One look at the carefully detailed munchkin-like sprites at the heart of Octopath Traveler is confirmation of this turn-based role-playing game’s allegiance to the SNES-era RPG. But the polygonal environments of the game demonstrate that developer Square Enix, in collaboration with the Tokyo-based Acquire, doesn’t intend to only evoke the 16-bit classics of the genre, but to surpass them in terms of artistic sophistication. So it’s a shame that Octopath Traveler’s world design and storytelling often fail to match the high standards set by the game’s more ambitious ancestors.
Octopath Traveler begins by giving the player the ability to scan a map and read summaries about the lives of eight different characters. From there, you select which one you want to play as first, and once you finish the opening chapter of a protagonist’s story, you traverse the world and meet up with the remaining heroes, one by one, in order to build a formidable alliance that can help its members accomplish their individual goals. While requiring players to manage the techniques and equipment of a small group of people recalls RPGs of yore, the game’s way of having you visit marked spots on a map feels inorganic compared to how the motley warriors of Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger band together in a more cosmic and less preordained fashion.
By and large, the game’s eight playable characters have engaging backstories and personalities, from Ophilia, a selfless cleric who’s anxious about her status as an adopted child of an archbishop, to Cyrus, a perceptive scholar who’s rather oblivious to the sexual dynamics between men and women. Only the hunter H’aanit, an amalgam of Gau and Cyan from Final Fantasy VI, is close to insufferable, primarily due to her awkward use of Middle English. Even at their most inexplicable, these characters are interesting, but that doesn’t quell the sense that they’re bizarrely disconnected from one another in spite of the fact that they’re traveling as a coordinated team.
Whenever you focus on advancing the quest of a particular hero, Octopath Traveler almost completely ignores the other main characters. At times, they don’t talk to each other when a plot point practically begs them to. One of the storytelling’s most egregious failings is tied to Therion and his initial motivation to break into a manor and steal precious treasure. If, say, you begin Therion’s story having already acquired Ophilia and Tressa as part of your party, the silence on the part of Ophilia, who’s a representative of a church, and Tressa, whose storyline implies that she despises thieves, is nothing short of deafening. The game attempts to rectify this nagging problem in later chapters with optional dialogue between cast members, but these segments amount to nothing more than two individuals at a time exchanging a few remarks that have zero impact on the development of the story.
Though the various parts of Octopath Traveler’s script are rarely connected in a believable fashion, at least the turn-based combat pushes the player to really think about how the various characters’ abilities can be combined in order for your party to emerge victorious from battle. The game distances itself from RPGs its indebted to by featuring enemies, whether common or not, that can endure many hits. If you have too many characters who share the same weapons and elemental attacks in a four-person squad, you risk not having the equipment or spells required to stun specific foes, so careful planning both before and during battle is essential to victory.
Also strong is Octopath Traveler’s audio, which lends realism and personality to the game’s world and enhances the emotional resonance of particular sequences. Whether it’s the sound of snoring pirates inside a cave, water flowing in a nearby stream, or the din from landing a combo on an adversary, the crisp sound effects provide the player with a sense of immersion in a setting or situation. The soundtrack is similarly exquisite, from the acoustic power-chord strumming that underscores a mining town’s working-class toughness, to the Philip Glass-esque piano melody that mesmerizingly captures the tragedy of a female dancer holding a dying friend in a sparkling-gold desert as five men gawk at the scene from atop a small cliff.
Still, there’s something distinctly dead-seeming about the game’s depiction of life. The townspeople that you’ll encounter throughout mostly suggest a taxidermist’s trophies. You also can’t talk to many of the nonplayable characters. And the lack of physical activity and optional dialogue prompts feels especially peculiar when you’re inside a tavern, a place where you might expect a modicum of jabbering and commotion among patrons. (Even an RPG as old as 1987’s Final Fantasy featured citizens who could move around towns on their own and whom you could always speak to.) What’s more, the game’s non-town locations are remarkably similar, with treasure chests never far from view, and trails so simple that you will rarely feel lost or at the mercy of an uncaring environment. For a game whose title seems to promise a winding journey of deep and dangerous discoveries, Octopath Traveler goes out of its way to put you on the most predictable and comforting of paths.