How Can Zelda Learn from Octopath Traveler?

It isn’t every day a game sells out in 2018. In fact, games are generally stocked well enough that most people don’t even preorder games anymore. Even less often does a sellout happen to a JRPG in America; they have a good following stateside, but the sales are generally overshadowed by other genres. To say that Octopath Traveler is a success is an understatement. In what is considered a niche genre, it has broken through to sell over one million copies within three weeks, putting physical copies on backorder for months in some regions, while others must patiently wait for restocks to come in the next few weeks and hope they get in the store before they sell out again. Luckily, I paid my copy off in March so I can analyze how the game could influence future Zelda games.

So far in my experience with Octopath, there has not been a single thing I would denigrate it for, and with as massive a success as it is quickly becoming, I think any series could glean something from its masterful execution, and I love the discussion so I am excited to look at what would translate well to my favorite series. Let’s just hop in!

Side Quests

From the beginning, Zelda has been somewhat hit and miss in terms of side quests. While usually the pendulum has stayed in the middle ground where side quests are just kind of “meh,” it has had violent swings such as the first title’s nigh-on-naught level to its peak in Majora’s Mask where the side quests were actually far more interesting and engaging than the rest of the game. Octopath Traveler’s main storyline is not overshadowed by the side quests, rather it is enhanced by them considerably, and I daresay this game showcases their potential as a storytelling medium to the extent that Majora’s Mask does. If I were to pick my favorite game based on side quests alone, I would have a hard time picking between these two titles.

What drives these quests is effectively the same between the two games; they bring a sense of reality to the world which exponentially increases immersion. When you feel like you are literally entering a new world and you can’t pull yourself out of it, a game is truly special, and few elements go into this feeling as much as world-building. Where the average Zelda game has side quests that involve trading a bunch of random crap for a boomerang, discovering collectibles, or just finding the last ingredient for a townsperson to finish their supper, Octopath Traveler goes the extra mile to introduce you to characters multiple times in a plethora of destinations, and to complete the quests you usually can’t just find an odd thing they dropped, but you must interact with them using certain characters’ in-game skills to lead them where they need to go, find info on where there’s treasure, or just kick their butt.

No matter the quest in Octopath, I have found it engaging on a level very few games reach, and I believe Zelda is particularly weak in this department most of the time. I have never thought a game in the series has downright awful side quests, but if they could be half as good as the ones found here, the world of Hyrule would feel ten times as vibrant.

Non-Linear Story Presentation

Opening up with a point that I could easily argue was borrowed from Breath of the Wild might sound a tad odd, but I believe the non-linearity in Octopath was presented in such a way that seems to click with people a little easier. While Breath of the Wild gave you a lot of scattered plot points to discover in any order, the latter gives you eight linear storylines which can be explored at any pace with any number of side quests, places to explore, or other distractions along the way, as well as the ability to jump from any one story to another at will.

Is this better than Breath of the Wild? Not objectively; they are similar but each style fits different fans’ playstyles. Why do I bring it up, then? Well it’s not so much that I think they should replace one system with the other, rather a middle ground between the two could create something new that would actively improve future games.

Imagine if there were small linear-ish chunks of story where Link would have to travel around a given area to complete. In between, there would be multiple checkpoints that could be visited in any order. Perhaps overcoming all of these would unlock the next series and so on and so forth until the game was over. Kind of like the Divine Beast pre-quests but on a larger scale and with more points along the way. The ability to drop in and drop out of a story midway to go explore something else or complete a different story breaks up whatever monotony may have been there, allowing the game to constantly feel new and exciting. By merging this element with the scale and gameplay style of Breath of the Wild, the story could thrive like never before seen.

Character Development

As much as I love the Zelda series, this is one point where Octopath Traveler completely blows it out of the water. Where Link generally has enough personality to get the idea that he is a strong and silent hero who will go the extra length to do the right thing, without dialogue he has very seldom come across as more than this one sentence description. Of course he isn’t the only character in the series, and many get better from there. Of course Zelda has been presented in many ways over the years, from a cheeky pirate to a ninja in disguise to a ghost in the armor of a phantom, she’s covered a lot of intriguing ground. Beyond the two recurring main characters, many games have seen one-off characters like the sages and the champions, which on some occasions have dwarfed these two in terms of believability and depth of character.

Several months ago I wrote a piece on who I believe to be the most important character in Breath of the Wild, Kass. You can check out the whole article yourself, but to summarize, Kass is the character that brings the most story to Link, and reveals more of his past than any character. I am going to be so bold as to say that Kass is the most important story-related character in any Zelda game. His entire purpose is to provide Link with the story, and he does so by unraveling the mysteries of his former mentor. He has won many of us over and become one of the fan-favorite characters.

Now you might argue that of course he isn’t as great as Groose or Sidon, but I am going to say this; pick your favorite. Whatever it is, your favorite Zelda character for whatever reason. I could argue for Darunia, the Nightmare, or any number of other characters but I just chose Kass as a recent example. Now that you’ve got your favorite character in mind, allow me to blow your mind by saying that character simply pales in comparison to any of the eight heroes of Octopath Traveler.

For sake of argument, I am going to only include information gleaned from chapter one of each character’s story to prove my point. In these early points along the path, the stories are in their infancy and yet each one achieves near as much substance as any character across the whole of a Zelda game. Going back to Groose, he changed much over the course of Skyward Sword, coming from a place where he was in charge and everything revolved around him through a phase where he felt useless in the grand scheme of things and finally accepting that his place was not as the hero, but he could still help in this tale.

This is somewhat reminiscent of Olberic, the warrior in Octopath, whose tale begins on a battlefield where he is among the mightiest champions, revered so that he is given the title of the Unbending Blade. He knows what is right, and he fights for his kingdom, but he is betrayed by his comrade, who murders the king in front of him. With the fall of his kingdom, Olberic’s motivation to swing his sword also dies, and he questions his place in the world for several years before he finds a clue as to where his treacherous brother-in-arms may be, and sets out to discover his true reason for fighting.

So he didn’t quite find his reason to fight yet, but he did set out to do that, so he’s about 75% of the way through what Groose did… in chapter one. I would make the same comparison to any of the characters’ beginning tales to pretty much any Zelda character, and a quarter of the way through their story, I have a hard time even thinking of a character in Zelda that compares.

This sounds like I am complaining about my favorite series a lot, but trust me, I love the stories and characters in Zelda. I simply believe that if more emphasis was put into the development of who they are and why they do what they do, we would have more standout characters like Midna, Groose, Kass, and whoever else you can think of. The attention to detail in these characters’ stories is nigh unparalleled, and literally any game series could take some notes.

Over the last 1600 words, I feel like all I’ve done is praise Octopath Traveler to no end, but it really is a game deserving the praise, and if some of its best assets could be applied to a Zelda game, then we may be able to find a game that people can unanimously call perfect.

What’s your takeaway, though? Do you think the stories should be presented in a straight line so you can’t get lost? Did I spend far too much time praising a non-Zelda game on a Zelda fansite? Do I like Primrose too much because she’s so hot? As always, leave me a comment or a tweet and I would love to keep the conversation drifting!

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