At a cynical, cursory glance, Octopath Traveler could be seen as a shallow throw-back boasting a unique visual gimmick with an overbearing octuplet of protagonists. Eight there may be, shallow it certainly isn’t. Octopath Traveller is a grand, slow-burning tale with facets that seem to both slowly unfurl and leap out hours deep into one’s travels, from genuinely challenging, tense boss battles, to skills that transform combat options with asides to entertain and explore, mechanics are far more contemporary and advanced that it’s 16-bit sprites belie. This is a fully fledged JRPG set to invoke nostalgia, not one shackled to the past.
From the outset you pick your protagonist, where you start your journey with one of the eight. This choice is important as they can’t be removed from your party, this is your leading lady, your man of action, so choose wisely. Each fills an archetypal role, each have varying talents and each have access to both unique combat skills and path actions, split down the middle between Nobel or Rogue. In reality however, there are four path actions, skills you use to interact with NPCs to fulfill side-quests, nab items or learn more about the world. Nobel actions have no consequences, but can’t be used on certain characters unless you’ve reached a sufficient level, Rogues bypass this entirely yet have a percentage chance of failure. Succeed and you’ve got your prize, fail and your reputation in town suffers. Stealing enough candy from children or scrutinizing a humble passerby too harshly will lead to the entire town shunning you, path actions unavailable until the barkeep spreads rumors of your successes, for a lavish fee. Navigating the world with a binary of eight actions lets you solve side-quests in a variety of ways; need a quest item? Tressa the Merchant can purchase all manner of item from local townsfolk, whereas light-fingered Virion simply swipes anything that isn’t nailed down. Choosing between a personable apothecary or an obnoxious scholar to glean new info is usually dependent on who you’ve got in your party, more convenience than strategy.
Strategy heavily comes into play with combat however, whittling the shield points of enemies down whilst stocking up on boost points to deliver timely, devastating blows. Your initial character pick is also key early into the game- Virion can net you some nice items early from sealed purple chests, whilst Scholar Cyrus’ talents allow him to identify an enemies weakness at the beginning of each battle, essential if you want to cut down on the guess work every other character has to make to initiate a shieldbreak. Everyone’s initial chapter follows the same formula of narrative exposition, path action introduction and dungeon, leading to a boss. With a party of one this is difficult, but slowly gathering the whole cast from the outset allows you to expand your repertoire of skills whilst grinding for each characters later chapters, conveniently marked on the map with a suggested level to reach. All dungeons feature this as well, as once you’re freed from the first chapter, you can explore any which way you choose, even if it means wandering into a cave with creatures that can floor you in a heartbeat. This rampant lack of invisible walls really adds to the open, visually arresting overworld that connects the game’s varied cities and hamlets, really feeling like you’re on a journey, one that could end in disaster at any willful wrong turn. From the glittering snowy mountains where Cleric Ophelia resides, to the beautiful babbling brooks where Alfyn peddles his craft, each location rests as a stunning 3D diorama swathed in pixels, the world alive whilst the characters are abstracted, dwarfed 2D planes amongst a stunning, diverse world.
The narrative itself sadly is split neatly into eight very clean parts, with protagonists whose stories seem to lie on top of each other than truly gel or tessellate. The stories of each range from plucky, coming of age tale where Tressa finally leaves home, to Primrose’s sordid tragedy of revenge and loss. Each have a distinct feel and the voice work of each truly builds an engaging world, with cultures, dialects and social standings. Hunter H’annit’s cold and crisp voice is interlaced with an archaic English tongue, common to her tribe in the woods, whilst Virion’s cocky American accent comedically rubs shoulders with cockney theives. Sound is key in a realm of pixels, the soundtrack a very typical JRPG affair with voices ranging from compelling to cringe-worthy, but what is on offer soars or creeps as it should.
Much like gathering your party of eight, you can unlock skills as and when you choose. Building JP between fights, you’re free to pick whatever skill you want for each character, unlocking them in any order you wish. Unlocking more skills offers useful bonuses that can be equipped, ranging from a permanent stat boost to additional chances to attack, its a very liberal system of growth. Certain class skills, like Alfyn’s Concoctions or H’aanit’s Blue Mage-esque beast skill collecting, furthers combat options. Able to pull some ingredients together to resuscitate and turn the tide of battle is Alfyn’s specialty, whilst summoning the smitten townsfolk Primrose has managed to gather into combat can also offer a plethora of secret weapons.
The game truly spreads its wings within the second chapter of a character, battle music changing, bosses only susceptible to a shieldbreak if their summoned lackeys are felled first. This spike in difficulty keeps you on your toes, allowing you to layer newfound skills on top of the flow of a boss fight, finally gaining access to the exorbitant shield points of towering, detailed boss sprites, worlds away from their diminutive overworld counterparts.
Octopath Traveller is a rich game full of secrets and features to discover many hours into the title, with novel, convenient additions such as fast travel and a faceted combat system, transforming one of gaming’s oldest genre mechanics into something fresh and compelling. Whilst there’s a distinct lack of interaction between the eight protagonists, optional skits present in chapter two aside, the eight tales allow you to don eight perspectives instead of one conglomerate story. It would have been wonderful to see the eight interact together properly as their personalities seem to bounce off each other quite well, but this makes way for a less linear game where the mechanics stand at the forefront. It’s eight branching roads to travel any way you wish, and that kind of freedom is rare amongst JRPGs.
Octopath Traveller is a grand, slow-burning tale