‘Octopath Traveler’ acknowledges its roots without ever being weighed down by them.
Among fans of Japanese role-playing games, or “JRPGs,” the mid-’90s were among the greatest years in the history of the genre. At the center of this golden age was publisher Square — now Square Enix — and its masterpieces like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. Despite the limited technology of the Super Nintendo console, the games were able to tell sprawling and emotional stories backed up by strategic, satisfying combat.
The days of the 16-bit role-playing game are largely behind us, but Square Enix and Acquire joined forces to remind us why we loved them so much with the Switch-exclusive Octopath Traveler. It makes a brilliant first impression, with some of the most gorgeous art ever created for a video game, but its beauty isn’t skin deep — peel back the façade and you’ll find a nostalgic and heartwarming adventure that still feels like it belongs in 2018, and one that somehow rarely wastes your time over more than 65 hours.
As the name suggests, Octopath Traveler doesn’t star one protagonist but eight of them, each with their own unique stories, abilities, supporting characters and motivations. The merchant Tressa, for instance, seeks to prove herself as a salesperson to her parents, and sets off to attend a famous auction, while the warrior Olberic pursues a former partner who betrayed his kingdom years earlier. Perhaps the strongest of these stories is that of the apothecary, Alfyn, who must struggle between his duty to help all those in need of assistance and the realization that the worst of society might deserve to be ignored.
All located in the world of Orsterra, the heroes eventually cross paths and assist in each other’s tales, but the vast majority of the storytelling in Octopath Traveler is done with the focus placed entirely on one character. During each chapter, you learn the next stage of their story, which almost always involves traveling to an unfamiliar location to locate an item, complete a task or kill a powerful enemy.
This relatively formulaic structure would quickly get old in the majority of role-playing games, but Octopath Traveler makes it work through sheer charm. From the voice acting to the earnest and emotional writing, it’s evident that genuine love and care went into each and every scene, no matter how inconsequential. One early scene involving the cleric Ophelia and her adopted family nearly had me choked up, despite the fact that these characters were introduced just moments earlier.
Octopath Traveler’s charm is never more apparent than in its gorgeous visuals, which combine classic 16-bit character sprites — much like what you’d find in Square Enix games of the past — with modern 3D environments. In effect, it feels like a moving pop-up book, and the publisher even capitalized on this by releasing a special edition with cardboard scenes of all eight characters.
The art style certainly relies on nostalgia, at least in part, as the characters do look like they were pulled out of a game from two decades ago. However, combined with the modernized environments, weather effects and even the lighting, Octopath Traveler is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. As you move forward and backward within a town, you’ll notice the objects in the foreground begin to lose focus, almost as if your eyes had begun to drift to the top of the page. Lens flares and fires give a sense of warmth and depth to locations that would otherwise look dead and cold, and wintry areas are partially obscured as snowflakes continue to fall. Despite not even slightly aiming for photorealism, the world of Octopath Traveler is one you can easily get lost in, and each location is so beautiful that it’s sometimes tough to leave it behind for the next adventure.
Of course, you don’t just take in the scenery for dozens of hours. Orsterra is filled with a variety of nefarious creatures, and you engage them using a turn-based battle system that offers a nice twist on the classic JRPG formula. Each hero falls into a particular class that gives them access to a variety of different weapon types and abilities, each of which must be used correctly in order to defeat your foes. The thief Therion, for instance, can wield swords and daggers, and certain types of enemies are weak against these weapons. For every time an enemy is hit with one of their weaknesses, a guard-number located to their left is reduced by one. Upon the counter hitting zero, this enemy loses their next turn and is more vulnerable to other attacks, allowing the rest of your party to deliver the killing blow.
In order to break an enemy’s guard more quickly, you can “boost” attacks through the use of special points that accumulate over time. Deciding when you want to use a boost attack — particularly if you could either break someone’s guard or deliver extra damage later — becomes a crucial moment in nearly every fight, and against the game’s many bosses, it’s even more important. Often lasting 20 minutes or more, these fights demand your full attention, but they rarely feel unfair. A well-thought-out strategy is almost always enough to conquer a daunting foe, and if you find yourself failing consistently, switching around the four members of your current party just might do the trick.
What makes Octopath Traveler so contemporary despite its appearance is how much it values your time and decision-making ability. If you find yourself enjoying sorcerer Cyrus’ elemental attacks, you can eventually unlock the ability to give another character the same attacks, creating a whole new dynamic in combat. If you find a particular area works best for quickly gaining levels, you can fast-travel there from across the map rather than spend an hour making the journey on foot. Manual save-points are located nearly everywhere, ensuring you almost never have to repeat more than one or two fights in case of death, and the deaths you do suffer are too infrequent to ever be demoralizing.
Your time is very rarely spent doing busy work, and even optional side missions are often short enough to complete in just a few minutes — with some surprisingly charming story lines of their own, to boot. But if there’s one fault to be found in Octopath Traveler, it’s that it can be tough to keep track of everything happening across all eight characters’ adventures. The game’s leveling system essentially requires you to go through all of their first chapters before going on to their second chapters, and especially if you do this across multiple days, you’re going to forget what happened in an earlier character’s story. It isn’t difficult to get yourself caught up again, but this structure occasionally makes a betrayal or twist less impactful, as you simply can’t remember who it is that betrayed you.
Despite these occasional structural flaws, Octopath Traveler is a monumental success for the Nintendo Switch, and a must-own role-playing game for anyone remotely interested in the genre. It’s tempting to reenter the world in order to just drink in its stunning beauty or bash in a few monsters’ skulls, and the plentiful side-content ensures you can keep playing long after you finish all eight tales. The 65th hour was just as enjoyable as the first, which is something many Japanese role-playing games of the past couldn’t claim. That doesn’t necessarily mean Octopath Traveler surpasses them, but it certainly holds its own.