It was about an hour into Octopath Traveler when I realised just how much I was enjoying it. The lively drumming of the battle music, Therion’s infectious cackle as he stepped forward to make his move, the sharp 16-bit world brimming with nostalgia. I was gripped as quickly as I had been by any game in recent memory. So much so, even the random battles didn’t bother me. Octopath Traveler, Square Enix’s love letter to the wonderful SNES era of JRPGs, was clearly the game I wanted so much without even knowing it.
It all begins with a choice between eight heroes of different backgrounds, each one’s story premise and class briefly presented. I picked the thief, Therion and ventured to the rocky landscape of Bolderfall, embarking on a mansion heist in search of the great riches within.
The visuals, inspired by yesteryear, intentionally refrain from pushing the boat out, but are strikingly polished and crisp with locations framed nicely by realistic lighting, and battle animations a touch more elaborate than earlier Nintendo consoles allowed. This is all whilst remaining classic enough to evoke the blissful memories of old favourites from the 90s, considered by many (including myself) as the golden age of the genre.
But Octopath Traveler isn’t just a timely throwback. There is a beautiful simplicity to character sprites scampering around small towns without the need to, say, stop to fill up your car with petrol or become over encumbered by your unfathomably large inventory. More realism doesn’t always mean more fun. My belief is there is still very much an audience ready to snap up any old-school JRPG. Perhaps that audience is just me, but I suspect not.
Octopath Traveler also proves beyond doubt that traditional turn-based battles are still well and truly alive (Persona 5 also did this belief no harm). At its core, it has a job-style system with the characters’ individual classes granting each of them unique abilities in battle. They also have differing weapon types, important because enemy vulnerabilities play a huge part in success, only learnt by chancing on the correct attack type during the skirmish.
Foes have weaknesses based on different elements or weapons, and a specific number of critical attacks needed to ‘break’ them, denoted by a number displayed underneath their graphic. Inflicting break stops an opponent from acting for the rest of the turn and pushes their next attack right to the end of the following one. Timing this well can be the key to victory.
For instance, a boss may need seven critical hits to break them and your trial-and-error flurry of attacks may have shown them to be weak to fire, wind, daggers and spears. This means seven attacks within these categories will break them, and if you manage this right at the start of a turn, you’ll be free to effectively have two full rounds of undefended attacks. The helpful turn order displayed at the top of screen helps in formulating your master plan.
The freshest element to the battle system comes in the form of boost points (BP), one of which is accumulated per party member after each turn, up to a maximum of five. When you have boost points available, they can either be used up to repeatedly attack, or charge up other skills, making them more potent.
It’s the tactical conundrums during difficult boss battles that truly get the most out of this, challenging the player to figure out the best methods to achieve victory. If the enemy is about to attack, has a weakness to arrows, and your bow-wielding hunter H’aanit has four boost points available, it may be a good time to use them all up for four consecutive attacks that will break the boss and save you from their deadly spell. It’s immensely enjoyable and satisfying to think on your feet and solve these strategic puzzles as they come – and it doesn’t help that bosses tend to lock the critical effect of some weakness, or change them altogether mid-battle preventing an easy rhythm to your approach.
Here, the superb soundtrack of Octopath Traveler absolutely shines, its tunes elevating the decisive fights from thrilling to downright epic. I was surprised to later learn it was from little-known composer Yasunori Nishiki, a talent so underrated at the time of writing he does not even have his own Wikipedia page. I sincerely hope we hear more of him. The music regularly matches the legendary compilations of Final Fantasy’s Nobuo Uematsu at his best, and there is really no greater praise I can offer.
The unique character skills extend from battle to the field, with each one holding a useful ability, though when all characters are unlocked you’ll notice a few of them considerably overlap. Therion’s ability to steal from NPCs is actually a cheaper but riskier alternative to merchant Tressa’s option of buying the very same goods, and Primrose’s dancing allure the rough equivalent of Ophelia’s skill to guide people, enabling either character to temporarily summon townsfolk into battle.
Octopath Traveler presents eight stories, one per character, split into four chapters apiece. Some gripped me more than others, but all were thoroughly enjoyable, invariably building up to dramatic climaxes with twists and turns aplenty. The characters, helped by their adorable designs, are instantly likeable and are generally thrown into quandaries intriguing enough to pique one’s interest from the offset.
Every tale, such as Cyrus’ search for a sacred but perilous lost tome, H’aanit’s hunt for the fate of her master, or Tressa’s quest for treasure, is different enough from the others to keep things interesting. Octopath Traveler also offers plenty of freedom, both in terms of the large explorable areas, and the order with which the stories are tackled. Once a character’s individual chapter is completed, you can venture to the next destination in their story to keep going, or – more advisably – complete another character’s chapter to catch them up and gain some further levels.
Therefore, you can either beat everyone’s first chapter, then everyone’s second chapter, and so on, or beat a character’s whole story before starting the next one from scratch. The difficulty with this is that the chapters get significantly harder, and in the end doing something in between is likely how most players will proceed.
Though I had every intention of taking the balanced route, after a while I found myself unable to turn away from the stories I was most invested in, such as dancer Primrose’s pursuit of vengeance. This left me with a different issue – by the time I dragged myself back to the slightly less enjoyable quests, half of my characters were overlevelled from completing a previous story in full.
Now I don’t object to the notion of eight distinct stories at all but the execution is sometimes rather strange and, at its worst, is a borderline plot hole. For instance, early in the merchant Tressa’s plot, she travels to a nearby cave to hunt down a band of fearsome pirates, and is ridiculed for her foolishness. After all, she has travelled there to confront them all alone.
Except in my playthrough… she hadn’t. Hers was my fourth story, and immediately after this exchange I proceeded to take on the boss, and easily beat him, with a full party.
Similar instances are littered through the game as the characters don’t really interact with one another outside of battle. The closest we come is in the form of pleasant but inconsequential scenes along the lines of skits from the ‘Tales of’ series – strictly optional and rarely touching on the actual events of the story in any meaningful way.
This is where the inevitable comparisons to Final Fantasy 6, the SNES RPG that most notably follows the ‘ensemble cast’ approach, fall down. Octopath Traveler’s strength of juggling eight different story arcs ultimately ends up being its biggest weakness. The great JRPGs are often driven by the camaraderie, companionship and conflict within its playable party. The characters of Octopath Traveler are interesting and distinct enough to bounce off each other well, and by decidedly keeping the stories separate I couldn’t help but feel this is a huge missed opportunity.
To make matters worse, without spoiling anything, the (brutal) post-game dungeon actually drops a quickfire set of bombshells that show the lore behind each tale does link together, proving the groundwork was laid for the stories to be interwoven if Square Enix had so chosen.
Whilst it leaves the player with a freedom to complete whichever character arcs they resonate most with, and give every main character their moment, I’m sure Square Enix’s intention was always for the player to complete all stories. Even some more dynamic interaction, like allowing the ‘guest’ characters to chip in with some dialogue during pivotal scenes, would have added authenticity to the notion that we have a party travelling together.
Octopath Traveler does so much right, and for the most part I had an absolute blast reliving my childhood with more polished, modern elements of gameplay. But weaving the stories together throughout each journey to culminate into one epic conclusion would, in my view, have propelled it to true old-school RPG greatness.
Nonetheless, any Switch owner who had a SNES and still likes the thought of pixelated heroes whacking numbers from the heads of inanimate baddies simply cannot miss out on Octopath Traveler. The past is now.
Octopath Traveler is available here.