Depending on who you ask, RPG fans will debate whether the SNES-era was the golden age of RPGs and everything they represented. In a time where, these games were in abundance on the system and the likes of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI were fresh experiences that blew the world away for what they were and featured the best and brightest talent behind them, telling stories we haven’t been able to replicate in the two decades that followed. Enter Octopath Traveler, a game from Square Enix that enthusiastically attempts to rekindle the magic of the 16-bit era.
The most noticeable thing about Octopath Traveler is the unique but striking graphics that push sprites into new territory. Simply put, this is a beautiful game with beautiful sprites and there is no other game that looks like this. Square Enix chose Unreal Engine 4 as the basis for this game and I feel this is a wise decision as this allows the studio to blend the new and the old in marvelous ways in what Acquire calls 2D-HD”. The tilt-shift world of Osterra is enthralling and the wonderful use of 2D sprites in 3D environments work in tandem to create a world that I’ve craved for some time and to get lost in. This isn’t all the game has to offer, either.
In fact, there are eight characters with their own distinct paths to choose from, and while the variety is welcome, not everyone is created equal. While you can choose who you want, you are then stuck with that initial choice for four chapters or roughly eight hours. Every character has a backstory and all of them start off strong, the developers allow you the freedom to go your own way and branch out into the world however you want. Who you pick first is important, and while who you pick doesn’t affect the narrative, you’ll still be able to enjoy everybody’s story in their entirety.
Each character has separate arcs with beginnings, middles, and ends. There is no overarching plot here and I wholeheartedly expected at one point to see all eight heroes band together for a new purpose. That did not happen, and that left me wearily impressed that the developers wanted to keep their characters separate from one another. This feels more like an anthology or collection of short stories from the world of Osterra, with the player dictating small details on how things play out.
Each hero is distinct and different from each other, talking differently, reacting differently and their goals all separate from each other. Discovering each protagonist is exciting, and impressively never misses its mark when introducing these heroes. What hurts Octopath Traveler, is that the stories never converge to something bigger. You meet someone in town, you can assist them to help further their goals, but there’s no narrative reasoning as to why they help each other do these things.
Each chapter follows a similar structure of arriving in town, watching a cutscene, restocking items, and moving on to the dungeon to defeat the enemy. There’s a slight difficulty curve that took me by surprise with Therion as he fought the first boss within his chapter, I wasn’t sure what to expect and promptly got stomped on by the box. Chapter 2 is when difficulty spiked again and requires thinking before acting, bosses will wipe you out if you aren’t careful so you’ll need to manage your team accordingly. I ended up rebuilding my party a few times because of how ill-prepared I was.
Combat plays out in typical JRPG fashion but the battle system takes inspiration from the Bravely series as players can utilize Boost Points (BP) to take advantage of their patience. The longer you hold out, the stronger your attack can be by pressing the R trigger to consecutively deal upwards of four blows at once to the enemy. The key to success is breaking the enemies shield first, this opens the to stronger attacks and turns the tide in your favor by triggering your Boost Points to deal consecutive hits. You can plan your strategy by looking at the top of the screen to see the next turn and chain your attacks to maximize your damage output.
Not only that, but Octopath takes inspiration for the Persona series by having you learn to exploit enemy weaknesses to your advantage, as each enemy all have weaknesses to be exploited by the Break system that effectively puts them out of commission for two turns. Things ramp up with more party members and enemies at hand, where planning debuffs and preventing the enemy from outmaneuvering you is often exhilarating.
There’s so much to talk about within the game – Job Points are earned as you battle and allow you to unlock skills that in turn unlock passive Support Skills for each character; as well as Secondary Jobs, that are discovered through shrines spread out around the world. There is considerable depth to every system in the game.
When you aren’t busy working through the main storylines, you’re free to explore the world to complete sidequests that are wonderful, but sometimes require a hint or two to put you in the right direction. Path Actions add a wonderful layer to the game outside of combat with each character having their own specialty. Therion for example, steals from NPCs, while Cyrus can use gain knowledge from them. Olberic can challenge NPCs to duel, and often this leads to treasure.
Octopath Traveler has stories to tell across an exciting world, but the uneven narrative hurts the game. The mesmerizing soundtrack from Yasunori Nishiki is wonderous and manages to elevate the game to exciting highs. With an exciting marriage of old and new RPG elements, things come together brilliantly to create something new within the genre. My impressions of the game are positive and everything feels and looks good. I love the depth and strategy the combat system brings, especially against the bosses. If you’re on the fence, take the leap, you won’t regret it.