Early adopters of the Nintendo Switch have been eagerly awaiting the release of Octopath Traveler, as it was one of the exclusive games announced at the Japanese reveal event way back on January 13, 2017. Square Enix and Nintendo have done a fantastic job of keeping the game in the spotlight for a year and half, showcasing it at not one, but two E3 shows and also releasing two separate demos, giving Switch owners ample time to decide if this homage to classic 16-bit turn-based JRPGs could find relevance with today’s gamers obsessed with Battle Royale modes and games as a service seemingly taking over everything under the sun. With games like Final Fantasy XV completely ditching the very gameplay mechanics that made it popular in the first place, it has become increasingly difficult for gamers like myself to find games that scratch that classic turn-based JRPG itch on a console. We were blessed to have a whole host of these on the 3DS, and now it appears the migration to the Switch is taking place and I couldn’t be happier.
Octopath Traveler begins with a choice: which character do you want to play as? As the name implies, you have eight adventurers to pick from, each with his or her own path to forge. Although you’ll eventually be able to acquire all eight characters and play through each story, your initial choice will always be a part of your party. Because of this, you may want to put some thought into which you want to spend the next 40-80 hours with. Your choices include: Olberic the knight, Cyrus the scholar, Therion the thief, Ophelia the cleric, Primrose the dancer, Alfyn the apothecary, Tressa the merchant, and H’aanit the hunter (the first letter of their names spell out the game’s title: Octopath).
Normally in games like these I choose the fighter or knight characters because they’re usually the most balanced and normally have strong offensive and defensive capabilities. However, I had already played Olberic in the first demo and I thought it would be more exciting to try someone new. On a whim I picked Therion, and I couldn’t be happier. Not only can he steal a ton of items and open locked chests, but he’s also one of only a few characters that has access to two different weapon types from the get go: daggers and swords, making him insanely useful throughout the entire game.
Each character has a Path Ability that can be used on the citizens in the various towns and cities. I just mentioned Therion’s penchant for pickpocketing, but there’s plenty more for you to do with your party of four characters. Olberic and H’aanit can challenge NPCs to a fight, which can be necessary when a stubborn character refuses to let you inside a house. Cyrus and Alfyn can study or question the NPCs to learn more about them and sometimes a hidden item or a town perk (like discounts at the inn or new items at the shop) will be unlocked. Ophillia and Primrose can recruit certain NPCs to join the party and then they can be called on in battle. Tressa can purchase items from NPCs, which might be the best way to get ahold of some of the most rare items in the game. Sure you could attempt to steal them, but sometimes the chance of success is really low (3%) and if you fail too many times your reputation in town will suffer. If it gets low enough you’ll lose all Path Abilities for that town unless you pay up a hefty fee to restore your reputation. All of this extra stuff to do in town makes it way more enjoyable to poke around and talk to people.
Each of the eight characters has a unique story that unfolds across several chapters. The game is designed so that you finish up a chapter and then seek out a new companion and play through their first chapter. I played this way until I got all eight characters and then I rolled back over to Therion’s story and started playing through each party member’s second chapter. I found this type of story progression to be quite satisfying as it kept things fresh and exciting. It sort of reminded me of one of my favorite TV shows of all time, LOST, where each episode focused on a specific person so there were multiple storylines going on at the same time. Where Octopath Traveler slightly disappoints is that there’s very little crossover in the stories and I think that’s a missed opportunity. The game does feature small vignettes where two of your party members will chat back and forth (sort of like many of the Fire Emblem games), showing a little interaction, but it’s not enough to create a cohesive story. For the most part it feels like the star of the chapter is one character, and it doesn’t matter who else is in your party as it won’t have any impact on the story. I didn’t feel like this was a huge negative, but I could see how some might. I rather liked the non-linear nature the game allows for, but the tradeoff is a story that can’t rely on specific party members because each player will have different teams at any given time.
Given that there are eight different characters with eight unique stories, it’s inevitable that a couple might be more interesting to you than the others. I never disliked any of them, but some I very much looked forward to some, like Therion, Primrose, and H’aanit over Tressa or Ophillia. Of course, what resonates with me may not with you, so it’s nice to have a spectrum of narratives going on simultaneously.
If you’re a fan of turn-based combat, then you’re going to love Octopath Traveler. It brings back the classic style found in the early Final Fantasy games, but adds some tactical layers on top to make it even better. When you encounter enemies, they will have a shield with a number on it. Alongside that shield will be various icons, which show the enemies’ weaknesses. These are only revealed after you have successfully attacked the enemy with a weapon or spell that it’s weak against. Also, if you have Cyrus in your party and he has leveled up a bit, at the start of each fight he will reveal one weakness for each enemy on the screen (very helpful). If you hit that enemy with the weapon or spell it’s weak against, you’ll knock a number off the shield. When that number hits zero you BREAK the enemy, which means it loses a turn and it takes even more damage than usual.
On top of that your heroes have something called Boost Points. Each character starts with one and can hold up to five. One is earned after each round of battle and each turn a character can use up to three boosts at once. So, as you can imagine, this adds another layer of strategy to the mix. Let’s say you enter a battle against four enemies and one of your characters is up first. You notice that one enemy is weak against axes and you can indeed hit it with an axe, but it would require two strikes to break the enemy. Plus, it attacks next, before anyone else will get a chance to. Do you spend your boost point right away to attack twice and break it, so it can’t attack your party for a turn, or do you just hit it normally and save up your boosts so that when it eventually breaks you can unleash your boosts and attack it a bunch of times with a weapon it’s weak against? Many things will factor into your decisions, and bosses become increasingly difficult to take down with tons of HP and rounds where they switch up their weaknesses and call in reinforcements. I’ve found that sometimes it’s best to break the enemy as quickly as possible, whereas other times it might be worth saving up the boosts and taking a wallop a few rounds until you can unleash your full force on them.
As you might expect, characters with access to several types of weapons or spells are often the best in battle. That’s why some of my favorites ended up being Therion (daggers, swords, fire, HP steal, SP steal), H’aanit (axes, bows, lightning, and ability to capture monsters and call them into battle), and Cyrus (reveals weakness, staff, fire, ice, lighting, and the ability to hit all enemies with a spell twice). If you equip Cyrus with some extra items to increase his elemental powers he can wipe out an entire screen of enemies with the right spell, and do massive damage against bosses. He goes through SP (magic) fast, so you’ll want to give him items that replenish this automatically or use Therion’s ability to share half of his SP to boost Cyrus. As you can tell, there are a lot of really awesome tactics to consider and you will no doubt come across many that will suit your style of gaming. The game does feature randomized battles, which some will no doubt despise, but if you grind your way through them you’ll level up at a rate that should hopefully help you take out the bosses. Cyrus does gain an ability to reduce the encounter rate, but I often left that off because I didn’t want to be under-leveled for sections of the game.
As you explore the world you’ll come across secret shrines. These will contain one of the eight character classes. Once you find the first one you can apply that secondary class to just one of your party members at a time. For example, the first one I came across was the hunter, and I equipped Therion with that secondary class. This increased his weapon handling ability from just daggers and swords to also including bows and axes. Plus, I had the option to spend skill points learning hunter moves, like lightning and arrow strikes. It’s up to you to decide who best to augment a secondary class with, and you can always change your mind and move the class to someone else. This increased ability is extremely helpful as the game goes on and gives your characters even more possibilities for growth.
For longtime gamers the one game that immediately comes to mind after seeing Octopath Traveler for the first time is Final Fantasy III (VI), which originally launched on the Super Nintendo back in 1994. Both games feature similar sprites and colors, but obviously there are some vast improvements here. The game sports HD-2D graphics, which takes classic SNES sprites and places them into polygonal scenes. Modern day lighting, bloom, and depth of field effects really make this game look modern and retro at the same time. I personally love the attention to detail and the 16-bit look, but some will no doubt take one look at the pixelated sprites and cringe. The game looks more refined when played on the Switch screen, but I played mostly on a 4K TV and it still looked great. I especially love the various particle effects and blurring techniques used in the desert and snow areas, giving them a magical aura that simply couldn’t have been done on older machines. The bosses are often huge sprites that take up most of the battle screen and are impressive to behold.
As much as I love the visuals of this game, the audio is equally impressive. There are some amazing tracks in this game, and I appreciate that each of the eight characters gets his or her own theme song. The various towns and zones have unique music, giving each area a special touch that will long be remembered. But, it’s the battle tracks that really steal the show here. Since there are random battles, you can expect to spend a great deal of time fighting enemies. As such, it’s vital to have catchy music, and in this respect we’re really in luck. There are several different combat tunes to rock out to, and all of them are fantastic. It takes some of the “oh no not another battle!” sting away when you realize you get to hear some amazing music for the next minute or two. There is some voice acting here, and for the most part it’s also great. The only qualm I can see people having is that only parts of the game feature voice over, much like some of the latest Fire Emblem games. It didn’t bother me too much, but again, everyone has their own nitpicks and I know some will be disappointed with that decision.
After years of neglect and the focus on new-age battle systems in JRPGs, it’s refreshing to take a step back to a simpler time where true turn-based combat is still appreciated. Octopath Traveler takes the best parts of the earlier Final Fantasy games and amps them up with modern day sensibilities (fast travel, one-button equipment optimization, voice, etc.) and fun new gameplay mechanics like breaks and boosts. The presentation is wonderful and I really enjoyed playing each of the eight different stories. I would have appreciated some plot crossover and maybe a more cohesive party experience. Being that this is a game designed for the Switch from the ground up, its use of HD Rumble is quite exquisite with perfectly timed vibrations matching on-screen actions. With well over 40 hours of gameplay and a fun combat system in place, this one’s a perfect match for the hybrid console. Don’t miss out on one of the best Switch exclusives yet.
Octopath Traveler was reviewed using a physical copy for Nintendo Switch purchased by Nintendo Times. A review copy was not provided.