First Impressions: Octopath Traveler (Square Enix, 2018)

The JRPGs of the mid-’90s have influenced me more than any other media outside of fantasy fiction. I grew up OBSESSED with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI; poured hundreds of hours into Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, Xenogears, Grandia, and Suikoden; have replayed games from that era over-and-over again in the 20 years since. It’s no exaggeration to say that Octopath Traveller, a new JRPG from Square Enix and Nintendo for the Nintendo Switch that hearkens back to the halcyon days of Squaresoft, was made for me.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time with it now, and I’m pleased to say that not only does Octopath Traveller do justice to the classics of its genre, it manages to take the feeling of those games and create something that feels both nostalgic and modern at the same time.

The first thing you’ll notice about Octopath Traveler is its unique blend of 3D-environments and 16-bit style spritework/pixel art. I left a playthrough of Final Fantasy VI unfinished to pick up Octopath Traveler, and the similarities are obviously striking—but, the more I play, the more I’m reminded of the 32-bit RPGs that melded 2D sprites with 3D environments, like Grandia or Xenogears. However, rather than trying for a 1:1 emulation of the old style, as many throwback JRPGs do, Octopath Traveller combines the 16/32-bit aesthetic with modern sensibilities. As someone who grew up on 16/32-bit JRPGs, it’s a heady combination that manages to look the way I remember those games looking, which is a high compliment.

The colour palette for each area of the world is reserved, and often resembles the rich, earthy tones that make Final Fantasy VI such a unique and beautiful game. The environmental design is vibrant and diverse, leading to a world that through six towns so far is interesting and feels vast. The narrative doubles-down on the concept of a lone-wolf protagonist wandering the world, and the spare, natural beauty of the roads, deserts, and mountain paths that connect towns (which themselves are almost like mini-dungeons) adds to that, giving the game an almost melancholy and lonely feeling.

Above and beyond the visual design elements, many other small touches, such as characters from different regions speaking with different accents in their voiceovers, lend the world a sense of breadth and age.

Structurally, I’m seeing some cracks. Octopath Traveller is divided between eight separate scenarios, with no overlap (your characters join each other in battle, but there is little interaction outside of that, and your party members have no impact on each other’s storyline). At this point, 12 hours in, with six of the eight opening chapters complete, I’m feeling a bit of fatigue setting in. Not enough to cause me to put down the game, but enough to make me wonder how it’ll hold up over the next 50 or so hours. Any good story requires a rise and fall in action. Due to the fact that, at least this early on, Octopath Traveller expects you to play through each character’s opening chapter one-at-a-time before further advancing into any character’s chapter 2 (by gating chapter 2+ material behind significant level requirements), it’s like reading the opening chapters of eight different novels. A lot of set up, a lot of preamble, a lot of exposition. It’s fine the first time or two, but, after ten hours, I need story beats that are providing something different. The pacing is rough.

As expected, some of the scenarios are more interesting than others, though none stumble entirely. Standouts for me include Primrose the dancer, Tress the aspiring merchant, and Cyrus the scholar. They each fall into a well-trodden stereotype, but through a combination of decent writing and well-structured opening chapters, I found myself immediately invested in their stories and curious to see how things advance. Unfortunately, in the previously mentioned effort to give voice to different parts of the world, some of the dialogue is… painful. Particularly the fake middle-English of H’aanit’s home village, which feels close to the translation for Dragon Warrior on the NES than Vagrant Story. On average, though, the story is interesting and the characters are well-motivated.

One of my major gripes about modern JRPGs is that they often try to cram system on top of system in an attempt to be regarded as “deep.” It’s turned me off of a lot of RPGs, and so Octopath Traveller’s simplicity is like a breath of fresh air. The battle system is fast, simple, and yet requires the player to strategize and pay attention to enemy weaknesses. The skill acquisition is straight forward and easy to plan for, allowing you to craft a party to your liking. In all, it’s an elegant system that does as much as the graphical/art style to make the game feel reminiscent of the great 16/32-bit JRPGs.

Despite some rough edges and questionable game design/structure, I’ve been enjoying my time with Octopath Traveller. Considering history with 16/32-bit JRPGs and my sky-high expectations, I’m surprised and pleased to say that it’s impressed me.