Octopath Traveler is Perfect for Practicing Japanese

I’m a long-standing, somewhat failure of a student at Japanese. I’ve been studying it on and off for years. My reading is okay, my writing is alright, but my listening and speaking skills are garbage. That said, when I play jRPGs these days, I tend to play them in Japanese for the practice.

Recently, I played Lost Sphear, Final Fantasy 7 and Seiken Densetsu 3 in Japanese. They were okay. Each had their issues. Seiken Densetsu 3 is an SNES game, which squishes the kanji and makes it hard to read, baking mistakes into your learning… the best analogy I can think of learning to play guitar on an out of tune guitar.

Lost Sphear was alright but it had gobs and gobs of long, pointless text sequences. Final Fantasy 7 is, of course, one of my favorite games of all time, and it’s pretty much exactly the same. Oftentimes in RPGs you learn a lot of semi-useless vocabulary like 魔物 (demon).

However, Octopath Traveler is my best Japanese-practice game yet. Here’s why:

– The vignette story structure of the game is perfect for learning new vocabulary. Because the plot jumps around to different settings and plots, instead of focusing on one main story, you get exposed to a smorgasbord of new vocabulary. Cyrus’s story has a lot of new words related to teaching, school and books. Primrose’s chapter has a lot of words relating to conspiracy and murder. Etc. So you’re getting a wide range of vocabulary and it keeps things interesting.

– The town-dungeon-town-dungeon structure of the game got criticized in a lot of reviews, but for Japanese practice, it’s quite perfect. These episodes are the perfect length. One thing that happens when you’re playing a game in your second language is, at a certain point, you get sick of looking up words and kanji and you just want to get back to the game. This was a problem with Lost Sphear. The scenes were so long and pointless, after 30 minutes I just started skipping dialog to get back to the game.

The Octopath Traveler structure provides baked-in breaks — just when you’re getting burned out on the ‘study’ part of the game, boom, dungeon. And by the time the dungeon is over you have a natural break point to go do something else, or mentally rearm yourself for more quality time with the dictionary.

– The voiced cutscenes really help both listening and reading. The fact that they don’t voice every cutscene is great, because listening with subtitles is a very different skill from reading. With just text, it’s a sort of do-it-at-your-own-pace puzzle. You look up kanji you don’t know or don’t remember and get the gist of it — but if someone said out loud, in two seconds, the line you translated in two minutes, you wouldn’t get it. The voiced cutscenes are really helping my listening skills. Not only because being able to have, essentially, subtitles for the incredibly fast way native Japanese people speak, helps understand what they’re saying, but also because you don’t have to look up kanji by radicals when someone says it out loud. They play off each other. The speaking helps the reading and the reading helps the speaking.

– The stories are interesting and character focused, which is definitely a plus. Most jRPG stories, at least these days (now that jRPGs are usually just B-side anime plots) have some ‘grand’ plot that’s hard to relate to and completely unusable in day to day life. Having a more grounded story experience is not only more interesting, but for a foreign language, ensures that you’re learning words that can be used commonly in day to day life.

If you’re studying Japanese and trying to get better, I strongly recommend Octopath Traveler in Japanese. As for the game itself, I’ll probably review it when I’m done.

Ryan is a writer from Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter here, and be sure to buy his new book, Gods of the American Wild.