Octopath Traveler review: Eight short games about JRPGs

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Octopath Traveler for the Nintendo Switch is one of the rare games that pays homages to the JRPGs of 20+ years ago without feeling like it’s just a checkbox of tired references

Developers: Square Enix, Acquire
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: July 13, 2018

There have been a lot of attempts in recent years to make RPGs that appeal to fans of the 16 and 32-bit heydays of the genre when Japanese-developed RPGs were by far the king of an ever-evolving market.

Octopath Traveler, an exclusive JRPG for Nintendo Switch is yet another attempt in this vein, but where it mostly manages to succeed is in making you feel like it’s some lost gem of another era of gaming just recently discovered and remastered with most of the right touches. It just falters in one big key area that may be a deterrent for some…

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So let’s get that one major negative point out of the way: Octopath Traveler features eight different protagonists of roughly equal importance. You can conquer their stories in pretty much any order you want providing you are high-level enough and have good equipment. You could finish one story after another or complete each set of chapters as you get access to them, it’s pretty much up to you how you tackle it.

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  • The only slightly odd limitation is that the character you start with must be in your party for the whole game, while each character has their advantages and disadvantages, there is a great amount of balance with the characters to the point that there isn’t really a bad choice so don’t worry too much about who you start with.

    The problem as some may see it is that when it comes to RPGs, especially RPGs that are supposed to be like an old-school JRPG you played back in the 90s, we are very used to there being a connective thread. An overarching story of sorts, party members interacting with each other and having an impact on the overall story.

    In Octopath Traveler, there is no goal in common with the characters. It starts with eight separate stories that act as if the other characters aren’t really present, to the point where you often get dialogue implying that you are facing some dastardly boss all by your lonesome when in fact you have a full party backing you up. While there are optional scenes where characters will comment on what’s going on, it’s always after the fact and just seems like an afterthought. There is nothing tying these stories together; no common threads.

    So why are these people even traveling together? Good question, because it’s never really answered. It could’ve been simply some sage telling each character in a dream, “Hey, you need to find these seven others to finish your quest” or something, but no such thing is suggested.

    If you are getting Octopath Traveler hoping for a grand story along the likes of classics like the older Final Fantasy titles, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

    In addition, each story is four chapters long and while this is fine for some of the more straightforward ones (i.e., H’aanit needs to slay a dangerous beast that turns people to stone, that can be wrapped in four chapters quite easily), others feel kinda half-baked (Tressa’s is arguably the worst of these).

    They also vary quite a bit in the tone which gives it a weird feeling. Some are light-hearted personal stories, but others get incredibly dark. Some stories even repeat a lot of the same beats you’ll see in other stories. If you are getting Octopath Traveler hoping for a grand story along the likes of classics like the older Final Fantasy titles, you’ll be sorely disappointed. That may be a dealbreaker for some, and that’s a completely fair conclusion to come to.

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    However, then you’d be missing out on the myriad of other strengths Octopath Traveler has to offer you. Firstly, this one of the most aesthetically pleasing games I can remember in some time. It takes the effort to mostly look like a game I was playing twenty years ago, but the monster designs, visual flourishes and gorgeous effects present throughout my nearly 90-hour playthrough never failed to impress, occasionally just having me stop in wonder at just how good some scenery looked.

    Octopath Traveler looks like what you think you remember those old games look like in your mind if you haven’t gone back and played them in a long time. It adds the flourishes your mind would have back in the day.

    This extends to the music and sound, as well. There is a wide variety of gorgeous tracks that range from adventurous to sorrowful and all worth listening to for hours on end. Sound effects in and out of battle are crisp and just add a whole lot to the overall experience.

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    This great presentation wouldn’t mean much if Octopath Traveler wasn’t great to play, and it is, though with a few odd quirks. Namely, it’s really annoying that you cannot change out your party unless you are in a designated tavern in a town. This was most annoying when I needed to have Therion open a chest in a dungeon that only he can open for some reason and I didn’t have him, so I was forced to decide between going back to the tavern or leaving the chest for later.

    Secondly, while the game wisely has characters that essentially serve the same function with their special abilities called “path actions,” it’s weirdly designed so that a character has an inferior version. Why would I use Tressa’s “buy” ability when Therion can just steal the item for me (there are a few select instances of items that can’t be stolen, but it was very rare)? Why would I use H’aanit’s ability to “provoke” an NPC when I can just “duel” them with Olberic, which allows me to use things like healing items in a fight while “provoke” does not?

    It’s just a weird imbalance between characters that may make you keep party members out just because you don’t want to go to the trouble of constantly going to a tavern to switch them in and out (which if you could switch them out anywhere, could be avoided).

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    Battling is where Octopath Traveler arguably shines strongest. Battles take place in traditional turn-based affairs, but this is more of an evolution of the combat found in the Bravely Default games with a bit of puzzling thrown in. Levels and equipment are important, but not nearly as important as knowing an enemies specific weakness.

    You can find that out through experimentation or abilities, but it’s key to “breaking” them which not only lowers their defense dramatically but voids their turn that round. This is super important for boss battles, where they often can unleash a big attack that can decimate your party if you are caught off guard.

    There are no easy fights in Octopath Traveler, but that also keeps you engaged the whole way through.

    In Bravely Default you had to choose to pass up your attack in order to build power. In Octopath Traveler, this automatically happens as long as you do a single action and don’t power up. There is a lot of strategy involved in saving your powerful attacks to either do lots of damage or stop dangerous enemies/bosses dead in their tracks. There are no easy fights in Octopath Traveler, but that also keeps you engaged the whole way through.

    In addition, there are special abilities and secondary classes to unlock that make for a whole lot of great variety and customization. Do you want a Knight/Mage that regains SP every round and counters most attacks? Totally possible with the right mix. I had a mage/merchant that could simply rest every few rounds and regain most of his HP and SP in one go. The possibilities are pretty numerous and can make a massive difference in important battles.

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    Related Story. The 50 Best RPGs Of All Time. light

    If Octopath Traveler had a fantastic (or frankly even serviceable) narrative tying it all together in a way that made sense, it would be an easy contender for my favorite RPG in ages. As is, it still manages to be a great experience for those who enjoyed RPGs as they were twenty years ago with just the right amount of modern flourishes to make it feel like something we loved playing a long time ago and brings back fond memories of those days again. Any fan of classic RPGs would do well to invest their time in Octopath Traveler.

    Despite a narrative of eight mostly underwhelming stories that don’t connect in any way, Octopath Traveler still manages to be a deep, engaging classic RPG experience that other games should look to as an example of how to do homages the right way.. Square Enix/Acquire. . Octopath Traveler. 8.5

    A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.