Octopath Traveler: A good game I’ll never finish

(This is a discussion with light spoilers. This post simply represents one opinion among many.)

Fact: I’m a sucker for anything with a good story. So when I first caught wind of the JRPG Octopath Traveler and heard of its eight branching narrative paths, I was all in.

Co-developed by Square Enix, the mastermind behind many beloved JRPG franchises, and Acquire, it had to be a home run right? The uniquely stunning “HD2D” graphic style — no, this is not a term I pulled out of my ass; Square Enix filed trademarks for both “HD2D” and “HD-2D” on Jan. 21 — was an interesting take on the resurgence of 16-bit art. The promise of a “rousing, dynamic musical score” was fulfilled. And what I was most excited for, the narrative, truly did consist of eight storylines that coalesced into a lengthy adventure.

But despite ticking all of the “great JRPG” boxes, I didn’t finish the game, and here’s why: it’s a pretty, but boring and slow slog to some end goal I couldn’t be bothered to worry about.

I completed roughly ten hours of Octopath Traveler and found myself frustrated by just how little emotional progress I had made. Long story-based games are always appreciated, but only if there is enough emotional drive to fuel them.

Also, their motives for venturing out into a beautifully dangerous world were static and unoriginal; how many times must we relive the “avenge a murdered family member” or “I’m a teenager who thinks they’re an adult that’s ready to strike out on my own” plots? After a few months of not touching the game, I read ahead to see if I was missing anything truly dynamic that happens later on.

Spoiler alert: I was, in fact, not missing anything revolutionary.

This becomes all the more frustrating when you realize that each of the eight storylines run parallel to each other with little interaction. Our protagonists can chat between each other during downtime, but it’s an unsatisfactory replacement for actual narrative depth. The basic mechanics of the writing is phenomenal, but the intricacies of effective storytelling are lost in an effort to create a sense of vast breadth.

Perhaps I’d be singing a different tune altogether if the cast were more diverse, but as is typical for most JRPGs, diversity beyond whether a character function as a mage, knight, or thief is minimal. The designs themselves aren’t terrible. In fact, I thought most of them were pretty great. But Octopath Traveler consists of more thin, pale women than a sorority house. The men of the game fare no better — a weathered warrior and gangling mage? Groundbreaking.

Again, well-worn plot devices, characterizations, and tropes aren’t always bad, but they have to be dynamic. Something has to feel new. I, and most reviewers, did not find Octopath Traveler to exceed in this regard.

Combat presents another glaring issue. Every swift swing of a sword or spell cast is gorgeously animated and the battle system involves deep and strategic turn-based combat. I enjoyed utilizing the varied abilities to chip away at my foes, but every battle is just too damn slow.

Common of enemies must be whittled down over several minutes. Leveling is a bit of a grind as well (a tenant of classic JRPGs), forcing you to endure countless battles to keep your party up to par. Put these together and it’s a recipe for some of the slowest combat in recent gaming history.

Not every game has to reinvent the wheel, but what’s present must present something new and moving to make a positive impression on players. Technical finesse is present here in spades; it’s the story’s deeper machinations that fail to put forth anything substantial.

Octopath Traveler fulfills its promise of being a beautiful game with eight different story paths. It’s a shame those paths have been trodden a thousand times over.


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