Explore the land of Orsterra and discover the tales of eight characters in Octopath Traveler. The Switch exclusive JRPG oozes such exuberance and delightful gameplay that it’s easy to get lost in its beautiful melodies and opulent art style. Technical errors and level grinding aside, it’s the richly woven stories and the barrage of emotions evoked that takes centre stage.
From Square Enix and Acquire comes a delightful Japanese fantasy role-playing game brought to life by the producers of the Bravely series, Masashi Takashi and Tomoya Asano. Inspired by the mechanics of the aforementioned 3DS titles, Octopath Traveler is painted under the guise of nostalgic beauty, completely rendered from 16-bit pixels in high-definition quality, a design technique known as HD-2D. The sheer opulence and detail presented in Octopath’s pixels is not only extraordinary, but comforting too and hearkens back to the days spent playing Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy. Through the eyes of eight characters; Olberic the Warrior, Cyrus the Scholar, Therion the Thief, Ophilia the Cleric, Primrose the Dancer, Alfyn the Apothecary, Tressa the Merchant and H’aanit the Huntress, Octopath Traveler unfolds through four distinct chapters per character with the freedom to forge your own path.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to carve some time out of your day-to-day life, you’ll know that Octopath Traveler’s recently released Nintendo eShop demo has three hours of glorious content to play through. Everything you acquire in the demo can be transferred into the full game upon purchase, and you can choose your favoured save file and main character, resuming from your last save point. It’s a good idea to remember that once you’ve chosen your starting character from the eight available, they are unable to be removed from your party until you complete their full tale, so it’s wise to choose a character you feel an affinity to; or, at the very least, a battle voice you’ll enjoy hearing on an 80-100 hour journey.
After you’ve completed the main character’s first chapter, you’ll be thrust into the world of Orsterra, where players will encounter fierce enemies across varying terrain. Be prepared to fight anything; worms, dragons, rats with bows, poison ants, spear-wielding amphibians, dark guardians, pirates, brigands, pixel-popping dragons, the elusive Caits, and so on. Fortunately, with so much enemy variety and routes to explore, there’s little room for boredom, even while grinding. And depending on the path you choose, you’ll experience everything a little differently; bosses will feel tougher with more or less party members, party interactions during ‘travel banter’ segments will change between story chapters, hordes of enemies will feel easier to defeat with characters that can deal damage to every foe rather than just one, and the way you transition from stories will alter too.
Perhaps it’s this natural freedom that allows Octopath to shine so brightly. It drives an insatiable curiosity and inquisitiveness from the player, enabling them to boldly go anywhere on the map and open up areas that deliver instant KOs to their characters from the onset. Oftentimes, JRPGs feel stuck in a loop of linearity, whereby choosing the next story quest locks you out of other side quests. But in Octopath, even story chapters you begin will give you the freedom to hear another character tale elsewhere; extremely helpful if you’re stuck on a particularly challenging boss. An unlimited number of side quests can also be picked up too, and you’ll naturally complete them as you journey through Orsterra.
But there are downsides to such flexibility. Unlike traditional RPGs, Octopath has no major overarching storyline, which can often lead to fractured and disjointed tales, riding on the back of the chapter’s recommended level. Similar to those ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ stories, (Goosebumps, anyone?) Octopath becomes a danger unto itself, at risk of losing the raw emotion from those carefully crafted past and present story cutscenes and beautifully written medieval dialogue to hours upon hours of meticulous character grinding between them. That’s not to say that there aren’t places where the stories don’t intertwine or connect with each other. For example, a cloaked figure seen in Primrose’s tale from the first chapter appears to be following Cyrus out of a village during one of his chapters. But they aren’t obvious clues, so players will have to use their initiative and imagination to connect the dots.
For a game that’s so heavily driven by its eight characters, then, subsequent vignettes feel a tad too short with a larger focus on dungeon-crawling and boss fights rather than story-telling. Sadly, this fragmentation prevents chapters from blossoming into their full potential as fantastic theatrical pseudo-dramas. Even the party characters you travel with have no presence in cutscenes, appearing directly after the event, rather than being viewed as a silent witness. Yet there’s a story for every type of fantasy fan that’s told immaculately by skilled voice actors. And who can resist the silky smooth tones of Therion and Cyrus? One dripping in sass and sarcasm, the other distinct and princely. It’s Alan Rickman meets Christopher Lee.
While each player’s journey in Octopath will be different depending on their chosen route, so too are their party battles. Taking inspiration from the Bravely series, players can utilise Boost Points or ‘BP’ to their advantage in turn-based battle and deal up to four consecutive blows to enemies in one fell swoop. Unlike Bravely, Octopath rewards players with one BP after each turn, so there’s no need to defend against an enemy attack to save up those boost points. You won’t be able to use more than one BP at the beginning of the battle though, so you’ll never skip turns in Bravely fashion or leave yourself open to attack. There’s no option to fast-forward through battle scenes, however.
Up to six enemies can appear in battles at any one time, the same number allowed to players with four party characters, coupled with Opilia and Primrose’s summon abilities. Each enemy will have between two and five unknown vulnerabilities, which can be discovered either via Cyrus’s Analyse ability or by attacking the enemy with its vulnerability, unmasked by logical assumption. Dishing out attacks that the enemy is weak to will allow you to ‘break’ their state of composure, weakening their physical and elemental defences to deal greater damage. This is detrimental to defeating bosses such as Ghisarma, Blotted Viper, and Mikk and Makk seen in the first chapter, as well as other brutal bosses presented in the game’s later chapters. Don’t be afraid of the daunting game over screen either, it happens to the best of us. But knowing when to unleash your storage of BP is the key to battle strategy. If you’re a fan of the Bravely battle format, Octopath doesn’t stray too far from the tried and tested.
In true JRPG fashion, Octopath awards players with both experience and job points (JP). Up to five additional skills can be unlocked from the eight available in your character’s chosen class. Ranging from magical spells to trapping enemies, all special moves require skill points (SP) to use in battle. After you’ve learnt a number of skills, characters will also be able to equip support skills. Useful in and outside of battle, support skills enable characters to gain more SP, to augment their ally’s stats, or stunt the rate of random encounters in the field.
While battling is key to levelling up your characters, exploring the map is often just as rewarding. Scattered across Orsterra are eight different shrines, one for each class available in the game. Stumbling upon these shrines will unlock secondary job classes for all eight characters. While you’ll only be able to equip a specific secondary job to one character at a time, it opens up endless possibilities for battle strategy. For instance, I chose to make Ophilia’s secondary job a scholar, so she can utilise elemental magic when party healing isn’t required. Fortunately, shrines can be unlocked at any point in the game, just through exploration, and there’s also four secret classes that we won’t spoil!
There are some flaws, however, that should be mentioned. Mainly technical and design faults, Octopath is prone to a flickering effect, particularly within the game’s map screen and menus. On occasion, it looks like the map is physically moving, like tectonic plates grinding together beneath the ground. In other places, the game’s lighting has issues, particularly when the art style doesn’t quite marry with the darkened background or cornered shadows and emits blurry flickering from stars or moonlight. Yet it’s nothing that a simple patch wouldn’t be able to fix. And while each of the towns, cities and surrounding landscape are pristinely built, some dungeons can feel bland and uninspiring, with characters often getting stuck behind inanimate objects or invisible walls. But these are minor faults at best, detracting very little from the game itself.
There is a larger fault at play in Octopath. Depending on which characters you use on your journey, players can easily become severely over-levelled for certain chapters, particularly if you have a run of spectacular luck and slay a few Caits on your way. Working similarly to Metal Slimes in the Dragon Quest series, Cait’s drop enormous amounts of experience if you manage to fell one in battle. While I’ve personally only encountered half a dozen, my ill luck has strangely worked in favour. Bosses remained tricky for the first four party characters, but on switching out to complete Primrose’s second chapter, the fight quickly became a walk in the park. And that’s the underlying issue in Octopath; freedom can frustratingly come at a cost. Perhaps if you want a challenge, drop off a few characters at the Tavern instead.
Octopath takes the road less travelled, daring to break JRPG conventions of linearity and give players the chance to choose their own adventure. It weaves poignant tales you’d likely hear from travelling dramatic troupes, ones often expressing lament, in fantasy books of old and directs them into a new format for the modern gaming age. There’s a certain talent at work in Octopath, and it’s yet to realise its full potential. Perhaps that’s what makes it so intriguing. So, we’ll leave you this question from H’aanit’s lips: which path will you hath choosen and aren you ready?
A review copy of Octopath Traveler was provided to My Nintendo News from Nintendo UK.