Cyrus seems like the type of dude I would not associate with in the real world. He's a pompous scholar and a relentless womanizer who was recently fired from his post, thus sending him on a typical JRPG journey to do something (in this case, find something). Cyrus is the sort of character that everyone around treats with a side eye and a slight hint of annoyance, like they're counting down the seconds until he leaves again.
In Octopath Traveler, the upcoming Square Enix JRPG for the Nintendo Switch, players have eight different characters to control. Every character has their own unique storyline, innate job, and personality, obviously. Last week during a hands-on demo with the game, I got to see a glimpse of Cyrus' journey from early on in Chapter Two, where he's embarked on a quest with nay more than a "thirst for knowledge."
For Cyrus, the roaming Scholar, he's a bit of a detective too (likely due to that "thirst for knowledge"). In the early goings of my demo I explored a multi-tiered town, tracking down the entrance to a nearby sewer by talking to NPCs that might know a thing or two about its whereabouts. Exploring the town is a delight visually, with the depth given by what a Nintendo representative tells me is "HD 2D" affording a refreshing way to admire sprite-based art design. The game is so eyecatching at times that it even gets a little hard to tell where a ramp or staircase might be to progress to another area.
Octopath Traveler, beyond its striking visual style, is not as rosy as its appearance. Approaching NPCs in a town gives you a multitude of possible actions: Scrutinize, Allure, and so on, all achieving different outcomes. Cyrus, and the other seven characters I would wager, seem more shapeable than the typical JRPG hero in these path actions, where choices play to each character's unique jobs and strengths.
In battles though, the amount of options leads to long runtimes—I'm talking seemingly 10 or so minutes long—even of the small, random encounter variety while just traversing a dungeon. Whether you've figured out enemies' weaknesses already in previous encounters or not, even the battles that feel like they'd be a breeze for grinding or exploring in other games is a brutal challenge in Octopath Traveler. With no enemies on the map to dodge and unseen battles just springing upon you unexpectedly like a JRPG from the 1990s, you're basically locked in for whatever awaits you in the shadows.
It was in these battles where I wondered if the dungeon the story dragged me to in this guided demo was out of my current party's level range. Attacks, while doing hundreds of damage often, felt like it was hardly making a dent on some monsters. I asked a Nintendo representative if there were certain party members, or even job skills, that would eventually allow players to see the HP bars on enemies, and I was told that wasn't the case—each battle is essentially feeling out each enemy's health.
There are ways to make battles go by faster though. Perhaps most similar to the 3DS game Bravely Default, Octopath Traveler is a game about managing weaknesses and acting accordingly. Once an enemy's weakness is hit, there's potential for them to Break—leaving them particularly vulnerable to additional attacks. An enemy's weakness is usually sussed out through testing your party's own attacks, from light-elemental abilities to the slight difference between a dagger and a sword. There's a lot of different options, and the jobs between each character (each character has two: one innate, one chosen) give each teammate a leg-up or down in battle.
During one battle, wherein I had died and had to respawn at the start of the dungeon beforehand, I was starting to get a feel for things. I had a character I mentally noted was a good support with healing abilities so I didn't use up the precious few HP and revive items in my inventory. I learned that saving up Boosts, where one Boost Point is gained after each turn, is a smart strategy, especially when an enemy hits a Break. You can stack up to three Boosts at once, making any ability damage or potency more powerful. (You can have up to five Boosts stockpiled at any time.) Though even after having enemy weaknesses figured out, without a health meter I felt like I was blindly wasting some of the higher MP-costing abilities. Enemies still took quite a long time to beat down, even after exploiting their weaknesses.
The boss fight, compared to the random battles with skeletons and other monsters, was even more trying. The seemingly vampiric foe summoned familiar monsters I previously met in the dungeon to join the fray. I failed miserably, of course, even after figuring out a weakness or two and clearing out two of the allied monsters. I wasn't alone though, at least—allegedly no other demo player at that point in the day had successfully overcome the boss either.
As a result, Octopath Traveler feels like an old school JRPG. Specifically, the sort of now-niche brand of JRPG about managing systems and plotting every single move. I only came away semi-unscathed after a few battles during my time with it, otherwise succumbing quite a bit to team wipes. In the most perilous situations, rougher battles were hard to come back from unless I had enough revival items at my disposal. For just being the second chapter of Cyrus' storyline, it felt a bit too brutal. I found myself wondering if every single non-boss battle would always stretch as long, or if this just was a way to kick players' asses into gear from the outset.
Octopath Traveler plays like the sort of RPG for only the most dedicated turn-based fans, the ones who lambaste RPGs of today for being too easy. Octopath Traveler is shaping up to be for the players who don't mind cracking open a beer and letting out a deep sigh every time a random battle occurs. I don't know if that's quite me—though I do love some good hard JRPGs, à la older Shin Megami Tensei games—but I guess I'll figure it out when the game releases on July 13 for Switch exclusively.