Are these eight heroes able to take their place at the top shelf reserved for classic JRPGs? That was the question we asked of Octopath Traveler as we prepared to write this review. This time on the Nintendo Switch, Square Enix has delivered a story set in a fantasy world but which actually deals with contemporary topics, all realised with nostalgic sprites and a dash of 3D. It looks and feels great, and there are some elements on display here that, at times, made us think that the baton had truly been passed on by the genre greats.
The eight stories alluded to in the title left us feeling a bit cold, however, but at least the warmth surrounding the rest of the game can't be denied. Octopath Traveler has a lot of positives, as we're invited to explore Orsterra, enjoying our journey at the kind of slow pace that is advisable when you're playing this kind of RPG. But, for all its promise in terms of storytelling, the game's biggest problem is a lack of synergy when it comes to the eight-way narrative, and that's especially disappointing in an RPG from a company that has built its foundations in this area over the past few decades.
Don't get us wrong, we're saying this because we had high expectations, and all told it's a still a noteworthy game. The traditional RPG mechanics, such as the turn-based combat and job systems are key, but there are also newer elements such as a Boost system which lets you gain points in each turn and then use them to make multiple simultaneous attacks or enhance certain abilities. It's far from being completely fresh and unique (we saw similar ideas in Bravely) but it works well enough.
The break and defence systems are even better. When you fight an enemy you have to look for their weak points with a combination of attacks using swords, axes, spears, bows, and spells, again and again until you work out what hurts them the most. At that moment, you have to spam your enemy with the attack continuously, keeping them stunned and ensuring that they're unable to attack you in the following turn.
It may sound simple on paper but in practice, with the different monsters and the various restrictions in play, it's a complex system that makes battles harder to win. If you look at the sequence of turns (which is always depicted by a line at the top of the screen) you'll see that it's mixed up and condensed, and it becomes increasingly difficult each time you play because the enemies also improve and once-quiet areas soon fill up with new opponents to defeat.
Octopath Traveler doesn't want to be a walk in the park, then, even if the whole map is available from the beginning and lets you go wherever you want. Over the course of the adventure, you have to play with the various character classes as you try to build the perfect team. There are no easy fights, especially if you're not properly prepared. However, if you are ready for action, it's satisfying to find a group of creatures and finish them off while your party remains intact.
There are eight main characters, of which you can only take four out at a time (you can switch them at any tavern). They can also change their profession provided you find new ones in the caves where they hide. There is no progression in terms of the jobs, even though you can unlock skills with points earned in battle, and to get all of the different jobs you'll have to visit every corner of Orsterra. Only then can you have Olberic as a thief instead of a knight, or Primrose as a hunter instead of a dancer.
This amount of variety makes combat one of the most enjoyable parts of the adventure. Unfortunately, we can't say the same about the path actions. With these actions, characters can challenge, interrogate, and even call upon certain NPCs, but these path actions are not as wide-ranging as they may seem. They could probably have been reduced to four, as some are rather similar (albeit with nuanced differences). For example, Primrose or Ophilia can both call on an NPC to help them in a pinch, but Primrose does it with "allure" and Ophilia does so with "guide".
They're different approaches that lead to the same outcomes: get items, find out information, add a temporary character, or get in a fight. There is a duality between doing things right and wrong, but there is no actual diversity in terms of choices. The same can be said of the side missions that, while variable in terms of difficulty, still usually end up feeling like busy work.
It's a shame that a game with this much potential keeps stumbling over wrinkles that should have been ironed out. However, there are some areas where Octopath Traveler is great and has plenty of style, such as the general gameplay and the audiovisual side of the production, which managed to soften the feeling of unfulfilled potential that began to creep in more after every hour played.
We're not going to talk too much about the HD-2D style, because any screenshot or video speaks for itself. It's a unique technique capable of making the otherwise pixel-based characters look more beautiful, bright, and full of personality. Tricks using light and shadow can be found everywhere, along with DOF effects and obstacles in front of the camera, and it gives the feeling of sitting before a small puppet theatre where we can move our characters with freedom and where there's pyrotechnics during every fight.
The music is also brilliant. We have to mention the name of Yasunori Nishiki because, even if most of the tracks are rather melancholic, there are some that deserve to be listened away from the game, without any distraction, such is their quality. We're certain that we'll hear the name of this rising composer more often from now on.
We've noted many positive things because, again, Octopath Traveler is a very good game. However, it frustrates precisely because it's two steps away from greatness. Some people may think it's the spiritual successor to Final Fantasy VI, especially due to its style and challenge, but it's actually far from reaching that level. FFVI's story was traditional (there was a villain and a team assembled to defeat him), but you could easily relate to the characters and enjoy the relationships between them and their progression, both individually and as a team. Here, that connection simply doesn't form.
The interactions between the heroes are limited to some chatter that can be activated between sequences. Each story is independent of the rest, and the slight connections between the characters are not enough to create a bigger story arch that maybe could have been revealed after finishing the eight individual chapters. There is no epic reunion nor a grand finale, not a trace of a conspiracy connecting the characters. They are travellers who found each other by chance and decide to work as a team, cooperating during combat. Nothing more, nothing less. The feeling of building a fellowship is lost and their individuality is constantly reinforced.
Fortunately, the storyline of each character is good enough to maintain interest, and it dares to deal with difficult issues such as prostitution and human trafficking. The individuality of the stories gives the player the chance to choose his or her own path with lots of freedom. You can follow the chapters you like the most by simply heading to the cities where they take place. There is a common pattern in all the stories, but the fact that you can choose where you want to go and with whom is rather uncommon in an RPG like this and that flexibility was welcome.
Octopath Traveler has a lot going for it, but there are also some negatives we can't dismiss. It combines the traditional aspects of the genre with its own personality to make it feel contemporary despite its classical appearance. It's a game full of demanding combat, magic, and with plenty of secrets waiting to be discovered. It stays close to the legacy of the biggest entries in the genre with a narrative that is, in fact, eight different stories. In short, it's a long journey and offers a path worth travelling, but it's not the unforgettable adventure we had hoped for.
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