Disclaimer: Minor spoilers for Tales of Vesperia. If you’re planning on playing it for the first time, maybe read this after you’re done. If you do read on, I’ll do my best not to ruin the fun.
In its 2017 announcement, everything about Octopath Traveler looked incredibly promising. I mean, a turn-based RPG from the studio that created the, incredible, Bravely Default? Sign me up. But, unfortunately, OT didn’t live up to that hype.
I played Octopath Traveler for about 25 excruciating hours before I ended up putting it down never to be played or thought of again. But when I started playing Tales of Vesperia, one of my favorite games ever, I thought about Octopath Traveler again. More specifically, how poorly Octopath handled its cast of playable characters. I thought I’d do a short comparison specifically in regards to the way the two games handled party chemistry.
Octopath Traveler: So I Guess People are Invisible now
Octopath Traveler’s handling of its party chemistry can be boiled down into two words, it didn’t. Each character has their own narrative, completely separate from the rest of the party. When you enter a cutscene in H’aanit’s storyline, there’s no mention of her 7 companions. Each character is treated as an individual on their individual quest.
There are no natural intersections between the characters’ narratives. When you agree to travel together you go find the character and they say, “oh man, could you give me a hand?” And you say yes. You can do that in any order. It doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s almost totally of no consequence who your party members are in each individual story.
Occasionally, you’ll get a skit where the characters give some light banter but these don’t deepen your understanding of the characters in any way. It’s just another opportunity to reiterate each character’s established personality. The thief reminds you “I’m a skilled thief,” the dancer goes, “I have a tragic backstory” and, the doctor goes, “I’m a good guy” with all of the reliability of those “See and Say The Farmer Says” toys.
The skits do nothing to explain why the characters go way out of their way in order to help their compatriots even when it’s, from a geographical perspective, illogical to travel together. Say you’re organizing a carpool. Would you carpool with someone who needs to travel South to work if you needed to go North? Probably not. But that’s what these weirdos regularly do. And it wears on the believably of the world as a whole. I’m not usually this knit picky but without established connections between the party members the story line starts to fall apart, even if the individual pieces work, the whole does not.
In comparison, Tales of Vesperia does a far better job of taking individual characters, on individual quests and giving them reasons to travel together and figuring out what to do with characters that have stuff they need to do on their own.
Tales of Vesperia: Out of Many One
Tales of Vesperia has a super effective chemistry There are eight characters who travel together, each with their own set of goals. There’s no unified plot from the beginning. You begin as Yuri Lowell, a young man from the slums in a wealthy kingdom following the theft of their water purifier. Author’s Note: It’s more complicate than that. He goes up to the rich part of town to track down the thief and ends up imprisoned in a castle dungeon. But he’s not the type to sit around when people are suffering. He escapes his cell and stages a prison break and runs into a noble woman in the castle, also trying to escape. They decide to escape together. Author’s Note: It’s still more complicated than that.
Just a mere 30 minutes into the plot, Tales of Vesperia sets up a powerful reason for the main party to form. And that, is convenience. Yuri and Estelle begin their journey together because they were going to the same destination anyway. This creates a believable framework for their relationship to form. If Ocotopath Traveler was the worst carpool ever, Vesperia is the exact opposite. Everyone needs to go West, so they go West. If one of them has something to do, they leave the party for a time. No one goes wildly out of their way to stick together for the most part. It just sort of happens.
Now, as the story line progresses and the characters get to know each other, they start making more active decisions to stick together. When the gang first meets Rita, she has no interest in traveling with the group long term. By the end of the first story arc, she’s coming up with adorably transparent excuses to stick by Estelle’s side. As the player grows invested in the characters, so do the party members become invested in each other. By the time the story takes a turn towards the “save the world” plot, it actually makes sense why they’d all want to get involved. It’s because they care about each other.
Tales of Vesperia is successful because it takes the time to build the trust between the characters. As you see their bonds grow stronger, their decisions become more emotional and it makes sense. The fact that Octopath didn’t spend any time on the relationship between its characters is a real failure of the game. Though it has the general look of a party-based RPG, how can it really be that without the benefit of party chemistry? Well, it doesn’t and that’s a shame.