Epistemic Status: Full Play Through, extensive experience with similar games
Previous Spoiler-Free Review: Persona 5: Spoiler-Free Review
Soon I hope to write Against Spoilers, which will detail how hard it is to actually provide useful information in a true spoiler-free way.
Stage 1: True Spoiler-Free Review
Octopath Traveler is an excellent game for the Nintendo Switch, in the tradition of Final Fantasy and Bravely Default. It mimics the Super Nintendo age in terms of technology and graphics, and innovates in interesting ways on the core design.
If you enjoyed such games as Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger and Bravely Default, this game is for you.
If you played but did not enjoy those games, this game is not for you.
If you have never played those games, the first three are some of the best games of all time, so if you’re at all interested in trying an old school JRPG, you should try one of them. I would go in the order listed but all three are great choices.
After the fold, I’ll do a more traditional ‘spoiler-free’ review that will definitely alter one’s experience playing. If you should play this game and haven’t yet, I encourage not reading further until after you have played.
Stage 2: Conventionally Spoiler-Free Review
Octopath Traveler innovates in five key ways: It has eight stories you can tell in any order, it uses the break system, it refines the default system from Bravely Default into a more elegant and simpler version, it uses path actions, and it makes its version of Ether (Inspiring Plum) available at reasonable prices for mass purchasing, thus making exhaustion of magic points during exploration cease to be an issue fairly quickly. It also has strong implementations of the job system and letting characters choose and equip skills.
The combined result of this is that Octopath Traveler becomes a much more thoughtful and rich game in terms of its combats, and its story and experience is far more than the sum of its parts, even if its individual storylines aren’t as great as one might hope.
Octopath Traveler is the overlapping stories of eight characters. Each of your eight party members has a four-stage journey to tell. You can take these eight stories in any order, and there’s nothing forcing you to even take all eight characters with you if you don’t feel like it. As you pick up more party members in stage one, the enemies scale accordingly, but once you have a full party of four that stops.
Throughout these journeys, there will be a handy marker on the map to tell you where to go next. At the end of each of the four stages of each of the eight characters, you’ll face a boss fight. Those boss fights are the entirety of the difficulty of the main story. Explorations and dungeons aren’t long enough to exhaust your resources in a meaningful way, and there’s little chance of being wiped out in random encounters. If that isn’t true, it means you weren’t ready to face the boss, or you got reckless.
None of the eight stories is going to win any prizes for originality or exquisite writing. One might call them cliche and hammy and poorly written. But as adventure seeds and motivations for characters to explore their world, they are solid, they cover a wide range of fantasy spots a character might find themselves in, and they keep the game moving along. The journey, and getting to see all the sights and meet the characters, among the many towns, was a refreshing and well-crafted experience that I appreciated.
In addition to the main quests, there are a ton of side quests available throughout the game, with prizes worth going after. These are puzzles that often have multiple solutions, usually by letting you use one of several path actions, which I’ll talk about later. These definitely reinforce the world’s vividness and reward engagement. You don’t need the rewards at first, nor do they do that much for you taken individually, but if you want to play the endgame then that’s another story.
It is great to have the flexibility to go where you feel like going, and do what you feel like doing, in any order, and even bypass things entirely if you are so inclined.
The downside of such systems is that players grow more powerful as they play. This gives the game two choices. If the enemies get stronger as the player levels up or completes other objectives, this puts a lie to the entire experience of growing stronger. In my experience this choice tends to backfire, such as in Oblivion. When done with a lighter touch, as in Skyrim, it can be good, but at the cost of not actually doing the job of keeping the difficulty level steady.
The other choice is to accept that when players go places, sometimes they’ll be overpowered and run everything over, and other times they’ll be underpowered and get wiped out. That’s what this game does. Mostly it works, but it results in there being several huge difficulty spikes. The transition from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2, and Chapter 2 to Chapter 3, takes you from ‘this is the last of the eight stories and everything dies when I breathe on it’ to ‘this is the next round and now I’m the one who dies when a boss breathes on me.’
This meant that I came into half the boss battles knowing I was in essentially zero danger, and a few times I was forced to grind several levels in order to advance. The endgame also involves a lot of grinding and some giant difficulty spikes. There’s a huge spike from the Chapter 4 enemies to the guardians of the four guarded job shrines, and then another even bigger spike to what comes after that.
That last one seems avoidable to me, and it is a shame since I do think that the problems it poses are unique and fun to go up against, but to access them you have to spend a lot of time grinding even after you otherwise take care of all your business, and even if you have all the ways they help you grind faster in the endgame. I would have made that process go faster and/or lowered the stats on the final battles, but I also might be getting soft and short on time in my old age. More on that issue later, under ‘Life is a Grind.’
Each character has a (semi) unique path action. If they are in your party, this gives them an additional way to interact with the people you meet. You can always talk to them, which can be useful especially for starting or finishing side quests, but the bulk of the useful interactions are via your path actions. I say semi-unique because they come in pairs.
Primrose and Ophelia can convince characters to follow them, which has its uses for combat but is mostly about completing side quests and for a few main quest plot points.
Olberic and H’annat can challenge characters to fights. This will occasionally advance a quest, and you can have a good idea when this has a chance of happening. The rest of the time, you get a little experience and the person falls down for a bit.
Alfyn and Cyrus can get extra information, with the key difference being Alberic’s always works but has a level requirement for each character, while Cyrus runs risk of failure most of the time but can try much sooner. This usually just gives you more background on the character, which is cool, but you often also get a hidden item to appear on the map, a discount at the inn, or better items at a shop. Occasionally you’ll get a bigger bonus than that, a key piece of information or help with your path actions. So you want to do this to everyone as soon as possible.
Therion and Tressa can get access to the items people carry. This is vital, since many carry items needed for quests, others carry items that give permanent stat bonuses, and often you’ll get a shot at more and better equipment. Therion is a thief, so his strategy is to steal everything, but he needs to be high enough level and sometimes he gets caught. Tressa is a merchant, so she pays cash, and if she’s lucky she gets a major discount off store pricing.
If you fail enough times in the same town, your path actions stop working until you bribe the bartender at the tavern to fix it. This was cheap the one time I did it, but I suspect doing it repeatedly would get more expensive. Failing isn’t free, but it isn’t that bad unless you do it quite a lot.
It’s also worth noting that you can always reset if you fail, and roll the dice again, if you want to be that kind of filthy, filthy cheater. Up to you. The game doesn’t tell you who to be or how to play.
It’s easy to change party members when you get to town, and change them back when you’re ready to leave, so you don’t have much tension between having a party with good path actions and a party with the right combat skills. It would have been nice if this had more tension, and doing things like carrying both Cyrus and Alfyn (which I frequently did) would have felt like it was a sacrifice.
Alternatively, we could have allowed you to implicitly swap party members as needed any time you were close to a tavern, so you would be able to use all the path actions all the time without any switching. My guess is the net experience would have been worse, but I might change that opinion if I hadn’t had Tressa as my primary already or if I’d wanted neither Cyrus nor Alfyn.
What was frustrating about the path actions was that they act as gateways at a number of key story points. You are forced to use a path action which is level-locked, so you can’t proceed until the appropriate character is high enough level. If they’re not in your default party, that can mean a bunch of grinding you don’t otherwise need, and it takes away some of the interesting tension of trying to get through a story with a severely under-leveled character backed up by three strong ones.
The Shin Megami Tensei series is built around the concept of weaknesses. Both you and the enemies have elements you are strong against, or even nullify, absorb or reflect. You have other elements you are weak against. If you hit an enemy where they are weak, you get extra actions and more damage, so a major focus is maintaining a balanced party that can always hit the enemy’s weakness. You also spend a bunch of time searching to find out what enemies are weak to what elements.
The break system is similar, and similarly central to combat. Every enemy is weak to at least one element or weapon type, usually several. They start out as question marks, which you discover either by hitting them where they are weak, or by using Cyrus’ analyze skill to reveal an unknown weakness. Each time you hit their weakness, they take extra damage and their shield count is reduced by one.
When you wipe out their last shield, they break and will stay broken through the end of the next turn. During that period, they will take no actions and all hits will be for increased damage. After that, they will automatically act first on the following turn and their shield count resets. If they’re a boss, additional things are likely to happen.
Defending instead of acting has the bonus effect of letting a character act earlier in the following round, which is often a good way to set up a break and maximize its impact.
The break system combines well with the BP system. Each character starts every combat with one BP. When you act, you can spend 1-3 BP to amplify your action. If you attack, you now attack extra times. If you cast a spell or use an ability, its effect or duration is multiplied but its magic point cost is not.
At end of turn, any characters who did not spend a BP earn a BP, up to the stored maximum of five.
Two common synergies with the break system are to use a series of attacks on a weakness to break an opponent at the right time, and to wait until an enemy is broken and then unleash a fury of enhanced attacks. With both systems active, the rewards for planning out your combats properly are often to multiply damage dealt several times over, and to limit the enemy’s number of actions.
I wouldn’t want to play an endless series of games that used these systems in this form, but it was a great system to use for one long game, and tweaked versions certainly still have more to offer us.
Ether (Inspiring Plum) is Reasonably Priced
Traditionally, items that restore magic points are Too Awesome To Use (TVTropes). You find a few that you can use in a pinch, but buying large quantities of such items isn’t affordable, so magic/skill points must be carefully conserved as one fights through wave after wave of enemies. Your goal is to make it to the destination before your points run out, or get to the boss with as many points left for the fight as possible.
Octopath Traveler turns this on its head by dramatically lowering the price of skill point refills, and not giving you areas to fight through that are big enough to exhaust your resources. Early in the game you do have to conserve somewhat carefully, but by the middle game that’s not true. By Chapter 4, everyone is going to get quite sick of those Inspiring Plums, and by the end you’ll stop caring about how much things cost except for the action cost of refills during boss fights.
It is refreshing to unleash all the power of your fully operational battle stations whenever necessary, and think about how to win fights rather than constantly be conserving resources. It does take away from a lot of the core game play that older titles used to make things interesting, so I wouldn’t do this for every game, but I did welcome the change of pace. It’s also a very good match to the other systems in the game, as the game is designed around you throwing your weight around to take advantage of breaks and push with your BP, and there’s still enough incentive to get you to save up BP for your big effects.
Midway through the game you’ll begin coming across shrines, each granting access to a job that can then be assigned to one of your characters as a secondary job, giving you their abilities, the right to use their equipment and some associated stat bonuses. Finding the first four of these is a large boost in power, and likely marks the point where you won’t be seriously threatened by the enemies of the main story.
There are also four other shrines that are dungeons with a danger level of 50 (the game tells you how strong the enemies are in each area, which was a nice change of pace but did take away a lot of the game’s tension). To unlock the job, you’ll need to beat the guardian, and the guardian will be much stronger than anything you’ll face in the main story. If you do win, at least one of them gives you a huge boost in power.
In addition to experience, players earn job points (JP) from battles, and can spend them to unlock the skills of their class. The game gives you a choice of what order in which to unlock your class abilities, but you get all of them quickly enough that this is a low stakes decision that felt like a missed opportunity. After you’ve unlocked everything else you can unlock the ‘divine’ skill that requires a 3-BP boost and a lot of skill points. Some of them are the best skills in the game, but many of them are rather useless and not worth the BP they cost to use. I might be missing what they are good for, but if I’m not this was a clear misstep.
Unlock enough skills and you also get the four passive skills from that class. Each character can equip four passive skills at once, so until you get the secondary jobs you just equip what you are given, but later on you get to mix and match. The best use of JP is often to unlock the right passive skills, which makes choosing which active skills to unlock an even lower stakes decision.
Individually, these are smart tweaks to an old proven formula. Together they form a cohesive whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Life is a Grind
The central problem of any JRPG, whether old or new, is how to balance difficulty and grinding and create interesting battles.
There are several approaches to this problem.
Method one is to decide that grinding is what the game is about. The earliest games took this approach, such as Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. There is lots to explore, discover and solve, and goals to achieve, but fundamentally you spend your time fighting enemies efficiently to level up and to get gold and items that will enhance your ability to fight enemies efficiently. If you don’t explore, your grinding becomes slow. If you explore too far, you get torn apart, and that’s the main check on advancement. Games like Dragon Warrior are flexible, and allow you to choose when to progress. Other games such as the Persona series are less flexible, and scale grinding difficulty dramatically to ensure you are within a few levels of where you are ‘supposed’ to be.
I generally dislike forcing players to be at a particular level because if someone makes poor choices, they can be permanently crippled and forced on super long grinds. If you’re going to make it miserable to grind, you want to be damn sure almost no one is going to need to do it, or feel they should be doing it.
Method two, the modern approach, is to give you enough places to go with enough random encounters that as long as you fight along the way, and enough boosts from quests and the main story, that should get you to the levels you need most of the time. If you start running, or using guides to not take any wrong turns, and skip all the side quests, you’ll fall behind. If you need to, you can grind to catch up or to compensate for lack of skill or a tough fight, so unless you are a crazy man who wants to always win on the first try, your fights should still be close and interesting. This is generally my preferred approach.
Method three is to scale the enemies to match your level. A little of that can be fine, but if you’re not sure if it is to your benefit to gain a level, something has gone horribly wrong.
During its story, Octopath Traveler embraces the second approach with some problematic difficulty spikes. I didn’t mind the spikes, because you could go exploring and side questing for a bit and that solved the problem without much grinding. You did have to make sure to bring ‘the new guy’ up to speed when you swapped the active questing member into the main party. That felt reasonable when it was about fighting ability, and the need to play with a newbie put a limit on how trivial the back half of each chapter could be. The result was that by choosing which characters to level up, you gave yourself interesting puzzles of your own design. It worked better than I would have expected, and better on reflection than I realized until I started writing.
It felt less awesome when I was grinding for a path action threshold level, especially in chapter four where there was nothing left to explore. And it would have been nice to not have to explore ‘out of order’ since it damaged the feeling of being travelers to be going in a nonsensical order around the world so much – as much as I appreciated instant travel to known places, and as huge as the world was, it did seem like taking the logistics out entirely left something missing.
What is odd is that after you finish the eight stories, the game transforms.
During the main story, you know exactly where to go and what to do. After that, nothing is explained, and you have to wander, explore and figure things out yourself. Or you can look it up on the internet, if you wish. Kudos to anyone who finds the true ending on their own, but I think it is legitimate to look up how to find it, or look up where some of the twelve shrines are if you missed them.
The endgame gives you many side quests to do, and three main problems to solve.
One is to find the final battle. That’s not easy, and as noted it can be looked up. I don’t think it was a fair puzzle, if I’m wrong I’d like to be convinced otherwise.
Two is to defeat the guardians of the shrines and get the advanced jobs. This requires a grind, without any good exploring or other things to do that will let you incidentally grind. When you win your main party is likely around level 50, and I suspect you need at least level 60 to beat the shrines at my skill level. The battles are very long grinds themselves, so it’s painful to try them only to die in the harder final stage.
Then you need to face the final boss. This battle changes everything.
After doing eight preliminary battles, and without the ability to save or go back, you are asked to split your party to face two final boss fights. Previously, you only played four party members at a time, so chances are four of your characters are far behind the other four. Suddenly you need all eight characters in fighting shape, and you need to equip them as well. Time for a world tour to find more equipment, and a long grind.
Then you hit the later stages of the fight, and realize that you are still not ready.
My first attempt was an improvised one, since I didn’t realize I’d need all eight characters. I split the good guys two and two, and got completely destroyed quickly.
My second attempt had everyone at level 65. I did some damage to the first boss, then in stage two slowly got buried as I couldn’t keep up. It was clear I’d made mistakes and could do better by configuring the team better and choosing better tactics, but it seemed clear I needed more help than that.
My third attempt was at level 70, with a clear plan for both battles. Both battles came down to the wire, but both were successful, and the game was thus completed.
My sense after winning is that level 70 is about fair. You have a good shot on your second try, and a nonzero shot on your first one, and it is a true test of skill. Level 65 is doable with the right configuration and full knowledge of what you’re up against, with an optimal version of the basic strategy I ended up using.
After winning, I looked around, and found this (highly spoilerific) completely different approach to winning, as opposed to what I did. I did my damage a different way. The game has a lot of flexibility.
It was a thrilling final battle and a unique experience. I’m happy I stuck with it to get to the end, even if I wish that process had not taken so long, and I encourage not giving up.
The Little Things
Attention to detail is clear throughout the game. Reading an interview with the development team reveals how much their focus was on little things I did not even consciously notice. They talked about the way things fade as your characters walk to the edge of the screen, or how they did lighting and have the main character carry a lantern in a way that hadn’t previously been done in old-school pixel games. These things definitely enhanced my experience, but if they hadn’t been pointed out, I wouldn’t have realized they were there. I certainly wouldn’t have thought they were at the head of what was being focused on.
I think that’s an important lesson in many ways. The best people insist upon quality on every level, whether most people will notice it or not, and thus top quality in all areas goes together.
I also thought this discussion was pretty excellent, and points out a lot of things I missed.
Octopath Traveler is an amazing game. It has flaws, and I’ve spent a lot of time on them, but it does tons of little things right and provides highly synergistic unique twists on the genre. I would rank it below Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, but good enough to be in that conversation, with the writing being what keeps it from ending up at the very top.