For as much as Octopath Traveler does in advancing what we have incessantly stuck in our heart-shaped brains regarding RPGs of the 16-bit era, it also regresses much of it. And that feels intrinsic to the idea that the technology that allows developer Square Enix (in collaboration with Acquire) to expand on our nostalgia is also what hangs them up in the end. It can’t find a way to follow through on what it sets up.
Strangely, that is a step forward for Square Enix. They’ve been trying to revive the JRPG boon of yesteryear through their modern offerings with slim to moderate success. Between I Am Setsuna, a well-done but strikingly unoriginal game, and the on-repeat Lost Sphear (both from Tokyo RPG Factory), they’ve struggled to find purchase with Western audiences. Just throwing it back to 1994 doesn’t seem to work.
What does work in Octopath, however, works well. They’ve been calling it “HD-2D,” which is trash, but it’s basically if the old SNES games of yore like Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy VI where extruded into a three dimensional world. The result is nothing short of stunning. It feels like the peak of what games like 3D Dot Game Heroes and Bravely Default tried to do what with its extreme depth of field and hyperspecific sprite work.
The game even finds a way to integrate this visual pastiche into the design. In a sort of Super Mario 3D Land way, it plays with being able to put things in a depth, teasing you around corners and walkways. It’s something that those old 16-bit games simply couldn’t do. Or, rather, when they did try it back then, it hardly felt as inviting to explore. More of an obligation.
Those old games, however, were a marvel for completely different reasons. They exploded on new consoles that finally enabled them to flesh out the varied and extreme narrative ambitions the designers had. There was juuuuust enough power to make time travel and teamwork mechanics viable in Chrono Trigger, for example, and it worked. To this day, that game holds up because it found and filled every possible corner of the limitations placed on it.
Octopath, on the other hand, seems to have done the opposite and built a core concept about something they could just, like, do. As you play the game, you’ll accrue and build up your party to be a total of eight distinct characters, as you do in these sorts of RPGs. But there doesn’t seem to be much banding them together other than Just Because.
It would be the ragtag team with a heart kind of thing like with Final Fantasy VII but imagine if you took Shinra out of the equation. It’s shocking just how disjointed the entire thing feels, especially when so much of what the characters experience is copy + pasted across the board. They each have their own journey, but why.
Each of the eight characters has four chapters, and all of them are patterned the same. By the third character, you’re wondering if you’re losing your mind. Didn’t you just see this boss in the last dungeon? But wait, maybe this is just the same dungeon? Hold on, I could have sworn I already played through this story.
The lack of variety is perhaps the only remarkable thing about it all unless you want to call up Guinness for a new record of most clichés. Yeah, even the one thing it doesn’t isn’t original which is made worse by the fact that by the nature of the open threaded but level-gated milestones require you to hop around the characters and stories, each chapter mimicking the exceptionally well. The entire game is a grind.
Granted, I’ve yet to play the post-game dungeon, but it sounds like it doesn’t do much to change that opinion unless you’ve been aching for just one additional boss structure to flip you. And despite this otherwise tremendous folly, this is a good game. It will hold you moment-to-moment primarily because it’s such a damn joy to play.
It’s awfully similar to the combat system in Final Fantasy XIII except that it works. Enemies will pop up with shields that you have to Break, forcing you to guess their weaknesses. And once you figure that out, you have to determine how best to use their open round after Breaking to knock them out of the fight or recover or spread the Break and close out the battle.
This works on top of the Bonus Point system where you accrue Bonus Points with each round of combat to expend them to augment your moves. You might choose to attack multiple times or simply provide a boost to a skill or launch a special attack, but it turns your combat strategy into something unique. The risk-reward weight of waiting for a guaranteed win versus a simply guaranteed and less potent hit is constant and provides engagement for the entire game.
It’s odd considering that a foundational component to this genre can fall so flat while another rises up so high. The way the game is structured in terms of both narrative and gameplay variety is unrelentingly bland, like if tofu and celery started a boring street gang to make you aware of their existences. But how it manages to combine so much of what old and new RPGs alike have found to work in terms of combat systems is a triumph. Even when it’s running on only two cylinders, this thing purrs.
This makes for a strange recommendation. You have to know what you’re getting into before you get started because even if you know you’re getting into a yesterday-aimed RPG, your expectations are going to be a little bit…askew. But if you’re playing this on your Switch out and about while riding public transit where prolonged, meaningful engagement isn’t worth your time, then the proposition certainly becomes more interesting. You just might have to consider playing Octopath Traveler.