Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.
Octopath Traveler brings eight different stories with eight unique characters to an old-school inspired JRPG. Reminiscent of games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, Octopath has players controlling detailed sprite characters in a HD world. With each character having a unique story with specialized job classes, it makes sense that each of them would have their own musical themes as well. And while each character has a different melody, common themes found throughout the soundtrack unify these characters and their experiences. With a fully-orchestrated soundtrack, Square Enix pulls out all the stops to create a labor of love for long-time fans of the Golden Age of RPGs.
Composer Yasunori Nishiki truly wanted to create a memorable experience for fans, utilizing similar themes we might have heard in classic RPGs. In a note written about the game, Nishiki-san states that, “my goal was to create a soundtrack with memorable melodies and lavish soundscapes that incorporated live orchestral performances. From the main theme to battle and cutscene music, I strove for clear melodies and powerful yet not overly complex songs that would rise to the level of the evolved HD-2D graphics.” It can be said that Nishiki did accomplish this feat, as major themes of adventure, travel and even companionship can be felt throughout the entirety of the soundtrack.
Having played about twenty hours of the game, I was able to see early on how beautifully the soundtrack elevated the gameplay, and how it develops with the plot. Immediately the Main Theme pulls players into the world of Octopath with light cellos and the accompaniment of the traditional Shakuhachi (Japanese Bamboo Flute). The uplifting tempo and light, airy theme prepare us for adventure. There truly is a journey awaiting us as the rise and fall of violins and trumpets announce our travels through fields and woodlands. The necessity of an opening theme that inspires players cannot be understated. Having looked forward to the game for awhile, sitting at the main menu while this theme played in the background created a new sense of adventure and excitement.
While the Main Theme made use of various instruments like trumpets, cellos and strings, each character has a musical theme comprised of select instruments. Whoever players decide to begin with, they’ll be greeted with unique music for each character. Take the Cleric, Ophelia. Her story is one of piety and virtue. She is close with her family and has theocratic duties to her people. She is a kind role model for others and her true goal is to help those around her. Her musical theme reflects the kind of person Ophelia is and even her home of origin. Gentle flutes accompanied by a harp and strings help define Ophelia as an optimistic and gentle soul and create emotional moments during cutscenes. She is a caretaker and her theme reflects her nature. Her theme transcends her character, however, as we meet Ophelia in the backdrop of a Cathedral in the snowy mountains. The gentle rise and fall of flutes at a tempo lento help give new life to the Cathedral space by defining it as a place of rest and safety. While playing the game, space is given new purpose by gentle harps as snow falls softly to the ground. By creating a dual purpose for these themes, players can associate specific areas with each character, thus giving characters richer personalities and stories.
In stark contrast, Olberic the Warrior has a battle-hardened theme. Strong trumpets and percussion accompanied by soulful strings give us the impression that Olberic has seen hardship and that his is a never-ending journey. Having taken up residence by the coasts, we can feel that Olberic does not want to be reminded of his warrior past. He is in hiding after having given his life to the sword. His theme reminds us that with great power, there is also great hardship. The juxtaposition of harsh trumpets with melodic strings give way to heartbreak and give richer detail to his story. Throughout the game, character themes correspond beautifully with the drama playing out before players’ eyes. An enthralling orchestra serves multiple purposes here as Olberic has suffered loss players can hear and see.
With each character having a main theme, it’s no surprise that each area of the map also has its own sound. Specific themes for areas create a more memorable experience and offer opportunities for world building. Having started with the hunter, H’aanit, I was able to experience her moments in The Woodlands with slow percussion with strings to reflect the backdrop of her adventures. Her own theme (a piano solo) complements her surrounding areas. A slow tempo suits the walking pace of the game to symbolize the journey (where more upbeat tracks reflected the urgency of battle engagements). I eventually found myself face to face with Ophelia in the snowy Flamesgrace Village. Soft piano music and strings kept true to Ophelia’s own theme to make a connection between the character and their place of origin. Creating melodies that can be so different in sound, but similar in theme unifies the whole game. While each character may differ so much in story, they are all connected throughout the soundtrack.
Further connection of characters can be found in their boss battle themes as well. Where each hero and each area has a more gentle tone to their themes, boss battles are where we hear crescendos of strings and wind instruments with a crash of percussion. These boss themes are also where we hear haunting choral pieces at a faster tempo that give new urgency to the fight. In the theme, The One They Call the Witch, a chorus adds new depth to the same instruments we have been hearing thus far. Epic operatic vocals leave the player feeling small against a formidable foe. Creating this kind of atmosphere during epic battles has always been a staple in RPGs, and Octopath Traveler delivers to the genre. Square Enix usually has epic soundtracks with similar themes for their works, so it’s good to see they gave as much attention to detail with this game as they have others.
Octopath Traveler brings rich orchestral pieces to a detailed RPG packed with content. Giving each character a specific theme creates more memorable character depth throughout the game. Additionally, places players travel to will have their own unique sound to compliment the surroundings and add to the world building. On their travels, our heroes will encounter difficult foes with intimidating melodies to signal the difficulty of battle. Thoughtful use of instruments enhances the story experience. Throughout the soundtrack, we hear the same orchestral pieces, yet every theme is different and unique. The use of these instruments in different ways both unifies the cast and creates individual personalities. Many of the melodies heard throughout are reminiscent of classic RPGs, making Octopath Traveler a true homage to the Golden Age. Any fans of orchestral music will appreciate the labor of love that is Octopath Traveler’s soundtrack.
To dive even deeper into the wonderful world of video game OSTs, composer interviews, musical analysis and more, be sure to read our complete Checking the Score series.