But the differences from usual JRPG fare run deeper than that. Octopath Traveler rarely sports the classic good-versus-evil tropes of its genre peers. The laws and rules of its world aren’t cleanly established by some magic order, world-ending demons, or fantastical religions. instead, those details are built slowly and organically in the player’s mind through characters’ actions and motivations.
Each playable character has a role to play, tied to a “job” system like the ones found in certain Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. Therion, a thief, can steal items from enemies during combat, for example. Primrose, a dancer, uses her movements to inspire her allies with different improvements.
These jobs don’t just determine the game’s mechanics, though. They also play an equally important role in defining the story of each character and how they perceive, and are perceived by, the world around them. At its best, Octopath Traveler uses these professions to force its cast to learn important lessons about that world, which would otherwise be left up to the player to guess at.
Take Alfyn, the apothecary, who can use his skills to heal allies and poison enemies. The apparent rareness of his vocation tells us this is a world where widespread medicine doesn’t exist yet. So Alfyn agreeably bumbles from town to town to heal the sick wherever he finds them. The lack of doctors means he’ll never want for work, so he doesn’t worry much about money.
But Alfyn is quickly forced to confront the impact of the almost magical power his skills provide. When townspeople get sick on his path, all they can do is wait for an apothecary like Alfyn or wait to die. This lack of power can put sick people at the mercy of less blithely well-intentioned apothecaries. One such apothecary exploits their medical knowledge for profit. Another only operates on who he thinks is worth saving.
Alfyn starts as a bit of a blank slate compared to the rest of the cast, which makes his confrontations with these peers that much more interesting. I genuinely didn’t know how he would react to his less-scrupulous colleagues, besides the basic assumption that he wouldn’t become a complete monster.
Who’s the real monster?
In fact, there aren’t many monsters in Octopath Traveler at all; at least not at the center of the eight stories. Nearly every chapter closes the same way: you fight through somewhat boring dungeons to reach a final boss. In a genre twist, though, most of those bosses are just people who live in the same world as Alfyn, Primrose, Therion, and the rest. These antagonists have to make their way through the world just like the protagonists, and they each have their own ways of doing so.
Those methods are usually despicable. A robber baron might work a mining town to the bone for pennies. A crew of pirates ransacks a town simply because nobody can stop them. Sometimes the motives are more ambiguous—like when a butler presses Therion into a quest to recover stolen gems.
What all of these characters have in common is that they’re recognizable. Motivations like greed, a lack of empathy, and pure Machiavellian manipulation are much more relatable than the usual, unexamined “I want to destroy the world” bosses in many such games. If nothing else, the scale is relatable. Some of the evil plots, like extortionary health care, are things many of us have to deal with directly on a day-to-day basis, no fantasy allegories required.
That’s not entirely unique in the genre. I’m a huge fan of the Shin Megami Tensei games in part because of their contemporary settings. But even that series regularly leans on big, cosmic villains with apocalyptic agendas and unknowable minds. By contrast, one Octopath Traveler climax had me battle an aggrieved college professor.
I feel ya
The comparatively small stakes are interesting, partly because they don’t give either side a convenient alibi. The villains earn meaningful contempt rather than just being written off as naturally evil or “just crazy.”
Likewise the heroes come off as more human because they get involved when they don’t always need to for reasons that make sense based on the choices that led them to their mechanical “jobs.” Alfyn exercises his healing abilities for the good of all, because he feels those powers come with responsibility. Therion could ignore his mission, but his flashy thief’s pride won’t allow it. Primrose dances because it allows her to sidle up to the people against whom she’s seeking revenge.
Octopath even explores what life is like when one’s chosen path in life gets pulled out from under them. The knight Olberic used to find meaning in combat by defending his king. A flashback near the start of his story shows that convenient excuse to do what he’s good at crumbling around him. The rest of Olberic’s story has him looking for a new purpose to place behind his blade.
Maybe we shouldn’t pour so much of our self-worth into a job-focused sense of “purpose.” But just like the relatable motivations of Octopath’s villains, Olberic’s existential crisis can be painfully true to life. Seeing the party members of Octopath Traveler deal with the same questions of identity as I do only endears me to them that much more, as the consequences of their success and failure push the story forward. The form and function of each character play together quite well that way.
Octopath’s writing isn’t always as strong as its structure. There’s the same wide-eyed white mage cliche you see in so many JRPGs, for instance, and one protagonist is downright unbearable to listen to. But the novel, grounded approach to establishing the characters and the rules of their society kept me coming back. I only hope this kind of down-to-earth structure won’t be an outlier in Japanese RPGs forever.