Eight heroes are better than one?
When people say “Square doesn’t make old-school RPGs anymore” I can’t understand it. We might have been lucky to get two Bravely Defaults, but they’ve been investing in other projects for years like Setsuna and Lost Sphear.
Although they’re not all created equal the future of RPGs is beholden to these experiments, and Project Octopath makes a better case than most.
Octopath Traveler (Switch)
Developer: Square Enix, Acquire
Released: July 13, 2018
The best thing about Octopath is how nearly every story begins with a bang. Loss of a family member, a missing friend, a tragic flashback, an unthinkable betrayal: the intros have a flair for the dramatic, and they help set the stage for all eight journeys to come.
Even a relatively innocent scholar’s story, who begins teaching students geography, turns into a Freedom of Information Act of treason epic. One of the apothecary’s first steps is visiting a graveyard of sick people he couldn’t heal. It can get grim, but then you’ll witness whirling Looney Tunes-esque stars above a cute enemy frog’s head in the next beat. Such is the life of a JRPG.
Octopath uses gimmicks to its advantage to help sell the story of each character. So the huntress can challenge people to duels, the scholar can glean information from suspects, and the cleric can inspire people to follow her. It’s all basic stuff, enacted with the simple press of the Y button, but it’s not so gimmicked-up that it belies the flow. I played every character for roughly an hour each before deciding who I wanted to dive in with first. That’s an awesome problem to have. Once you’ve made your choice you can journey to other lands, pick up the other members of the Octo-crew, and complete their stories; guided by a journal menu and icons on the world map to keep you on track.
To get this out of the way — Octopath Traveler is an old-school JRPG through and through. You can’t save anywhere, there is fast travel, and there’s a very linear leveling system that sometimes involves grinding random battles. While each story is unique from a narrative sense, they all start the same: a small gated zone to level up in with a limited supply of items, followed by a dungeon and a boss.
Because of the way the stories are framed, the first few hours or so are slow-going with just one character squaring off against groups of enemies. Depending on who you start with this can either be a slog (the cleric) or a breeze (the warrior). It can get pretty brutal for some characters. In one cave as the scholar I walked into a 1v2 against elemental enemies, who “surprise attacked” me two times each and brought me to 25% health in one go — I narrowly escaped that fight and healed up with an item, as he had no restorative spells available. If you die it’s game over, back to the last save point. Old-school roughness at its finest.
That’s not to say it’s unmanageable for people who are even remotely familiar with JRPG principles. You can buy healing items at the start with a small cash injection with all eight characters, and make strategic use of the break and boost systems to whittle down enemies and prevent them from counter-attacking. There are tools to curb viewings of the game-over screen, you just have to use them.
Enemies all have weaknesses, which can be exploited by the “break” system to stun them for one turn. Initially it’s kind of a cat-and-mouse game figuring this out with new foes, but eventually you’ll pick them up and beat them down for extra continuous damage. Boosting (powering up abilities up to three times, with one charge per turn) is a little more involved.
I enjoyed the extra layer of debuffing enemies at a lower boost level then striking their weakness with a boosted elemental spell and instantly breaking them. The development team also goes out of its way to make abilities more impactful. Instead of just cleansing debuffs, one power removes them and prevents further debuffs for two turns. When you add multiple party members and enemy types into the mix it gets more complex, but most of these mechanics have been done before — so don’t go in expecting groundbreaking gameplay.
In that sense Octopath Traveler is a little at odds with itself. It’s fun to play, the characters are mostly compelling, and it looks incredible. Yet, there’s a harrowing feeling of emptiness at points, especially during some of the game’s blander dungeon crawls. For the vast majority of the adventure I cared about my party’s motivations and the world around them, but every so often I’d get that sinking feeling that I had been there before, both pragmatically and spiritually within the confines of Octopath‘s own universe. Brand new JRPG players who can get over a few of the more archaic notions might find it more refreshing.
But there’s one thing I never got tired of — the aesthetics. I want to see more games use this “2.5D HD” style, and please don’t make me wait a decade and change this time. It’s easy to compare it to something like Final Fantasy Tactics, but the more you play Octopath the more you’ll see that it’s really its own thing. Winding vertical dungeon layers hide secrets without making navigation too frustrating, small towns have their own charm about them, and character models, especially bosses, are emotive. That charm also extends to the beautiful soundtrack.
Octopath Traveler is a small triumph in that it mostly delivers on its promise to give us eight stories worth seeing through. None of them push the envelope in any way, and several drag, but that’s not a huge issue when you have so many to choose from. Even if you skip one or several tales altogether you’re still going to get a handful of RPG goodness.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]