There have been many articles about Octopath Traveler and now, 16 hours into the game, I am selling my copy and I think no review has been as accurate and honest as Kotaku’s. I wrote my review with the following questions in mind: why do so few games have non-stellar reviews? now that video games are mainstream, when do we stop getting defensive about them? how can some aspects of a game be so good and others not?
First the positives: the game is beautiful. My first impression was “YES! FINALLY! This is the modern pixel JRPG I’ve been waiting 20 years for.” That feeling is a big deal - growing up in the 90s JRPGs dominated. They broke ground and were widely discussed and appreciated by gamers from the years of NES to Playstation. Today JRPGs feel like a dead genre. There are some games that come out and still do well and are original and interesting, Persona 5 is a great example of that, but the number of great games and the overall quality and popularity has significantly decreased amidst mediocre JRPG clones over the last 1o+ years. Octopath Traveler captures that old SNES-era style - the graphics and music brought me back to a time where I would sit back, grab a controller, and explore a world for several hours at a time.
The combat, skill, and jobs system is also a huge plus - there is a lot of variance, strategy, and legitimate challenge in the game. I particularly loved H’aanit’s ability to capture monsters for limited uses (limiting the uses was a smart choice that made it much more interesting and fun) and really enjoyed the path actions, especially trying to steal EVERYTHING from EVERYONE.
RPGs, however, are probably the only genre that relies heavily on every aspect of a video game and even though Octopath Traveler is amazing in art, music, skills and combat, it fails miserably in story, balance and progression. There are interesting and fun parts to each individual character’s stories, but by the 8th IDENTICAL chapter 1 structure I was getting very annoyed. Each chapter 1 has 1) an opening story that is mostly cinematic 2) a dungeon that is the same length and style and 3) a difficult boss that is relatively uniform in its challenge.
I started to feel like a sucker - I got pulled in by an art design Square Enix and Nintendo know people have been begging to see modernized for two decades. I couldn’t help but think - how can the art and music development be so incredible but the overall plot, writing, and level design be so utterly boring? The artistic beauty of the dungeons and map very quickly becomes overshadowed by its uniformity. Dungeons and world areas are stylistically identical skinned with different natural biomes: desert, mountain, forest, etc.
And the writing....so utterly disappointing. Separate storylines and characters not speaking to each other felt like an acceptable suspension of belief (though it certainly would have been preferable to have better interactions), but what really bothered me was the repetition and fragmentation. All eight beginning chapters are structural clones of each other. I got invested in Cyrus’ plot...only to have that plot be unplayable for 12 hours to the point where I forgot the nuances that made me enjoy it in the first place.
The game very strictly divides plot progression via leveling and I could not have been more surprised when, after finishing all the chapter 1s, my characters were still an average of 10 levels behind where I had to be in order to delve deep into my first chapter 2. That’s hours of grinding and it made me feel like the game designers just didn’t care at all about my time as a player.
So why do we, as gamers, excuse this? Why are there so many people attacking Kotaku’s article? Why do we get so defensive? Why are there so many glowing reviews of the game? I don’t think Octopath Traveler is awful, but there are HUGE undeniable design flaws - some players will be able to ignore these flaws and enjoy the very positive aspects of the game, but for a review in a professional setting to gloss over these faults is greatly misleading.
Stopping playing the game was painful. I just feel....sad and disappointed. I, like so many others, was incredibly excited for Octopath Traveler. I really thought this was the beginning of a pixel JRPG comeback. The defensiveness and attacks on Kotaku, in particular against Jason Schreier (I can’t believe how many comments I saw on different websites attacking him before the game was even out), are the other side of the coin of how I’m feeling. People feel a personal investment in this game because it references a time now gone in our lives. It IS possible to create a whole new generation of pixel JRPGs, now more than ever - we are seeing a huge upswing in pixel indie games becoming successes. However, if Nintendo and Square Enix and other big publishers and developers don’t hear our critiques, they will not learn and will continue to make the same mistakes.
I ultimately found Octopath Traveler to be fun in the beginning but ultimately boring and unplayable. My suggestion to those of you thinking twice about buying it is this: play through all eight chapter 1s on the demo and see how you feel. The game may work for you, but don’t trust the uncritical reviews.
*edited to include distinctions between developer, Square Enix, and publisher, Nintendo.