When Octopath Traveler was revealed last year, I was immediately engrossed, almost to the point of obsession. Never before had I been so excited for a JRPG. I saw a game with visuals that I had never seen before, yet it felt so familiar. The announcement trailer displayed what appeared to be an easy yet deep combat system, and it promised eight engrossing stories with different, unique characters. I don't think Square Enix's aim was to reinvent the wheel and have a groundbreaking JRPG that would change the way we think of the genre. Rather, they took what worked so well in JRPGs from the past, modernized it a bit, and sent it on its way. And you know what? They achieved something truly great.
Before anything else, I need to talk about the art and music. I can say without any hesitation that Octopath Traveler has one of the finest soundtracks for a video game ever. Yasunori Nishiki did an incredible job capturing every situation and encounter. The battle music is exciting and pumps you up. It adds an urgency to every battle, making each fight feel important and intimidating. There's town music that captures the atmosphere completely. Each of the eight travelers have their own theme that plays at certain points. It's awesome to see how each traveler's personality is captured in music, and it helps you get a feel for the character. Late in the game, one town was ominous and eerie. In part this was due to the incredible visuals, but more because of this spooky and grim music. The art and music coexist in such harmony that the game oozes with style and even nostalgia.
Speaking of the art, how wonderful it is! You have this old-school, 16-bit style that pays homage to JRPGs of the past, such as older Final Fantasy titles. With help from the Unreal Engine, you get this 3-D effect that permeates throughout the game, creating towns and environments with depth while retaining that classic style. I think it's one of the main drawing points of the game. It doesn't get old, either. The style isn't gimmicky or anything. Sixty hours into the game and my breath was still taken away by how wonderful it all looked.
The only time the visuals can get a tad ugly is in battles. Battles are in typical JRPG style. For a more modern reference, think Bravely Default. Your party is on the right side of the screen, while the enemies are on the left. The camera is zoomed in more, so you have a good look at the environment's pixelized style close up. The battlefield in these instances can look bit unappealing. It almost looks like a bland texture was taken and stretched across the ground a little too much. That said, this is a little nitpicky when you look at how wonderful the rest of the game appears.
As far as Octopath Traveler's story goes, you'll start the game by picking a protagonist. Once you pick this character, you're locked in until you beat all four of the character's chapters. In other words, you'll be with them for the long haul, so you might want to choose carefully. After completing your character's intro chapter, you'll want to collect the seven remaining characters. Everyone is in a different town, so you'll be doing a circle around a relatively small area, going from town to town, to pick up a new character. You need to complete a traveler's first chapter to gain access to them.
Each character has a unique story that is relatively self-contained, meaning that you won't see Cyrus in Olberic's chapter, and vice versa. This may disappoint some, but luckily there's party banter. After a certain event in a character's chapter, sometimes you'll be prompted to listen to voluntary party banter between two characters in your four-person party. The downside to this is that not every character will have the option to banter with each other in certain instances. You'll have to go to the inn to switch out characters to find out who can talk to who if you want to read every single interaction, which can be a real annoyance sometimes.
The overall quality of each traveler's story varies. Every character has four chapters, which doesn't sound like much, but they can vary in length from an hour to more than that, depending on how you like to play. Quite frankly, some stories weren't as interesting as others. I really enjoyed Olberic's arc. Alfyn's story in comparison feels totally inconsequential and lacking. That said, I really tried to invest myself into each character and their stories, and I can still say that I enjoyed each one. Some, I just enjoyed less than others.
A strong cast of supporting characters in each arc really help seal the deal that yeah, this game's writing is pretty solid. There's some goofy and cliche moments I won't go into, but overall, the writing was by far much better than many other JRPGs I've played. Along with a very strong vocal performance by most characters, you've got yourself plenty to enjoy, story-wise. Quests are littered throughout the world that have nice little vignettes that also give money and useful items.
Characters also have a few more unique traits outside of story and combat. All eight have a path action unique to their Job. A path action allows you to interact with NPCs in different ways. Sometimes you'll have an NPC blocking a door that might hide a treasure. Using Olberic's "Provoke" path action allows you to duel that NPC and knock him out of the way. Sometimes these NPCs can pose a big challenge in combat, so it's not always going to be easy. Therion is a thief, and as such he can go around and steal items from different NPCs. His steal ability is a "Rogue" ability, so you have a percent chance to steal something. If you fail, your reputation lowers in town. If you fail multiple times, you'll have to pay the innkeeper to restore your reputation. There are three other characters with Rogue abilities; the opposite of those are Noble actions, where your character must be a certain level to use the ability on an NPC.
I especially liked Cyrus and Alfyn's abilities, "Scrutinize" and "Inquire" respectively. You can learn more about an NPC, and each and every NPC that you can use this ability on has its own unique story. It's kind of crazy to think of how much effort went into something so minor, but it helps make the world feel real.
Outside of path actions, each traveler also varies in gameplay. Ophilia is a cleric that acts as a support for the team and has light-based attacks. Therion, on the other hand, is a thief that deals heavy physical damage and debuffs foes. Fairly early on in the game you can also find job shrines throughout the game world that allow you to add another class to a character. You can give Therion the hunter abilities of H'aanit, making him great at dealing physical damage. In the end, each character feels unique, even when they're using the class of another traveler in addition to their base class.
This uniqueness comes into play even more so when you consider Talents. These are abilities unique to a traveler, not their class. Talents act as the opposite of path actions, because while path actions are used outside of combat, talents come into play when you're fighting a foe (with one exception). For example, H'aanit can tame beasts. Weaken a beast enough and you can capture it, allowing you to then summon it in combat. It works kind of like Pokémon, because these beasts have one ability, and they can all differ. Alfyn can concoct potions using reagents, allowing him to heal the entire party or even poison foes. The good thing about talents is that it makes you think about who you want on the team depending on your style of play. The downside is that some of them are more useful than others.
Therion can steal items from enemies. It's really not as great as it sounds, because it doesn't really give you any sort of edge in combat. That exception I mentioned early is Tressa. She just picks up money "left behind." This happens when you move from one section of the map to another. It's nice to have a bit of money, but it doesn't help in combat.
Every job in Octopath Traveler has a specific set of weapons they can use too. Some classes have elemental attacks. These will be the driving force behind combat; that is to say, exploiting enemies' weaknesses by using specific weapon and elemental types. During combat, each enemy has at least one weakness, be it against swords, fire, or mix of both a weapon and element. Enemies have a guard meter that has a number inside of it. Successfully attacking an enemy using their weakness breaks that guard once the number hits zero. This opens up an opportunity to unleash all you've got on them once that guard is down, because they won't attack for a round or two and will be weak to attacks.
Boost points will help you either get that guard down fast or deal serious damage once it's down. What are boost points, you ask? Every traveler has boost points. Each round you get one more, up to a maximum of five, granted you don't use them all up before it reaches the max. Boost points will either power up certain attacks or allow you to hit more than once. So what combat comes down to is effectively utilizing your boost points while attempting to bring down an enemy's guard so you won't get damage, and the bad guys die faster. The system is really simple and accessible for newcomers of the JRPG genre. Attacks are straightforward, and buffs do exactly as the flavor text tells you. It's not hard, and it's just plain fun.
The boost point/guard break strategy is less important in trash mob battles, which you'll come across as you venture around the game world (outside of towns) like most other classic JRPGs. Octopath Traveler's encounters are usually quite easy, granted you aren't underleveled. Boss battles are when you really need to utilize strategy. Boss battles vary in difficulty, but you'll definitely want to break a boss' guard or else you'll be done for. They deal a lot of damage, and often use AoE attacks that deal a lot of damage. Sometimes your healer won't be able to keep up, especially if a boss is fast and attacks before you can heal your entire party.
Luckily, these battles are manageable with the versatility of the job system as well as each boss having more than just a few weaknesses. This game doesn't set you up for failure, and really, it can be quite easy. It's going to vary in difficulty depending on your strategy and if you're overleveled or not. I mention overleveled, because I found it quite easy to have that happen. Your protagonist will be in your party until you complete all his or her chapters, and so they're going to be taking in much more XP than other travelers if you followed the strategy I did.
Octopath Traveler doesn't tell you that you must have all eight travelers and do their chapters one after another. You can have a group of four and beat the game, then move on with a fresh, new group. I didn't like that idea, so I ended up beating each chapter two before moving on to everyone's chapter three, for instance. This made Cyrus — my protagonist — very powerful while doing my B-team quests. Sometimes, you'll even come across a cait. Caits are rare enemy encounters with high evasion who flee very quickly, but if you kill them you get an enormous amount of XP for killing them. Early on, it overlevels your party way too much for my liking, making most of the game quite easy up until the final chapter for each character.
That said, the post-game content will definitely try your patience and make even the most seasoned JRPG player shiver in fear, at least a little bit. I won't spoil any more, but just know that if you find the game too easy like I did, just wait until the end.
All in all, there isn't much I can complain about with Octopath Traveler. The game is simply superb. It's a triumph in artistry. Along with its silky-smooth gameplay, you've got yourself a JRPG that you shouldn't miss — heck, it's a title that every Switch owner should have, even if they aren't too interested. It's just great to see that Square Enix is embracing that old-school JRPG flair and made a near-perfect game.