In many ways, Octopath Traveler is the JRPG I’ve been long dreaming of. It scratches an itch I’ve had since Lost Odyssey on Xbox 360, some ten years ago -- one that started with Final Fantasy VII and wasn’t quite satisfied with Persona 4 and 5. At times, it’s just that good. Rather than bury the lede, though, let’s talk about what it is: a turn-based JRPG by Square Enix that takes 16-bit visuals and makes them modern via some lovely lighting effects, stunning music and, best of all, twists and ideas that give it depth and life.
The titular Octopath refers to the eight playable characters, all of whom have unique voices and stories to uncover. But the “path” part goes a little deeper, as Ophilia (cleric), Cyrus (scholar), Tressa (merchant), Olberic (warrior), Primrose (dancer), Alfyn (apothecary), Therion (thief), and H’annit (hunter) all have these things called “path actions” as well as talents that make them special – almost. (The eagle-eyed among you will note that the first letter of each character’s name spells out Octopath, but since this is the internet I’ve put them in bold just in case.)
Anyway, these path actions are things relating to their class (bracketed, above). Cyrus is a scholar so his action allows him to scrutinise and understand townsfolk, Primrose is a dancer who can take people under her spell with her allure skill, allowing her to summon them into battle to aid her – you get the picture. On top of that, these path actions are how you often complete side-quests. Perhaps a young woman is bereft of hope, her father hopelessly in debt? No problem; using Tressa’s merchant skill she can buy goods from the girl’s father to, essentially, give him money.
You might notice that the word “almost” stands out like a sore thumb in reference to the uniqueness of this idea, and that’s because after getting all eight characters into your party (by completing Chapter One for them all) you realise that they duplicate these ideas and only the name changes. Ophilia’s “guide” action does the same thing as Primrose’s “allure” one, and H’annit and Olberic’s skill both lets them challenge an NPC to a fight to gain XP. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s disappointing this path action idea couldn’t stretch to all eight characters in a fully unique way. Then again, that’d be an even bigger game, and Octopath Traveler is enormous. We’re not quite talking Persona length, but it’s bloody long regardless.
The combat is the star of the show, as what’d be a fairly standard turn-based RPG is elevated via the boost system. On top of magic and health, each character also has BP (boost points) and these add a tactical element that will have you stroking your chin like some kind of bearded genius. I don’t like getting too explainy in a review, but I’m so in love with this boost mechanic I think it’s appropriate, so here goes:
Every time a turn passes when you don’t boost your attack, you’ll gain BP. You can boost attacks or skills (buffs and debuffs, too) up to three times, giving you a 4x (or MAX in the case of magic) effect. Every enemy in the game has multiple weaknesses: dagger, fire, light, dark – you get the idea. And your characters have a wide variety of weapons and skills they can and can’t wield, too; team composition is vital. If you’ve not got a character with a dagger, wind attack, and a spear, but the enemy is only weak to those three things, you’re screwed. On top of that, each enemy has a shield number which is reduced to zero by using the attacks they’re weak to, which breaks them. Once broken, you can do extra damage and they can’t do anything for that entire turn.
All of this means you will be studying the turn list at the top of the screen. On the left you have the current turn; on the right the next turn. Thanks to this handy visual guide, you know when an enemy is going to go next, and you can break them to eliminate their turn. This game of cat and mouse is phenomenal and leads to some deep strategizing which, when executed, makes you feel like the most brainy person in all of Planet Brainyballs.
Still with me? Good. What I’m saying is that the combat is absolutely brilliant, though not without flaws. For starters, if you have bad luck and enter a dungeon with a poor character loadout you’ll do bugger all damage and have a bad time. You don’t know what you’re going up against before you see it, so you’ll sometimes end up in boss battles that render one character completely useless. This isn’t new to JRPGs, but it’s an old-fashioned thing that perhaps needs to be left in the past. Elsewhere, boss battles too often have one large boss character who has a couple of minions you can eliminate, only for them to be summoned back to the fight. It’s annoying to waste time defeating them, so the best way forward seems to be to use someone who can break them easily and keep them out of the fight while your other three heroes target the boss.
The story suffers a little, too. With eight concurrently running tales that intersect only really via the happenstance of being traveling buddies who help each other out, the individual narratives are a little bit JRPG-standard. Person A wants to avenge someone, Person B wants to gain knowledge, Person C wants to follow in someone’s footsteps, Person D wants to gain weight to become the world’s best bodybuilder. That last one was made up, I just wanted to make sure you were paying attention. You passed the test.
What’s a JRPG without grinding, you’re probably wondering? Well, don’t worry, by the time you have finished Chapter One for everyone, grinding to the recommended level for Chapter Two will be required for an hour or two. There’s plenty of side-quests to take part in, but even with the knowledge that most require the path actions, they often feel incredibly vague. The map is large, and random battles are fun thanks to the brilliance of the combat. Even the strange pavlovian response I have to random battles in general couldn’t sully the combat, because it really is that good.
There are other iffy decisions, but Octopath Traveler is simply a must-own for any fan of the genre. I’ve waited so, so long for a JRPG to grab me like this. Once upon a time I felt like games of this type had left me behind; you get to a certain age and you start to feel like you don’t have time for fifty hour games with loads of text on screen, but it turns out the right game just hadn’t come along.
What Square Enix’s charming offering has shown me is that there may be thirty JRPGs released every year, but there are very few that bend and shape ideas the way this one does. It may have flaws, but the heart of this one is bursting with delights if you invest the time. Octopath Traveler may have flaws, including a very odd frame-pacing issue that occurs randomly, often jarringly, but what road in life do you travel that is perfect?
Developer: Square Enix
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Release date: July 13, 2018