There are eight protagonists spread throughout the continent, each an interesting take on a familiar class with a unique motivation and useful abilities in and out of battle. Players can choose any one of the eight to begin with, and although you’re free to explore anywhere on the continent once you’ve seen the start of their personal story that spurs them to leave their home on an adventure, the game smartly pushes you towards building the whole crew.
I began the game with Primrose, a dancer on a secret mission of revenge who can charm any townsperson to travel with her and aid her in battle. By six hours in I had also collected a heavy-hearted warrior striving to get back on the righteous path, a wide-eyed young merchant looking for adventure and a genius yet socially-inept scholar who considers himself something of a Sherlock Holmes.
There’s also a thief out to restore his honour, a cleric on a selfless pilgrimage, a hunter in search of her lost mentor and an apothecary determined to save lives far and wide.
But as their back-stories differ, so do their abilities in the game’s turn-based battles. Each character favours different weapons and can learn different spells and effects as they gain experience, and they really are quite diverse. For example H’aanit the hunter can capture injured creatures instead of killing them, and you can summon them later to attack your foes.
And speaking of battles, the entire system in Octopath Traveler is sublime. Similarly to this team’s last game, Bravely Default, characters earn “battle points” on each turn, and you can save them up to augment your abilities. For example if you spend four points a regular sword attack becomes a flurry of four strikes, a fireball becomes a massive, all-consuming inferno or a healing spell restores much more health. The potential for great strategy grows as your characters learn more skills, as you could spend all of Primrose’s points to power up her Lion’s Dance, which gives Olberic the warrior more physical strength, and then upgrade his Level Slash to decimate everybody.
Then there’s the Break system, which lets you learn and exploit the weaknesses enemies have to certain weapons and elements in order to stun them and interrupt their turn. More powerful enemies need more concentrated attacks to stun, but finding ways to attack their weaknesses is to key to winning. It all adds an extra active element to the traditionally slow turn-based battles, and also encourages you to build balanced parties.
You can only take four characters with you at once, but I found their various in-battle skills mixed with their unique exploration abilities (stealing from townspeople, for example, or challenging them to duels), meant I cycled through them regularly. If you explore the world enough you will eventually find ways to teach the character’s secondary jobs, opening up the possibility of a warrior-cleric hybrid or a dancer that can also cast devastating elemental magic, which you can spend an awful lot of time levelling up each person.
The story is one of the biggest departures from RPGs of old, as there is no overarching world-ending plot here, just eight interesting and diverse tales. I love how each story is so closely tied to each character’s personality, with some light-hearted and funny and others surprisingly dark. There are kidnappings, ritual sacrifices and even sexual slavery operations, but there are also pirate adventures and good old fashioned heists, and it works becuase they’re all contained in their own stories.
Even in places where I thought it was getting too weird (Cyrus is accused unjustly of seducing one of his students and so decides to take a sabbatical to find a book that went missing from the library), the character of each traveler and the tone of each story ended up making it work. There is a huge amount of voice acting here too, which helps, and you can choose to listen in English or the original Japanese.
The downside of this kind of storytelling is that the paths never really connect. The characters all follow their own stories, and don’t team up like the Avengers and take on some big evil. Like I said above I think this approach allows for great variety, but it’s not without weirdness. Depending on the order you collect the characters, the thief Therion could set off alone (which makes sense for his character and story) or with a group of three other people who just showed up outside an item shop and asked to go with him (which makes no sense).
The only time there’s even light crossover is during “travel banter”. Occasionally during one character’s story, another character will have something to say, and you can listen in. These are purely optional scenes, but it’s fun to see the characters you’re coming to know interact with each other, even in this small way.
On your journey you travel through forests and towns, snowfields and harbours, and every time I found a new location I was stunned by its beauty. The chapters of the stories are spread all around, but even if you’re just poking around on your own you’re bound to find a hidden cave with valuable treasures or powerful items inside, or a character with side missions to give, which typically means you’ll need one of your characters special actions to solve it. Every main story chapter has a suggested level attached, so you can decide if you’re ready or not. But even if you go in early and hit a wall, it’s easy to leave for a while, do something else and come back stronger. This element of the game, which eliminates the need to grind mindlessly, is one of Octopath‘s great strengths.
From its smartly designed menus and battle information to its incredible score (which, again, feels like a 2018 interpretation of what’s come before), this is a meticulous and intoxicating game. I can understand how some RPG purists might be put off by the mix of traditional and innovative elements, but it’s hard to argue with results like this.
With an amazingly addictive battle system, interesting stories and a beautiful world that I wanted to (and was encouraged to) explore inch of, this is a special adventure that feels like playing a classic Final Fantasy for the first time, but with the gameplay and presentation benefits of an extra 20 years or so of progress.
Octopath Traveler is out now for Switch.