The Bravely Default games on the 3DS did a fantastic job of resurrecting the gameplay and feel of some of Square’s oldest games, employing a style that stayed true to genre roots while making modern changes wherever needed. When it was announced that the Bravely team would be tackling a new RPG on the Switch, fans were ecstatic, though there was some trepidation around the new direction being taken with Octopath Traveler. Would the team be able to capture lightning in a bottle once more, or would this be a forgettable retread of yesterday’s games? Fortunately, the former is true. Octopath Traveler is an extremely viable candidate for best RPG on Switch. To put it bluntly, Square knocked it out of the park with this one.
Octopath Traveler takes place in the land of Orsterra, breaking standard JRPG conventions by giving you eight main characters that all share equally leading roles. At the outset of the game, you must choose one of the eight to be your primary unit—one who never leaves the party, by the way—and after completing their first story chapter, you set out on a quest to find the other seven and to discover their stories as well. This non-linear approach to storytelling is a welcome change, as it gives you complete freedom over where to go next and how to continue the story. If you don’t want to pick up all the characters, you’re certainly welcome to just plow on ahead to the next chapters of the ones you recruited.
A drawback of this, at least in the eyes of some, is that the piecemeal storytelling approach makes for a less cohesive whole. Character stories are mostly isolated affairs, and there’s not much in the way of meaningful interaction between party members, but this hardly makes it a game with a poor story. Each character has an interesting narrative that explains why they choose to join the band of adventurers, whether it be a quest to avenge the death of a parent or a mission to bring medical aid to those in need; the game does a great job of establishing memorable plotlines and distinct identities for each member. Each character’s arc adds to the player’s overall understanding of the broader world, and the episodic nature helps to make it feel sort of like eight mini-RPGs all set in the same world, with some overlap here and there. It’s highly ideal for portable play, too, as each chapter is one to two hours (ish) long, making them perfect for commutes or a road trip.
Character progression is handled in two primary ways, split between rote leveling and pouring points into the job system. After each battle, participating members are given a certain amount of job points that can be used to buy skills for each character’s unique class. There are eight skills on offer, and each one offers a range of offensive and defensive benefits in combat. Buying skills also has the secondary effect of unlocking passive traits that can do things like change critical hit rates or give massive stat bumps. You can purchase active skills in any order, but they get more expensive as you go along, and the rewards are worth it once you master the class. From this point, you can then equip a secondary job to your character, allowing you to get creative with the combinations and to shape a party more to your liking.
What’s nice about this progression system is how it’s kept simple, yet it doesn’t feel dumbed down. It’s easy enough to understand how many job points are needed for the next skill unlock, yet the flexibility offered by secondary jobs keeps things interesting and gives you lots of options over the kinds of builds you want to run. Bear in mind that only the four equipped members of your party will be able to gain experience, but it’s easy enough to swap in a weaker character when playing their next story chapter and have the other three team members carry them while they aggressively level up.
Battles are set up much like the turn-based JRPGs that Octopath clearly is inspired by, but with a few key touches help to imbue it with a more modern touch. Chief among these is the Boost Point system, which is awfully reminiscent of the system seen in Bravely Default. Every character can store up to five BP at a time, with one being generated every time they don’t use BP in a turn. When the time is right, up to three BP can be used at once to power up an action, whether it be increasing the number of attacks, the strength of attacks, or the effectiveness of a heal or buff. It’s a clever way of introducing a certain amount of risk and reward to each battle, while still keeping things from straying too far from the turn-based template.
This Boost system goes hand in hand with the Break system, which sort of replaces the ATB gauge of old Final Fantasy games. Every enemy has several weapons or magic spells that it’s weak to and hitting them with these weaknesses has the twofold effect of doing more damage and lowering its shield level. If a shield level is dropped to zero, that enemy enters the 'Break' state, which means it can’t act for the current or next turn and takes double damage from all attacks. If you plan it out well, and use those Boost points wisely, this can lead to you knocking down enemies before they even get to attack a party member, and you can then eliminate them before they recover. The whole battle system hinges heavily on Boost and Break, and throwing in all the standard JRPG battle features - physical attacks, magical attacks, skills, etc. - makes for an engaging and addictive combat loop that favors thoughtful play.
When not battling enemies, you’ll find your team exploring a vast overworld, peppered with a collection of towns, dungeons, and optional areas. The main hook of this portion of the game can be found in the Path Actions that each character possesses, unique abilities which let them interact with the world in certain ways. Therion the thief, for example, can pickpocket NPCs to score some awesome loot, while Primrose the dancer can 'Allure' people to use in battle. When doing side-quests, these Path Actions are especially put to good use, perhaps requiring you to provoke fights with certain townspeople to gain access to an area, or to gather information from around town. The reward of doing side-quests are almost always worth it, and have an indirect effect on your performance in battle, as the money or equipment awarded to you can be put towards tuning up your team.
On the presentation side of things, Octopath Traveler manages to amaze, employing a unique art style that seems to capture how you remember 16-bit RPGs looking, rather than how they truly look. Detailed sprites are used around the world in a Paper Mario-esque style, juxtaposed against 3D objects in the environments. Not only is the sprite-work top notch, but there’s a refreshing level of modern polish to the world which reminds you that this is a game produced on a 2018 budget. Objects in the background and foreground blur in and out of focus as you grow nearer to them and lighting is handled in a realistic way, whether it be the long shadows cast on the walls of caves or the specks of light reflecting off the water in a rushing creek. The world is as colorful as it is diverse in environments, and a big motivator to explore it further is simply the joy of seeing what other gorgeous locales you can stumble upon. This is one of the best looking ‘retro’ games we’ve ever seen, and the novelty of the unique 'HD-2D' being achieved here never wears off.
This is matched, however, by the equally incredible soundtrack - an emotional, fully orchestrated set that does an excellent job of setting the tone. Every track here, from the quiet pieces that play during conversations in villages to the high-tempo tracks played in battle, is stunning, adding much-needed gravitas and depth to make everything you do feel so purposeful. The score really helps to drive home that storybook-like vibe of Octopath Traveler, and the talent on display may catch you a little off-guard. We expected a decent soundtrack to be sure, but the one used in Octopath is transcendent, going above and beyond expectations to deliver a memorable experience.
Octopath Traveler is a special RPG, the kind of game that keeps an eye on the past while walking bravely into the future. Indeed, we’d even go so far as to say this is the best RPG you can find on the Switch to date, all elements of this game link together perfectly to make for a harmonious and immersing experience that you’ll find difficult to put down. We’d recommend Octopath Traveler to both fans and newcomers of RPGs; the game does a fantastic job of straddling that line of accessibility and depth, satisfying both camps with its dizzying amount of content. Classic-inspired gameplay, an orchestrated soundtrack, and a unique approach to storytelling make this a game that you won’t want to miss. This is an absolute must buy.