You have to admire the boldness of Square Enix. It would be so easy for the publisher to bring Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts to the Switch and rake in the cash, but instead, they’ve opted for something altogether more interesting.
Octopath Traveler has been turning heads since it was first unveiled last year, thanks to its unique “HD-2D” style. Comparisons to Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger were instantly made, which seems to be both a blessing and a curse. Thankfully, Octopath is far more than a simple love letter to what some may describe as the “golden era” of JRPGs.
As highlighted by the somewhat bizarre title, Octopath Traveler revolves around eight different playable characters. When starting a new game, you’ll be asked to select one of these eight heroes as your “main” character, but outside of them leading your party around the world, this has little bearing on the rest of the game.
Each character begins their Octopath life in a different part of Orsterra, and each has their own problems to deal with. For example, Therion’s story begins in a tavern where he is awaiting the opportunity of a lifetime (to steal things, naturally), while Olberic’s tale starts in the midst of a war ten years ago.
All eight starting stories have a similar structure; the character will encounter a problem, they use their unique Path Ability (more on those later) to gain information or progress the story, and finally, they head off into a nearby dungeon to take down a boss and solve whatever issue they are facing.
After clearing Chapter 1 for your “main” character, you are then advised to head out and recruit the other seven characters. This is highly recommended, as there is a sizeable level jump between each character’s individual chapters; exploring the world and recruiting all the available allies or completing all chapters of a certain level should give you enough levels to continue your story.
Recruiting each character is a fairly simple task, but requires a lot of leg work. Each character’s starting town is pinpointed on the World Map, and when you arrive there, you’ll encounter that hero with a green speech bubble above their head. Talking to them will prompt you to join their quest, and you’ll be able to play through their opening scenes before heading off into their starting dungeon.
That sounds fairly repetitive, and it can be. Once you’ve collected all eight characters, you’ll see the similarities between them; H’annit and Olberic’s Path Abilities are identical, and are used in a near identical manner in both stories too.
Crucially though, the game never feels like a slog. Yes, there may be overlapping similarities between some characters, but you only really notice them in brief spells. In fact, the developers have made each character feel, look and sound unique, thanks to well written dialogue and surprisingly great English voice acting.
It’s the varying locations of Orsterra that really bring the world to life, though. Yes, it’s pretty standard fantasy fare, but the fact that each location is visually distinct helps immerse you in the world more.
This is where the “HD-2D” style comes into play most. As you venture between towns (which typically takes two to three screens), the depth of field effect offers you glimpses of scenery in the distance; another neat touch which helps make your adventure feel that much more real.
It’s not always great – Ophilia’s starting town of Flamesgrace features a giant cathedral which should be a standout centerpiece for the area, but annoyingly, due to the depth limitations (and the limitations of the Switch, presumably), you can never really get a clear look at it outside of some early cutscenes. This is a minor issue, though; the “HD-2D” look enhances the game far more than it ever hinders it.
Of course, looking and sounding great is one thing, but for a JRPG to really get its hooks into you, it needs to deliver a satisfying combat experience. Happily, this is far and away Octopath’s most outstanding feature.
At the center of the game’s combat is the Break system. Every boss and enemy in the game is vulnerable to a certain number of weapons and/or elemental types. For example, a certain type of enemy may be weak to axes, daggers and fire attacks.
Obviously, attacks with those weapons or spells will do more damage, but they’ll also weaken the enemy through the Break system. Each enemy has a specific number of shields; most common enemies in the wild will have 1-3, while bosses can have 7 and upwards.
Each time you use an attack that an enemy is vulnerable to, you’ll break one of these shields. Break all the shields and you’ll stun the enemy, forcing them to skip their next turn and take increased damage from all sources. When combined with the Bravely Default inspired Boost system (where you use a character’s accumulated boost points to attack multiple times in one turn), you’re able to unleash some crazy damage combos without fear of retaliation.
It might not sound that engaging, but in practice, it adds a whole new level of tactics to each fight. All weaknesses are hidden at the start of battle (unless you’ve fought that enemy type before), so you start out by poking and prodding each enemy with every weapon type you have to uncover their weaknesses. Once you’ve found one, you focus on that enemy with that weapon to break their shields, which then allows you to unleash the full force of your party on them to defeat them.
This is best exhibited in the various boss battles, which are lengthy, highly strategic affairs. In these fights, the same principles apply (find and target the weaknesses), but timing is far more important. It becomes almost like a rhythm; lower the weaknesses, unleash the full force of your attacks, and then heal/recover to start the process again.
Uncovering enemy weaknesses and strategising on the fly to utilise them is a key part of Octopath Traveler, and it’s ridiculously satisfying once you’ve got the hang of it. With clever tactics (and a little bit of luck), it’s possible to clear battles without taking a single bit of damage, leaving you feeling all smug inside.
A welcome knock on effect of the combat system is that you feel less restricted when it comes to party selection. In other games, you can often feel forced to have a certain class or role in your party at all times, but here, you should never feel that your party is lacking. Yes, you should probably have a healer with you at all times, but outside of that, you won’t be punished for your party selection, which is a very welcome feeling.
That’s not to say that characters are completely interchangeable. At least, not initially. Every hero has a unique weapon set and set of skills linked to their class, making them feel strong in their own specific field. Later on, you can add to each character’s skill set with a second class/job, but after several hours of play, you’ll be fairly attuned to each character and what they can do.
All of this combined sounds like a dream come true for SNES RPG fans (and it is), but it’s important to note that Octopath Traveler feels accessible for new fans too. If your first experience with an RPG is Final Fantasy XV, yeah, it’s going to take some time to get to grips with Octopath, but thanks to the structure and combat of the game, that’s never going to be a chore.
Above all else, Octopath Traveler never ceases to be a game that entertains. Whether it’s the quirky look, the excellent soundtrack, the hours upon hours upon hours of content, or the core gameplay, everybody should find something to appreciate with this game. And for a brand new JRPG, that’s a pretty special success.
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A throwback with a modern twist, Octopath Traveler is an exciting new addition to the Switch’s library. JRPG fans (both new and old) will find plenty to love here.
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