As promised during this week’s Nintendo Direct presentation, the mysterious JRPG Octopath Traveler found its way onto the Nintendo Switch eShop before the evening was out, and naturally, this means, I played it to its completion before going to bed. Nintendo and Square Enix have spoken very little about this game since revealing it during the Switch reveal back in January, leaving many to wonder what the game exactly was and if it would even be coming out in due time.
All that wait? Totally worth it! Octopath Traveler’s demo is currently free on the Nintendo Switch eShop, and if you are a fan of JRPGs, especially from the Super Nintendo era, then I suggest you drop what you’re doing and check this game out.
This is the first game for the Switch I’ve seen that has made me excited for the post-Super Mario Odyssey lineup, and if early impressions are correct, this could be my most anticipated game heading into 2018.
Looks alone are not all that help Octopath Traveler stand out, but those sweet 16-bit inspired character sprites go a long way in helping this game speak to its core audience. Imagine your favorite JRPG, like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI, but remove it from its natural isometric viewpoint and rotate your imaginary camera to a nearly horizontal position, as if you were looking at a side-scroller almost.
This is the viewpoint that Octopath Traveler aims for, although, it is strictly not a side-scroller in the least. Towns and dungeons gain a brilliant sense of depth with characters being able to traverse foregrounds, backgrounds, and multiple floors and layers. That’s not even mentioning the level of detail Square Enix’s team put into creating these towns, each molded to perfectly recreate Square Enix’s classic 16-bit designs… without the 16-bit hardware limitations.
And while the characters look the part, the true genius comes from the enemy sprites you’ll fight in battle. This reference might fall deaf on the ears of all but the most dedicated SNES JRPG fans, but the design and art style is most reminiscent of Romancing SaGa 3 or Bahamut Lagoon, the two most technically impressive Square games from the era the company is trying to recreate. Huge in size, perfect in design, the demo alone contains two massive boss sprites you’ll not forget anytime soon.
I feel like a 13-year-old again, and I want to rip them from a sprite sheet for my latest RPG Maker travesty.
Through music and the use of pixel perfect design, Square Enix has found new way to breathe life into the classic 16-bit JRPG formula while still keeping it familiar. Octopath Traveler is beautiful enough to bring a tear to the eye of the most cynical of retro gamers, those who no longer believe that games nowadays can no longer live up to the brilliance of the 90s. Let this be the game that changes your mind.
And yet, looks are not the only place that Square Enix is turning to for inspiration. In this demo alone, the 16-bit inspirations extend to Final Fantasy VI and on a more obscure front, Square’s classic Romancing SaGa series. The game stars a huge cast of characters, eight of which are potential protagonists.
Eight “octo” paths you can travel through in the game. Get it? Don’t change that title, Square Enix. We love it!
You as a player are tasked with choosing the one who will be the star. Who you choose will affect the path you take through the game and the adventures you’ll uncover, but the twist is that all eight stories take place in the same world.
This is the classic SaGa formula down to its very core. Octopath Traveler takes place in a 16-bit open world setting, and it’s up to you to find your way through it while occasionally returning to the central plot. Pretty standard in this day and age, but in the early 90s, SaGa was the only one doing this. Nice to see something else catch up.
Luckily, Octopath Traveler isn’t as obtuse as the SaGa games, meaning you’ll be able to navigate through the world and conduct yourself in battle at your own whims, not the whims of randomly generated numbers and fuzzily designated rules. This takes more from Final Fantasy in that it has a very classic approach to character progression and combat. Nice, simple, cut and dry.
Only, it isn’t without its own ideas. This is a “modern” JRPG after all, masquerading as a classic title, and it has to do something to show some evolution from the classics of yesteryear. Hacking away with normal attacks might have worked for Final Fantasy VI in 1994, but it won’t cut it in 2017.
The combat is another area Octopath Traveler shines, and it is here that we find Tomoyo Asano’s influence on the game.
While that’s a name from the gaming world you might not recognize immediately, you’ll definitely recognize his most famous title, Bravely Default, another marvelous gem that worked along the same lines of retooling classic tropes for the modern age. Octopath Traveler and Bravely Default share a lot in common with their combat thanks to a system that lets players “Boost” their attacks.
Atlus’ Persona games show some strong influence here, as well. If a character hits an enemy with an element or weapon it is weak against, it will “Break,” meaning its defenses will be lowered and it will be stunned for a turn, a classic Persona mechanic. The difference here is that players will have to hit enemies an indicated number of times, where as Persona only requires a single hit to stun enemies. Much like in Persona, Octopath Traveler then allows players to use that time to heal, buff stats, or just lunge to get in a ton of damage.
Blindly hacking through fights is a one-way ticket to tedium and inevitable death. You will not have enough healing items to survive the bosses and dungeons if you don’t learn rhythm and flow of Octopath Traveler’s battle system. It’s thinking man’s JRPG, and the fun comes from learning enemy patterns and pinning down a group without taking a single hit.
You’ll feel like a genius before the end of the two-hour demo.
Of the two characters in the demo, Primrose is easily the more fascinating of the two. She is a dancer who seeks the three men who murdered her father, but she also has to do some dishonorable things to get information on their whereabouts. As for the other character, Olberic, he’s a fallen knight who witnessed the death of his king at the hands of a traitorous friend. From there, he’s got a cliche opening story of rescuing a kid from mountain bandits.
Once you wrap up their stories, the game lets you team up with the character you didn’t use for a taste of combat with multiple characters and the open road ahead. Each story takes about half-an-hour, and the open section of the map leaves more to explore.
Octopath Traveler also allows each character to interact with NPCs in a different way. Primrose can recruit NPCs to join her in battle, which is VERY handy, and Olberic can challenge them to a dual which… does something? Maybe the full game has more use for this.
If I had any complaints though, this game needs a cutscene skipping function. I know Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger don’t have them, but I died fighting Primrose’s boss fight and had to watch the cutscene leading into the brawl twice.
Come on, this is 2017. Don’t make me watch cutscenes twice.
I also have a few concerns about replayability. Fans of the SaGa series know that after the first two or three adventure you go on, the game starts to feel repetitive. I wonder how Octopath Traveler will contend with that. Only time will tell…
But other than that, this is a fabulous demo and a brilliant look into one of the Switch’s most promising titles of 2018. Who knows? Maybe its success will pave the way for Square Enix’s true classics on the Switch… like these games below.
and… of course…
Look familiar? Good times. Octopath Traveler is just bringin’ them back!