Prolific developer Square Enix is no stranger to bestselling game franchises. Responsible for beloved series like “Final Fantasy” and “Kingdom Hearts,” it consistently shines in its endeavors in the role-playing game (RPG) genre. And the company’s newest project, “Octopath Traveler,” is no exception to the trend.
Released worldwide on July 13, “Octopath” is a modern foray into the Super Nintendo-style of RPGs in both form and function. Boasting a unique dynamic between eight characters and their intermingling stories, the Nintendo Switch exclusive captured the interest of many gamers with the premise of a multi-dimensional fantasy narrative packaged with a substantial amount of nostalgia. It was an ambitious concept and the player base ate it up on a large and (slightly) unexpected scale.
For potential players witnessing this massive backlog of hype, one question remains: does
“Octopath” truly deserve it? Fulfilling a majority of its promise in both aesthetic and gameplay with few inadequacies, the short answer is yes.
Whether your first experience with the game is the final product or playable demo, “Octopath” capitalizes on its innovative art style to generate striking first impressions. If you’re a fan of the 16-bit era of gaming, this title is a passionate love letter to those times. Dubbed “HD-2D” by its developers, the visual aesthetic is an amalgam of pixelated character models and high definition environmental structures and effects.
As you move your character around the colossal landscape, he or she will act like a flat figure when rotating or walking. However, the polygonal buildings appear practically three-dimensional with a paper craft façade. While obviously not reaching the level of realism present in many of today’s games, “Octopath” is an undoubtedly gorgeous spectacle. Entranced by the streams of light cascading across a sparkling, snow-tipped mountain and the fluid shifting of water beneath a cobbled bridge, I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the background for more than a few seconds.
In fact, Square Enix and partner Acquire assembled the game with “Unreal Engine 4,” which is the program behind contemporary titles such as “Blade & Soul” and “Gears of War 4.” Both present stunningly lifelike surroundings for players to venture through. So, it’s easy to understand how “Octopath” accomplishes some of its heavier graphical feats.
Story & Characters
Once you’ve advanced past the title screen, it’s (almost) time to launch your expedition across the vast realm of Orsterra. Before “Octopath” allows you to stroll around the world, it prompts you to select a primary protagonist. Akin to picking from the infamous “starter” selection in Pokémon, this choice has the potential to shape the bulk of your gameplay time. Although you have access to all eight playable characters regardless, this particular character is chained to your battle party until you complete their individual plot line. Choose carefully.
Indeed, every member of the cast has a separate story to pursue. All eight are divided into four chapters apiece, so you can speed through an entire one before moving on or jump around to round out everyone’s stats and personalities. In the spirit of older RPGs, the game never holds your hand through a linear plot. You are bound only by your heart’s desires in “Octopath.” Depending on the type of gamer you are, this is a blessing or a curse. For me, this is a point in the game’s favor.
While navigating a split narrative boosts the game’s longevity, it’s a definite double-edged sword. First-rate characterization wasn’t doled out evenly among the main cast, so certain storylines are significantly more fleshed out and interesting than others. In my experience, vengeful dancer Primrose was an absolute joy to watch on screen, while aimless knight Olberic struggled to keep my attention.
Furthermore, despite adventuring together as a group, the characters are far from securing #squadgoals status. The ties binding each story together aren’t strong enough to justify team cohesion. An overarching objective is achingly absent. As a result, I had to suspend my disbelief that, for example, a dedicated merchant and a shrewd thief would ever bury the hatchet to help the other meet a self-seeking goal. This is easily “Octopath’s” greatest flaw. For a title that banks heavily on storytelling elements, I expect more from the writers.
After being let loose, the open world is yours to discover. The threads of your main storyline will prevent you from drowning amongst the abyss of side quests and battles, but they never act as a roadblock. You can waltz into an unknown area with monsters considerably stronger than your entire party and the game will never stop or warn you.
Combat scenarios will be a prominent part of your journey, so expect to spend at least half of the 40-60 hour campaign engaged in strategic warfare. Thankfully, the fighting mechanics do not disappoint. With three slots available beyond your preferred hero, the sophisticated turn-based system has plenty of opportunities for customization. Each character has a special class, or “job,” with exclusive attacks, skills and stats at their disposal. “Octopath” is a pretty standard RPG in that regard.
However, it carves its own niche with the ability to equip characters with a secondary job. This gives them a myriad of new skills for you to experiment with in battle. When exploiting the enemy’s weakness is the name of the game, it pays to have a lot of variety present on your team. Excluding your main job, there are 11 unlockable options for the ancillary job. Consequently, there are hundreds of combinations available for you to play around with. You’ll finish the game before combat ever becomes monotonous, which is quite a rarity for the RPG genre.
Primary job skills also have functionality when passing through populated towns. Occasionally, you’ll encounter a non-playable character with a speech bubble floating above their sprite. That means it’s time to have some fun. You can steal items, sleuth for information and challenge them to a duel, among other things. So, it’s worth your time to revisit old locations after gaining a new party member in order to see what new interactions appear.
Of course, any game would feel stale without a stellar soundtrack, regardless of how immersive its combat and story are. Luckily, this isn’t an issue for “Octopath.” A behemoth with over 80 tracks, its original score oozes intensity and emotion at all the right moments. It may be the best individual aspect of the entire game.
Kicking off strong with the “Main Theme,” the soundtrack introduces a lively mix of instruments, which seamlessly bleed into each other as it progresses. The soft melody of strings in tandem with a lone pennywhistle at the start of the track encompasses the sweeping fantasy vibes with merit. As the end draws near, a symphony of horns and drums cleave through the initial beat, evolving the sound from adventurous to heroic.
The same instruments persist throughout the entire “Octopath” soundtrack, only varying in intensity and prominence to evoke the necessary player mindset for a particular section of the game. The primary “Battle Theme” favors urgency and grandeur with more emphasis on brass and percussion. Conversely, “Sorrow” opts for the deep hum of string instruments to create the illusion of melancholy. These are only a few of the musical gems waiting to be unearthed as you play.
“Octopath Traveler” is an outstanding callback to Nintendo’s early RPGs, remaining almost entirely true to the path it set out to follow. Every ounce of atmosphere was lovingly constructed and it shows in both the setting’s physical intricacies and the music’s ever-dynamic emotional palette. The battle mechanics follow the same pattern, borrowing from old-school tactics while also encouraging extreme experimentation with its limitless job system.
Even if the entire story package needed a bit more polish, the individual chapters are, overall, intriguing enough to keep you coming back for more. If Square Enix is hoping to revive the genre for next-generation gamers, “Octopath” was the perfect catalyst.