Few games have caught my attention the way that Octopath Traveler did when it was announced. Coming from any other studio, for any other system, it may have been different. But a Square Enix RPG exclusively for the Nintendo Switch sounds to me like the Promised Land I was hoping we would see. The best case scenario for the Switch is exactly this: a blurring of console and handheld, where scale and scope don’t matter nearly as much as variety and purpose. From the moment you see it, Octopath Traveler assures you that the Switch will uphold Nintendo’s tradition of supporting colorful, unique, mid-sized games (mostly from Japan) that would be lost in the shuffle if they were released on a regular console. Yes you can have Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for the Switch in all of its 3D glory, but you can also have a text-menu-sprite-turn-and-grind JRPG that feels like the 1990’s again. These kinds of games don’t need to break the mold. They need to satisfy an appetite that very few people are catering to.
So what about the game itself? Octopath has a simple premise that asks you assemble your team and explore their individual paths. But that can’t be it, right? There has to be some overarching plot involving some evil king-god being resurrected, and all of our heroes tied together by some mysterious thread that compels them to stop the doomsday cult from destroying the universe. But no, there’s nothing like that. You don’t seem to be exploring the same plot from eight different angles. There is no twenty minute cutscene at the beginning of the game that raises the stakes and connects everyone together. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a plot at all. It really is just eight separate stories being told in one package, with minimal overlap. Each character starts in a different province, with their own problems and hopes, and you choose where to begin.
This is bizarre for several reasons. First of all, it means that every character needs to be viable as a solo character for at least a while, even if their job would typically be considered a support character like a Cleric, Apothecary, Scribe, or Dancer. How does Octopath balance this? By giving you the freedom to choose which of the character’s skills to unlock next. Every character has abilities that could be considered support skills, and they also have bread-and-butter attacks. You need to figure out the balance yourself. Is it better to have a Revive move immediately, or should you wait until you have a couple of teammates? Do you want that big mana cost spell that hits everybody on the screen right away, or should you balance out your arsenal of attacks first so you can break enemy’s defenses without blowing your whole SP load right away? Some decisions are easier than others, but as you get more teammates working together you’ll realize that strategic investments are at the heart of this game.
The second reason it’s bizarre: you may feel like you aren’t making “real” progress in the “real” story. The world just sits there, normal and content for the most part, as you chase your own personal demons from one location to the next. Sometimes the town is beset by problems that you can help solve, but it’s never apocalyptic. In fact, a decent amount of work has been done to make your average NPC have a little backstory and personality of their own, emphasizing that everybody has their own issues in this world and you’re just one of them. You can learn about these NPCs by using “Town Abilities” like Scrutinize which the Scribe possesses, unlocking hidden information about people and occasionally a helpful secret, too. Other characters can steal from locals, bully them into duels, and convince them to follow you around and join you in battles for a while. That’s cool. It’s nothing to scoff at, from a design perspective. Almost every NPC in the game has a set of attacks or support abilities that can help you in battle, with power rankings to boot. Do you really get to know them and form a relationship? No, they’re still just some random NPC. But there is something amusing about finding out that the happy old woman next to the marketplace is actually a diehard fighter who could kick your ass in a duel, or that the big scary guy hanging out at the bar is actually a wimp who you wouldn’t even want to recruit as a sidekick.
One concern I had early on was how it would manage to keep all eight stories interesting the whole time. Since they progress independently from each other in “Chapters”, you are always looking at the world map and wondering where to go next. When you enter a location that’s got story chapter for one of your current members, you’ll be prompted to either start the next part of their story or continue on as if it’s just another day. If there are multiple teammates who have a chapter there, you can pick whose story to continue. If you want to go shopping and rest at the local Inn before you progress a story, you can do that. Every town also has a Tavern you can visit that lets you swap your current teammates around and control when to initiate or abandon a story. Like most people I assumed that the game was designed to be fully explored in one big playthrough, but with eight characters it’s impossible to juggle them all. There’s no point in trying. You can only have four characters in your battle screen at one time, and they only level up if they’re participating in a fight, so you’ll be pulling your hair out if you try to explore everything and keep everyone viable the whole time. Just give up and accept that you need to make multiple playthroughs of this game; you’ll thank me later, once you realize how fun it is to mix and match them. Although the stories may not be stitched together, the abilities each character brings to the table will definitely keep you working as a unit.
As long as you’re focusing on a core bunch of heroes and their stories, you’ll find that the pacing is just fine. I personally hate grinding, but even that is fun here, because learning what every enemy is vulnerable to keeps you guessing and planning. You’ll want a wide variety of attack types to “weaken” and then “break” the enemy, causing them to be stunned and defenseless for a round. Figuring out how to break enemies at key moments to prevent them from acting, or to allow a different teammate to hit them with a massive critical hit, is endlessly enjoyable. Thanks to the “Boost” system you’ll find that fights feel like puzzles, especially at higher levels. Are you willing to take some extra hits while patiently gathering boost, or do you want to team up and eliminate a certain enemy early on to remove them from the turn queue altogether? I still haven’t figured out the best strategy, and I’ve been playing for dozens of hours.
Worth the Price?
Octopath Traveler is an expensive game. It is by no means a triple A extravaganza, and if you expect too much from the production values or game features you’ll come in disappointed. It’s a mid-sized JRPG that feels innovative and retro at the same time. If you’re starving for this kind of game, like I am, it will be easily worth the price. I made sure to get a physical copy as early as possible and beat the rush, which is great because physical copies it sold out worldwide after just a week or two of being on sale. Obviously, a lot of Switch owners have been craving this genre. My hope is that it sends a message to Nintendo, Square Enix, and the rest of the industry: we still want these games. We’re willing to pay.