Most fans of role playing games from the 90s era are more than eager to tell someone about how that was the Golden Age of RPGs and how they’ve never quite been the same since then. While I agree that that is true, there have been a slew of excellent titles in the genre throughout the 2000s and the current decade, but there was never one that could quite replicate that same feeling that so many RPGs of the 90s had. But now, Square Enix has delivered Octopath Traveler, a title that conveys that they still have it in them to create a game that captures that same magic that their older titles once had.
Most games have a single set story that you follow from the beginning to the end. But much like the SaGa series that inspired it, Octopath Traveler has you following the stories of eight individuals on their own personal quests that will take them to all corners of the world. Whether or not these stories have some grand purpose doesn’t really matter, as the intent of the game is just to be a collection of short stories for you to enjoy at your own pace. You pick one of the eight characters to start with, who will always be locked into your party, and then you go and find the other seven and experience the beginning of their tales. Whoever’s story appeals to you most is what is perfectly fine with you to continue with. There are no restrictions, other than the level recommendations and the difficulty that waits behind them.
Because of this, I find Octopath Traveler a breath of fresh air. The game is open while still being guided. If I want to start with Therion but find his story rather boring to my tastes, I can save his for later and go work on another character that appeals to me more. The game will tell me where I need to go to resume, but won’t force me to go there until I’m ready, whether I’m the recommended level or not. In this regard, Octopath is borderline open-world while still retaining that standard RPG charm. Each story is well written and engaging, but it is entirely up to the preference of each person as to whether or not they enjoy it. As for a more personal bias regarding the characters themselves; I love that they’re all adults. Decades of JRPGs about groups of teenagers had gotten quite tiresome, so it’s refreshing to see a cast of characters mostly in their 20s and older.
Octopath is a shining example of a finely-crafted game with only a few impurities throughout. As mentioned before, the game is very open about letting you choose how you want to experience the stories of each of the different characters. Nothing restricts you other than the level recommendation, which you don’t necessarily even need to be. But the game is challenging enough that it is apparent why the suggestion is there. While it is perhaps slightly bothersome that there is no difficulty option available for those who would like to just focus simply on the character plots and less on the challenge, the game does a good job of keeping things balanced between player/character skill and enemy AI. This makes the game neither too hard nor too easy. As long as you pay attention to the various mechanics, which are thankfully not ridiculously multifaceted, you will be able to overcome any obstacle that the game throws at you. But, it is apparent that there are rather high difficulty spikes each time you enter a new “set” of chapters.
The battle system is honestly quite entertaining. It is of a similar style to Bravely Default, in that you can increase the power of your attacks by building up a number of Boost Points, or BP, to unleash insane damage on your enemies or have more potent healing on your allies. Boosting is key to victory in boss battles, and even some random encounters, as it can significantly change your damage output. Pair this with “breaking” an enemy’s defenses by exploiting their weaknesses, and you’ll be doing the best damage your characters can do in no time. While it may seem like it would be tiresome to always remember to boost and break, it comes naturally very early on and therefore becomes second nature during even the most mundane random encounters.
While I certainly spout praises for this game left and right, it still has its downsides that will really vary from player to player, but are still worth mentioning. For one, while it is understandable as to why they don’t, it’s a bit of a drag that the characters you aren’t using don’t gain any experience. This makes it so easy for them to fall behind and requires you to grind levels before taking them into their next chapters if you neglected them even a little bit. Usually, they can be carried by a stronger team, but there are occasional bosses where a single character that’s fallen behind could make things much trickier. One could argue that it’s easy enough to gear these characters with the money that you make from side quests, but that leads into another issue. Some side quests have alarmingly little in terms of direction. You have to put forth quite a bit of your own problem solving in order to finish them, and if you happened to have forgotten what the first part of a quest told you to do, the journal will be of no help. Granted, I didn’t spend as much time with the side quests as I should have, but the few that I did had such mediocre descriptions that I ended up ignoring them and moving on with the story. Thankfully, this does not always seem to be the case, but regardless of the quests themselves, the journal never seems to be very helpful.
Another drawback that I noticed in Octopath Traveler was that both the overworld map and the mini-map aren’t particularly well made for navigation on their own. The overworld map is beautiful, but it doesn’t do a very good job of showing you where the specific areas are and where they connect. It’s fine for seeing the divide of overall regions, but the smaller areas of each one are just sort of for you to figure out. Thankfully, the mini-map does give you a hand by showing a third “dot” on the radar where a screen transition is, which is almost always what you’re looking for to get to the next area. Paired together, the maps are fine. But on their own, they can be taxing.
Finally, the last thing that sort of got to me was how only Therion can open locked chests. I understand that that is his specific “perk”, but that means that every time I step into a cave only to find a chest near the back that only he can open, I have to remember to come back to it later when he’s in my party. Will I even remember it was there? By the time that I do, will the contents be relevant anymore? I feel like opening locked chests should have been something that was tied to the Thief class itself, rather than just Therion.
Now that I’ve spoken my mind on the few things that bother me about Octopath, I want to return to singing it praises by mentioning one of my absolute favorite things about it; the graphical style. Octopath takes the best of 2D sprites and 3D environments and creates a fantastic world that is utterly pleasing on the eyes. Coupled with the beautiful shaders, this game ends up with something unlike that which we’ve ever seen before. Surely, there were RPGs and other games in the 90s that attempted something like this, but the shaders and current technology are what really make it shine. It makes me wonder what many older titles would look like if they were recreated in this same style. I also personally think the game looks better without the corner shadows, but you may prefer them.
It’s no secret that I am weak for 2D sprites and older RPGs in general, so of course I think that this game is gorgeous, as it greatly appeals to my tastes. This game is like a beautiful blend of SaGa meets Final Fantasy VI, and the end result is some of the most beautiful sprite work I have ever seen. The boss sprites, especially, are some of the most insanely well-crafted enemies I have ever seen in an RPG to date.
The soundtrack, which was composed by Yasunori Nishiki and performed by many artists, is a stunning array of music that brings the game to life in the best possible way. It’s a gorgeous set of music with each piece fitting every situation perfectly. Forest themes are serene, battle themes are invigorating, and everything in between fits perfectly with what it is assigned.
In terms of localization, Octopath Traveler is pretty on point. There are a few areas where it is lacking or questionable, usually in terms of odd accents that are better to be just voiced instead of written, but everything else is shining. Speech flows naturally and the English voice acting is superb, all in a way that brings the characters to life in a unique way. The only times I felt like characters were oddly cast were a few situations where children had more adult sounding voices.
When it comes down to it, Octopath Traveler is a fantastic game and a radiant example of how wonderful role playing games can be. It brings back all the good things of the Golden Era while still retaining modern conveniences. This is how those who are nostalgic for old games remember the titles from decades past without the aged technology and gameplay. Would it be drastic of me to say that this is possibly my favorite RPG of the current decade? I don’t think so. It is entirely worthy of that position and is, without a doubt, a game that every RPG fan who owns a Switch should play. There are very few who would be disappointed in this outstanding piece.
Pros & Cons
+ Gorgeous environments
+ Superb music and characters
– No shared experience with reserve characters
– Lacking in character interactions
An impeccable example of what made RPGs of the 90s so well loved, and shows that Square Enix still has it in them to create something truly outstanding.