It's the middle of the summer, traditionally the period when expected hits emerge, and one candidate for surprise success is Octopath Traveler. Square Enix's throwback RPG has been enjoying a healthy wave of positive buzz in the run up to release, which is thanks in no small part to it being an original JRPG for the extremely successful Nintendo Switch.
Octopath Path's strong word-of-mouth extends back to its original announcement in early 2017. Its eye-catching "HD-2D" art style stood out immediately, its art style earning it favorable comparisons to classic favorites like Final Fantasy VI. The excitement only increased with the release of the prologue demo.
Octopath Traveler reviews aren't due to hit until tomorrow, but barring a major upset, it seems on track to be a solid success on Switch. And it's apt to be joined by many more JRPGs in the near future.
While the 3DS is still chugging along in the U.S., and the Vita has some life in it in Japan, both are on the verge of retirement. Their impending departure from the market leaves the Switch, which tripled the PS4's first year sales in Japan, as the obvious successor.
The shift has already begun in earnest. Bandai Namco confirmed during E3 that its remaster of Tales of Vesperia would be coming to Switch, and more recently ported SD Gundam G Generation Genesis to the platform. Atlus announced Shin Megami Tensei V would be a Switch exclusive last October, with SMT producer Kazuyuki Yamati telling Famitsu, "I realized once again as development was progressing that the Nintendo Switch is a compact piece of hardware on which you can play HD quality games, easily carry around, and that it truly a charming console."
Square Enix is reportedly devoting an entire division to Switch game development with the intention of creating more games like Octopath Traveler. "If Octopath Traveler does well and this is something that appeals to fans, we want to focus on Switch. Please pick up the Switch if you want to play games like Octopath Traveler," Square Enix division executive Tomoya Asano said.
Between Square Enix, Atlus, Bandai Namco, and Sega, many of Japan's largest JRPG developers will soon be represented on the Switch. And that's on top of Nintendo's own efforts, including Pokemon, Fire Emblem, and Xenoblade Chronicles.
The shift to the Switch is apt to only accelerate as the 3DS and the Vita are fully phased out. Its modestly powerful but nevertheless attractive graphics make it accessible to mid-range studios, and it's the ideal platform for ports of last-generation releases. Sega's Valkyria Chronicles 4 and Octopath Traveler are each indicative of the sorts of games we can expect on the Switch going forward.
By the end of next year, the Switch figures to have a wide range of JRPGs, from budget ports like Disgaea 5 to much more ambitious efforts. Octopath Traveler, it seems, is only the beginning.
Factors That Could Hamper JRPGs on the Switch
But for all of its promise, the Switch isn't guaranteed to reach the heights of the Nintendo DS or even the PS2. Its favorable outlook is tempered by the difficulties that have faced the Japanese gaming industry for more than a decade now.
Consider, for example, that Japanese gamers don't seem to enjoy playing the Switch on the train. Where the 3DS and PSP were once ubiquitous on morning commutes, the Switch has failed to follow suit. The Japanese developers I spoke with chalked it up to any number of factors, including the overwhelming popularity of mobile games, and the Switch being just a smidge too big for a packed train.
This would seem to put a damper on one of the Switch's primary selling points: its portability. It hasn't stopped the Switch from enjoying strong sales at the outset in Japan, but it could hurt its long-term viability.
Performance is another issue to consider. While the Switch isn't expected to have blockbuster graphics, it has labored to output some of its more ambitious games, such as last year's Xenoblade Chronicles 2. I wrote during E3 that Valkyria Chronicles 4 had some issues in handheld mode, and as games get more complicated, its struggles could mount.
Finally, Japan's domestic market still hasn't quite recovered from the crash that accompanied the transition to HD. Dragon Quest and Monster Hunter are still capable of generating big sales numbers, but its more common to see games that sell only a few thousand copies. The flipside is that the weak domestic market has increasingly pushed Japanese developers to look westward for sales. Monster Hunter: World, Persona 5, and Nier: Automata are all Japanese games that have made it big overseas.
It's hard to get a read on the Switch's long-term prospects, especially heading into the next generation, but it seems to be a good home for the middle-tier games that tend to thrive in Japan. There's even an argument to be made that we're in a post-graphics world, and that mega-blockbusters are less important than accessible hits like Fortnite. This is a favorable environment for JRPGs in general and the Switch in particular.
In the short term, Japanese developers seem to be embracing the Switch in large numbers, and Octopath Traveler is emblematic of that shift. Regardless of whether Octopath Traveler meets expectations, JRPG fans have plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future.
Octopath Traveler is out July 13. Check out Axe of the Blood God for our initial thoughts on the review build.