I knew JRPGs were my favorite types of games from the moment I received my first Pokemon in Pallet Town and struck out on what would become the longest journey of my short video game-playing career. I loved the excitement of racing with friends in Mario Kart 64, the platforming wonder of Banjo-Kazooie, and even solving the clever little puzzles in Spy Fox (isn’t that a throwback!). However, nothing was quite like the feeling of pure adventure and excitement that I got from traveling around a huge world with my trusty companions by my side.
As a rather introverted only child, I grew up playing games largely by myself. Sure, I had a few friends from school, but we rarely got together to play games until my preteen years. Because of this, gaming in my younger years was characterized by two things: 1) Tons of single-player experiences, and 2) Creating my own narratives and character relationships to keep myself occupied.
Over a decade later, Octopath Traveler is facing scrutiny for encouraging players to create their own inter-party storylines and interactions. As someone who used to do that for fun, going back to it has been nothing short of a joy. But why might this be such a major issue for people?
Octopath is more a collection of short stories than a traditional “Let’s band together and save the world!” type of JRPG. Instead of having players go through each of these tales separately, however, Square Enix opted to let players form a party of the individual protagonists and travel around the massive game world together. There’s little explanation given for them teaming up outside of short introductions (“I’m having this issue, it’s really tough. Really? You’re willing to help me?”) and (later on) context-specific snippets of travel banter. Otherwise, the fact that you have eight (four at a time) companions traveling together is never really explained until the very final boss.
Many have cited this as a disappointment or glaring flaw of the game, and understandably so; it’s a particularly unusual trait in modern games, especially JRPGs. Personally, though, I loved being encouraged to use my imagination and create mini storylines and character relationships on my own. For me, the crew coming together was as simple as people running into each other, asking for help to overcome a major battle, and then each person in their respective town deciding to leave and travel together for safety. Along their travels they grow as friend and as a team, happy to help each other as long as they get assistance with their personal goals in return.
The battle system itself is built on a strong foundation of teamwork and further drives home why the crew would grow closer over time. Primrose constantly dances to buff other party members, Olberic takes hits for his comrades when their health is too low, and Alfyn tends to the wounded as quickly as he can. These are just examples from my party, but there are tons of different combinations and little character traits players can expound upon throughout their travels.
I used the word “encouraged” and not “forced” earlier because the game does a good job of setting the stage for player creativity and experimentation. The vision for the game is to both tell stories on a much smaller scale and give the player loads of choice in how they interact with those deeply personal narratives. Want to complete all eight “Chapter One’s” before moving on? Get stuck at a particularly tough boss and decide you want to challenge another? Or maybe you’re like me and decided to go through with four characters before picking up and experiencing the stories of the other four. The amount of player choice is staggering here.
Due to its incredibly non-linear nature and emphasis on intimate storylines, it’s only natural that the creative team wasn’t able to make separate story sequences for every party eventuality in every chapter of each of the eight stories. Far from a disappointment, however, Octopath took the opportunity to allow the imaginations of players run wild.
Fond of Tressa like myself and want to mess with her wholesome character by making her adopt a life of crime with a secondary Thief class? You can do that. Think it’d be hilarious (or sweet) if Olberic took up a Dancer class in an attempt to get closer to Primrose? Hey, go for it. These options might sound silly outside of strengthening your party, but they do provide value in terms of allowing more room for self-made character interactions.
It’s so often that we’re presented with the full narrative of a game to take in passively. Recent cut scene/lore-heavy JRPGs like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Ni No Kuni 2 do such a great job of laying everything out for the player (Xenoblade 2 even including special character dialogue moments throughout the world) that there’s never any need for players to add their own spin to a character. There’s nothing wrong with story-heavy JRPGs like this if their characters are done well, but what Octopath provides is an opportunity for players to flex those old creative muscles and form a closer bond with their favorite characters. Octopath has stayed true to its retro JRPG framework, and this is no exception.