For my money, Square Enix (specifically, when they were still Squaresoft) is responsible for many of the best RPGs of all time. In recent years, however, I have found myself growing increasingly distant from the franchises which endeared me to the genre in my youth; series’ like Final Fantasy.
Final Fantasy 4, 6-10, and even 12 are all really good games. Each of them has issues, but before the release of Final Fantasy 11, the series was legendary. If you bought a Final Fantasy game, you knew you were about to experience something truly great. Beyond that, with other all-time greats like Chrono Trigger, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy Tactics, the Squaresoft logo was virtually synonymous with quality.
Being disappointed by more recent Square games, I began to wonder if I would ever experience the incredible feeling of playing the quintessential Square RPG again.
Enter Octopath Traveler.
I laughed along with the rest as “Project Octopath Traveler” was announced. The game’s silly name notwithstanding, this seemed to be just one more attempt on Square’s part to cash in on my nostalgia, as they had with Bravely Default, and although I know a handful of people who truly appreciated Bravely Default, it was just another “miss” for me.
When Square Enix made a demo available for Octopath Traveler, I took the plunge. I even wrote a preview based on my experience with it, which was largely positive. When the second demo launched, offering three hours of content and a save which would migrate to the full game, I had to admit; I was equal parts impressed and excited.
After spending over 60 hours playing and beating the game, I can confidently say Square has capitalized on the promises of old. Square reworked and improved Bravely Default’s innovative combat system, and combined it with a sprawling, non-linear open-world RPG focusing on eight different protagonists to create a modern classic.
If this sounds like a hefty challenge (and high praise) for a developer, it is. Crafting one good story is difficult enough, but balancing it against seven others in a way that doesn’t feel hamfisted or disjointed is even more so. And yet, although some stories are certainly more ambitious (or intense) than others, the team did a fantastic job creating a thoroughly fleshed-out fantasy world.
Each hero has a unique personality which comes through as they progress through their story, as well as when they interact with other heroes in occasional moments of party banter. If two characters have wildly disparate personalities, it usually comes through in their dialogue. Some of the dialogue did strike me as a bit stiff, and the moments of party banter are less frequent than I would like, so I’d love to see a revised and expanded version of party banter in Octopath’s inevitable sequel.
One of the biggest benefits of Octopath Traveler’s non-linear progression is there is almost no need to grind. The necessity of grinding is a big problem for many RPGs, and for the most part, Octopath Traveler sidesteps this issue by providing multiple avenues for story progression.
As an example, after completing Therion’s first chapter, my party had reached level 12. His second chapter is recommended for characters around level 20, so instead of continuing Therion’s story, I picked up Cyrus’s Chapter 1, which was balanced for a party around my current level.
This strategy could have backfired easily if I hated Cyrus’s story or his character. Instead, I stumbled upon one of my favorite (and one of the most useful) characters in the game. In my opinion, Olberic’s story is the weakest and Primrose’s is the strongest, but I enjoyed my time with each character and was even moved by the end of some character’s stories. (I’m looking at you, Primrose and Tressa!)
Each character in the game has their own Job class and an associated Path Action, which plays heavily into their story, as well as how they perform in battle. Therion, the first character I chose, is a Thief, but all the fantasy archetypes are here.
There is a Warrior who excels at bladed combat, a Hunter who can tame animals and use a bow, spell-casting Scholars, healers like the Cleric or Apothecary, and more unusual classes, like Merchants, who can buy items and equipment from virtually anyone, find money lying around, and even create Boost Points to give to allies (we’ll get to those soon, just know it is an extremely powerful ability).
In addition to Job-specific skills and abilities, each character has a Path Action, which their story utilizes and revolves around. Since Therion is a Thief, you better believe you’ll be stealing a lot during his story chapters. Although most Path Actions are very easy to use, regardless of a character’s level, I will recommend players keep Olberic or H’aanit fairly close to their chapters recommended level (even when not using them in your main team), as their Path Action requires them to fight enemies one-on-one.
In addition to their base Job, characters can equip a second Job and learn new combat and passive skills. There are a total of 12 unlockable Jobs, allowing players to customize their party and focus on the characters they enjoy most (my final party was Therion, Cyrus, Tressa, and Ophilia).
For a lengthy RPG to have a solid story is a big plus, but the gameplay is where Octopath Traveler really shines. Turn-based combat is common in party-based RPGs, but the way this plays out in Octopath differentiates it from other games.
Each turn, characters gain a Boost Point, up to a total of five. At any time, characters can use these points to activate Boost, which increases the number of normal attacks or increases the power of special skills. You can boost anything from sword attacks to healing spells, even the Steal ability, and the more you boost an ability, the more effective it is.
In fact, there are some abilities so powerful, they can only be used while using Boost Points, such as every Job class’s final unlock, an immensely powerful Divine Skill.
Turn order is of paramount importance, as are enemy weaknesses. Enemies begin battles with a shield next to their name with a number on it, signifying the number of times their weaknesses need to be exploited before being inflicted with Break status.
Once their defense is broken, enemies are stunned for two turns and take increased damage from all sources. Exploiting enemy weaknesses and maximizing damage while their defenses are down is the core of combat in Octopath Traveler, and why the game is so incredibly satisfying to play.
Because of the Break mechanic, battles against weaker enemies don’t feel dull or painfully repetitive as they often do in other RPGs. Instead, they benefit from the implementation of the same strategies as boss encounters, albeit at much lower stakes. Gone are the days of just spamming “Ultima.” In Octopath, you have to think, and nowhere is that more clear than in boss battles.
Boss battles play with expectations in fresh and unexpected ways, sometimes introducing mechanics that appear nowhere else in the game. Square’s clever treatment of boss encounters had me hungry to hunt down each and every one, especially the difficult optional bosses guarding the game’s four most powerful Jobs.
Areas and dungeons are relatively straightforward, and while some may resent the more simplistic layout of dungeons in Octopath Traveler, I found it refreshing. If you want to wander a bit to find every item in an area, you are free to do so, but gone are the days of following a path for three screens, expending precious resources, only to find out it doesn’t lead to a special treasure chest, an exit, or a boss.
Speaking of treasure chests, one of my favorite things about dungeon layout in Octopath Traveler is most treasure chests are visible from the start. The most tantalizing part of any dungeon is figuring out how to get to all of them.
Octopath Traveler isn’t some sweeping epic about saving the world or rising up from humble origins to become the greatest hero in the universe. It’s about small moments, and normal people going through hardship and doing what they have to, just to survive.
It’s about deciding what type of person you want to be. It’s about fighting for what is right, even if it isn’t easy, even if it doesn’t make sense, even if it requires sacrifice. Octopath Traveler is about the family we choose; the friends we make on our journey through life, and if this is the direction Square Enix wants to go, I’ll happily travel this path with them.
Octopath Traveler might be my favorite game on Switch, and that’s really saying something. The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild was my personal Game Of The Year last year, and it is absolutely excellent, but while both Zelda and Octopath brought new life to an old genre, Octopath gave me something I genuinely thought I might never see again; another truly masterful Square RPG.
Platform – Nintendo Switch eShop Download
Publisher – Nintendo
Developer – Square Enix
Release Date – July 13, 2018
Price – $60.00
Genre – Role-Playing, Adventure
Players – 1
Size – 2.9 GB
Brian Barnett has loved video games ever since his uncle Jimmy introduced him to them at the ripe old age of five. His wife, Audrey, was also introduced to video games by her uncle, lending credence to Brian’s theory that behind every gamer, there is a cool uncle.
Since playing Super Mario Bros. on the NES, Brian has had a passion for Nintendo games. The first thing he did when he started earning money was save up and buy himself a Game Boy, and they quickly became inseparable. Through the years, this led to his special love of portable game consoles, so the release of the Switch is the perfect storm of Nintendo action he has been waiting for.
In addition to his gaming obsession, Brian enjoys playing drums, writing and listening to music, and hosting a weekly video game and nerd culture podcast.
He is an extrovert, and loves talking about and playing games with others, so let him know if you want to team up and play together!
Plays: Switch, New 3DS, SNES, NES, GBA, PC, Xbox One, PS4, Vita