The gold standards of JRPGs are, at this point, all over twenty years old. There are great modern games in the genre – in the last ten-or-so years we’ve had several strong Shin Megami Tensei games, including Persona 4 Golden and 5; we’ve had Wii classics The Last Story and Xenoblade Chronicles; there have been great series like Legend of Heroes, Ni No Kuni, and Radiant Historia. But for many genre fans the best games are still the 16-bit classics, like Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, Phantasy Star IV and Final Fantasy VI.
Octopath Traveler owes a heavy debt to Square Enix’s previous 3DS hit, Bravely Default, but in interviews the developers have described the game as a sort-of ‘spiritual successor’ to Final Fantasy VI, at least in its battle system. It’s a clear aesthetic homage to games of that era too, with intricate sprite work overlaid onto polygon environments to create a look that looks extremely familiar while, at the same time, feeling fresh (along with a gorgeous soundtrack). While Octopath Traveler’s plot doesn’t come within spitting distance of Final Fantasy VI or those other classics mentioned above (at least judging from the 25 hours I’ve put into it), the exquisite turn-based combat means that it doesn’t suffer too much from the comparison.
Octopath Traveler is essentially eight different mini-RPGs stitched together, all sharing a single cast of characters that all level up across everyone else’s tales. The central gimmick of Octopath Traveler is that the eight character’s stories can theoretically be started and ended in any order, and that you can chop and change between them, potentially ignoring characters completely while focusing on specific plotlines. In practice, because of how levelling works and the amount of grinding that would be required to play it any other way, you’re probably going to play through each character’s first chapter, then each character’s second, and so and so forth. The other members of your party disappear during cutscenes, with the focus resting entirely on whichever character you’re playing through the chapter of.
These different plotlines feel somewhat disjointed, if not necessarily at odds with each other. There are severe odd shifts in tone – while the cleric Ophelia helps a child find a lost brooch in the forest in her second chapter, for example, the dancer Primrose essentially infiltrates a sex trafficking ring to murder the ringleader. Some of the stories are inherently more compelling than others, although none of them have been boring so far. The merchant Tressa’s story about seeing the world and learning how to sell better seemed dull at first, but it veered into worker exploitation and the power abuses at the heart of capitalist ideologies in its second chapter, which is neat. It’s a shame that none of them really seem to overlap, though – it really is eight separate stories, with optional incidental dialog between your crew. This lessens the impact the game could have had, and there’s not a larger overarching plot to latch onto.
Deciding on what chapter you’re going to tackle next involves traipsing through the world map, moving from town to town to trigger the next part of each character’s story (the destinations of each available chapter, and the level recommendations, are available from the menu). Traveling between towns means diving into random battles, which the game handles like the classics – there are no enemies on the map to run into or anything, they’ll simply attack at will. You can basically head wherever you want, but each region of the map will have a recommended ‘level’, and if your party isn’t floating around this number you’re going to struggle immensely. There’s a lot of grinding involved in Octopath Traveler – characters that aren’t in your party don’t receive XP, neither do the ones that end a fight knocked out – but this isn’t the major issue it can be with some games, because the combat in Octopath Traveler is truly fantastic.
If you’ve played Bravely Default, you’ll understand the fundamentals of this game. The ‘BP’ system returns, meaning that after each turn in which you unleash a single attack you gain a BP ‘point’ that can be used on a later turn for a more powerful attack. The attacking order for each turn is given at the top of the screen, and the aim is to find your opponent’s weapon and magic weaknesses and make them hit their ’break’ point. To offer a brief explanation: if an enemy has a ‘shield’ score of 4, and you’ve found during the fight that they’re weak to swords and fire, then hitting them with four sword and fire attacks will ‘break’ them. For the remainder of that turn and the entirety of the next, not only can they not attack, but they’ll take more damage from anything you hurl at them.
This means that you’ll want to bank character’s BP to unleash huge attacks once an enemy is broken, but you might also want to spend BP to ‘break’ a character faster – you can spend two points to add an additional two swings to a sword attack, for instance. Finding the right rhythm in a battle, knowing when to save up and deal massive damage and when to handle buffs, debuffs, healing and replenishment remains satisfying throughout. Part of this is the pure aesthetics of battle, with the detailed enemy sprites and the big flashy numbers that pop up when you hit them with a good attack. There’s a little flourish when you defeat an enemy – their sprite model will shift just a bit to the left before bursting – that is so incredibly satisfying, every single time, that I look forward to it during every fight.
Every chapter ends in a boss fight, which means that you’ll be positively bombarded with them throughout the game. This is a good thing – Octopath Traveler’s boss fights are stand-outs, challenging slogs that are often brutal but which only very rarely feel mean. The bosses have enormous HP and high shield ratings, and often come with back-up units (which should be taken down first) and special conditions that make them harder to fight. These fights tend to take a long time and can be heavy on resources – I’ve found myself popping healing items and needing to restore my mana constantly – but they’re also very fun.
Thankfully, team composition and character abilities are designed so that you’ll always have access to at least one weapon that enemies, including bosses, are weak to – especially once you start unlocking secondary classes and customising your characters so that they have twice the powers they had before. Already most of my characters are buffed out with useful passive abilities, and I know who my power hitters are and who should focus on breaking, buffing or healing over doing damage in most fights. Succeeding against the bosses at the end of each chapter is a satisfying challenge that repeats over and over again, and the only downside is that the XP payoff is weirdly low on all of them so far, making your victories feel slightly less triumphant than they could.
After 25 hours with Octopath Traveler, I’m not quite halfway done. Because the game is designed the way it is, though, each chapter feels like another tiny bite-sized campaign, so I can see myself conceivably popping in and out over a long period, completing a chapter here and there. This is the sort of playstyle the Switch is made for, of course, and it means that this is an enormous RPG that fits into my life in a way very few of them do.
Octopath Traveler is unapologetically old-school, but it finds ways to make all the stuffier parts of the JRPG experience fun. Even if it’s not necessarily a modern classic on par with the greats, it’s more inviting and enjoyable than most modern takes on the genre – mostly because of the ways it shirks modernity.