Games Review: Octopath Traveler (Switch, 2018): Looking back, moving forward

I have a rule when it comes to playing games for review: Remain objective, even when the game is in a genre you aren’t crazy about. Last week, I broke that rule. I had assumed I would detest Octopath Traveler. I had resigned myself to reviewing yet another JRPG, despite my long and well-documented history of not enjoying the genre one bit. I expected to hate it, so the fact that I love it as much as I do has come as a bit of a surprise. A loving homage to Square’s legendary Super Nintendo RPG’s, Octopath Traveler will remind you of everything you loved about that era, and everything you didn’t.

Octopath Traveler is a new IP from RPG powerhouse Square-Enix, a game in which eight different destinies slowly intertwine over the course of a single, world-spanning story. The eponymous Travelers come from all over the game’s open world and possess a suite of skills that differentiate them from the others. You are asked to pick one of these characters with which to begin your journey — I chose Cyrus, a mage/scholar hybrid, good at both damage spells and spotting enemy weaknesses — and set about bringing all eight under your banner as party members. As their individual stories begin to take shape the game slowly opens up, tipping its considerable hand in ever greater detail.

The story and the world-building on display here are of the typically high quality you associate with Square Enix at their best. It’s the kind of RPG plotting that made Squaresoft a household name in the late 90’s — a high-flying adventure, grand in scope, punctuated with smaller character-driven sequences that feel much more actual size. It’s actually quite linear, as these RPGs tend to be, but it does such a good job of hiding that and making you feel like your choices and methods for progressing are crucial, that you don’t really mind. As a piece of game writing, Octopath Traveler is rather marvelous.

The game utilises a visual style the developers refer to as “HD-2D,” a blending of the SNES-era pixel art used in classic Square titles like Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger and Unreal Engine’s modern effects, lighting and depth of field. Visually, Octopath Traveler is a knock out, perfectly evoking the classing SNES RPGs that are its inspiration while trying something new with its 2.5D perspective. It allows each area you visit to feel very retro and very modern at the same time. It’s quite the balancing act and here, Square-Enix are making it look easy. Even the sound design, which runs the gamut from classic bleep-bloop chip FX to its orchestral soundtrack and high quality voice acting, are worth a special mention. It’s wonderful work across the board. Expect to hear orchestras around the world incorporating arrangements from the Octopath Traveler soundtrack into their video game repertoires. It’s that damned good.

For those who aren’t already inured to the less enjoyable traits of the JRPG genre, combat will likely be the biggest source of irritation with Octopath Traveler. The game leans heavily on random encounters, interrupting you as you try to reach a curious treasure chest or as you simply try to cross a room. If you don’t mind the interruption, you’ll be find. If you do, you’ll be grinding your teeth in no time.

Combat itself is a pretty standard turn-based affair, and is largely built on the Break mechanic. The idea behind the Break mechanic is that you’re looking to stunlock your foe — each enemy has a number of attack types that they’ll be weak against, typically a set of four or more. Let’s say they’re weak against damage from Axes, Arrows, Cold Magic and Light Magic as an example. Hitting your enemy with enough of these specific attacks in a row will cause them to Break, stunning them for two turns. While stunned, they will take increased damage on attacks they’re already weak against. Combine this with the limited ability to power up certain attacks for a damage boost and you’ll find yourself dealing out enormous pain with every turn. It’s actually a very interesting way to come at combat, because it keeps you looking for an edge at all times. This hunt for advantage in combat is important because you’ll be doing quite a bit of it, and speed is often of the essence.

This leads to me the biggest gripe I have with combat is that, as with many JRPGs throughout the years, a big part of your success in boss battles is being forced to grind out XP in random encounters to level up beforehand. You’ll hit a boss you feel you’re more or less prepared to deal with. You start the fight, get absolutely mopped and realise no, you actually need to be about five levels higher before you can reasonably take them on. So it’s back to random encounters and you grind and you grind, taking out enemy after enemy in a single hit, watching that XP bar crawl upward and eventually hit your desired level. You enter the boss fight and endure 50 turns or more of grueling combat, finally besting the jerk and blowing through all of your consumables to do it. For this you will be rewarded an amount of XP commensurate with defeating three regular enemies. It frequently felt like the rewards didn’t come close to matching the effort I’d put in. Yes, there’s a satisfaction to felling a boss after slugging it out for so long, and that’s not to be discounted, but mechanically I feel like I should least be getting a level up out of it.

Your tolerance for issues like these will depend entirely on how much you like JRPGs. If you’re a fan, its likely you’re already well versed in How We Do Things Around Here. If you’re not, its possible that, as it was for me, the story, setting and characters will be more than enough to pull you through. For all my grumbling about the combat, its really nice to be excited about a JRPG again. It’s been a long time since I’ve fallen in love with one of these games and its good to have that feeling back. Even when the combat drives me mental and I have to turn it off for a while, its only an hour or two before I’m thinking about Octopath Traveler again. I keep saying it, but this really is wonderful stuff. Octopath Traveler is Square-Enix at the top of their game, and I hope it emboldens them to spin this new IP into a series in a similar vein. A must-play.

Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Great story, world building, characters; Gorgeous look; Some interesting combat mechanics
Lowlights: Leveling still a bit of a grind, often tied to success against bosses
Developer: Square Enix, Acquire
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Available: 14/6/18

Review conducted on Nintendo Switch with a retail code provided by the publisher.