"And I Took the Octopath Less Traveled"
Leading into this game, what I was expecting was that as the game went on, the eight characters would gradually come together over the course of the story, joining forces as their goals naturally aligned and eventually it would all culminate in one final battle. This sounded like a very interesting narrative, so I got pretty set on wanting to see it. But, that’s not the kind of game that Octopath is. While you can (and are encouraged to) gather together all eight travelers to form your battle party, each chapter of a given character’s story plays out as if the other seven are absent, with the exception of a few optional banter scenes depending on who is in your active party of four. At first, I was a bit disappointed—while some of the banter scenes do reveal bits of information or show enjoyable interactions between the characters, it still didn’t feel like enough, and the gameplay story segregation really puzzled me. Why have everyone traveling and fighting together if the cutscenes portray these events all happening in parallel?
But, having read many comments from the creators of the game, and now having much more experience with the full product, those feelings have shifted. The creators wanted to give the player complete and total freedom to watch these stories play out in any order they chose. So, you can go and do all eight Chapter 1s in any order you feel like, then do a couple of the Chapter 2s, maybe try out a Chapter 3, or heck, just try to clear one character’s story using only that character. Prioritizing player freedom is a design choice that I can respect, and I can easily see why that precluded letting the characters’ affect each other’s stories. What if I do Cyrus’s Chapter 2 with Primrose there, how does she affect that story? What if I replaced her with Olberic, what would be different? What if they’re both there? How would those changes affect Cyrus’s Chapter 3, and if I decide to go off and have everyone help Tressa do her Chapter 2 in between, what changes will that bring to each of these different Cyrus Chapter 3s? The many, many different possible ways you could go through these stories would necessitate writing hundreds of potential scenarios for every possible sequence of events the player selected, only getting more and more complicated as things progress. Thinking about it that way, it’s an easy decision to tell eight specific stories broken into a few acts that can be strung together in any order. And honestly, once I really got into the game, I cared less and less about the divide between the gameplay and the story.
The point is, Octopath Traveler is less about telling one grand story, and more about telling several individual stories within the same connected world. There could perhaps be more obvious points of connection between the tales, but there are quite a few subtle ones that make the continent of Orsterra feel rather alive. This is illustrated especially well with how NPCs and sidequests are handled: though there are a few faces you can’t interact with at all (mostly in large cities), any NPC you can talk to can also be interacted with through the characters’ various Path Actions. Every one of them has a bit of backstory you can learn using Cyrus or Alphyn, most have a couple items that Tressa can buy or Therion can steal, and many have battle data so that you can challenge them to a duel with Olberic or H’aanit, or bring them along to aid you if you have Ophilia or Primrose. The backstories especially help flesh out these otherwise generic entities, since some of them refer to other characters’ and their backstories, allowing you to slowly piece together a general idea of how a certain family or town functions as a whole if you want to invest the time. NPCs have more personality and leave more of an impression than we’ve typically come to expect from them in a game like this. And when one of them gives you a sidequest, it always feels somehow meaningful, especially if you’ve taken a look at their backstory or sparred with them and have developed some history with this person. More than that, they’re not always very specific on how to solve them—you’re usually just presented a problem, and then you need to figure out how you might go about fixing it. Virtually every sidequest involves some sort of Path Action, but since two characters can achieve the same end using their similar Actions, you have some freedom in how to accomplish the solution when you discover it, and even better, some sidequests have multiple possible resolutions depending on what Path Action you use! For example: in Sunshade, you speak to a dancer who is ready to quit, but wants to put on one last show. The most straight-forward way to go about it is to find another, more accomplished dancer in town, buy/steal her favorite dress, and deliver it to the quest-giver so she can give one last memorable performance and call it quits. But! In the same town is a sickly girl who mentions how much she loved seeing the quest-giver perform. If you use Primrose or Ophilia’s Path Action to lead the quest-giver to her, a touching scene plays out where the quest-giver realizes her performances do still have an impact on people, and she uses this chance to inspire the girl to follow her dreams and not give up just because she’s having a difficult time right now, before going on to continue her career. I only discovered the first solution after reading about it online, but I adamantly believe it an unacceptable method because the second one is such a better resolution, and dang it, this game has made me legitimately care about NPCs who don’t even have actual names and wanting to see their stories play out in the best possible way. How often does that happen?
Speaking of Path Actions, they’re…good. The thing is, you can use them on NPCs whenever you want, and this is great, but there are also some instances in every character’s story where you need to use their Path Action to progress. Unfortunately, the story-relevant uses almost always just feel like busy-work. Oh, you need to get this person to stop bothering that other person? Use Provoke on them, then we’ll continue the scene. Oh, you need to access this chapter’s dungeon? This NPC will get you in, but you need to do three fetch quests, one at a time, Stealing items with a 100% success rate and running back and forth all over town. Oh, that merchant will only trade this treasure map for a legendary shield rumored to be in town? Run over and Purchase it from this other merchant just to run back and make the swap. Starting to see what I mean? And yet, when there are chapters that don’t require you to use your Path Action at all, it still manages to seem like a missed opportunity. Mostly because there are a few shining instances where your Path Actions do carry actual weight, and I love how they’re done. Cyrus’s investigations come close (falling short because they’re more about reading comprehension than actual deduction), but I can think of only three really great examples off the top of my head: one instance where Therion can steal any of four items to advance his story, but the one closest to where you are has an abysmal success rate while the ones a bit of a walk away are decent and the one way back in town has 100%; when Olberic finally finds the person from his past he’s looking for, you’re sent straight into a Challenge sequence rather than a standard boss battle; and in Ophilia’s ending, you are tasked with Guiding someone to a specific place. (Therion’s final chapter tries to replicate the first instance in his final chapter, but both options had 100% success so I’m not counting it. And you could probably argue that the one in Ophilia’s ending is quite easy, but I still loved that the game let me take that character where they needed to go rather than doing it in a cutscene—Ophilia, and by extension the player, was asked to take an active part in the very last action of this particular story.) Should any sort of sequel or successor come about, I really hope the developers are able to find a way to make the Path Actions a more engaging element of the stories.
The endings, similarly, are a bit of a mixed bag. I don’t think I’d call any of them bad, some are just more satisfying than others. Tressa’s in particular has both really good elements and really bad elements, and I think it might be my least favorite of the bunch. Ophilia’s is probably my favorite simply because it has the best presentation of all eight: in addition to having one of the best uses of Path Actions mentioned earlier, there are several instances throughout her final boss where she steps forward and the two of them have fully-voiced dialogue, arguing their points of view and what they hope to accomplish from their victory as we’re all fighting for our lives, and it really pulls you into the moment and underscores the weight this confrontation has. Therion’s final boss also has dialogue like this, but it isn’t voiced for some reason, plus I was hoping it would let me actually Steal the treasure I went in search of and was disappointed when it didn’t. Primrose’s is…interesting. It left me feeling a bit uncertain, but I think this was done intentionally to put us closer to what Prim herself is feeling. Anyway, I’m not going to go through ‘em all, this is already way too long.
Now, there is technically a point where the stories come together in the post-game. Remember that absolutely final test thing I mentioned earlier? (Bigger spoilers in this paragraph.) After clearing all eight stories and a few specific sidequests, you unlock a true final dungeon, and though I’m definitely not ready to take a stab at it myself I did go ahead and watch someone else conquer it to see what information it held. I won’t go in-depth here, but basically you fight a series of boss rematches Mega Man style, and after each one you get a little snippet of thoughts from an important character in this world. Through these, you find out that the conflicts or inciting incidents of all eight stories were the results of a certain person’s previous attempt to achieve their own evil goal, and after this you face off with them as they make a new attempt. This is…interesting. (The one relating to H’aanit’s story is horrifying, even though I kind of saw it coming.) I mean, it definitely helps the world feel connected, and the scenes finally show all eight travelers at once (which is really satisfying to see), even asking you to split them into two parties for the final encounter so that they can all contribute, and I definitely like that. But, I dunno, maybe it just hasn’t fully sunk in yet. None of the travelers speak in this dungeon so there’s still no truly “canon” interactions between them, just the banter scenes and what you get in gameplay. I think I need more time to piece together the overall narrative of Orsterra and judge how it works.
The creators set out to make Octopath Traveler a unique and personal experience for each player, giving them vast amounts of freedom to explore and interact and learn however they please. I think this is illustrated best by the credits, which only play after you beat the final chapter of whichever character you chose to start the game as and who will be in your party permanently (until beating their final chapter). As the names go by, you see in the background a sort of highlight reel of your adventures, showing brief snippets of every single chapter of story you’ve completed in the exact order that you completed them. It even shows very short clips of each and every boss, showing exactly what you did to finish them off. (Two funny instances in mine: one where I defeated the boss but his summon unit was still on the field, so the clip showed me killing the summon; and one where the boss died to poison damage, so the clip shows us all just standing there when the boss suddenly pops into smoke.) I had no idea the game was gathering these clips as I went along, until it surprised me with this scrapbook of memories at the conclusion of my chosen character’s journey, and it was enough to make me wish I had saved that particular boss for last so that I could’ve relived the memories of finishing off the other six bosses I’d yet to face. It was like the game telling me it cherished the time we spent together, that my experience was a unique one that deserved to be documented and remembered. I forged my own path and the game was validating the decisions I’d made. Such a simple, easy little trick, but boy did it leave a heck of an impression.
Octopath Traveler is not a perfect game, not that such a thing exists. But I think the creators achieved their goal of creating a fun, free, and very personal experience for whoever chooses to pick it up. If you’ve got a Nintendo Switch and are looking to lose yourself in your travels for a few dozen hours, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Octopath.