There's been considerable effort to pin down the inspiration(s) behind Square Enix's new Nintendo Switch RPG, Octopath Traveler, since the game was first revealed in January 2017. "Oh, it's inspired by Final Fantasy VI," we said when we noticed its gorgeous "2D-HD" sprites are a callback to the best of the SNES' RPG library. "Oh, it's like Bravely Default," we said when we observed the characters' ability to store up energy for all-out attacks. "Oh, it's like 7th Saga," we said when we noticed the game's eight characters embark on separate journeys to meet their destiny.
So what is Octopath Traveler? Ultimately, it's an engaging and unique RPG that performs a good balancing act between brand-new mechanics and 16-bit Squaresoft nostalgia—barring a bump or two that can stand some sanding-down.
Octopath Traveler is also dense. You're looking at a 60-hour game even if you skip the post-game dungeon, decide to pass on some of the optional cave excursions, and neglect to mop up all the side quests. A boss fight can take up to 20 minutes, especially if you don't concentrate on buffs and debuffs. The game's fights are rich and filling, and when you enjoy them in small play sessions, they're delectable. Don't stuff your mouth, though: You might get sick. What we have here is another Switch game perfectly suited to its handheld format. Octopath Traveler makes for a wonderful companion on a plane ride. So much better than that armrest hog who leans in to block the window at take-off. You know who I'm talking about.
The length of Octopath Traveler admittedly caught me by surprise. At a glance, it comes across as a straightforward adventure where all eight heroes eventually meet in the middle. I figured it'd end within 20 or 30 hours like the 16-bit RPGs it doffs its cap to. And it's not as if the game takes place in a tremendous, sprawling word like you find in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 or The Witcher 3 or the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Looks are deceiving, child. Octopath Traveler is fashioned like a spring, not a spoked wheel. The inner coil takes you through the heroes' opening chapters while the outer coils unfurl and reveal more and more of the map as the heroes' stories take them to far-flung corners of their world.
The separate journeys of said heroes might be one of the most controversial things about Octopath Traveler. The camaraderie between a team of misfit heroes up against the end of the world is practically a defining trait of RPGs, especially Japanese RPGs. By contrast, Octopath Traveler is focused on the trials of its eight protagonists and the situations and characters important to them. The huntress H'aannit is on a quest to find her father figure, who disappeared after he was commissioned to hunt a particularly nasty beast. The scholar Cyrus is on the hunt for a forbidden tome that's seemingly tied up in some very dark magicks. The knight Eisenberg is journeying to find an answer for why his best friend betrayed their liege. And Primrose, who walks through the darkest tale of the eight, is out for vengeance against the organized crime group that slew her father.
Do the characters' motivations and demons and demons converge into a standard RPG world-eater who threatens to devour all? Well, yes and no. As you play through Octopath Traveler, you do notice shared story threads between the gang that seem like they're part of a shared tapestry. The big payoff doesn't happen unless you delve into a challenging post-game dungeon whose whereabouts aren't immediately apparent. In other words, if you're bothered by the idea of guiding eight separate characters on eight separate quests for at least 50 to 60 hours, Octopath's story structure probably just isn't for you.
Speaking for myself, though, Octopath Traveler's focus on telling stories about individuals rather than a group resonates. Granted, it's kind of weird when your recruited party members elbow their way into each opening chapter, e.g. the loner thief Therion just says "All right, sure," when your ragtag party decides—for reasons never sufficiently explained—to help him find some valuable artefacts that technically shouldn't be of any importance to the forest-born H'aanit or the humble and helpful Apothecary Alfyn. Thankfully, once that bit of awkwardness is over with, the characters successfully gel with each other while also keeping a distance from each other's business (so far). Octopath Traveler's cast reminds me of a room filled with pleasantly-mannered cats who give each other plenty of space, but still steal over to one another for the occasional grooming session.
Honestly? I think it works. For one thing, the characters still talk to each other at key story points through optional "travel banter." Through these short vignettes, each hero explores how their interests and motivations stack up against their compatriots'. One vignette even concluded with H'aannit and the Cleric Ophilia shyly complimenting each other on their beauty, awkwardly pausing, then deciding they'd like to spend more time together. It was short, sweet, and to the point. Go for it, ladies.
Moreover, each character's stand-alone story is crafted to suit their personal goals. This makes for highly focused storytelling: There's no obvious struggle pound half-baked backstories for C-tier mascot characters into the narrative. It's appropriate that Primrose's story of revenge is a personal and private affair that only involves her and a handful of NPCs. Her tale delves into prostitution and sex trafficking, and I don't see how it'd be improved if the rest of Octopath's crew swarmed the stage and interjected with their own observations.
Octopath Traveler isn't all about listening to eight tales from eight mouths, though (nor are all the stories as dark as Primrose's: Alfyn's adventures as a traveling doctor contain a warm and positive vibe that's not the least bit unwelcome in today's political and social climate). There's fighting, too; a lot of it. The game's battle system is reminiscent of Bravely Default's method of storing up energy for big attacks, though Octopath goes beyond simply xeroxing the popular Nintendo 3DS series. Enemies are weak against certain weapons and spells, and when a hero bashes them often enough with that weakness, their defenses drop to zero and they're stunned for a turn.
Theoretically, the Calvary should be able to roll all over a stunned enemy, but it's not so simple. You build up Battle Points (BP) with every turn that passes, and you often have to decide if you should blow all your BP to shatter your foe's shield or pick away at the shield slowly—opening yourself up to powerful attacks in the meantime—and then spend all your BP once the enemy's soft belly is exposed. Regular enemies usually don't take much strategy to bring down, but boss fights are long, grueling, and take considerable strategy to complete successfully. Bosses have a lot of HP (maybe too much: Some of the boss fights wear out their welcome, especially since summoned mooks factor into a lot of them), and their attacks become more vicious as they inch closer to death.
I've yet to encounter a fight in Octopath Traveler that's unfair, though. The game gives you everything you need to succeed against your hardiest foes, and you're even allowed to breathe a little easier once you acquire secondary jobs. As the name suggests, secondary jobs allow you to tack a second vocation onto your heroes. Doing so grants a whole new set of skills and weapons to the good guys, which makes enemies' weaknesses all the easier to exploit. Plus, mastering jobs opens valuable "support skills" that you can keep forever. I gave Ophilia the Cleric a secondary job as a Hunter, and in that time, she learned a move that lets her occasionally add a free strike to her assault against a baddie. That skill stays with her even if I decide to revoke her primary hunter skills and make her a Dancer.
This is on top of each character's innate skill, all of which can prove extremely useful in battle and across the overworld. H'aannit can capture beasts to do her bidding, plus her pet snow leopard can provoke townspeople into a fight—and sometimes you need to fight if an NPC is blocking an interesting-looking building (all apologies to the orphanage matron blocking the entrance to the shelter. I just had to see what was inside). Ophilia and Primrose can sweet-talk villagers into following them into battle, where they can be summoned as powerful fighters and / or sling buffs and debuffs. Therion the Thief can nick weapons and items from townspeople, though the more honest Tressa prefers to barter for whatever they're carrying. Alfyn the Apothecary and Cyrus the Scholar can get NPCs to open up about themselves, which can yield the locations of valuable items or bits of information vital to solving the game's many sub-quests.
Octopath Traveler is a lot of game, and the more time I spent with it, the more impressed I become with how cleverly it's assembled. The 2D-HD sprites are gorgeous, of course, and treat you to breathtaking effects like the perpetual hazy dark of snowbound lands and glints of sunlight off running brooks. Navigating through the hills and cervices of the wild areas that connect towns can be difficult—but that's by design. You're often handsomely rewarded for going off the beaten path and searching for hidden bumps and dips in the landscape. If you just want to make a straight-shot from town to town, you need only follow the dirt roads and consult the signposts at each junction.
Sometimes that straight run is exactly what you need, because Octopath Traveler has one retro holdover I'm not super-keen on: Random battles. They're not overwhelming when you know where you want to go, but they're an unwelcome interruption when you're searching for a way to reach that treasure chest mocking you from a seemingly unreachable ledge. Cyrus and anyone else who takes the Scholar job can learn a support skill that cuts down on random battles, but as Kat and I have discussed often on Axe of the Blood God, random encounters are an unnecessary holdover that refuses to die for some unfathomable reason. Dearest RPG developers: If you're not going to do away with random encounters, at least offer the option to turn them off on the fly a la Bravely Default.
The satisfaction of shattering enemies' defences and then laying into them with an arsenal of weaponry thankfully overrides the frustration of random encounters, but Octopath Traveler has one more baffling retro hold-over: Characters who aren't in your party don't gain any experience. Like, at all. I think the last RPG I played that pulled the "If you don't work, you don't eat" card on me was 1994's Final Fantasy VI. Subsequent 16-bit RPGs from Square, including Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG, throw your bench-warmers a bone. I don't understand why Octopath Traveler refuses to do the same.
Is it a huge deal? Thankfully, no: While playing a particular character's story forces you to have the potentially-under-levelled schmuck in your party, your stronger characters can carry them without much trouble. You can also bring weak characters up to speed with the aid of the Bewildering Dance move, which might reward you with experience multipliers. No, Octopath Traveler's refusal to level up all your characters at the same time isn't a huge deal—but even a small pain in the ass is still a pain in the ass.
And yet I can't say I objected to doing a little bit of grinding here and there while listening to The Best of Elton John (I'm seeing him this September). Though its battle system and storytelling are unorthodox, Octopath Traveler is a gem of a summer Switch RPG. If you liked what you played in the demo, it's an easy recommendation. Definitely consider enjoying it in moderate sips versus throwing your head back and trying to take it all in at once, though.
Octopath Traveler's attempt to balance new and old JRPG mechanics is impressive, and mostly successful. There's a charming one-of-a-kind title here that opts to talk about eight characters instead of focusing on one team, one world, and one story. Does this unusual method of storytelling work? I think so, but personal preferences will vary. Some over-long boss fights and questionable dedication to certain retro mechanics mar Octopath a bit, but if you own a Switch and love JRPGs, adopt this fluffy, lovely snow leopard of a game for your own.