There’s just something about summer and JRPGs. Going back to my original play through of Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest in Japan) in the summer of 1989, and tackling a little game called Final Fantasy a year later in the hot months of 1990, I’ve always equated massive JRPGs and summertime. This summer, Square Enix has reignited those nostalgic feelings of yesteryear (in more ways than one) with Octopath Traveler on the Nintendo Switch, and this epic throwback to the games that I’ve grown up adds a new chapter in my summer JRPG history.
Octopath Traveler was originally shown at the Switch launch press conference in early 2017, and short of a few quick scenes, no one knew what it was. A demo was released close to a year ago that gave players a small taste of the narrative and combat flows, giving access to two of the eight characters to play the beginnings of their respective stories, but the full game is so much more. Each of the eight characters has a story arc of four chapters, for a total of 32. These journeys are long, drawn out affairs, and the entirety of Octopath Traveler pushes well past the 70-hour mark.
Those 70 hours are made up of some of the best, most classic JRPG fun. Octopath Traveler was developed by Acquire, best known for the recent Nintendo 3DS classic Bravely Default series. And just as that franchise was a homage to a series like Final Fantasy, Octopath Traveler follows those same ideals. If you had asked me what it would take to make for a great JRPG, all of the elements I would come up with are present in this game.
The list would include: a large team of unique characters with unique skillsets, weapons, and motivations; check. Random battles with complex, but not complicated, turn-based combat; check. Epic music that changes with the region, town, and situation, including unique character themes; check. The necessity to grind for hours and hours for XP and gold to make the characters bigger, badder, and stronger; check. Epic boss battles that can last 20 minutes or more and will deplete your characters resolve to the barest; check. To put it bluntly, Octopath Traveler delivers the classic JRPG experience you’ve been craving.
Octopath Traveler is the story of eight characters, each with their own jobs and paths to follow and unravel. Players choose one of the eight, and begin unfolding that specific narrative. Some characters are out for revenge, some are trying to save someone or themselves. Others just want to see the world, or complete a pilgrimage to bring light to surrounding world. The beauty of the game is in the balance. You can’t make a wrong choice for your main, as you will collect the other characters during your journey, meaning you’ll still get to see each of their stories unfold. There is even an option to give characters second jobs, which allows for some tinkering in how a character grows and handles in-game. These additional jobs have to be discovered throughout the journey, usually in special caves that grant the characters the opportunity to switch up.
Narratives are broken down into chapters, and each chapter has a series of events. Most end with a small dungeon-area to explore and a boss battle, but each town also has characters offering subquests. The subquests boil down to memory-like matching games, where someone needs an item, and you have to find out how to get it. Other subquests focus on reuniting characters. The rewards of gold make them worth completing, as the costs of better gear usually outweigh the cash flow you receive in a normal playthrough, unless you’re willing to devote some time to grinding.
The individual stories will take the player across the entire expanse of the world map, and there are plenty of opportunities for exploration, with treasure chests scattered all over, just waiting to be found. Each area, region, and town has a level suggestion, so the player will know if they are strong enough to be there just yet. This is Acquire’s unique way of giving the player the illusion of freedom, all the while pushing them in the right direction for each narrative.
Octopath Traveler’s best feature might just be its combat. Battles are triggered randomly, and the game uses an “active time battle” system so the player can plan and execute attacks accordingly. Each character has various weapons, like swords, daggers, bows, and pole arms, and various character specific skills. The apothecary can whip up concoctions, the thief can steal, and the huntress can summon her pets, to list a few. Each enemy has a weakness to certain types of attacks, and using trial and error to figure out the weaknesses is part of the fun.
Each enemy also has an armor class, and every attack made with their weakness lowers said armor class until it breaks. Once broken, the enemy becomes much more vulnerable, and massive damage can be doled out for a turn or two before they recover. Octopath Traveler utilizes another element in the battle: boost points, or BP. Each turn adds BP (up to five), and they can be used to strengthen an attack for some serious damage. This allows the player to completely devastate an enemy, and getting all four characters primed with full BP meters means an onslaught is coming. Even the most simple battle can turn on a dime when you can beat a tough Froggen warrior to a pulp in just a few turns.
Boss battles are much the same, save for the fact that bosses are depicted as pixelated behemoths. Whether you’re battling a nosy butler at an private estate, or a ghoulish monster that has been plaguing a patch of sacred woods, bosses take up half the screen, letting you know who’s in charge. They also have much higher armor classes, so battles can drag on for a good bit of time. But that’s okay; even 50 hours in, and battles are still fun to take part in.
The art direction in Octopath Traveler is decidedly 16-bit era, and the locations have an ethereal quality to them. Towns and cities are made up of brick and have the usual suite of non-player characters and buildings to talk to and explore. Smaller villages are made up of tents or wood cabins. Roadways have branching paths, most usually leading to hidden treasure chests or special caves, and the world map of Orsterra is deceptively large, which you’ll come to notice once you’ve explored it all.
Character models are another nod to the classics, and their designs would have fit nicely in a Final Fantasy game, which is the highest compliment I can give for a game like this. The amount of detail on display and the complexity of the sprite work is astounding. None of the eight protagonists look alike and are very unique in their own ways.
Adding to the uniqueness character designs is the writing and voice work. These are eight very different people going on a journey of discovery. Their motivations are individual in nature and they all come together, not for some epic “save the world” end game, but because they are all broken in some way, and they each need the companionship and teamwork to complete their goals. Acquire’s narrative balance in Octopath Traveler is sublime, and I was actually thankful that there was no onespecific event that needed all eight characters to come together. It may seem strange, but trust me, it works. In many ways, I liken it to real life. I have my own career goals and future plans, and I have friends on other paths, yet we are still friends. We still get together and share our lives with each other, and Octopath Traveler captures that aspect wonderfully.
The game also has one of the best music scores in recent memory. Songs are fully orchestrated, and reflect the weight and seriousness of the journeys each character is on. Every city, town, and region has its own song, which really helps to prevent story beats and locations from blurring together. This is the kind of soundtrack I would listen to outside of the game, if given the opportunity.
Octopath Traveler is the perfect throwback to a genre of game that has seen a decline in recent years. Even storied JRPG franchises have altered themselves to accomodate more western ideals and preferences, or have followed the paths of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. But in the beginning of this entire genre, players were able to inject their own imagination into simply-drawn worlds, and there’s good reason why those original JRPGs are beloved. Octopath Traveler is a reminder of all of that, and as a long time fan of the genre, this is the game I’ve been looking for all season. I’m playing an epic JRPG in the heat of the summer. Just as it should be.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by Nintendo.
Octopath Traveler is a throwback to a simpler time, one that reintroduces a new generation to a beloved genre that is all but forgotten.