Octopath Traveler is a triumphant marriage of the old and the new.
The days of 16- and 32-bit JRPGs like Final Fantasy VI and the earlier Dragon Quest titles have become something that millions of gamers longingly think back to with immense fondness. These were games that were restricted by the limitations of the hardware they were made for, and yet somehow managed to work around those limitations to deliver long, epic tales with compelling, strategic gameplay and addictive exploration. In recent years, many titles have tried to recapture that lost magic with gameplay and visual styles that harken back to those older eras. Some, like I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphere, have been less than successful. Others, like Bravely Default and its sequel Bravely Second have been much more so. Next in line is Octopath Traveler, and without a doubt, it stands head and shoulders above any of those games, and stands as a testament to how to not only pay homage to a beloved style of games, but also how to do it while innovating itself.
"Octopath Traveler stands as a testament to how to not only pay homage to a beloved style of games, but also how to do it while innovating itself."
Because in nearly everything that Octopath Traveler does, it takes what made those classic JRPGs so good, while shedding the skin that makes them seem a little inaccessible by modern sensibilities. Instead, it blends their positive aspects with new ideas and inventive concepts, and does them all justice with flawless execution. The one aspect of Octopath that exemplifies that notion better and more obviously than anything else is its visuals. While it retains the pixel art and sprite-based look of the older games it is aiming to emulate, it also puts them in the middle of a world rendered with cutting edge panache and polish. It’s HD-2D art style has been one of the things that Square Enix and Nintendo have been talking up perhaps more than anything else in the build up to the game’s launch, and when you witness the game in motion, it’s not hard to see why.
The diorama-esque look that Octopath goes for gives it a unique charm and visual flair that sets it apart from any other game of its ilk. It smartly uses depth of field effects, blurring distant objects and backgrounds while squarely focusing on the middle of the screen with a sharp intensity, an effect that becomes even more impressive while your characters are in motion, almost giving the game a parallax effect. It also makes use of impressive lighting techniques, and moments when you see the sunlight bouncing off its brilliant-looking water, or when you see its rays filtering through shadows of dynamically moving clouds, will definitely give you pause. It also renders its environments beautifully, and each of its areas, from its lush forests, to its snowy peaks, to its classic medieval cities, to its sun-baked deserts, to its coastal towns, have their own distinct visual personality. It combines effects, old and new, to deliver a game that invokes the charmingly limited artistry of the games that have inspired it, while managing to do so in a way that it still never looks outdated or out of place in today’s day and age. Special mention also has to be made of the game’s wonderful soundtrack, which contains a bevy of fully orchestrated melodious tunes that hit all the right nostalgic notes.
But while its visuals are the one aspect of Octopath Traveler that will get noticed and lauded most frequently – owing simply to the fact that they’re the most readily apparent and immediately striking aspect of the game – something else that deserves just as much credit – if not slightly more – is the combat. Every battle in Octopath Traveler is a joy, while boss fights, specially some of the more spectacular ones, are some of the highlights of the entire experience. These can end up being half-hour long chess matches, where you constantly have to remain engaged with the game’s mechanics, and even one slip can prove costly. At first glance, much like the visuals themselves, the combat appears almost disappointingly simple. However, the more time you spend with it, the more its intricacies and depths begin to gradually reveal themselves to you. Similar to the game’s graphics, the combat is also elevated by one simply hook- one single mechanic, one single idea that ends up shaping everything else around it and turning it into a victorious blend of new and old. In the visuals, that hook is the idea of mixing modern environments with pixel and sprite-based art. In combat, it’s Boost Points.
"The diorama-esque look that Octopath goes for gives it a unique charm and visual flair that sets it apart from any other game of its ilk."
At the end of every turn, each of your characters receives a Boost Point, or BP, which is something that you can use to boost your commands. A character can store up to five BP at any given time, and can use at most three of them together in a single turn. However many BP you use determines how much your commands get boosted, so if you use three BP while executing a simple attack move, your character will use their equipped weapon to attack four times, one default move and three added on for each Boost Point. BP can also be used to make certain moves more potent, so magical spells can get twice, thrice, or four times as potent as they regularly would be, while defensive moves also receive similar boosts. If you use boosted moves, though, you don’t receive any BP the following turn.
And here’s where the strategy part comes in- each enemy also has a shield counter, which gets lowered by one value every time you attack it with anything it is weak to, with each enemy usually being weak to at least three things. When you break an enemy’s shield, it enters into a vulnerable state for the next turn, where it’s weaker to all attacks, and cannot attack itself. These vulnerabilities, however, do not get revealed until you attack the enemy with something it is actually weak to (or perhaps use a move that is designed specifically to analyze enemies and pinpoint their weaknesses). This particular mechanic mingles with the concept of boosted moves wonderfully. If an enemy is weak to, say, daggers and has a shield counter of 4, you can, if you wish, choose to consume 3 BP with a character equipped with daggers to break an enemy’s shield, but in doing so, you’d be using up BP that could potentially give you the opportunity to deal extra damage with boosted attacks when the enemy’s shield is down and it is vulnerable to all damage.
In battles where you’ll be coming up against multiple enemies, each with different weaknesses (which is most battles), you’ll be thinking ahead and strategizing how to best use your BP even more, and when you throw multiple enemies with higher shield counters into the mix, that level of strategy and nuance becomes even more pronounced. Each character also specializes in certain weapon types or elements of spells, and has unique abilities that can be used in battles (or even outside of them), which is a mechanic that becomes even more enjoyable when the game introduces the job system, which allows you to mix and match and fiddle around with different abilities even more. As such, you will always be thinking about the best ways to make use of each character- not just the four that are currently in your party, but also the four that are on the bench.
"You will always be thinking about the best ways to make use of each character- not just the four that are currently in your party, but also the four that are on the bench."
In this way, Octopath Traveler also manages to do what most JRPGs either fail to do, or choose to ignore- it makes sure that you never have a “favourite” party. Other than the character that you start the game with, who cannot be switched out of your party at any point, the game challenges you to swap characters in and out almost on a constant bases. Very rarely in JRPGs does it ever feel like each character can legitimately have significant advantages (or disadvantages) over most (or all) others depending on the situation, but Octopath does just that with resounding success. A huge reason for that, of course, is also the game’s very structure, which strictly dictates that each character receives an equal eighth of the spotlight’s share.
Yet another strength of the game is its world design. Admittedly, at times it can feel like the design is much too simple, with its expansiveness usually being expressed by little more than forking paths in the road, but while how you get from one place to another is usually restricted to linear pathways, that shouldn’t be mistaken for the world itself being small or lacking in variety. I’ve already mentioned the game’s huge variety of biomes, with almost each location you visit being contrastingly different from the previous one, but it is also littered with dozens upon dozens of optional dungeons (which usually come with their own bosses).
In this way, Octopath manages to find a nice balance between offering up a ton of content, but never making the getting to that content seem like an exercise. Navigating the world is a leisurely and simple activity, and the presence of a convenient fast travel system that lets you immediately hop back to any city, town, or village you’ve previously visited makes it even friendlier. Octopath Traveler is also structured in a way that promotes true and absolute freedom- you can tackle its quests in whichever order you please, or, conceivably, you can just choose to ignore some of its quests altogether. If you find that any of them are failing to hold your attention, you can just put them on the shelf and divert your attention to other, more interesting stories. There is absolutely no gating in the entire game – unless, of course, you’re too under-levelled for a section of the map – and this structure (or the lack thereof) makes for a refreshing and welcome sense of absolute freedom.
"Very rarely in JRPGs does it ever feel like each character can legitimately have significant advantages (or disadvantages) over most (or all) others depending on the situation, but Octopath does just that with resounding success."
Octopath, then, definitely does not suffer from a lack of things to do. It can be anywhere between 50-70 hours long if you stick to the critical path, and made even longer by a couple dozen more hours if you tackle its optional dungeons. Even the more mundane side activities, which would usually be little more than an afterthought in similar games, are deeply enjoyable in Octopath Traveler. For instance, interacting with NPCs is something I actually found myself looking forward to. Every town in the game is populated by NPCs who all have their own backstories, most of which are interesting, and most importantly, they all seem to be very well connected to each other. The backstories the game provides for them – which can be accessed by using the abilities of two of the characters – aren’t much more than little snippets of text, but they add a richness and flavour to every location you visit, and everything seems better contextualized as a result. Less impressive are the side quests, which are wildly inconsistent, and can range from genuinely interesting stories that span multiple parts, to short, inane fetch quests that reek of JRPG tripe.
As much as Octopath Traveler gets things right, it is also a game that, like any other game, has a few of its own failings. Rather than being one single, epic tale like most JRPGs of its ilk usually tend to be, Octopath Traveler is more of an omnibus collection of eight, separate, individual stories. Each of its eight main characters has his or her own narrative that is isolated from all the others, and never do these stories intersect- at least not in any meaningful way. What’s also disappointing is that the eight characters never really interact with each other, and while they’re all always playable in your party (barring the introductory sequences for each character), they’re essentially just along for the journey. Each of Octopath’s eight stories is squarely about one character, and one character only. While there is some “party banter” in separate sequences that sees two characters speaking with each other, as far as the critical path is concerned, the game only ever puts one single character in the spotlight at a time.
This lack of inter-party interaction and a larger, overarching narrative tying everything together could, perhaps, have been more palatable if Octopath’s individual stories were strong enough to justify its structure, but largely, such is not the case. A few of the stories provide moments of genuine intrigue every now and then, and some of them do end up taking turns and going to places you might not expect, but the majority of the game’s narratives suffer from setups and subsequent events that amount to little more than tired tropes far too often. The writing, too, is less than consistent, with some stories featuring well-written characters that are put through their paces in truly challenging narrative events, but others being bogged down by heavy-handed exposition, or shoddy writing, or both. For the most part, the same praises and criticisms apply to the voice acting as well.
"Rather than being one single, epic tale like most JRPGs of its ilk usually tend to be, Octopath Traveler is more of an omnibus collection of eight, separate, individual stories."
The truly great games, though, are the ones that overcome their failings, big and small, by working overtime in areas where they’re at their best, and Octopath Traveler is an absolute workaholic. What at first seems like, and could very well have gotten away with just being a nostalgic pander, ends up striking a very unique and distinct identity of its own. This is a game that is a loving ode to classic JRPGs of an era long gone, but it also knows that it can’t get away with doing nothing more than simply tugging at that part of your heart that yearns for simpler times. Octopath Traveler gladly emulates the parts of those classics that we remember most fondly, and then expertly brings them to the modern age with surprising innovations.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.
Strikingly beautiful visuals that capture the magic of 32-bit classics without looking outdated; Excellent soundtrack; Addictive and deeply nuanced combat; Incentivizes and encourages you to make equal use of all your party members; Intense, long boss fights; Streamlined world design encourages exploration without ever becoming overwhelming; A bevy of optional content; Playtime of 50-60 hours that can easily be extended to 80; Interacting with the NPCs is unexpectedly enjoyable; Completely open-ended structure paves the way for absolute freedom; Some of the stories can be genuinely interesting at times.
No larger, overarching narrative tying everything together; The almost total lack of inter-party interaction is disappointing; Inconsistent writing and voice acting.
Octopath Traveler takes a long, hard look at classic JRPGs, successfully emulates most of what we remember so fondly about them with our rose tinted nostalgia glasses, sheds their annoying or excessive parts that we so often choose to forget, and adds its own surprising and unique innovations that elevate it from the status of "yet another nostalgic pander" to that of a proper modern wonder.