With every game I play on my Switch, it’s becoming clear that I’m essentially using it as a window into the wonderful gaming experiences of my youth. Nintendo and nostalgia seem to go hand in hand, and every time I pick up that unassuming little console that sits beside my TV, it evokes the feeling of staying up late during school holidays, playing games until my eyes went square. The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario and Donkey Kong have all made an appearance since the Switch launched last year, but one itch that remained to be scratched was the sprawling and immersive JRPGs of old like Final Fantasy or Suikoden. As if to answer that very specific call, Square Enix has taken what we know and love about those quirky turn-based adventures and given it a gorgeous contemporary treatment in Octopath Traveler.
As the name suggests, at the beginning of Octopath Traveler you’re asked to pick one of eight different heroes, each with their own individual quests and reasons for travelling the great, wide world. It’s a fairly diverse bunch too, ranging from Olberic the wandering knight to Therion the nefarious thief and of course Ophilia the pious cleric, but it also offers the chance to play as less common classes such as a Tressa the fledgeling merchant or Cyrus the spirited scholar. Whoever you choose to start the game with will be considered your ‘main’ party member and protagonist, but fear not, you can fully experience all eight stories in a single playthrough by travelling the world and recruiting the other characters to your party.
Unfortunately though, this is where the first issues with Octopath Traveler start to show. Despite having eight fully realised characters and arcs to draw from, the game is let down by its disjointed approach to storytelling. I decided to start as Alfyn, the plucky apothecary whose main goal in life is to help as many people as possible. After saving a young girl from a deadly snakebite (a quest which acts as sort of an introduction to the systems of the game) I left Alfyn’s hometown in search of others to assist. I made my way south to the desert city of Sunshade where I met Primrose, the exotic dancer who had sworn vengeance against the shady organisation that killed her father. I helped Primrose defeat her predatory ‘master’ and by the time I’d recruited Therion the thief, H’aanit the hunter and Ophelia the cleric (who each have their own introductory quests), there were so many disparate story threads going on that it was hard to keep track. Not only that, it seems that there is a lack of overarching narrative to explain why such different people would choose to adventure together, for instance, some kind of global threat that links all of the eight paths. It’s definitely a different and Tarantino-esque way of telling a story but it makes it pretty difficult to invest in any of the characters or even the world as a whole.
Lacklustre narrative aside, Octopath Traveler plays just like the fantastic JRPGs you remember, with a few extra mechanics to keep things interesting. You can have up to four members in your party at any time and once you’ve recruited more than that, you can swap them out at any town you visit. Aside from having different weapons and abilities for use in battle (which I’ll talk about later), Each character has their own “Path Actions” which are used to interact with NPCs and have a variety of applications. As you encounter side quests throughout the world, you’ll have to figures out which of your squad’s path actions is needed to solve the problem. For instance, I came upon a fisherman whose livelihood was being ruined by a selfish angler further up the river. I used Alfyn’s ‘Inquire’ ability to discover that he was easily embarrassed and then had H’aanit challenge him to a duel with her ‘Provoke’ action. Once I’d roughed him up a little, he left with his tail between his legs and the balance was restored. It’s not just for side quests though, as inquiring around town with Alfyn can unlock discounts at local stores and reveal hidden items, while Therion’s ‘Steal’ ability makes almost every NPC a potential mark for some thievery.
Tressa is NOT to be trusted when you go to the pub
If you are a fan of old-school JRPGs (or even some more recent ones) you’ll be pretty familiar with the turn-based system of combat. In battle, your party squares off against a group of enemies and take turns at attacking them with weapons, magic, or abilities. To set itself apart though, Octopath Traveler weaves in some new mechanics like the enemy weakness system and the ability to ‘boost’ your character’s action.
Opponents can have hefty resistances, indicated by a numbered shield next to their name, but also vulnerabilities to certain types of attacks, which are hidden when you encounter them for the first time. It’s up to you to discover their weaknesses by trying all of the weapons at your party’s disposal (swords, daggers, bows etc.) or elemental magic (fire, ice, lightning etc.) Each time you attack with this favoured damage, you reduce the number on their resistance shield until it reaches zero and shatters, which causes the enemy to miss a turn and leaves them open to increased damage from all sources.
I’m starting a petition to change the butler’s name to BUFFler
Each member of your party also has the option to magnify their actions in battle by spending ‘boost points’. Enhancing your manoeuvre with boost points (up to three per turn) can have significant effects on the fight, such as allowing your character to attack multiple times in one go, or greatly increasing the potency of your magic. You acquire a single BP each round and can bank up to five, so deciding when to use them and when to save them for a devastating super-move adds another layer of strategy to your skirmishes. Combining the management of boost points and the exploitation of each enemy type’s weaknesses becomes increasingly important as you progress and the bad guys’ defences increase, and it makes every action you take feel more deliberate, rather than just maxing stats and mashing the attack button.
Just like most RPGs, both classic and contemporary, Octopath Traveler can start to feel like a grind once you get into the meat of it. The initial excitement of discovering the vulnerabilities of your foes can wear off pretty quickly and feel dull after a while. Quite a few of the side quests aren’t all that interesting and don’t feel rewarding enough to warrant doing them. As I said before, the main narratives are disjointed and following a character’s story requires (strongly suggests) meeting some pretty hefty level requirements for each chapter in their arc, a task which becomes needlessly arduous due to the fact that only your active party members receive experience points from battle. This means that in order to complete all eight narratives, you’ll have to spend a significant amount of time farming bad guys for XP.
Gettin’ slizzard with the blizzard lizards
Another system that JRPG veterans will be familiar with is that all of the characters have a job, essentially the class they begin the game as. Their job determines which active and passive skills (things like buffs and debuffs) they can unlock by using job points earned in battle. Once you progress further, you can actually unlock secondary jobs for each of them, based on the other seven classes, meaning you can customise your team in any way you want. Should you combine the healing capabilities of the apothecary and cleric, or make a heavy hitting warrior/hunter? The choice is entirely up to you. Even after you’ve unlocked all of the secondary jobs for the party, there are four high-powered jobs hidden somewhere in the world, guarded by some pretty tough bosses. If you aren’t interested in the narrative at all, this job customisation means that you can essentially focus on your four favourite travellers and still access most of the abilities, reducing the grind factor a bit.
In my opinion, the best thing about Octopath Traveler is the presentation. This game is absolutely gorgeous and by far some of the best damn pixel art I’ve ever seen. Square Enix have combined incredibly detailed 3D backgrounds and settings with cute, classic-looking sprites to give us what they’re calling “HD-2D” graphics. Each location has subtle movement or features that draw you into the world, like lens flares glinting off of a beautiful flowing river or delicate snowflakes falling softly onto sparkling white hills. It’s honestly unlike anything I’ve seen recently.
Fans of JRPGs know just how important the soundtrack is to a game like this and thankfully the music is just as incredible as the visuals. Bombastic orchestral battle music is supported by calm and thoughtful town themes, each piece lending authenticity to the world at large. Most of the character cutscenes are voiced too, both in English and Japanese depending on your preference, which goes a long way toward helping you connect to their stories.
Screenshots on the Switch don’t do this game justice
As you can probably tell from reading this, I’m pretty conflicted on how I feel about Octopath Traveler. It looks and sounds absolutely stunning, and playing it definitely evokes that sense of nostalgia that the developers are clearly aiming towards. That being said, I’m still finding it really hard to invest in the narrative of the game, which is obviously something integral to a 50+ hourlong, grindy experience. Overall, my advice would be to manage your expectations. If you’re prepared to sit with Octopath Traveler, experiment with all the systems and really squeeze every piece of content out of it, you’re going to have an absolute blast. If, however, you’re looking for an epic tale of unlikely heroes thrown together to face some global threat, chances are you’ll feel a bit short-changed.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch | Review code supplied by publisher