Platform: Nintendo Switch
Genre: JRPG, Throwback To The 90s
If you’ve been playing a buttload of JRPGs in the early and late 90s, chances are you’ve seen someone at the Kota Raya or old-school Yaohan side game stores pull out those Japanese SNES cartridges or PS1 CD and playing through an obscure Squaresoft title.
They looked like an FF game -from its pixelated art to its prerendered atrociousness, but that was where the similarity ended. Usually, it would be a SaGa game or a Live-A-Live where you had to deal with multiple protagonists and arbitrary level up rules. Their separate plot threads would intertwine towards a bigger plot that dealt with the fate of the world and its political climate.
The Bravely Default team wanted to channel that aspect with their latest JRPG Octopath Traveler for the Nintendo Switch. Only this time they (i) took out the debatable garbage mechanics from the SaGa games and (ii) use a unique 3D/2D art style to make a seemingly retro game look new.
Oh, and random battles are prevalent here. Remember those?
My 30+ hours with the game prove that some spitshine can do wonders in weaponizing JRPG nostalgia for today’s generation. Even if the experiment falters narrative-wise, the rest of the diorama-tailored package is worthy of your time.
Holy Diorama, Batman!
Ever since I saw the preview of this game at last year’s E3, I fell in love with this game’s art style and diorama 16-bit-esque display. And after playing almost all of what this game has offered, I have yet to think of any other title this year that exceeds this style of presentation. Octopath Traveler masterfully uses depth of field effects and a combination of 2D and 3D animation techniques to create a nostalgic-yet-pretty-new look and feel. While the colours may seem muted in the darker areas and in some of the more ancient areas, the overall presentation still makes me want to explore every corner and every town to see what little surprises are in store.
My favourite bit is standing on the cliffside near Ophilia’s homestead just to soak in the digital snowy atmosphere and seeing the winter effects in play. And the many hidden pathways in the Coastland and Highland areas that house treasure boxes.
This, among other set pieces and later dungeons, is all accompanied with arguably one of this generation’s best gaming soundtracks. The music by composer Yasunori Nikishi is whimsical, orchestral-savvy, melodic, charming, and mesmerizing at the same time. Not once does it becomes a cheesy anime trope-filled affair (though that is welcome in games like Xenoblade Chronicles 2). Every notation, every verse, every character’s leit motif, and every chorus in the game’s soundtrack is a magical feast for the ears.
All I’m saying is that you should get the entire soundtrack, digital or physical. If you love JRPGs and video game music, it is your god-given right to own this eclectic masterpiece in game scores. Do it now.
Not-So-Active Time Battle
Kakuchopurei detailed the battle system on this here guide, but I can do a quick recap. You have four heroes fighting against enemies in turn-based fashion. The kicker here is that you can put enemies in a Break State which stuns them for a whole round. To do this you have to reduce their “defence meter” (the shield icon with the number on the left side of the enemy’s name) by exploiting their weaknesses. Each of them has multiple exploits ranging from specific elemental spells to weapon types.
While you can play the guessing game and waste your SP and time, you can use spells and abilities that reveal enemy weaknesses one turn at a time to turn the tides. You also have spells that hit multiple times and also the Boost system to enhance your attacks. The latter mechanic is important because you can accumulate 1 level of Boost per turn to power up your spells or attack multiple times.
You’ll need to use these mechanics to get through the normal fights and the absurdly tough boss fights. Sure, they have a TON of hit points to whittle down, and if you are careless, they can wipe out your team with just one all-targeting move. But if you pay attention and build up your boosts while hammering their weaknesses, you might get a slew of free uninterrupted turns.
It’s a shame that the regular fights can drag on especially if you want to level up all your eight travelers. Protip: just focus on 4 heroes and finish their stories, then drag their overleveled asses to help out the remaining 4.
Much like Final Fantasy V, Tactics, and the other good FF games, each of the eight heroes have their own specific Jobs which define their class and traits. Cyrus is a Scholar who casts a messload of all-targeting spells while H’aanit can summon and capture beasts to fight for her ala Pokemon. You also have Alfyn the Apothecary who can kinda tank and heal his pals using alchemy (combine two herbs together to help/hinder). Each of these jobs also have passive abilities like Alfyn’s health buff and Cyrus’ Evasive Action that lessens the encounter rate.
Best of all, you can find shrines that can make these eight jobs available for your heroes to dual-class in. So if you think that H’aanit needs that sex worker’s Dancer job for that additional Dark magic and knife attack buff, go for it.
On the overworld, your hero’s specific Jobs have path actions that can help solve puzzles or even acquire secrets & items. Say you want to get a merchant’s Heavy Axe. You can either use Tressa’s Purchase path action or Therion’s Steal path action.
The former is a Noble path action that doesn’t come with any consequence if you have the resources to commit to it. The latter is a Rogue path which comes with its high-risk high-rewards stake. If you fail using your Rogue path action, your town reputation suffers and you can’t talk to the townsfolks to carry on with your quests. You can restore your reputation with some payment of course, but it’s best to level up your heroes so that their path actions have better success rates.
While it’s fun to solve main and side quests by figuring out which path action is the best, it does lead to some interesting conundrums. Narratively-speaking, is it less honourable to beat up a peasant with a Challenge path action or sic your pets onto him via the Provoke path action?
The consequence of using Rogue path actions too aren’t as severe if you don’t mind grinding for money. And in a JRPG like this, there are quite a number of exploits for doing the leveling up/coin up grind especially if you have certain Job passive skills like Tressa’s Eye For Money buff.
Here’s where the bad news start: while each of the eight travelers has a lovely intro and 4 chapters worth of progression that’s interesting if cliched, none of their stories intersect with one another or converge into one big epic conclusion.
Without spoiling anything, everyone’s story arc ends on a separate note. Talk about a disjointed experience.
Each individual tale present here is not going to set your world on fire; only half of them are worth a darn. While I really enjoyed Cyrus’ tale, I can’t say the same for sex worker Primrose and her quest for vengeance. But hey, these eight tales are all subjective and I’m sure you have your personal-if-cliched favourites. From Tressa’s championing of capitalism to H’aanit’s search for her master and her narrative’s butchering of Shakespearean English, you can’t deny that they’re all written with care and aplomb.
It’s just a pity that it does not tie up all these threads into one big epic finale of a campaign. The only time the party talks and interacts with each other is via the Party Banter option, and that’s just the different party members talking about the current quest they’re in.
I just wish that Acquire & Square Enix did more and flesh this aspect out better. Perhaps free DLC can help solve this a few more months down the line?
I’m not saying that Octopath Traveler is completely perfect. The regular battles can get repetitive over time (just like its decade-old inspirations) and the game doesn’t even have anything close to an overarching narrative that ties everything together.
Compare this to something like the Mass Effect series or the Baldur’s Gate series where the party synergizes and banter during the main and side missions, and you start to see why Square Enix and Acquire should have stepped up in this regard to make everything feel a tad more alive and organic.
But as of right now, what we ended up with is still a pretty damn good JRPG experience that has its own unique presentation, an awesomesauce soundtrack, a quaint approach to overworld puzzles & problem-solving, and satisfying combat. That’s really hard to beat considering that there are only a few JRPG offerings that blend the old-school with the new school thought of game design without coming off as an imitator.
-Great JRPG combat
-Decent puzzle-solving & sidequest goodness
-Narrative is hit-or-miss; doesn’t feel organic & cohesive
-Still has some JRPG repetition foibles
Final Rating: 80/100
Note: I’ve written this review for The Last King Podcast too. Do check out our pop culture-shocking show at The Last King’s SoundCloud page.