Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 3/6/2019 on Teacher by Day; Gamer by Night
Square has been on a real roll of putting out some high-quality retro-styled JRPGs lately. After playing I am Setsuna and Lost Sphear, I was hyped for Octopath Traveler. I resisted the urge to buy it at launch in my brutal struggle to make not-stupid decisions with my money, but I only held out for a couple of months. Then I sank around 100 hours into the game. I ALMOST 100% completed the game. I did all four chapters for all eight characters. I got all of the best equipment. I unlocked every job and completed every side quest. ALMOST was I was at 100% on the game….almost…
So before I go into the one single thing that stood between me and completionist glory, I’ll explain the structure of the game. There are eight protagonists in the game, and when you start, you pick one as your “main” protag. Who you pick doesn’t really affect anything other than whose Chapter 1 you start on, and you can’t remove whomever you picked from your party until you finish all eight characters’ stories. Other than that, it makes no impact on the story who you pick. You then go from town to town, starting new characters’ Chapter 1 and then continuing their story. That’s where the game’s first shortcoming appears – the game is laid out to have eight separate stories that intersect, but those intersections are loose and sparse at best until you get to the very end. When you finished each character’s Chapter 4, you start to see common strands linking them, but they don’t really converge at all until you get to the post-game dungeon (after a solid 15 or 20 minutes of unskippable credits. Then you find out how they’ve all been connected all along, and that part is really cool, but they feel completely unrelated throughout the first 90% of the game. Why are these people randomly traveling together and helping each other? There’s no interaction between the characters aside from unvoice “travel banter” that pops up infrequently and never contains any meaningful or significant dialogue. It all feels like a gigantic missed opportunity.
The one part of the game I didn’t complete is the post-game dungeon. I finished almost all of it. There’s a boss rush with eight boss rematches and then a two-phase fight with the true final boss. I got about the final boss’s second phase down to about half health before I got rekt. After six tries and never making it past that point, I said screw it and gave up. It’s post-game, the credit rolled. I count that as beaten. What makes that post-game boss so damn frustrating is that he spawns souls that lock all of his weaknesses to keep you from breaking his defenses and stunning him in addition to making him completely invulnerable to any damage whatsoever. The only way to unlock his weaknesses and deal damage is to kill all of the minion souls. What makes it worse is that all but one of the souls’ weaknesses are always locked, and the boss will respawn a soul within a turn or two, so you have one or two turns to kill all of the souls, stun the boss, and dish out as much damage as possible before the boss recovers and spawns more souls, starting the whole process over again. The boss rush isn’t hard, but it’s extremely time-consuming. The boss’s first phase, however, is tough, and the second phase is downright brutal, and the ridiculous invulnerability ends up making the difficulty spike from “stay on your toes, but you’ll be alright” to “wtf balls to the wall” hard, and difficulty spikes like that are – in my opinion – a sign of a poorly made game and kill the fun for me. So screw it, I got close. As one of my college professors always said, good enough for government work.
Octopath Traveler’s biggest problem is that it just falls short of its potential. It’s not a bad game; it’s just a disappointing game. The characters are all pretty interesting. Olberic is a noble knight setting out to find the truth about a painful betrayal. Therion is a master thief on a quest to redeem himself from a shame brought on him by his own pride. Tressa is a young merchant traveling the world to see what there is to see and gain experience from her journey. Ophelia is a cleric on a religious pilgrimage across the continent. Alfyn is a wandering apothecary who just wants to help those in need. Cyrus is a brilliant scholar seeking out an ancient and taboo tome that vanished from his university’s archives mysteriously 15 years prior. H’aanit is a huntress on a quest to find and rescue her master. Primrose – Octopath waifu #1 – is on a quest to kill the trio of assassins who murdered her father and brought to ruin her family’s once powerful noble house. Had these stories been written to intersect before the very end of the game, it would have been a fascinating experience. Instead, it ends up feeling like eight extremely short, separate RPGs haphazardly pasted together. It’s still a fun experience with a beautiful world – seriously, the background’s visuals here are top notch – but it could have been so much better with a little more TLC in the writing department.
Octopath Traveler is a bit of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, the gameplay is a lot of fun, and it feels a bit like Bravely Default. The multiple protagonists give it a fairly unique feel, but the writing connecting those characters’ stories just doesn’t feel cohesive enough to live up to its potential. The difficulty level also spikes from time to time especially if you’re going for the “true” ending. You’ve got eight characters in a party with a maximum of four characters, and the inactive characters don’t gain any experience. That necessitates a certain degree of grinding which is definitely NOT a welcome feature to a JRPG in 2018 or 2019 for me. Octopath Traveler is definitely a game worth owning and playing for Switch enthusiasts, but as a JRPG, it’s kind of run-of-the-mill and not particularly outstanding in any area aside from “missed potential.” It’s good, but it’s definitely not great.