When I was a kid I spent hours after school plugging away at Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) before my mom eventually either told me to go to bed, or unplugged my TV. I’ve been addicted to that same style of game ever since. Which is why when Square Enix, the king of JRPGs, first showed off “Octopath Traveler,” exclusively for the Nintendo Switch, I was immediately fired up.
Not only did the game offer the same turn-based battles and strategies that I love, it even sports the same 2D sprites that I remember playing while slurping down HI-C juice boxes and eating Dunkaroos. Needless to say, I was instantly hooked.
That nostalgia helped pull me in, and while the story, or rather, stories fall short, the gameplay offers more than enough to keep you playing for more hours than Mom would approve.
An 8-in-1 adventure
“Octopath Traveler” has, you guessed it, eight different protagonists that you play throughout your journey across Orsterra. You start off by selecting a main character, then slowly traverse the game’s medieval setting hooking up with the remaining seven members of the cast. That part alone took me roughly 15 hours to accomplish, which should give you an idea of how much content there is to uncover in this game.
I started off in the Woodlands region with the hunter H’aanit. From there, I managed to sync up with Ophilia, the cleric; Olberic, the warrior; Cyrus, the mage; Tressa, the merchant; Alfyn, the apothecary; Primrose, the dancer and finally, Therion, the thief.
Each character has their own unique capabilities called Path Actions that let you interact with the game’s various non-player characters. H’aanit, for example, can challenge people to a fight against her beast companions she’s captured throughout her travels, while Ophilia can persuade people to follow her and then jump into battle alongside you.
Other characters, such as Therion, can steal from townspeople, though your success isn’t always guaranteed, and failing can damage your reputation in specific regions. Cyrus and Alfyn can find out interesting information about you, which is impressive, because it shows just how much time the game’s writer dedicated to fleshing out the narrative of each town and its inhabitants.
Sometimes more is less
I can’t say enough about how fantastic the world of “Octopath Traveler” looks. It’s 2.5D visuals see you move around 2D towns and villages, making for a perfect homage to the JRPGs of yesteryear. But with the Switch’s graphics power it makes for a game that looks like a living, breathing diorama. The realistic water and lighting effects are particularly striking, especially when your sprite-inspired party travels alongside a river that looks as if it’s made of actual flowing water.
When you first meet up with each of the game’s seven other characters, you’ll be tasked with a specific quest that you must complete on your own before being able to regroup with the other members of your party and continue on to a boss battle.
This same cycle is then repeated with every chapter you play in “Octopath Traveler,” which can get a little tedious. The dungeon design is also similar regardless of what character you’re playing or what part of the story you’re in. Sure they have different settings, but their layout becomes rote after a few crawls.
Despite the fact that the eight protagonists in “Octopath Traveler” march from deserts to snow-capped mountains together, there’s very little interaction between them. Every once in a while, you’ll receive a prompt that will show two characters talking about a recent event, but it’s not nearly often enough. For a group of people who are supposed to be spending every waking minute together, you’d think there would be more banter.
Traditional JRPGs are sprawling melodramas with characters banding together to fight some kind of overarching evil that sets the stage for the entire story. But “Octopath” doesn’t seem to have that. Instead, it’s a series of eight narratives that are tangentially connected to each other.
Many of those stories, however, are truly entertaining tales. Primrose’s narrative is the grittiest of the eight, while Tressa the merchant’s is more jovial. I just wish I was given a single Big Bad that the team needed to stop. Without that, the stakes never feel particularly high.
Satisfying and strategic combat
Despite the shortcomings of its story, what ultimately makes “Octopath Traveler” a JRPG worth picking up is its incredibly deep combat system. Each battle starts with you and your companions facing off against one or more monsters. Monsters, however, have a built-in defensive shield that you’ll have to break if you want to deal them significant damage.
What makes that interesting is that each enemy type has different vulnerabilities that will break their shield. Some are susceptible to axes, some to fire or ice magic, some to wizard staves, which is unheard of in most games.
Shield strength is translated to counters, so if you’re facing off against a monster with a 2x shield, you’ll need to hit them twice to break down their defenses and start throwing some real damage. You also get Battle Points that allow for you to power up your attacks or strike your foes multiple times in a turn. In the end you have to decide if you want to save your Battle Points to break down an enemy’s shield or deal more damage.
Seeing an enemy’s shield break is one of the most satisfying visual prompts I’ve ever experienced in a game. It’s a bummer, though, that you can only have four members in your party at one time. That makes it more difficult to level up characters you don’t usually assign to your party.
Should you get it
“Octopath Traveler” is a stunning ode to the JRPGs of the past and offers enough in terms of its updated art styling and battle systems to win over even the most jaded of fans. While I wish the story offered a more cohesive narrative, I still couldn’t put it down thanks to its old-school art and incredible combat.
What’s hot: Gorgeously rendered world; Intense, strategic combat; A true throwback to classic JRPGs
What’s not: Stories are disjointed; Repetitive dungeons
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