When we think of the JRPG genre, we often find ourselves referring to the same old roster of classics—the Final Fantasy series, Dragon Quest, Shin Megami Tensei, and Pokemon, to name a few. All of these games share one thing in common: Their long, winding tales stretch out across hundreds of hours to form a singular, epic tale. In Octopath Traveler, a joint effort between Square Enix and Acquire, we see the complete opposite. Trading the singular linearity of the grand adventure for something new, Octopath Traveler instead opts to take a much more freeform approach, and the result is a choose-your-own adventure collection of stories that bend and shape around the player in a way the genre has never really been able to do before.
Set in the fantasy land of Orsterra, you begin the game with a choice between eight different protagonists, each with their own storyline, personality, and skill set to offer. There’s a variety to these characters—from the typical downtrodden knight to the peppy young merchant girl looking to travel the world to learn her craft, each of the characters bring their own distinct flavor to the mix. It’s easy to make up your party of four entirely out of likable personalities. Their skills might not always mesh well, but when you reach the chapter two mark of the story the game opens up a job system that allows you to patch up any gaps you might have in your party composition, making any number of combinations viable as you continue through the rest of the game. Each of the eight characters also gains a set of unique path abilities that are used outside of combat to interact with other people in the game world, although these vary wildly in terms of actual usefulness, and after the gimmick of them wears off they tend to fall by the wayside.
While it’s a refreshing change to be able to journey at your own pace, the freedom to tackle each character’s story segments does comes at a cost. Each character has four main story chapters to complete, and the game has to try and balance the overall power and level of the party against the progressing difficulty of each chapter, resulting in a lot of disjointed breaks in between story beats. This is especially noticeable if you’re trying to progress through all eight characters’ storylines at the same time. It could be a dozen or so hours before you end up swinging back around to the next chapter of a specific character, and it’s difficult to slip back into the flow of the narrative when you’re trying to juggle so many different story threads at the same time. This is compounded by the fact that, despite having a full party of four, each character’s story plays out in isolation, parallel to the rest of your current roster. There are little vignettes where the characters will occasionally share some light banter about the current events, but for the most part there’s very little interaction that connects your party members together. The silence between them hangs heavily. .
With combat taking up a large portion of your time in Octopath Traveler, it’s fortunate that the mechanics at play behind each encounter are engaging and well thought out. Combat centers around a weakness system in which every enemy has a number of vulnerabilities. By exploiting these during each turn, you can disrupt an enemy and cause them to skip a round and become even more susceptible to damage for a short time. These weaknesses are often hidden until first discovered, and the process of learning how to best approach each enemy type makes combat feel almost like you’re solving a puzzle. Your opponents become quite challenging in time, and there’s a often a fine line between victory and defeat. It will make you think much more strategically about how you stack up your enemy breaks to give your team the upper hand at the most opportune moment.
At the end of each chapter, and scattered across the deepest dungeons in the world, you’ll find a number of unique boss encounters. These fights, often made much more pronounced and dramatic by an exaggerated character sprite looming over the party, are some of the best battles the game has to offer. They’re almost always tough, and do a great job at introducing new and unique mechanics specific to that fight that force you to try out new tactics and constantly reevaluate your party’s composition. During one fight a boss produced a poison mist that reduced the maximum health pool of my entire party after each round, forcing me to try and finish the fight quickly or run the risk of being too weak to stand against its sweeping attacks. Another fight saw the boss constantly shift its vulnerabilities, forcing me to adapt each round in order to break through its defenses. Even optional bosses have their own little quirks, and these additions are a great way to keep you engaged with long drawn out battles that would otherwise end up boiling down to spamming the biggest attack every turn until someone dies.
Octopath Traveler’s choice to break away from the norm and explore an open world JRPG hybrid was a bold move, and while it doesn’t quite come through the other end unscathed, the game does do a great job at keeping you engaged. The characters are all likeable and grounded in the world around them, and each story stays within its own lane and manages to tell a much more personal tale rather than one of some grand world-spanning intrigue. You’d be forgiven for thinking Octopath Traveler was much like the titles that came before it, telling a singular focused story of adventure, when the reality is that the game offers up a collection of tales. It’s an anthology of mini adventures that span the length and breadth of the genre’s own history.
Octopath Traveler was developed by Square Enix and Acquire and published by Nintendo. It is available for the Switch.
Andy Moore is a gaming freelancer based in the UK. When he’s not writing, he can be found staring blankly out of the nearest window, or spending way too much time on Twitter.