If you're used to RPGs offering an over-arching narrative that bristles with side-paths for you to meander down in search of smaller stories, Octopath Traveler might feel a little foreign at first. Square Enix's Switch-exclusive RPG primarily focuses on the individual stories of its eight heroes, and while there are instances of those stories cross-pollinating each other, it's clear the team behind Octopath Traveler had specific goals in mind while penning its story.
I believe Octopath's unorthodox storytelling suits it well. Your mileage may vary, as the kids say, but as I mention in my review, the game's focus on individual stories makes it easy for me to become invested in each character's tale without the distractions that naturally come when a dozen heroes are crammed on an airship and vying for valuable back-story time.
Thankfully, the motivations driving Octopath's heroes are enough to keep me engaged as I travel with them from one corner of the map to the next. It helps that the story segments threaded through each character's personal quest are of reasonable length, plus I can drop out of a hero's mission and pick it up again whenever I like. I never say "no" to options that let me control a narrative's speed.
Because it's human nature to pick favorites from a litter, I inevitably adopted one particular Octopath character's story as my number-one. Here we are, then: My "chosen" hero is [elongated drumroll] Alfyn. Please don't be angry. My reasons are sound.
Spoilers for Alfyn's story follow, though I try to avoid getting into the specifics of its twists and reveals.
Alfyn is a good-natured apothecary. He entered his trade because another apothecary who saved his life as a boy taught him the importance of reaching out to people who need help. That's enough of a reason for Alfyn to travel from town to town, seeking out (usually poor) patients in need of his medicines.
Like I state in my ranking of the Octopath crew, Alfyn's mission—though simple—is reason enough to make me warm up to the wild-haired chemist. We're currently mired in a troubling period where prominent politicians and businessmen declare it's controversial to consider the thoughts, feelings, and physical well-being of people who aren't in our immediate Monkeysphere. Alfyn is the antithesis to this poisonous "Eff you, I've got mine" attitude that has its claws hooked six-inches deep into the planet. He just wants to do what's best for everyone. No agenda. No aim to turn a profit. Just a desire to help sick widows and children get healthy.
Alfyn's kindness is what makes him a likeable character. Watching his kindness wheel back around and bite his butt is what makes him an interesting character.
Alfyn's third chapter opens with a dangerously wounded street beggar asking for help. A black-garbed apothecary approaches to help but stops short and says he needs to ask the beggar "one question." We don't learn what the question is, nor do we learn the beggar's answer. But it's enough for the black-garbed apothecary to walk away and leave the beggar to die on the street.
Alfyn witnesses the other apothecary's callous display and calls him out. The healer coldly informs Alfyn that some people are better off dead. Alfyn is understandably aghast, and says doctors are supposed to heal patients—no questions asked. He rescues the beggar from the brink of death, and for a few moments, it seems like Alfyn's made a valuable new friend.
If you say, "There's no way that's going to last," congratulations on being correct. Everything goes terribly wrong, an innocent person comes very close to getting killed, and Alfyn is left standing in the shattered ruins of his confidence and personal beliefs. The event itself isn't what matters, though: The fallout does. For a while, Alfyn grapples with the desire to slink away and give up on everything he holds dear about himself and his practise.
I defy anyone to play through Alfyn's story and not see a sliver of themselves during the apothecary's struggle. The world is an uncertain place filled with baffling things. We each hold onto a handful of morals, skills, and understandings we know are right. We anchor ourselves to them, make them the foundation of who we are, and what we do. When that foundation is shaken—or worse, pounded into dust by someone you called a friend—it's terrifying. Building yourself back up from such a heavy blow is one of the most difficult things you can do as a human being. Even if you climb back up to your starting position, your footing will never be as sure as it once was. All the pits and cracks you failed to notice the first time around seem to scream at you like neon signs.
When Alfyn starts his journey in Octopath Traveler, his goal seems incorruptible: "Shucks, I want to help everyone!" Midway through his journey, he's left asking himself if that's still a viable reason for striking out, or if he was just a naïve fool. But can he still call himself an apothecary if he uses a person's past deeds to determine if they even deserve to live?
Most of Octopath Traveler's stories carry a similar message about the dangers of believing in easy answers and simple solutions in a complicated world. Alfyn's tale just delivers that warning with a swift, excruciating jab. Congratulations on "winning," Alfyn! I guess.