It's been a long time since Octopath Traveller (the British English spelling with double "L") was revealed for the Switch and now the name's here to stay with Square-Enix's latest JRPG. It's proven to be so popular that the first batch of physical copies sold out before the holiday weekend in Japan.
You can choose to start the game as any of eight characters (hence the name) so everyone's story will start differently. As they travel through the land of Orsterra alone at first to fulfill their own destinies, they eventually come across each other and can form a party with you.
It's mostly open world in the sense you can choose wherever you want to go, party members aren't pre-determined but there are the odd places you are blocked off from. In fact, they're big visible wooden signs that stop you from entering. Other than that you can freely visit levels that are beyond your party member's abilities if you wanted to. Granted you can't actually attempt to fight anything unlike Xenoblades Chronicles 2, you can still look around and make some quick money. Level recommendations are shown for each area you visit and each story seems to be designed in such a way you'll probably end up playing through chapters in parallel.
Nintendo seems to have started following suit with other game developers in giving a demo you can resume from in the full game. However, as with their 3DS demos you're limited ot 3 hours of play time so, they're not quite a generous to let you play through all eight characters. Just long enough to gather three party members but still, it's great to see more game companies adopting this game marketing strategy.
Gameplay wise it's kind of similar to Bravely Default which was another great series from SE although it's supposed to be the spiritual successor to Final Fantasy VI according to an interview with producer Masashi Takahashi during Anime Expo 2018. You have the choice of taking turns as they come or, save them and use them all at once - in this case, it's called "Boost" and as the name suggests, boosts the power of your attacks or skills. It feels like SE decided to take BD's system further because you can now exploit enemy weaknesses to knock them out.
It's fun exploring the small dungeons thanks to the fixed camera and obscured hidden pathways but, it would have been more fun if the game didn't fall back to the old days of invisible random enemy encounters. In the early days of JRPGs such as early Final Fantasy games level grinding like this was fine because there wasn't much else to do. Game worlds weren't very rich, limited hardware being a big factor of what developers could do. However, tech has moved on a lot since then so rather than spending time fighting the same enemies over and over until you're high level enough to beat the next boss, I think it should be more about tactics. More recent JRPGs I've played such as Persona 5 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does a much better job of this process. It doesn't help when there's no map you can view, just a general waypoint to follow so it can get pretty repetitive and grindy.
Fortunately, the encounter rate feels a lot more manageable once you have the scholar's "Evasive Maneuvers" skill. Boss battles are challenging and can be satisfying with the huge range of combinations you can play around with thanks to the FF-like class/sub-class system with different equippable skills. It's also great to see that max 9999 HP is a thing of the past here so that overhealing your party can actually be part of the strategy.
Most of the heros/heroines has their own unique skill too such as H'aanit who can capture and stock up enemies as if they're items which become different kind of attacks. Primrose can do something similar but bring along an NPC to fight instead while Alfyn can get extra information out of them. Interestingly enough, some of their abilities can affect the outcome of side quests you do and those quests themselves have fun little tales themselves.
Out of interest, the localisation team seemed to have localised Tressa's leve gathering ability message "Tressa spotted xx left behind by an unfortunate soul." However, the original Japanese "テレサは道中で〇獲得した" mentions nothing about "unfortunate souls" so it was probably just them having a bit of fun. Nevertheless, this will probably be one thing Western players will remember the game for.
Visually it looks like Minecraft meets the old Final Fantasy games but Minecraft with the HD mod packs that add some beautiful lighting effects to the game. There's a tilt lens effect, the kind of lens that blur photos in such a way they look like miniature models and it makes the game look really good. There's just something about the way the 3D environment is lit up that makes it look great and SE decided to name this combination of 3D and 2D sprites "HD 2D". A good thing because the visuals are a stark constrast to the stories which are really sad most of of the time thanks to the characters being a victim of crime, poverty or some other misfortune of the world. Boss sprites are huge which is a reminder of FFVI I think. Soundtrack is great and the opening just reminds me of early Final Fantasy games filled with adventure.
It's not perfect however. Sometimes the bokeh, the way light is blurred into shapes, can kick in at the wrong places and makes things look a bit out of place. I also encountered quite a lot of palette swapping for the enemies you encounter and some of the areas or interiors just re-use the same textures or designs.
Even though each story doesn't stray far from your usual fantasy tale of good and evil the character driven direction will probably still have you rooting for the characters. The writing's good and localisation team did a good job. Shows you can still have a good story even without high quality 3D CGI movies. Personally I think Tressa's story is the best followed by Primrose's. There are also hints that the individual stories are linked together as you play through the different stories and notice a common evil at work. It's great to see that even side characters in the main stories get their own little ending if you choose to do their side quests afterwards and, even more so when they're talking with characters from the other stories. Not something you see often in stories!
At first, it feels kind of odd the party members you invite don't have a part in the main cutscenes for each other's stories. Quite different from the modern day JRPGs where they would usually step in and help each other out or something as well intertwined as Odin Sphere. Instead they play a role in the form of optional banter scenes where they either get to know each other or give an opinion in the form of what feels like a bit out-of-place stage play. As you finish each character's story, you kind of appreciate why they did it this way because the story is more about how each of the characters managed to overcome their struggles in their lives rather than how they all met to overcome a greater evil - to find a purpose for themselves. The banter scenes themselves sometimes provide some fun entertainment when the mood gets a bit heavy.
On the whole it feels like SE wanted to bring back the old retro JRPGs with level grinding and random encounters but merge it with some modern day visuals and mechanics. Octopath Traveller does a good job of this and the way you meet new party members fits its title well. It's a big game, just finishing one character's story alone will probably take you around 35 hours which is about the average JRPG. The world setting may not be as grand as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 but if you can ignore the way level grinding I can definitely recommend it as the next exclusive JRPG on the Switch to play. It definitely has its own personality!
And as a bit of trivia, did you know the initials of the character's names spell out the game's name?
- It's mostly open world (a big one too) so everyone's experience will probably be different.
- Banter is a fun and you learn more about your party members.
- Great stories - even the supporting characters have their own little endings.
- Beautiful mix of retro pixel sprites and tilt lens style, mini model looking 3D environments.
- Huge combination of possible classes and skill setups.
- Game will probably be memorable for some pretty unique abilities.
- A great backing soundtrack.
- Boss fights are satisfyingly challenging.
- Can review cutscenes and also skip them.
- Random encounters, gets pretty grindy and repetitive.
- Some re-used enemies, designs, palette swapping.
- Would be nice if you could toggle town names on world map.
- Would be good if you could re-challenge bonus dungeon boss after beating it.