In 2018, it can be rather difficult for a JRPG to set itself apart from the crowd, even more so if it attempts to emulate the style or look of the grand adventures of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. Still, if there were ever a company that could pull it off, it would be Square Enix. With Octopath Traveler, the company is aiming to go back to its roots, offering an experience that manages to mix the best parts of the great JRPGs of yore with new gameplay standards that keep things from feeling too archaic.
One of the immediately striking things about Octopath Traveler, and something that doesn’t seem to be talked about enough, is the non-linear and unconventional approach to storytelling. The bizarre name of the game stems from how there are eight characters you can play as, each with distinct storylines, motivations, and supporting characters. Though you have to pick one of the characters to start with, each of the others can be obtained in time and you can experience their origin stories, too, in a flashback sequence.
The interesting thing about all of this is that there’s no contrived plotline like many JRPGs tend to do. You simply wander the land, exploring dungeons and leveling characters, until you eventually stumble upon a town with the next party character and you choose to help them with whatever their immediate goal is. There’s no central protagonist here, no dark lord or other big bad that you’re directly working to resist, just a group of unique people with varying goals who happen upon each other by chance. This episodic and laidback approach to storytelling is quite refreshing, and we can’t wait to see how things further develop as storylines begin to crossover.
Similarly, the combat is a delight to experience, keeping things simple and straightforward, while sprinkling in elements of deeper strategy that’ll keep you from going on autopilot too easily. Combat is handled in a standard turn-based affair, but things are deepened by each enemy being weak to certain attacks, be it knives, swords, bows, lightning, etc. Once the enemy has been hit enough times by their weakness, they’re ‘broken’, which removes their ability to act in the current or next turn and allows you to do double damage. Choosing which enemies to break, and when to break them, quickly becomes an important aspect to consider in battle, and keeps things feeling dynamic and exciting.
We’d be remiss not to mention the incredible presentation, too; Square has absolutely knocked it out of the park with this one. The visual style has been dubbed by the developers as 'HD-2D', which is quite a fitting term for what’s on display. Detailed 16-bit sprites that look straight of the mid-'90s are utilised, but combined with a 3D world and a lighting and effects engine that instills the retro visuals with a crisp modern flair. Seeing the simple sprites juxtaposed against the realistic sunbeams filtering through trees or reflecting off the rushing water of a river makes for many striking and picturesque moments that rarely fail to astound; that capture button has been getting a lot of use lately.
To match the looks, Square has also produced one of the most emotional and excellent soundtracks that we’ve heard in a JRPG yet. Just about every track on here manages to capture an exhilarating feeling of splendor and adventure, and the usage of a full orchestra lends the music that extra bit of gravitas to really drive the emotion of it all home. What’s more impressive is how this excellence is consistent, appearing even in the tracks that dabble in other genres, like jazz or rock.
Octopath Traveler isn’t just shaping up to be the game that you hoped it would be, it’s quickly proving itself to be even more. Even in its first few hours, this game has proven that it’s more than capable of carrying on the dream of the '90s JRPG, while still doing enough new things with it to keep the experience fresh. This is a game that’s all killer, no filler, and proves that Square Enix still has the talent to remain the highest authority on RPG production. Although the official Final Fantasy XVI may still be quite a few years off, we firmly believe that it’s already arrived under a different name.
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