itself, the true reason for gathering everyone together as their stories all merge to a single focal point, but that doesn’t happen. As soon as I realised that I could spend more time just enjoying these individuals on their journies, where not everything is always a life and death decision. That doesn’t mean that the stories are without conflict as this is a harsh world, a place that has been torn apart by war, plague and corruption.
To help you keep track of everyone and what they want to do, the game highlights where characters are on the world map so that you can go and recruit them to your party. It also shows where they need to go for their next chapter and the recommended level for that quest. At this point, I have two notes of caution: the first is that doing all eight characters’ chapter 1 quest in a row will make it feel like you are spending several hours in a tutorial being taught the exact same thing while getting to know the character. The second is that the level recommendation is really, really off for some chapters. Don’t be disheartened if you battle in an area, rather move on and find a new town, go back to old ones to find items you couldn’t get at your level or try someone else’s next chapter. Some enemies, depending on your choice of jobs and gear, will be really tough to beat, while others you will be able to beat with ease. When you find enemies you can kill easily, rather take the time to explore that whole region and get a level or two before moving on.
Octopath Traveler’s combat is an absolute joy, once you come to grips with how everything works. This turn-based system requires a lot more effort than just hitting the attack button and it has some of the DNA of the combat system that made Bravely Default tick. Every enemy in the game has a number of shields, which represents their defence against attacks. If you hit an enemy while they have shields they will take less damage from your attack, be it physical or magical, unless the attack is something they are vulnerable to. Enemies can have from 1 to 5 vulnerabilities and it is up to you to discover them, either through experimentation or using the Scholar’s analyse spell. Once you discover a weakness the icon for it will stay below the enemy near their shield token. Each time you hit them with their weakness you will do full damage and drop the shield count by 1. When that shield count hits zero, the enemy’s defence breaks and it leaves them stunned for the rest of that round and the whole of the next round. At this point, you can hit them with any attacks and you will do full damage to the enemy, giving you a chance to pull off your biggest attacks and spells while they stand around. You can also use the time to heal up and regroup, or to prevent a boss from unleashing a massive attack that could end with you staring at the game over screen.
The bit that smacks strongly of Bravely Default is the brave point system that is used in combat. Every turn you generate 1
brave battle point per character, which you can store up. You can spend battle points to attack more than once in a turn, or to make your skills more powerful. By spending four points a spell or technique will be roughly four times more powerful, meaning you can unleash a powerful attack on a stunned enemy, heal your entire party or just attack four times in a row to finish an enemy off or tear their shield down before the enemy can react. When you use these points, you don’t generate a point at the end of that turn, meaning that there is a cost to using them, but nowhere near as much as the risk-reward system that Bravely Default had. Later on, spending four brave points is the only way to activate your Divine Skill, which is the pinnacle of your job’s abilities.
So by playing your cards right and setting enemies up with debuffs, buffing your party and stunning the enemy at the right time, you will be able to do damage in the thousands to your opponent. But to do this, you need a good range of weapons and elemental attacks to make sure that you can whittle those shield stacks down quickly, otherwise you are in for a long, hard fight. Some jobs can equip more than one weapon which opens up options for hitting enemy weaknesses, and for a short while after finishing chapter 1 with each character, I was battling against enemies with higher shield stacks. The game has an answer for this, but it involves you doing a little bit of exploration (without spoiling the fun).
Besides each character bringing options to the table for combat, they also have out of combat abilities that might sway your decisions as to who ends up in your “main” party. These abilities can lead to you fighting a duel, getting someone to follow you (and even help out in battle!), stealing items or finding out extra information about the area, which can help with quests or help you find hidden items or new wares at the stores. The power of these abilities is tied to your level, so your thief will have to level up if you spot a powerful sword in someone’s inventory with a low chance of stealing it, and some players might find the process of going back and forth in towns like tedious busywork. For me it rides a fine line between rewarding players and busywork, with many of the items I acquired this way helping in some big fights, or saving me money when it was in short supply. These main guide actions are used, with some variation, by two characters in the eight, so you can make your self two full parties that can still do all the various guide actions if you want.
Some old, some new
Graphically, Octopath has done some clever things with 2D sprites in 3D environments in what the developers call HD-2D. The sprites are detailed and animated enough that you can follow their movement and expressions without losing that old-school JRPG charm. Clever use of lighting and perspective hides objects as you move through dungeons, lantern in hand, looking for pathways to chests and secret areas and it works surprisingly well. Weather and spell effects are all high-definition, making exploration and using a new skill a treat to watch. Speaking of the sprites, every boss you fight gets a massive sprite in combat that really brings the character to life. It makes for a treat as you finally fight the enemy and see how their personality and gear is represented. This is quickly taken away from you when the enemy then does something terrible to your entire party, but that moment is something to be appreciated.
The sprites are detailed and animated enough that you can follow their movement and expressions without losing that old-school JRPG charm.
The hands of Masashi Takahashi and Tomoya Asano, who headed the Bravely series, are easily evident. From the turn-based, tactical rich battle point combat system to the beautiful medieval fantasy cities and a clean, systemic break-down of each character’s story into neat chapters (just like Bravely Default gave you control over every system) this is the more confident, thoughtful game where not every character is boiled down into a trope for easy stories. It takes the time to tell everything from stories of regicide and betrayal to the slower, quieter stories of finding a place in the world and knowing that all actions have consequences. It is a reminder that not everyone has a big defined evil in their lives to fight, but they still have a struggle on their journey and we could all learn from that.