Alfyn's so-called path-action as one of the eight main characters of Octopath Traveler is "Inquire". This ability doesn't offer a practical advantage in the same way the other path actions might but it gives you a brief biography of the NPC that you're interacting with and what kind of life they've led. These biographies are each unique glimpses into an NPC's life that in any other RPG would be a blank slate or a text dispenser. But in Octopath Traveler, each of the townsfolk has led their own stories in this world. It lends itself to the idea that you and your party aren't the only ones who have been on a journey; the world of Octopath Traveler is one that has boundless potential.
Octopath Traveler is one of Square-Enix's most interesting forays into the RPG genre in recent memory. Turn-based combat is slowly but surely replaced in favour of more action-based battle systems, with even Square's stout and faithful Dragon Quest franchise said to be getting a shift in the upcoming Dragon Quest 12. Octopath Traveler stands as a shining example of how good turn-based combat can be. Headed by Team Asano of Bravely Default fame, Octopath Traveler marked the beginning of the HD-2D style as a way to merge the timeless visuals of the very best SNES RPGs with the striding technology of today and the results speak for themselves. With a sequel right around the corner in February, there's no better time to look back on this unique RPG released in 2018 for the Switch before being launched on other platforms as late as 2021!
Whilst most agree that the visuals of the game are nothing short of a treat to look at even 5 years later, the main point of discussion with this game stems from the unique way it tackles narrative. That unique approach lies in the title of the game itself; Octopath Traveler. Octo is the common prefix for eight; instead of one narrative that covers the entire continent of Orsterra, each party member has their own distinct narrative that belongs to them and them alone.
For an example of how distinct these narratives can be, we can take a look at the character of Primrose the Dancer compared to Tressa the Merchant. Primrose was one of the first characters introduced before the game was released and was one of two characters that players could choose to play as in the early pre-release demo way back in September 2017. This was when the game was just "Project Octopath Traveler" before they settled on the official name of "Octopath Traveler" in what might have been the most anticlimatic name reveal in gaming history.
Her story is a notably bleak one of revenge, with the mission to avenge her murdered Father by hunting down those who killed him. Primrose finds herself becoming a dancer in order to bide her time before she stumbles across one of the men responsible. During this time, she falls under the "care" of the deplorable Helgenish, a man who is explicitly shown to harm and take advantage of the dancers in his care and who also happens to be working for one of the men responsible for her Father's death. After killing Helgenish in a startlingly dark scene, you journey to kill the rest. Without going into spoilers, her story maintains this sense of macabre throughout and it makes for a massively compelling journey in its own right.
Completely divorced from her story stands Tressa the Merchant, a character whose plot is primarily interested in following the whimsical journal of a mysterious person and journeying around the continent to follow in this person's footsteps. Comparatively, a far more light-hearted tale is complemented by Tressa's generally bubbly persona in comparison to the more serious Primrose.
It would be very easy to pit each narrative against one another but the overall sense is that each of these characters is very much on their own journey throughout Octopath Traveler. The only scenarios in which the ensemble cast actually interact are when you first recruit them to your team and in bitesize vignettes that allow different characters to weigh in on certain goings-on.
Seeing a character like the mild-mannered Ophelia giving her take on the bidding of Therion the thief or the old-spoken H'aanit interacting with any of the others are just some of the moments that really stand out in a cast of 8 very strong personalities.
But despite the intricate and ambitious nature of the narrative being presented by Octopath Traveler, my first playthrough was met with slight disappointment. I had taken part in the original demo back in 2017 and enjoyed what I played as it reminded me of Bravely Default. Upon launch in 2018 I picked it up again, and while I played a decent chunk of the game, I ended up falling off the ride partway through.
Going in, I anticipated a story that would eventually unite all eight characters under a single banner and fight against one common enemy. That absolutely is not the case and looking back on it, that's more than okay! Each character's story would suffer with becoming wrapped up in the other's plot. Therion's quest to find the dragonstones would have to conveniently link with Primrose's quest to avenge her father who would then have to find a reason to help Alfyn go around the world and study medicine.
When thinking about the narrative like that, it would end up being a massively confusing and convoluted affair that would do itself a massive disservice. Because of that, Octopath Traveler is a game that I've had to learn to love over the course of many years. While a younger me was all about an action-packed narrative with a big overall villain, a slightly older me has been able to appreciate the more nuanced and thoughtful storytelling that underpins Octopath as a whole.
The ability to have eight distinct and well-realised stories within one fantasy setting is an impressive achievement that many don't appreciate at first glance. Many developers craft their fantasy worlds to fit one narrative and that is the end of it; having a world that is flexible enough to contain 8 different stories is nothing short of commendable at the very least! And while there is ultimately a grander conflict that swoops in at the conclusion of each traveler's tale, bringing them all together, this end-game threat is not where the focus of the game lies and is instead a neat bonus for those who have taken this long journey.
This in conjunction with the well-developed NPC characters that populate the world helps to cement Octopath Traveler as a masterclass in RPG world-building that deserves to be appreciated for what it does rather than for what it doesn't do. With this in mind, Octopath Traveler really does become one of the most authentic "role-playing" games out of the whole of Square-Enix's recent lineup.
You're allowed and borderline encouraged to not just journey across this world in search of monsters and dungeons but to become a part of the world itself and forge your own journey across the continent. Player agency is something that is well-respected as you play Octopath Traveler and that agency to choose who you want to follow and what stories you want to experience adds to it. Orsterra isn't just a stage for a story to unfold, it's a living and breathing world.
This is helped significantly by how the game always frames each narrative as "you are" whoever you choose to play as. The developers want you to explore these horizons in the shoes of these characters themselves, rather than putting a barrier between you and the protagonists.
The sequel to the game is due out in February, aptly named Octopath Traveler 2. It looks to offer even more in terms of the wonderful characters and world first introduced back in 2018 and if the quality of that game is anything to go off, Octopath Traveler 2 will be a treat for RPG lovers. With an already solid battle system as a foundation, the world appears to be even more varied in culture and architecture in a way that makes me eager to journey and see what kind of people are living in this new world!
With stories that promise even greater variety in terms of tone and premise, the cast of Octopath Traveler 2 is building itself up to be an exciting continuation of the original game's form and a bold new turn-based RPG at a time when this genre is being largely looked after by independent developers!
In addition to this are more story moments where various characters will come across one another and help each other in their narratives. While it is still unclear how this will inform the structure of each character's individual tale, seeing more interaction between various characters will be interesting nonetheless!
One thing is set in stone, the future of the turn-based RPG is secure with the continuation of franchises like Octopath Traveler and Bravely Default and developers like Team Asano. While Final Fantasy has all but abandoned its turn-based roots, there are still plenty of options offering narratives that manage to stand shoulder-to-shoulder as mature and compelling options for all.
Like a fine wine, I was maybe too young to appreciate the nuance and subtlety of Octopath's ambition. Over the course of a couple of years though, I have been able to learn to appreciate the ambition of Octopath Traveler and embrace it for what it is rather than what it isn't.
Here's to a very fruitful future for turn-based RPGs!
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