If Octopath Traveler were a book, it wouldn’t be a novel, but a collection of short stories. The game is not your typical epic JRPG, being very modest in scope, telling stories that never intertwine in a big narrative, while presenting a simplified version of Bravely Default’s combat and job system. Nonetheless, the game excels in what it sets out to do, presenting a beautiful world and discussing important themes in a modest, but efficient way.
The game has eight main characters and each one has their own story, which is divided in four chapters. Let’s start with the best one to get a grasp of what the narrative is like in Octopath Traveler.
One of the characters in the game is a dancer named Primrose. When she was a young girl, Primrose had to watch three men murder her father in cold blood, and swore vengeance against them, dedicating her entire life to this goal. When her first chapter starts, she’s a dancer working for a cruel man in the desert city of Sunshade.
At the entrance of the city, there is an old man who boasts about its fame: “This is Sunshade, city of a thousand pleasures.” However, if he intended to praise the place, his sentence actually sounds ominous to someone like Primrose – and the reason for that lies in the heart of her story: after all, for men the city certainly is a wondrous town, where they go to receive pleasure, but for women, such as Primrose, Sunshade is a dark place where they must deliver that pleasure.
Her relationship with her boss, Helgenish, for example, is clearly an abusive one. Helgenish often tells Primrose that he cares for her, and that she is dear to him, but after his soft words always come the threats and the reminder of ownership (“You haven’t forgotten your debts now, have you? You haven’t forgotten who owns you?”). His objective is to lock her in a world she can’t escape if he doesn’t let her. For Helgenish is a man who treats women like objects that can be discarded when he’s done with them. For him, kind and pure souls like Primrose’s friend, Yusufa, are just “bad investment.” Like all misogynists, he is sadistic and cruel, deriving pleasure from humiliating the women under his thumb. But Primrose can be everything, but owned, and her definitive answer to Helgenish’s oppression is already becoming a classic quote.
He may believe he owns her, but she is the one who is using him to get near her target. Her fight may appear to be for personal vengeance on the surface, and she even may say stuff like “To avenge father. That is all I have – my only reason to live.” However, the themes of her chapters leave no doubt that she is fighting for something more than mere personal vengeance; she’s opposing men who believe themselves superior and entitled, who manipulate and enjoy acting like they are can crush other people. It’s no wonder that her nemesis is often called by the title “The Puppet Master”. Like Helgenish, he objectifies people to use them as he pleases. If Primrose says at the beginning that she feels free when she’s performing on a stage, the Puppet Master tries to claim for him even that, by staging her personal story as a play. He is saying to her that he was the one who put her on that stage, that he was the one who made her revenge story happen. In other words, he is, just like Helgenish, claiming ownership of her. But Primrose can be everything, but owned. She fights against men such as Helgenish for herself, certainly, but also for her friend Yusufa and every other woman in the continent of Osterra.
The game doesn’t avoid heavy themes. If Helgenish basically acts like a pimp in chapter one, the antagonist in Primrose’s second chapter is the actual owner of a brothel. Rufus is a gangster who lends assistance to powerful people in order to get favors in return. In his introduction scene, a bishop comes to him seeking help to exact revenge on a lord who deflowered his daughter – which allegedly led her to commit suicide. Rufus immediately lends his hand, but also – and that is the scary part – offers a woman to the bishop to ensure that he gets some pleasure in the meantime; a woman that looks exactly like the bishop’s own daughter, shedding a new eerie light on her suicide. Primrose is not just trying to kill Rufus because he murdered her father; she is doing it because he’s part of a bigger system that makes even bishop’s daughters commit suicide.
There is another great scene at the beginning in which a man asks his daughter what she wants to be when she grows up. She looks at Primrose, finds her beautiful, and answer that she wants to be a dancer. The man immediately reacts negatively, telling the girl that he would rather she become a proper lady. The strength of the scene comes from its the ending: before leaving, claiming that he had an urgent business to tend to at night, the man lingers for a moment and stares back at Primrose, with a look full of ambiguity. He could have looked at her with lust (she being the business he wanted to tend to at night), or with pity and sorrow; or even with disgust. What makes the moment so powerful is precisely the fact that the ambiguity doesn’t leave space for a positive interpretation, and that Primrose gets that.
And this is just a brief analysis of just one of the eight stories present in Octopath Traveler. The others don’t reach the same highs as Primrose’s, but they don’t need to, and each one has their own strengths and weakenesses.
We can find common threads between some of them. The knight Olberic and the thief Therion, for example, are both marked by betrayals in their past. Olberic had to go to exile after being betrayed in battle by his closest friend and, when his story starts, he’s abnegating his past: “No, I am no knight. Just a man with a sword and nothing more,” he claims. But when his pupil is kidnapped by brigands, history resurfaces to bite him again, making the knight finally face what happened. Olberic’s journey is one of self-discovery, with the character trying to understand what drove him to battle before the betrayal and what drives him now. Therion was also betrayed by a friend and he deals with the fact in an equally unhealthy way: if Olberic tried to hide inside himself, Therion choses simply not to trust anyone else anymore: “Take it from me: no matter how much you trust someone, they will betray you,” he warns a girl. But soon he starts to discover that his approach is very problematic, since betrayal can not only hurt, but also take the victim hostage: the less they trust others the more power they give to the betrayer.
Regarding Olberic, you can spot the quality of the writing in Octopath Traveler mainly in the depiction of his enemies. While with Primrose, for thematic reasons, the antagonists were completely despicable men, with Olberic they’re more human. Even the brigand chief, for example, gets a bit of development and shades of gray, explaining that he took no pleasure from his acts (“Never meant to do anyone no harm. But life doesn’t always give us a choice in the matter, does it?”), and accepting the knight’s judgement with no hard feelings (“A man has to own up to what he’s done”). However, the writing falters in Olberic’s chapters when it comes to exposition, making him often think about his own backstory in didactic terms just to inform the player of it (“After a time, I came to this village. Here I earn my keep as a hired sword, hiding behind another man’s name”).
The other characters have their stories more intrinsically related to their jobs. Tressa, for example, is a young Merchant who has to take over her parent’s store, but deep down dreams of traveling and discovering “what lies beyond the horizon.” In her first chapter, she meets some pirates who steal from the poor and revel on that, repeating over and over again that “The strong take while the weak quake.” In her second chapter, then, this “strong eat the weak” motto is applied to capitalism itself. She goes to a mining town ruled by a bourgeois who deceives the hardworking people so he can become even richer. As the villain says: “Those with the money make the rules,” resignifying the pirates dialogue.
Another main character is Cyrus, a scholar who teaches members of the royal family of Atlasdam and must fight with his Headmaster’s philosophy of treating knowledge as a rare commodity. While the Headmaster believes that knowledge should be restricted to a privileged few (“You will share nothing! That wisdom is for the academy, and the academy alone”), Cyrus tries to make it public. As the Catholic Church had for a time restricted the access to its most important archives, so the Atlasdam Academy has done with its own. So Cyrus’ fight is for the socialization of knowledge, with the scholar fighting enemies who try to use it for their own gains, be it money or power.
Now, Ophilia is a young cleric who takes the place of her dearest friend, Lianna, in the rite of kindling, going on a pilgrimage to light the sacred flames of her religion in towns all around Osterra. She is an altruistic and kind woman, and her second chapter has her helping two kids who mirror her relationship with Lianna: she is a good person now precisely because she had someone there for her when she needed the most. Her faith is eventually put to the test in the following chapters, since people start to question the efficacy of the Church of the Sacred Flame. After all, while her religion offers comfort in providing some answers to the great mysteries of life, it doesn’t offer material help. If someone’s beloved passes away, she can say that the person went to a better place, but she can’t bring that person back from the dead. The divine remains abstract, out of reach, with miracles happening just in stories. Then, when a man comes, with the title of Savior, with the real ability of healing the wounded and resuscitating the dead, the people abandon Ophilia in a split second. With the Savior, the divine suddenly becomes more palpable. As one man puts to her, her religion doesn’t even explain the injustices of the world: “We all put our faith in the Sacred Flame. Why does it lend its warmth to some, while forsaking others?” Therefore, Ophilia has the difficulty task of reclaiming the people’s hearts, while learning that such a thing as a Savior may be an enticing concept, but also a trap.
The seventh character is Alfyn, an apothecary as altruistic as Ophilia. He cares for the people of a little bucolic village and doesn’t even charge for his services depending on the situation (“The poor gal has enough trouble looking after old Alek. I can’t take what little she has”). His behavior makes his closest friend remember the words of a strange man who once came to their village and cured everyone from a nasty pestilence: “I saw someone in a bind, and I helped him out. Simple as that.” After those same words echo in Alfyn’s mouth he travels to help more people and find out about that man. However, whe he eventualy meets an apothecary who believes that a good thief is a dead thief, Alfyn has to face a moral dilemma regarding his profession: does every person deserve to be healed or not? His journey, then, becomes one of self-doubt, with Alfyn questioning if altruism has a bad side to it or if the other apothecary that is losing the sight of what is right and wrong.
Finally, we have the worst story by far, the one of the huntress H’aanit. She is a huntress whose master went to chase a fearsome beast and never came back; a beast that is said to possess human intelligence, which means it also shares human qualities such as cruelty and sadism. “But to slayen for sport – for pleasure or greed – is to betrayen the law of nature”, she says, horrified at the creature, and completes the message with “But to turn thy grief and anger against innocent creatures… that is the sin of men.” This pessimistic view on human nature, however, is soon discarded by the narrative, which is actually content with just showing H’aanit slaying stronger and stronger creatures, with no thematic meaning behind the battles. She has to hunt a monster and there she goes to hunt the monster, while saying words in an irritating style: that’s H’aanit’s journey.
The game’s general narrative also suffers from some obvious dissonances. Although the eight characters travel together, their individual stories play out like if they were alone, with that being specifically stated in some scenes (“Hah! Yer a fool for askin’, and even more of a fool for comin’ here alone”). However, there is some travel banter between them during the chapters, resulting in an unfortunate contradiction. And besides that, there’s the fact that their individual personalities simply don’t match, like Therion having trust issues, but accepting to travel with their bizarre group of travelers for no reason whatsoever.
Besides the individual stories, Octopath Traveler also has a plethora of side quests – some better than others –, which can lead to some unexpected late-game plot twists and bosses. But the game’s trump card is its so-called path action system. These path actions bring NPCs to life in a unique way. With the Therion’s Steal Action you can, for example, steal a special weapon from an old lady just to come back later with Alfyn’s Inquire Action and discover that the weapon was a memento from her dead husband that she treasured dearly.
The Inquire action is especially incredible in the way that it develops each NPC, sometimes even increasing the suspense, as in a town where every person you meet and speak – even children – is revealed by this path action to be an actor, reinforcing the eerie atmosphere of the place. But it can also be used for comedy, as in this marvelous description of a random guard: “This guard who spends all day staring at the sky might seem to be neglecting his duties, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, in gazing at the clouds, drifting overhead and contemplating the banality of existence, he has wakened to the reality that the he is a figment of a dead god’s imagination.”
Moving on to the gameplay department, we find in Octopath Traveler a simple combat system that is mostly a modified version of the one present in Bravely Default. Here, as in that game, there are random battles in which the four controllable characters chosen at the time can select one from a specific group of actions, such as attack, defend, and use an item or their job’s special abilities. Each turn, each character gains a boost point that can be used to strengthen the effect of an attack or ability. The enemies are vulnerable to some of them and, if they are hit by them enough times, they enter a “broken state” in which they receive more damage and don’t act for a single turn. The strategy, then, becomes the same in each battle: first you must discover the enemy’s weak points and exploit them to make the enemy be just one attack to its breaking point. Then, you buff your characters and gather boost points to finally break the enemy and unleash hell at him all at once. And if the enemy doesn’t die, rinse and repeat. Therefore, the battles never become that interesting, unpredictable or dynamic – besides the thrill of having to break a boss quickly when they prepare to unleash their unique devastating attack –, but they serve their purpose.
Finally, the game’s presentation warrants some special attention. Its art style, called HD-2D, is simply breathtaking, and the soundtrack, composed by Yasunori Nishiki, is memorable and catchy as in the best JRPGs out there – with the care to build the tension before each boss battle with a unique tune to each character. And Primrose is not only the best character of the bunch, but also has the best starting area theme, the “Sunlands”.
Octopath Traveler may not be the most ambitious game out there, but it doesn’t let the small scope of its stories get in the way of the complexity of its themes and discussions. It’s not simply a breath of fresh air amidst the myriad of epic stories about the end of the world that plague JRPGs since the dawn of time, but also an excellent game in its own right.
April 15, 2019.