To say that classical turn-based JRPGs are something of a lost art would be a bit of an understatement. You just need to look at Ni No Kuni and Final Fantasy’s latest sequels to remind oneself of this. These two eastern-developed RPGs, whose predecessors were well-known for their compelling turn-based combat systems, have now – for better or for worse – replaced said systems with a more western-style real-time combat structure.
Indeed, it’s very much a sign of the times, but if you’re anything like me and have a hankering for those old-school JRPGs from yesteryear, Octopath Traveler is akin to discovering a secret oasis blooming deep within the heart of 2018’s desert-like summer lull.
As the game’s title suggests, the overarching narrative revolves around eight titular travelers: Olberic the Warrior, Primrose the Dancer, Alfyn the Apothecary, Therion the Thief, Tressa the Merchant, Cyrus the Scholar, Ophilia the Cleric, and H’aanit the Hunter. The choice of where you’d like to begin is totally up to you. Apart from your starting character – which is obviously the first quest you’ll see unfold – the rest of the protagonists’ stories can be activated dynamically as you make your way through the continent of Orsterra.
Each of the character’s personal narrative arcs are surprisingly unique, blending Game Of Thrones-esque medieval fantasy with a playful, yet sombre, ethereal tone. Primrose the Dancer, for example, is a highborn princess to a once powerful house, whose parents were murdered when she was a child. Tenacious in her single-minded goal of finding her parents’ killers, her goal is a simple one: To seek vengeance on those who destroyed her once great house.
In all, each character’s story is lengthy; it takes around 20 hours to finish just one of the protagonist’s personal arcs. Thankfully, across the board, the writing is fantastic. It’s noticeably subtle in all the right places, and there’s so much emotional depth to be found beneath its myriad themes of faith, love, friendship, heroism, and loss. Though the character’s stories aren’t super interconnected, optional party banter helps breathe life into the relationships within your team. It also helps that the voice acting is always top-notch, too, which is icing atop this delectable JRPG treat.
Now, onto the gameplay, then. It’s fair to say that any turn-based RPG often lives or dies depending on the strength of its combat system; Octopath Traveler’s combat is some of the best turn-based gameplay I’ve experienced in a long while. Using different weapons and elemental magical attacks, players must whittle down enemies’ shields until they’re broken, which results in the adversary becoming stunned. Once the opponent is in a stunned state, you’ll have the opportunity to deal massive amounts of damage that’ll get any self-respecting RPG fan’s chops drooling in delight.
Adding a layer of welcome strategy on top of this system is the fact that all enemies – even the most basic cannon fodder – have their own set of weaknesses that must be exposed, learned and exploited in order to take down their shield counter.
Furthermore, at the beginning of each turn, your party is awarded a Boost Point. These can be used to boost a skill, attack, or defence. However, these points may also be saved up and used to deliver multiple, so-powerful-the-screen-goes-crazy style attacks that can be the difference between getting through a battle by the skin of your teeth, or seeing the whole of your party pushing up the digital daisies. Using both your Boost Points carefully and being mindful of your opponent’s weaknesses is paramount in your ongoing success on your epic journey across Orsterra.
One of the strongest elements of Octopath Traveler is its extraordinary presentation. The game combines charming 16-bit pixel art that harkens back to the SNES-era, with modern, cutting edge Unreal Engine 4 lighting, water and weather visual effects. This wholly unique audio-visual experience is a novel blending of 90s design philosophies and contemporary state-of-the-art polish. Simply put, this is a delightful, painstakingly crafted concert of old and new aesthetics and it gels together phenomenally – it’s a title that truly bursts at the seams with its own avant-garde style and singular vision.
Rounding out the incredible visuals is one of the most hauntingly beautiful scores I’ve heard since 2016’s I Am Setsuna. There’s a huge amount of variety in the audio department and each self-contained region across the vast map of Orsterra is home to its own catchy and tonally consistent melody. From the bleak whimsical chill of the snowy caps of Stillsnow, to the warm jazzy summer blues of Sunshade, to the folksy sea-shanty accordion refrain of Rippletide, the world simply oozes with personality and charisma from every corner of its meticulously composed audio-visual symphony.
Taken as a whole, there’s just so much to love about Octopath Traveler beyond mere nostalgia. Not only does it feature one of the most engrossing turn-based combat systems to grace a JRPG in years, it also boasts one of the most jaw-droppingly stunning art-styles, too. Add to this, a wonderfully gorgeous score, and some terrifically written characters and narrative, and it soon becomes clear that Octopath Traveler is a very special game indeed. If you’re an RPG fan and own a Switch, you need to pull the trigger on this one.
Verdict: An essential for anyone with a pulse and a soft-spot for those old-school RPGs of yesteryear, Octopath Traveler will undoubtedly be vying for the number one spot when those Game of the Year accolades get underway. Seriously, it’s that awesome.
Octopath Traveler is out now exclusively on Nintendo Switch.