Square-Enix’s new RPG Octopath Traveler is out today, and it’s awesome. Great storylines and characters, fun gameplay, awesome graphics and music. It’s a retro RPG fan’s dream come true. Well, almost. There’s no doubt it’s a great game, but there is a glaring issue.
The game totally fails its entire premise.
So the title of the game references that there are eight main characters (octo), and they are each on their own quest (path), and are traveling around the world. It’s a weird title, but I suppose it makes sense.
So that’s the whole concept of the game, the main draw. Keep in mind that Square-Enix decided to name this game not after the storyline or anything, but after the main gameplay gimmick. And a gimmick is indeed what it is, and I’ll explain why shortly.
It’s really cool that you get to choose who your main character is. That’s a neat feature. And every character has a different opening cutscene and different starting location in the world.* These are awesome things that really fulfill what Square-Enix was going for.
However, this is not the first Square-Enix game to do this exact thing, though: Seiken Densetsu 3, the sequel to the acclaimed Secret of Mana, did it in 1995 and much better.
You see, in Octopath Traveler, the whole point of the game is choosing a character, going on their opening adventure, and then traveling around the world, recruiting the other characters, teaming up, and experiencing their adventures as well. This is the game’s main appeal.
The game doesn’t even try to give you a reason for these characters uniting.
In Seiken Densetsu 3, after you choose your main character, you do their adventure, and then at a sensible point in the story, you meet the other characters, and they join your party for a good reason, explaining their motivations, and it makes sense that these characters’ paths would cross during the story that’s being told, and that they would join each other.
But in Octopath, every character’s storyline is so unique and separate from anything happening in the world, that there is literally no reason whatsoever for them to join each other. But they do anyway. And it’s not even explained in-game, which is awful design. All it would take to fix this would be some proper dialog, to explain some reason why the character joining you would be seeking some additional help, and why your main character would be interested in helping. But we don’t get that.
When you visit a new town, you’ll see the joinable-character just standing around. When you talk to them, you simply get a popup window asking if you want that person on your team. There is no reason to say no. You are then given the option of viewing that character’s intro cutscene, the same thing you would have witnessed if you had selected that person as your main character.
Other than the starting location and the first quest you go on, there is no real point to “choosing a character.”
You will get to see every character’s story from beginning to end, so it doesn’t really matter who you chose at the beginning. Your main character will never be able to leave your active party, so I guess that forces there to be a point?
The worst part is that some of these characters don’t even want help. While Alfyn is a nice, chatty guy, and you can imagine he would welcome the company of some random adventurers to help him out, Therion for example consistently makes a show of wanting to work alone.
Yet, without very much dialog at all, Therion will suddenly do a 180 and join a large group of travelers he doesn’t know, as he prepares to sneakily break into a mansion. It’s not just out-of-character for him to accept help, but it doesn’t even make any sense for the kind of adventure he’s about to go on. Worse still is that my main character was Ophilia, the kind and brave cleric who was raised in a church and is on a noble pilgrimage. She would never, ever join up with someone like Therion, and would probably try to stop someone like him if she knew of his plans.
The most-common criticism I’ve seen of the game is that it’s repetitive, because you are playing character’s backstories over and over, but it’s worse than that because there is no reason presented that explains why these characters would join up. It’s most obvious during cutscenes, where only the relevant character even appears. If you’re doing Therion’s quests, none of your other characters will appear in cutscenes or have any role to play whatsoever. Just having your other characters appear in cutscenes, even off to the side and offering no dialog, really isn’t too much to ask for.
Nail in the coffin: you HAVE to play the game this way.
You might be thinking that because every character’s storyline is so unique and separate from every other character, it would be better to just do one character’s storyline from start to finish.
TOO BAD! At the end of each character’s “chapter 1,” they’ll likely be around level 5. But guess what the recommended level is to start chapter 2? Around level 25. And leveling up makes a big difference in this game, even just being a couple levels below the recommendation might make a certain story chapter impossible. You can either grind forever to get through one character’s whole story, or play the other characters’ stories (which is what you’re expected to do).
What that translates to is walking around the circle-shaped world in a circle, doing everyone’s chapter 1, and then walking around the world in a circle again, doing everyone’s chapter 2, and so on.
The game is constantly pulling your attention away from the most recent exciting events you’ve experienced. Even though all of your characters are very motivated to accomplish their goals, having just gone through some dramatic inciting adventure, they will just abandon everything and go along with some random group of people, without a word. The cast of characters is incredibly diverse too: Primrose is really serious, and Alfyn is goofy — would they actually get along well enough to travel together? Many of these characters are so different that I can imagine a good writer could create some hilarious shenanigans to throw them into, allowing us as players to see these very-different people forced to work together. But we don’t get that.
Despite being well-written, interesting characters, none of them interact with or have anything to do with each other, but they team up anyway, and that’s the only way to play the game.
There’s still hope.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the storylines themselves are really great, the characters as individuals are great, the gameplay is great, the graphics are great, the music is great. There are some little flaws, like how character abilities aren’t very creative or useful– Provoke and Duel are the same thing, they let you fight NPCs, but what’s even the point of fighting an NPC??? Guide and Allure are also the exact same thing, getting an NPC to join you. But these flaws are very tolerable when the rest of the game is great.
My only hope is that, after completing every character’s story, there will be some mega adventure that actually does unite all of them, gives them a reason to be together. I haven’t gotten very far in the game yet, so I’m not sure. It could be that the game just sort of ends when you complete every last character’s final chapter. That would be lame.
I’m totally fine with having to use my imagination to think of what kinds of interactions these characters would have together outside of cutscenes. In fact, that’s usually a big part of the fun in a ROLE-PLAYING game. But it’s really hard when the characters don’t interact at all, ever. Adding to that is how some characters would clearly not even be friends with each other, because they are so different in personality and motivations. So I kind of can’t use my imagination, because there’s nothing to go off of.
No regrets on my purchase, though. The game’s format actually reminds me a lot of monthly comic books. For you non-nerds, here’s what I mean: each month, a new issue is released. Let’s say you like reading Batman, Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman. The stories told in their comics are all totally separate from each other, and when you finish the issue, you want to move on to the next. But you have to wait another month before you can read the next issue for any of the characters you like. So you go from reading, for example, Wonder Woman’s issue for that month, to Batman’s, even though their stories are unrelated. They are still good stories and you like the characters. Putting it into this kind of thinking helps me enjoy Octopath Traveler a little more.