Square Enix’s Switch JRPG has been criticised for a lack of story that’s actually there
Octopath Traveler, Square Enix’s much-hyped JRPG on the Switch, has scored itself a ton of praise from critics and gaming communities alike for its deeply satisfying combat and gorgeous “2D-HD” graphics. But lurking in the background of these rave reviews has been one consistent criticism – that the 8 playable characters you amass over your journey don’t really seem to have much to do with each other. This is because there’s a huge part of the story that’s incredibly easy to miss: Travel Banter.
From each character’s second chapter onwards, Travel Banter pops up as an option after certain cutscenes – press the + button, and you’ll get an extra interaction between the character whose story chapter you’re currently playing, and another party member.
The options vary depending on who’s in your party, but they all add a little bit of extra flavour to the moment and reveal more about the characters’ development outside their own chapters. You see how their perspectives are changed by what they’ve witnessed their companions go through, and there are some genuinely poignant lines that do a beautiful job of conveying the scope and scale of the journeys they’re on.
But is it enough? Outside the graphics and combat mechanics, Octopath’s big selling point always seemed to be the customisability of your party, which one could reasonably assume would mean that party dynamics would have a significant effect on the progression of the game. As it turns out, characters don’t even physically appear in each other’s cutscenes, and don’t have any dialogue in each other’s chapters outside of Travel Banter and standard battle and ability lines. It sometimes feels like they’re just there as background support while this particular protagonist’s story plays out. Have Square Enix really, properly delivered on the eightfold intertwining tales promised even in the title of the game?
That depends on a bunch of things, the biggest one probably being how long you wanted to wait for Square Enix to finish making the game. Think about the practicalities: you can begin the game with any one of the eight characters’ first chapter, pick the rest up in any order, and organise your party however you want providing it includes the character you started with (until you’ve completed their final chapter) and the character whose chapter you’re playing (if any). If our amateur maths is right, that’s 70 different party combinations even if you have all your slots full. If characters had dialogue in each other’s cutscenes, writing different versions of them would’ve taken forever.
And sure, you still miss some of the dialogue by not having the right people in your party at the right time, but that’d also be true if the dialogue happened in cutscenes or normal gameplay. This way, you miss less, and it comes with a feeling of spontaneity that makes the journey feel all the more organic and rounded-out. Plus, if you’re a completionist but don’t have time for multiple playthroughs, every Banter scene has of course been obsessively catalogued across the internet (see this Youtube video of every single one for starters).
Travel Banter is a good feature in a great game. While having the game’s inter-character dialogue isolated there might feel like a cop-out in comparison to what could’ve been, it does its job wonderfully as an eminently practical way of accomplishing the aspect of interaction. It might not be the richest narrative technique, but as added story flavour alongside the well-wrought individual plotlines, exquisite combat, and some of the most beautiful backdrops of any resolution, it’s everything it needs to be.