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Octopath Traveler (Switch) artwork

Octopath Traveler (Switch) review

"Plenty of depth behind the seemingly nostalgic shell"

The very first thing you'll think of when you see Octopath Traveler is that it looks an awful lot like Final Fantasy VI. The towns, the sprites, the battle layout... the resemblance is obvious. Squaresoft is clearly pulling on nostalgia strings of older fans who miss the simple charms of the RPG glory days rather than the action hybrids of today. And yet, that's not really a fair "box" to put this game into at all. Sure, the shell is familiar, but Octopath Traveler offers a wholly unique experience that elevates it above a mere homage into a true modern classic.

But let's get that familiar shell out of the way first. Yes, the character sprites, the giant boss sprites, and the pixelated veneer on the 3D environments give it a wholly retro look. Even the placement of the camera creates a SNES-esque Mode 7 on steroids feel with its depth of vision. There's enough modern effects, such as the pretty water or atmospheric lighting in caves or some of the dramatic battle effects, to ensure that this isn't simply aping its predecessors, but rather using it as a base to create its own style. The music, while not limiting itself to 16-bit midi, is in the style of the past, aiming for instantly hummable tunes rather than atmospheric complexity. Sure, said tunes can't hold a candle to FF6, but nothing can, and the songs fit the environments well enough. The end result is a standard SNES aesthetic updated to modern times.

But it's NOT standard. The second thing you'll probably notice when you hear about Octopath is its unique 8-path approach to storytelling. This isn't a band of plucky youngsters getting together under the banner of the destined hero to save the world from an ultimate threat... it's not even really a band of plucky youngsters getting together. It's eight small, individual, personal stories that you play through on their own. As the game begins, you pick one of the eight characters who then becomes the "main" character; he or she stays in your party until you finish their story. When you pick up the other characters and play through their stories, then essentially that one becomes the main character for that episode. Each character has distinct chapters of their story that you can choose to play through as you wish, letting you choose where you want to focus the plot on. There's no surprise cutscenes, no looming threat to the world (much), just some characters dealing with their lives. Banding together? It's almost solely for gameplay purposes; the presence of other characters in your party have nothing to do with the stories themselves.

That lack of character interaction is controversial to be sure, but I think it works alright. Personally, I think RPG plots are stupid, so the lack of an overarching plot doesn't bother me. And the lack of other characters interacting during the individual stories is a little silly, but easily worked around. At the very least, they do talk to each other about the stories, even if they don't interact with the plots themselves. And these little vignettes are usually cute, sometimes funny, often reinforcing the characters' personalities, and even sometimes providing more insight into the world. If nothing else, it reinforces the idea that these strangers are bonding over the course of traveling together, and there's even occasionally an arc in these interactions (such as H'aanit's curiosity about Tressa's job). The biggest problem is that there's no explanation of why these particular people decided to join up and travel together (other than safety reasons, of course) rather than any of the other NPCs in the game. When your pure and holy priestess on a religious pilgrimage just randomly starts to become chummy with a cynical thief for no explained reason, well, it can raise some eyebrows. It would have been nice if your starting character, at least, had a line or two when recruiting new characters, as it would have reinforced the idea that you're choosing the main character. A complaint, yes, but one I can live with. Some of you may not be able to get past this stylistic choice, but I can assure you it works well enough.

So do the individual stories. Again, the stylistic choice of 8 small stories does have its drawbacks. The main one, to me, is that the structure of each story is very similar in order to make sure all the travelers get an equal time in the limelight. It's understandable WHY this is the case, but it does reduce the ability of the game to surprise you. Virtually all chapters are a bunch of narrative cutscenes in a town, followed by a short dungeon, followed by some cut scenes and a boss. Thankfully, while the structure is the same, each story is quite different. Each story focuses on a simple theme, such as Ophilia's focusing on coping with tragedy or Olberic's question of vengeance and purpose. Some start light and stay light, some start dark and get darker, while others start light and get dark or start dark and get light. And yet, despite the varying approaches, there's an overarching feeling of optimism that's surprisingly refreshing. Ultimately, all of the stories are decent enough (albeit a tad too melodramatic despite their toned-down scope) to want to see through the end, forsaking silly plot in favor of depth of character (much like FF6's second half). I'd rather have eight decent short stories than one overly convoluted one.

Besides, if it's an overarching story you want, all of the tales do connect in subtle ways, which leads to the post-game content. So really, it's the best of both worlds.

The third thing you might discover about the game is gameplay similar to the SNES classics, but don't be fooled. Sure, you'll encounter random battles while out adventuring, leading to a turn-based fight, with standard attacks and magic and items and special moves and status effects and buffs and all that should be second nature to an RPG veteran. But that's just the surface. The battles, for example, include two unique elements. Each enemy has a certain number of shield points prominently displayed, and are weak to certain types of weapons and magic (which are also permanently displayed once you learn them). The shield points go down each time you hit the enemy with its weakness. Get to zero, and the enemy breaks: it is stunned for a turn and all attacks do more damage against it. The second element is the boost system. You can use up to three boost points to augment your attacks. You'll get an extra attack for each boost point if using a physical attack, buffs or debuffs last longer if boosting, and magic or special attacks are stronger. Each character automatically gains a boost point each turn (up to 5), unless you are using boost on that turn.

Alone, either one is a gimmick, but the combination of them radically changes how battles progress. In essence, battles are no longer mindless, but rather a tactical task of proper timing of your boosts and enemy breaks. Making sure your party has a proper diversity of weapons keeps you from overloading on one type, making sure you understand the whole battle system. It can also impact playstyle: you can play it safe and use your boosts to keep enemies broken as much as possible, leading to safe but drawn out battles. But you may find the best things is to accept your damage, store your boost points, and unleash a mighty flurry once an enemy is broken to maximize your damage. No, seriously, this is hugely important; the game is designed around it. If you go into a boss battle and just spam attack, you may be doing 50hp damage with each thwack of your sword in the early game. But properly set yourself up for when the boss breaks? One character's attack could hit several thousand hp!

But see, that's just the start. Character progression seems basic at first, a combination of sorts of FF5 and FF6. Like FF6, each character has their own unique strengths and weaknesses, but like FF5 there's a rudimentary job system that allows you to at least consider anyone capable of doing anything. The skills involved in these jobs are enough to make you think, at first, that you can seriously break the game. You can grab extremely powerful skills early on like casting elemental magic twice on all enemies, or striking twice with your dagger and stealing HP or SP (your magic meter). But pay attention to more subtle skills like forcing your enemy to move at the end of the turn for a few turns, or donating boost points to other characters, or striking while simultaneously moving up in turn order in the next round. Using these will better allow you to properly set up your boosts and breaks, at which point you can use all those super powerful moves and do absurd 9999+ damage. Which, given the bosses' large health and how hard they hit, you're gonna need that.

Oh, you're not reaching that much damage? That's because there is still more to setting up these great boss fights. See, leveling up doesn't do much, nor does simply going from town to town and searching their shops for new equipment. Instead, each character has a "path action" which allows them to interact with NPCs in different ways. Alfyn and Cyrus can learn more about them, including learning where they stash hidden items or if the shops have secret inventories they don't show to the commoners. Each NPC also carries items and equipment, which can be bought by Tressa or stolen by Therion. And that's where the best equipment is. Oh, and don't forget that this is an open world, and you can go in any direction. And some optional sidequests can give you some powerful equipment too. Much like the second half of FF6, you have to pay attention to different equipment to truly maximize your strength, and you have the ability to really break the game wide open if you stumble on the right areas. Or you just need to prioritize in purchasing stuff (a staff or an axe?) and adjust your strategies accordingly.

And therein lies the key to this game: battle system and character progression and open-world design coming together to truly bring you your own adventure. Dungeons and traveling the world are small, but there are a ton of bosses. Bosses that are extremely difficult to the unprepared; there's a good chance you'll die. It may be surprising, but it will never feel cheap, and you'll always know what you need to do differently to win the second time around. You need to bring together that synergy of smart planning, properly outfitting your characters, and choosing the right combination of skills to make it through unscathed. This, more than anything else, is what makes Octopath shine: the nearly limitless options for making it through a series of very challenging fights. Everything - the small dungeons, the huge list of equipment, the different path actions, the seemingly irrelevant skills - come together to basically give each player their own unique experience. Oftentimes with classic RPGs the game itself is practically an afterthought and tolerable at best. But here, getting to the next boss fight - and knowing it would be a real challenge rather than just something to break up the pacing - was the main highlight for me.

Sure, maybe you can't get past the more down to earth story or the admitted oddity of other characters silently trudging along for other people's tales without interacting. Maybe you find the boss battles tedious rather than exciting. But don't mistake personal preferences as design flaws. Yes, I would have liked it if there were optional dialog scenes, but that's a bonus, not a critical loss. I would have liked more dynamic chapters, but I don't care much either way. The depth of the battle system and character system and nonlinear overworld make it the most fun I've had since Final Fantasy VI. And because that system was actually fun, the world grew on me and I enjoyed all of the nuance it provided despite the artificial setup of the plots. None of that may be obvious from initial impressions, but that just makes discovering this joy even better.


mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (November 20, 2018)

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