At long last, I finished the gloriously pixelated Octopath Traveler, having first begun around February 2020. I paused a few times despite how much I like the game, so it had been on my backlog/resume list for a while. Restarting in earnest this month, I finished all the remaining chapters for all the characters and saw the credits roll after two weeks of focused fun. Previously, I’ve ranked the game near the top of my favorites list. Now finished, my final perspective is a little different, though Octopath is still one of the best JRPGs I’ve played.
There are a few particular points about the game that most reviewers and players have in common. First, presentation is great with its HD-2D stylized visuals and its stirring soundtrack. Second, gameplay is also great, sporting fun, addictive, and strategic combat that utilizes your party’s battle points against an enemy shield break system. Lastly, the story is…not so great. Why? Because there is no story; there are eight short stories.
Having finished Octopath, I now understand why, I think, many people are down on the game’s story structure. At first, though, I thought it was great overall for a few reasons.
One, while there’s not a single story but rather several mini-plots, the storytelling is very good because it blends nicely with the game’s overall presentation. Dialogue is mostly text-based, though there are several particular moments of quality voice acting that express much emotion. And each character’s plot lines are delivered in four distinct chapters, each with text/exposition overlays and a handy journal to review plot points, including info for side quests.
Two, Octopath’s story structure provided variety and flexibility in how the player can unfold or play out each of the game’s eight character stories. I really liked this approach because it made the game non-linear and could be played in small bite-sized narrative chunks. In that regard, it respected the players time and was unique.
Three, the game’s narrative arrangement presents eight individually detailed mini-stories. Though small or short, they have depth. This means they lack breadth, but there are eight in total. When added together, the sum makes for a long playtime overall. It’s a refreshing break from JRPG’s that have one long convoluted narrative arc. But this strength is also its weakness, which I felt when I finished the game.
The narrative sum is not greater than its short-story parts.
I’ve played many RPGs and read many long-ish fiction novels, so I’m accustomed to long overarching narratives, whether plot-driven or character-driven. They’re cohesive, like a 3-act play. You have one main conflict and resolution. It’s so common that it’s formulaic.
That’s what Octopath Traveler misses. It’s like you’re playing eight short RPGs that happen to be set in the same common world. Despite such omission, I enjoyed octo-traveling between eight plot lines. I could easily change characters with their intriguing stories at will to keep things fresh and avoid getting stuck. The journey itself is what it was all about as there wasn’t really a final or connecting destination.
So when I arrived at the end of all the chapters of all the characters and saw credits roll, it felt anti-climatic. I think all along, I subconsciously expected every separate sub-plot to somehow tie together to reveal an overarching plot, one that was mysteriously hidden or hinted at along the way, becoming obvious in hindsight. But that didn’t happen.
Skip this to avoid spoilers. I had heard Octopath contained some kind of ultimate over-arch nemesis. So I looked it up — wow! It’s convoluted, difficult, and fairly hidden. From what I gathered, you must be a completionist or happen to take on enough side quests to be led to the final boss. It is tied to the world and lore in some way (I noticed not-so-subtle hints to it at different points). But it’s pretty obscure, hard to find, and harder to complete. This is unfortunate to many players, I think, as it may provide the nice connection and closure to the whole game and to each of the eight characters. Sure, they’re individuals. But they live in the same world and happen to also occupy the same battle party most of the game; they are together yet their stories stay disconnected unless the player happens to find the final boss.
Like I said, since I finished the game, I now realize why so many players felt unfulfilled by the eight separate stories. The individual plots and characters are interesting and well told, but their lack of cohesion saps the game of optimal greatness.
Despite this weak point, I still enjoyed Octopath Traveler, and it remains in my top 5 JRPGs. The music is beautiful, the exquisite blend of 16-bit graphics with high-def special effects is both nostalgic and modern, and the engaging battle system is fun and addictive. All this is more than strong enough to overcome the game’s lack of a cohesive narrative.
And without doubt, I plan to buy and play a physical copy of the upcoming Octopath Traveler II as soon as I can fit it into my backlog schedule.
Have you played Octopath Traveler; what did you think?