There’s no school like the old school as Square Enix takes us back to a classic era with Octopath Traveler, a traditional turn-based role-playing game that ticks all of the boxes sought after by the old people who still remember playing Final Fantasy on their Super Nintendo. It features a cast of loveable 16-bit nobles and rogues, a perilous and fascinating world that draws you in the longer you play and have your ear bent by the many townsfolk filling the streets and a vintage turn-based system that remains true to how the forefathers of J-RPGs did things while remaining nuanced and strategic. All in all, Octopath Traveler has everything that fans of traditional role-playing have been missing.
The first choice you make in Octopath Traveler is perhaps the hardest. Choosing between the game’s eight heroes is a trial in itself as each of them offers a worthwhile venture. In my instance, I opted for Therion, a roguish thief who gets caught red-handed and blackmailed by a cunning noblewoman to retrieve her stolen artefacts. This set in motion my adventure which, given the game’s open nature, is going to be inherently different from the story undertaken by most others. The beautiful thing about Octopath Traveler is that its world is open from the very beginning, where you go upon the completion of your main’s first chapter is entirely up to you. The game seldom guides you, leaving you to carve out your own path with help from a simple map unencumbered by overt and plentiful quest markers. It’s refreshing and makes exploration worthwhile again, which isn’t something I’ve welcomed in a role-playing game for some time.
Given eight heroes can be recruited throughout your travels and your party composition can be rather flexible, it’s worth noting that your first pick acts as your ‘main‘ for the entirety of Octopath Traveler, meaning only the remaining three party members are interchangeable. So choose carefully.
Octopath Traveler’s fictional land of Osterra, a place that’s clearly inspired by the Medieval epoch in European history in both its aesthetic, use of language and occupations, is an exciting landscape to set out across. Though the random encounters of the wildlands can be perilous, there’s a lot of storytelling afoot. Octopath Traveler is a seriously meaty game, and whilst I’ve sunk a decent amount of times into it, I feel like I’ve still got a lot to go through in terms of uncovering what the game has to offer. That said, all eight of the playable characters are supremely written and I quickly bought into their separate plights. One slight grievance I have is that their stories do feel very separate. There’s tiny banter between the team once the chapters roll on, but it never feels like they’ve bought into each other’s quests. Of course, the party vibe could flourish during the game’s later stages but early doors, it’s just not quite there. I hope the slow burn growing of these relationships occurs because they’re compelling as individuals and I’d sure love to see an endgame full of camaraderie that pays off the nuanced, earned friendships.
I haven’t had the pleasure of playing a lot of turn-based games of late but Octopath Traveler really reinvigorates the addictive, immensely satisfying core loop that is all too widespread in games like this. It is similar to Persona in that identifying an enemy’s weakness is pretty essential to clearing the battlefield as attacking said weaknesses chip away at an opponent’s shield points. An opponent is declared broken and miss a turn once they’re all depleted making boss fights, in particular, very strategic. It’s chess-like in the way you’re almost forced to concoct a plan and think a few steps ahead.
Each turn also grants you a quasi-extra move that allows a double hit. These can be stacked and even dealt out a few a time to really maximise damage whether you’re trying to break a shield or deal huge hurt on an already broken enemy who is seeing stars. This just adds another layer to an already fairly nuanced take on the often simplistic turn-based system. While it’s enjoyable at first, the lustre quickly wears off as it becomes apparent the zebra’s stripes will go unchanged during Octopath Traveler’s titanic runtime. The game’s cast and the world are perhaps stronger than its systems as I will gladly persist with Octopath Traveler based on these alone, but I fear I’ll grow extremely weary of the game’s battle systems long before the credits eventually roll. That said, that’s just tastes. There’ll be those who relish grinding and maxing out characters despite being trapped in tedium, those people needn’t fear at all.
Octopath Traveler adopts a beautiful HD-2D art-style that uses a lot of different aesthetics to piece together its picturesque world. The cobblestone stores and those that occupy them are all rendered in a charming 16-bit style that makes them appear as though they’re from my childhood, whereas the water looks as though photorealism was the aim. On paper, the styles should clash and result in discord and yet it doesn’t. While I preferred the handheld approach, the game still looks gorgeous running on a big television in pixelated splendour. Given the game looks like it’s from thirty years ago, it quickly remembered it was recent once the sprites began talking with pretty reasonable voice-over work. Not everything is voiced, that can’t be expected, but the game’s rather lengthy cinematics are all fully acted. The English dub doesn’t serve up award-winning performances and, as usual, the Japanese delivery is leagues ahead.
THE NINTENDO SWITCH VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Octopath Traveler is truly a charming and wonderful J-RPG that has reminded me that there's still a place for old classics. Some might call it dated, I'd call it ageless and even peerless when held up against a recent generation of watered down, Westernised role-playing games. Square Enix delivers a nuanced, tactical game and an endearing cast to boot.