I’m going to take some time out of my day to admonish you — beg you — to consider picking up Octopath Traveler, the former Switch exclusive that is finding a new home on PCs this week. If you don’t own a Switch, then you’ve been missing out on one of the best retro-styled JRPGs in recent memory. The Switch user base is pretty big, of course, but PCs are leaps and bounds beyond that, so hopefully Octopath gets even more love now.
But why should you pick it up? What’s the big deal? Let me tell you.
It’s Flat-Out Gorgeous
If you didn’t grow up playing classic 8- and 16-bit games, and RPGs in particular, maybe the beauty if this game is lost on you. Speaking as the nerdiest of JRPG nerds from the 80s, 90s, and beyond, I can say that Octopath Traveler’s visuals push all my buttons. Adorable super-deformed character sprites meander around colorful backgrounds. If that’s all it was, that would be enough. But Square Enix pushed it even further, creating a new art style they call “HD-2D.” The environments are all three dimensional, but they’re designed with eye-popping effects that breathe life into the game’s gorgeous world.
Enemy sprites in battles are richly detailed (especially the bosses), and particle effects are plentiful. It strives to look like what we remember the best 16-bit RPGs looking like, in the eyes of our younger and more impressionable selves.
The World Is Richly Developed
For a game that splits focus between eight main characters (more on them in a minute), it wouldn’t have been surprising if the world was mere backdrop to the many stories being told. That’s not the case at all, however. The world of Octopath has a history, one that subtly and not-so subtly connects all of the main characters together.
In fact, the groundwork has been quite thoroughly laid here for more games to come along and fill in additional details. Kingdoms have risen and fallen in this place, and there are abundant mysteries. Octopath barely scratches the surface of some of these, leaving quite an opportunity for expansion. Hopefully, Square Enix plans to give us more.
The Battles Are Intense
The meat of most JRPGs, the battles in Octopath look very traditionalist at first. However, crack the surface and you’ll find a ton of modern-day strategy is required to succeed. Characters can store points, at which point they can “boost” their attacks, landing multiple strikes at once or launching more powerful spells. Enemies all have various weak points, and exploiting them properly allows you to “break” them. Broken enemies have to sit out a turn, and their defenses are greatly lowered.
Boss battles are epic and long, and even regular battles can be challenging. It never feels “too old school,” though. Unfair deaths are few and far between, and there’s always a smarter way to win, as opposed to grinding levels forever until you’re super overpowered. It’s a fantastic system, and I hope Square Enix continues to develop it in future games.
Composer Yasunori Nishiki came out of nowhere for me. I knew many of the “household name” game composers out of Japan, like Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda. Nishiki was a new one on me, though. He had a few credits before Octopath, but it’s safe to say that this game has put him on the map. 85 tracks of beautifully orchestrated music performed by live musicians with the sorts of catchy melodies that games of the 16-bit era are known for, it’s basically what I always wanted Super Nintendo music to be.
Battle themes are upbeat and varied, character themes fit their character to a T, and the many town themes are so good they’ll make you want to delay your quest just to stick around and enjoy them. Truly a masterful score.
The Characters Are Intriguing
Creating eight fully fleshed-out characters to star in a video game is no easy feat, but Square Enix has pulled it off here. Certainly there are some characters’ stories that resonated with me more than others — the dancer Primrose, the apothecary Alfyn, and the merchant Tressa come to mind — but each tale is well told and full of interesting moments of character growth and interaction.
True, there’s a downside here. The way the game is structured means that your eight characters never interact in a meaningful way within the game itself. Instead, there are optional “conversations” you can engage in between different characters where they will discuss what’s transpiring in the story at the moment. These talks take place in a black void. This is the one part of the game that doesn’t feel intentional, almost as if the team realized at the last minute that people might be bummed if Therion never spoke a word of dialog to Olberic in 80 hours of playtime. However, it’s a minor quibble, and it’s easy enough to view the game as a series of eight separate short stories. Speaking of which…
The Stories Are Moving
I fully expected to care very little for Alfyn and Tressa. The apothecary and merchant job classes didn’t seem particularly interesting to me, and a story about a guy traveling around learning to become essentially a fantasy pharmacist and a girl traveling around to get better at selling things didn’t seem ripe for robust storytelling. I was wrong. Each story in Octopath has a complete character arc, and each does its best to tug on your heartstrings. Heavy issues like the morality of providing medical help for merciless killers and the consequences of a life lived for revenge are handled with care and an ease that suggests these storytellers aren’t new to this job.
What I didn’t expect were the ways each characters’ stories intertwine. While it’s easy to view each as a separate tale (and they are), there are common threads that run throughout each, weaving together a picture of this world. A well-hidden secret boss gauntlet provides even more explicit connections between the characters and is well worth seeking out — just spend some time maxing out your levels first, because it is HARD.
If you haven’t jumped on board the Switch train, then this week is your chance to share in one of the Switch’s best experiences. Any appreciator of JRPGs is doing themselves a disservice if they don’t pick this one up.