There are a lot of things to like about Octopath Traveler. It has fantastic music if you like the fantasy orchestral style, which I do. The combat is extremely tactical for a JRPG, focusing around enemy weaknesses and managing your character’s boost points to “break” enemies by damaging them with weakness sources until they get stunned and become vulnerable. This makes fights much more engaging than in most classic RPGs. Status effects really matter, meaning that buffs and debuffs are actually useful and not just wastes of an action. Party composition also matters and there is no perfect party composition for all sections of the game, and the fact that the story is split by character means that if you want to progress all the party members’ stories you need to use them all, which means you learn how to use them effectively and are more likely to rotate them in than in games that don’t make you do that.
Overall it’s a well designed RPG from a gameplay perspective with one of the best purely turn based combat systems I’ve ever used. It’s also pretty good aesthetically. I mentioned the music as a highlight and while I don’t love the graphical style I don’t dislike it either. Square managed to create art that both looks modern and clearly echoes the pixel art of their past 16 bit glory. The UI and world maps are also well-designed. They’re easy to navigate, clean and readable, and avoid burying information in hidden sub menus that way some old RPGs did. It’s a very playable game in a polished package.
Of course there are also gameplay issues with Octopath, mostly stemming from how stubbornly it sticks with outmoded conventions rather than just calling back to them. The biggest is in how your party composition is managed. You can only swap party members at a tavern in one of the towns, which is a really bad decision by the designers. For one thing it severely damages the tactical choices aspect I just praised. You won’t know what party composition makes the most sense for a given area or its boss until you explore them. While you can make an effort to make sure you have variety in your party’s ability to exploit weaknesses, you won’t be able to cover everything and it’s very possible to wind up at a boss with a party member who is close to useless because she just happens not to have anything that matches up to the boss’ somewhat arbitrary set of weaknesses. Oh you brought the thief with you and nothing in the boss encounter happens to be vulnerable to swords, knives, or fire? Too bad, so sad, enjoy either teleporting to town to change party members and trekking back through the whole dungeon, or having to level up enough to eke out a victory while at a major disadvantage. This is even worse if you happen not to have leveled up (or even recruit) the characters who would be able to effectively exploit the boss’ weaknesses, since you can progress without recruiting characters and character do not gain XP while they’re back at the tavern. All this is made worse by the fact that whoever you picked as your first character is just stuck as the leader of your party forever, and some of the characters are extremely situational. I happened to choose the warrior, and he works pretty well in basically every fight, but if you picked the merchant you’re going to have a rougher go of things.
Even more annoying, each character has one or more special outside of combat abilities, and you can only use them when they’re in your party. So you might need to challenge a ruffian to a fight in order to complete a sidequest, but if you don’t have the guy who has the challenge ability then you’ll have to trek back to town to get him, and because those battles are solo fights you’ll also have to hope he’s of an appropriate level and has the right set up for fighting solo if you want to beat the sidequest. All this is further exacerbated by the fact that equipment is very important in this game, and all the best equipment is found not in dungeons or stores but in the inventory of random NPCs in the towns and scattered around the world, and you have to steal or buy it off them. Don’t like the idea of playing a thief who robs everyone, including the people you just helped? Enjoy being at a massive disadvantage for the whole game. And you need to grab the thief/merchant and apothecary (who can make ‘inquiries’ and do a loop of every town checking for items and inquiring with random people if you want to get all the subquests etc… There are also locked chests in some of the fields and dungeons that only the thief can open, and these are the only chests with anything of value, like decent armor or weapons, in them (everything else just has money or random healing items you can get elsewhere) so if you’re not currently using the thief you’ll have to go grab him and bring him back to unlock stuff.
Some of this is made better once you unlock some subclasses. These can be equipped and unequipped whenever you want so you can at least use them to make otherwise useless characters do valuable things in a boss fight (by, for example, giving them a healer subclass or a subclass that can exploit one of the boss’ weaknesses.) All of it could have been avoided by just letting you swap active characters whenever you wanted, which is what almost all of the old Square games that this is paying homage to did, because it makes the game much less of a slog. You could still force the player to recruit a character before having access to their abilities, as those games did, so they wouldn’t be totally useless and you wouldn’t lose anything. Does anyone think that a game is made more fun by having to constantly go to taverns to manage party composition, especially for random sidequests in towns? Does anyone enjoy the feeling of getting to a boss and realizing that even though you’re properly leveled to take them on you’re completely screwed because you failed to predict their random suite of weaknesses, or because you happen to have taken the healer who heals one character at a time instead of the one who heals the whole party, and the boss and his resummonable minions do sweep attacks that your healer mathematically cannot keep up with?
It’s just a stubborn insistence on archaic design choices that made sense when games had to be artificially lengthened because of cartridge memory constraints and fear of the used game/rental market but are irrelevant in 2021. It’d be like putting limited continues into a platformer. All it does is suck time and lead to frustration.
But those aren’t Octopath Traveler’s biggest flaw. The biggest flaw is the story, which is absolute trash, ranging from boring but moderately tolerable to excruciating. Octopath tries to split the difference between the very earliest Final Fantasy games, which had a very basic plot with nameless characters you created, and the later 16-bit games that told specific stories intimately tied up with the game’s characters. What it settles on are incredibly generic stories with incredibly generic characters, and I don’t see how that could possibly make anyone happy. Every single character in the game is the blandest possible interpretation of an archtype imaginable. The cleric girl? She’s an orphan taken in by a bishop and raised alongside his daughter, and she undertakes a journey for the church in her adopted sister’s place so she can be with her ailing father. Along the way she meets people and helps them because she’s purehearted and true. The merchant? She’s a young girl who just wants to see the world and learn to be the best darn merchant possible, and along the way learns to help people and be good. The thief? He was betrayed by his closest friend and now he trusts nobody, but when captured by a noblewoman and forced to help her recover her family’s inheritance he will learn to…
It’s all utterly predictable and boring and none of the characters have any personality whatsoever. Even worse it drones on forever, with incredibly lengthy conversational sequences that never get to the point. You have endless conversations that go something like:
“You’d better come with me.”
“Okay, I will come with you.”
“We are going to go now to the place. Are you ready?”
“Yes. I am ready for anything!”
“That’s good, because the place is quite dangerous.”
“I know that it is dangerous but I am ready.”
“Okay let’s go!”
Some of it has full voice acting, which is the worst because you can’t just read ahead in the text and skip the dreadful and generic performances without missing what was said because hitting the button just advances to the next line instead of revealing the whole speech bubble (which uncovers itself along with the voice actor) and some is partially voiced with generic and repeated voice lines meant to represent the text that it shows, but it’s all very bad.
I have played a number of old RPGs in the past two years or so. I played Grandia and Final Fantasy IX, and I really liked them both. I played Xenoblade Chronicles, which is an incredibly talky game with tons of dialog that I thought was great even though I didn’t love the combat in that. I am not looking back on JRPGs of yore with rose colored glasses because I still like the genre, and even old versions of the genre. This game has a bad story. A lot of people have complained because there’s a lack of interaction between the player characters (a choice almost certainly driven by the decision to let people advance without recruiting some characters and the aforementioned terrible choice to only acknowledge characters in the active party) and that’s definitely a problem, but it’s not the chief problem. Is it dumb that in the cleric’s story when you save two young boys from a ravenous wolf monster the boys claim that the cleric “kicked the snot out of” the wolf (that horrible line is actually in the localization, like this was a bad 1995 fan translation) even if all she did was heal and the actual damage was done by other party members? Yes, that’s stupid. But I could deal with that if the cleric’s story was at all interesting on its own terms. Instead it’s like a generic RPG opening story to establish the character, but it’s her second chapter (out of 4) and there’s just nothing to it. I could also accept if the game just wasn’t story focused so it had brief little vignettes to give the idea of the character and then just let you engage with its combat, but these story segments go on forever. They can last 10 minutes while just repeating the same themes and the same boring generic ideas over and over again until I was tempted to just skip the story in an RPG, which is not something I ever even consider in any game.
It’s so bad that I thought this game was perhaps aimed at young children and so wanted to impart basic life lessons without too much complexity, like something along the lines of Quest 64. Except that Quest 64’s story has more identity, and one of the main characters in this game is more or less a stripper and her story explicitly deals with themes of murder and prostitution, so unless the people at Square are psychopaths this is not a game aimed at young children. It’s rated T for teen and its throwback style is clearly aimed at people with nostalgia for the 80s and 90s, so that’s not the explanation here. I think the explanation is that the writers are bad at their jobs and whatever they were trying to do they did quite poorly.
I like a lot of what Octopath has to offer and I haven’t been feeling well these last few days and really want to just sit and play an RPG. When I’m getting to a new town fighting random encounters or delving into one of the short dungeons (dungeon design is also one of the game’s weakpoints because they’re all incredibly small and straightforward) to get to a boss it’s mostly a good time. I don’t even mind grinding that much. But sitting through these story sequences is excruciating and I may stop playing because of them. I’m almost always the opposite with RPGs. I enjoy the story but get put off by the grind or a particularly unfair boss fight. It’s a testament to Octopath’s game design that I’m willing to put up with the story to get to the gameplay, so far, but a testament to just how bad that story is that I might stop playing an RPG with some of the best combat I’ve seen because I don’t want to spend another 15 minutes listening to these terrible stories that stretch 1 minute of plot and character into a quarter hour of mindless yammering.