Octopath Musings by Mathman1024

In January 2017, Nintendo showcased their upcoming console, the Nintendo Switch. They showed off a plethora of games including one called Project Octopath Traveler. While the video showed off very little about this future HD-2D game, what was shown appeared to be an amazing throwback to the RPGs I poured hours upon hours of time into when I was younger. I was anxious to find out more about this title with an awkward sounding name. How similar would it be to the Final Fantasy games I played on the SNES? It had to be good since Square-Enix was behind it, right? How long will I have to wait for it to be released?

Little did I know that it would be another 18 months before the game would be released in July 2018. In that time, two different demos would be released through Nintendo’s eShop. The first demo released in September 2017 and allowed the player to experience the first chapter of two of the eight characters: Primrose, the dancer, and Olberic, the warrior. I chose Primrose because she didn’t fit the mold of traditional RPG characters. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that I wanted to like it, but I was afraid of having my hopes and expectations dashed.

As soon as I started playing Project Octopath Traveler (the name would eventually drop the “Project” from its title), I was transported back to my youth. It was what I hoped it would be. Classic 16-bit pixel art style, gorgeous backgrounds, solid battle mechanics, and memorable music. Sadly, it was just a demo.

A month before the release date, the developer announced a new demo. This one would have a 3-hour time limit, but any save data would transfer to the full version. I instantly downloaded it, but then I hesitated. How long would three hours last? Would I burn through the time limit in one sitting? I saw friends on social media download the demo and exhaust their time limit in a day or two. And the full game was still a month away from release. I decided to bide my time and wait for the full game. 

As the release date inched closer and closer, my excitement increased. I could not wait for the game to be delivered. And then I started reading some reviews and first impressions. All of a sudden I was second guessing my decision to purchase the game. I was aghast at the thought that the story-lines were not intertwined. How could there not be an overarching theme? This was an RPG after all. Silly me thought reading the comments on an internet-published article would allay my fears. Needless to say, my enthusiasm was brought back to a normal level. 

Keep in mind that all of this was before I sank 65+ hours into Octopath Traveler. You read that correctly. I have poured almost 70 hours into this game with no regrets. It is not a perfect game. Some of its game play mechanics are a bit worn, and a few of the story-lines are trite and overused. But overall, I think it is an amazing game and one that I will replay after I beat it. 

One of the most stressful parts of the game is choosing which of the eight protagonists to begin with. Each one has their own strengths and weaknesses. Should you choose someone built for weapons, or do you pick a strong “magic” user? Perhaps a healer or someone in the middle like the merchant? I struggled and contemplated who to choose, and I settled on the merchant, Tressa. 

Before you can even think about acquiring other characters, you must complete the first chapter of your main character. I say “main” because this person will be the anchor of your party for the foreseeable future. As you recruit other members to your team, you will be limited to a traveling party of four. Whomever you choose first will be in your party until you finish all four of the chapters in their story. The other three members are up to the player. 

Each character’s story-line is broken down into four chapters. In the first chapter, players learn how to use the character’s special path actions. These actions are used on the inhabitants of the towns. Although there are eight characters, each with their own ability, the path actions are broken down into four categories: item acquisition, information gathering, leading/guiding a towns-person, and fighting/provoking. Success for most actions is based on the character’s level. Some path actions are always successful but can only be done if the level is high enough. Otherwise, success is more risky. There may be a 40% chance of being successful, so is it worth the risk? If you fail too many times, then your reputation in the town will suffer, and you won’t be able to interact with the residents until you pay a fee to the local barkeep. 

Once you complete the first chapter, you are free to go anywhere in the fictional land of Osterra. This is where Octopath differs from most RPGs I’ve played. There is no cohesive story-line. Each character has their own reason for setting out from their hometown. You can recruit each one in any order and travel to almost anywhere on the map. (For me, it was a thrill each time I opened another section of the world map. Even if the danger level was too high for my team at the time, I still had to add it to the map.) Not only can you add team members in any order, you can also progress through each character’s story at your own pace. For example, you mustn’t complete every chapter 2 before starting someone’s third chapter. Because of this non-linear approach, each person can play as they see fit. I love to explore, and that’s exactly what I did. (This echoes my approach to playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.) 

This is not to say that there isn’t a story. Each character has a story, but it is theirs alone. At first pass, it appears that each character lives in isolation, and the only interaction is during battles. When I learned about this aspect from some early online reviews, I was disappointed and considered canceling my pre-order. It turns out that there is more than first meets the eye. 

There are interactions between characters, but it isn’t as part of some larger story as in a more traditional RPG. One of my favorite parts is the interaction that occurs among members in your party during chapters that occur after the initial chapter. Sometimes between sequences of dialogue you will have the option to hear travel banter between two teammates. These conversations add depth to both characters and make them more relatable. It gives the impression that the travelers are not alone in their struggles. It could be the streetwise and world-weary Primrose cautioning the wide-eyed Tressa. Or perhaps Cyrus, logical as ever, is trying to talk some sense into the thieving Theron. I found myself eagerly looking forward to the next conversation. 

Some of the more interesting path actions belong to Cyrus (scrutinize) and Alfyn (inquire). These actions give these two characters the ability to gather information from townsfolk. Sometimes it is the location of a hidden item or reduced rates at the inn. Other times it is knowledge that is useful for completing side quests. The most fascinating thing was that each time you used one of these abilities, you also got background information on that NPC. It could be a paragraph about how the person ran away with their girlfriend only to lose her to a disease. Or maybe it is their name and worker ID that identifies them as part of an oppressed group of workers. Perhaps you learned that a guard doesn’t care for his post and would rather be an artist. Whatever the case may be, they were all unique. They had lives and personalities, and this added to the richness of the game’s environment. 

The environment is a character all of its own. The game touts itself as being “HD-2D,” but that doesn’t do it justice. This is not a pixel-art game that is copying a SNES game of days long gone. While the people look like they are ripped from Final Fantasy VI, the towns, dungeons, and over-world are anything but. Water realistically shimmers, sand glitters on the shoreline, and lighting dims as clouds pass overhead. The world is built on 3D models that scale and show proper perspective as you move around. The focal point is in the middle of the screen which causes a blurring effect on the background and foreground. Sometimes I would stop moving so that I could take it all in and appreciate the small details. 

When you take a step back, you also realize how wonderful the music is. The orchestral arrangements create an amazing ambiance. The battle music adds extra stress to the already tense encounters. The sound effects are equally as important. You can hear the subtle changes as your characters transition from walking on cobblestone streets to soft, green grass. Footsteps echo among dripping water as you traverse caverns, and you can hear the surf gently washing ashore. 

Each of the eight regions is unique in its environment and enemies. The areas range from the sand covered Sunlands in the south and the snowy reaches of the Frostlands in the north to the treacherous reaches of the Cliftands in the west and the harbors of the Coastlands in the east. Each area has three cities and a wealth of caves and temples to explore. You begin in the center of Osterra and eventually work your way to the outside edges. The deeper you adventure into each area, the more difficult the enemies will become. Each area will indicate its danger level which corresponds to a recommended minimum level for your characters. These warnings should not be taken lightly. Early on I ventured into an area with a danger level of 17. My two characters were around level 10, and they were obliterated by just a couple of hits. Needless to say I did not return until I had sufficiently leveled up. 

Leveling up characters in an RPG is usually a grinding affair, but it never seems to be a problem in Octopath Traveler. I never had an issue with the levels of my characters. Every once in a while I would spend time grinding, but it was never a chore. The battles always offered an opportunity to refine my techniques, strategies, and lineups. Each enemy has a defense that can be broken by using certain attacks. Once you register enough attacks that match its weaknesses, the enemy is stunned and your attacks do extra damage. The trick is discovering their weaknesses, so that you can make the most of your turn and set up a series of devastating attacks that will obliterate your foes. Through all of that, you still have to manage HP (health), SP (skill points, used in same way as magic points in older RPGs), and BP (boost points - earned each turn and used to enhance attacks). 

At the end of each battle you are awarded with leaves (the currency of Osterra), experience points, and job points. Job points are used to unlock additional skills, and these skills, save for the eighth and final skill, can be acquired in any order. As you unlock skills, you also unlock support skills. Support skills are passive and, once earned, they can be equipped regardless of which job your character has. These include gaining extra experience, improved physical defense, or increasing a character’s maximum HP or SP. 

Your party can have a maximum of four characters, so some thought must be taken when constructing your lineup. Fortunately, you can find hidden shrines that will unlock each of the primary eight jobs which can then be equipped by any of your characters. This opens up your battle strategies and allows for some very interesting combinations. Now you can have your Warrior (a tank character with high physical attack) with the Scholar (a strong elemental user) as a secondary job, or you can pair the Cleric (healer and user of light magic) with the Thief (capable of stealing HP and SP). 

Octopath Traveler was a revelation to me. It combines classic elements and art styles of more traditional RPGs while incorporating elements of modern games. Instead of a fairly linear story about saving the world from an all-powerful madman, Octopath presents a non-linear adventure with eight unique characters with their own motives for setting out. While there is some interaction among the characters, Octopath does not tell as rich of a story as other RPGs. This was a very minor setback and did not affect my overall impression of the game. At the beginning of my time with it, I kept looking forward to the next time I could play. That still holds true even after I have spent so much time with it. I hope that anyone who plays it will be able to enjoy and appreciate it as much as I have. 

Ryan Craig @mathman1024


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