Octopath Traveler (Switch) Review
Square Enix is known for their rich history of games in the JRPG genre. From beloved retro classics such as Final Fantasy VI to more modern experiences like Bravely Default, Square Enix has been at the forefront of the genre for decades. Octopath Traveler is the company’s latest Switch-exclusive experiment in the genre, an ambitious game that attempts to marry retro-style graphics with modern game design and storytelling. How successful is that attempt? Well, as it turns out, Square Enix really knows their stuff.
But let’s start with the basics. Octopath Traveler is a game with two immediately unique features: its “2D-HD” art style, and its “choose your own adventure” approach to storytelling. The 2D-HD art style is unlike anything I’ve seen before; it’s built on the back of old SNES-era games, using pixel art sprites and textures, but instead of being flat and tiled, Octopath Traveler takes these textures and applies them to 3D objects. The result is a surprisingly coherent art style that is strangely reminiscent of a pop-up book, all the while digging at the threads of nostalgia for decades past. Throw in some gorgeous lighting effects, dazzling environmental effects (like blowing sand in the desert and running water in the riverlands), and some fancy particle effects in battle, and you’re left with a game that looks utterly incredible in both handheld and docked modes — a good thing too, since you’ll be spending 60 odd hours in the game just on the story missions alone.
Octopath’s approach to storytelling is a little trickier. As mentioned above, the game employs a “choose your own adventure” style of storytelling, and it’s going to be divisive. Like the game’s title suggests, Octopath has eight paths available to the player, and eight characters whose stories need to be told. In most games, this wouldn’t be an issue; you’d collect your characters and naturally play through the rest of the game, their stories unfolding as you progressed. It’s a little different here. Upon starting Octopath, you’ll have to choose one of the 8 characters to start with, and it’s their story that will become your “main quest” of sorts. After that, you’re pretty much free to participate in however much or little of other characters’ stories as you’d like. You could collect each character, complete every chapter one, and then move onto doing each chapter 2 and repeat until you’re done… or you could just ignore every other character and only play through the story of your main.
It’s an interesting take on storytelling, and it has its pros and cons. On the positive side of things, this adaptability and freedom is incredibly refreshing, as it allows you to pursue whatever part of the game interests you the most. Not enjoying a particular character’s storyline? You don’t have to play it, there’s 7 others just waiting in the wings, and that’s not even including the dozens of side quests. It’s a modular experience, and having that choice really freshens up what can sometimes be slightly shallow storytelling.
On the other hand, this approach to storytelling can be a little bit jarring. Because of the inability for the game to presume you have certain party members with you at any given time, each story plays out as if the character whose story is being told is alone. Of course, you’ll have your full party in battles and in the field, but in cutscenes, the game acts as if they just don’t exist. There are also some moments in each chapter where you can view an optional conversation between two characters in your party, but this tends to be a shallow conversation that only serves to reinforce what you already knew about the characters.
This separation isn’t inherently a bad thing, it really comes down to personal preference, but some people will be turned off by the lack of interactivity between the main cast and their fellow travelers, and by the total lack of interconnection between their storylines, save for a few weak connections here and there. Personally, it didn’t bother me all that much; while it would have been nice to see how Tressa, the naive but noble merchant, would have reacted to Therion, the dastardly thief, stealing fantastic treasures across the land, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything by experiencing these stories separately.
The stories themselves are a bit varied in their execution, with some storylines landing much better than others. Olberic the knight’s story, for example, has him hunting down the man who killed his king, and it doesn’t really get much more interesting than that. You go to a town, beat up a few guys, get a little more information on where the traitor is, and continue on to the next chapter to beat up some more guys and get some more information. It’s a boring affair, and it’s one of a few stories that just didn’t capture my attention very well at all, along with Therion the thief’s and H’aanit the hunter’s — though the latter one might just be due to my inability to put up with her faux-Shakespearean speech patterns without wanting to tear my eyes and ears out.
The simpler stories tended to fare a little bit better, though. Tressa the merchant, my main character, is on a journey to see the world and become the best merchant she can be. Primrose the dancer is on a quest to hunt down the syndicate responsible for the brutal murder of her father for reasons unknown to her. Ophilia the cleric is on a religious pilgrimage that fell to be her responsibility when her adoptive father fell ill, leaving her sister to care for the dying man. These are simple stories told well, with just the right amount of personal stakes at risk, and just enough exploration into what defines these people to leave a lasting impression. They’re not perfect storytelling, but they’re enough for me to get emotionally invested in the characters I spent oh so long with.
While Octopath Traveler’s storytelling is a bit hit and miss, it makes up for it with its absolutely stellar mechanical prowess. Those who’ve played Bravely Default will have a good idea of what they’re getting into here, as the battle systems are fairly similar, but here’s a quick rundown for those who haven’t. Octopath’s battle system is your classic turn-based battle system, with each character given the ability to attack with one of their weapons, use a class ability, or sometimes use unique character abilities. Every turn, each ally and enemy gets to attack, with the turn order usually decided by the speed of the units relative to each other. In other games, this can be a bit of a slog and drag on for a bit too long, but there’s a major addition here that changes the game pretty significantly: the BP system. Every turn, each of your allies gains a BP, which can then be spent to attack more than once, power-up abilities, or activate ultimate class skills. This means that, as the battle progresses, your damage output potential grows, which usually leads to much more streamlined battles. It’s a clever system, and it one-ups Bravely Default’s by not punishing you for spending BP. In Bravely, powering up your attacks either required stalling for a few turns, leading to longer battles, or putting yourself at risk in future turns. By removing the penalty for powering up, Octopath becomes less a game of risk and reward, and more a game of timing and playing to your strengths. It’s a deeply satisfying battle system, made even stronger by the robust class system.
The class system itself is a thing of beauty. At the beginning of the game, each traveler is locked into just one class, but as you play more and explore the wilderness, you’ll start to unlock more classes to use as a subclass. Each subclass can only be used on one character at a time, but they add the full ability set of that class to a character, on top of their innate starting class. In addition to this, using a subclass allows you to level it up and learn passive abilities that can be retained even if a character’s subclass is changed to something else. Between the subclasses themselves and the wide range of passive abilities available to every character, there exists a massive catalogue to mix and match with, allowing a tonne of freedom with how you choose to build your party, what each role your travelers will take, and what kind of synergies you want to employ to maximise your battle strategy. The possibilities are practically endless, and it’s nice to see the freedom of the game’s storytelling apply to its battle system too.
Before closing, there is one more thing I desperately need to call attention to, and that’s the game’s soundtrack. Composer Yasunori Nishiki might not be particularly well-known in the games industry, but his musical style and ability on display in Octopath Traveler are nothing short of magical. Every character, town, area, and boss fight is blessed with its own musical motif so well-matched to the situation that it’s impossible to separate the soundtrack from the game — they’re entwined from start to finish. Through careful selection of instrumentation, a thorough application of musical tonality, and a flawless implementation of underused time signatures, Nishiki has delivered a truly unique soundtrack worthy of being remembered as one of the best in recent history.
Octopath Traveler has some quirks. Its storytelling is a little underdeveloped, and its progression is a little unusual. But where it lacks in some areas, it more than makes up for in others, with its mechanical systems some of the best seen in the genre in years. It’s a long game, and it will require a lot of attention, but if you have the time and attention to give it a fair go, you won’t walk away disappointed.
+ Beautiful and well-developed art style
+ Flawless mechanical systems
+ Magnificent soundtrack
- Storytelling is hit and miss
- Progression can be a little bit uneven
- H'aanit's speech style is infuriating