Octopath Traveler: An Odd Duck

I’m gonna try writing some reviews!

So, Octopath Traveler is basically the reason I got a switch. The very first previews of it instantly captured my attention. It was such an amazing combination of SNES-style 16 bit sprite work and modern graphical effects. Finally, Square was going to pay tribute to their legacy of classic JRPGs without some sort of awful compromise on the art style.

The game finally came out, and I love it. It’s not perfect, certainly, but I love what it’s going for. The graphical shifted somewhat during development, it became more indistinct and dreamlike, a heavier filter over the stark, sharp pixels of the old-fashioned sprites. The battles are amazing, the best I’ve ever experienced in a JRPG. They remain engaging and feel exciting all the way to the end of the game. The systems behind them are elegant and fit together perfectly, even when you get the late game unlockable classes that seem to break everything at first glance.

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But, it has some odd issues. These are largely continuing on from the previous “throwback JRPG” games that this same team at Square-Enix put out, Bravely Default and Bravely Second. All the design effort went into the battle system, and absolutely nothing was left for the game world outside of that. Dungeons have absolutely no puzzles or even things to interact with that aren’t treasure chests or save points. They all end up feeling basically the same, even as they have wildly different looks, because you’re just wandering through the same sort of diorama maze every time.

The addition of “path actions” does add a ton of texture to the world, but even that feels like a half-hearted addition. They put in a ton of work, writing descriptions and adding battle stats and item inventories to just about every NPC in the whole game. But it never really feels integrated into the world, and all the side quests are just fetch quests in the end. Instead of finding a treasure in a dungeon, maybe you need to get some information from scrutinizing an NPC on the other side of the world, but the principle is the same.

All of the effort went into the battle system, and the graphical style. Both of those are absolutely incredible, perhaps the best the genre has ever seen. As a consequence, the game ends up feeling very uneven. It does one thing extremely well, but it’s only that one thing.

octo2

The writing is generally pretty good. Each character has their own, completely independent story that is laser-focused on them and their personal issues. Every character feels like they were written by a completely different author, and some of them are much better than others, even from chapter to chapter. Tressa’s story is exciting at the beginning, but never actually goes anywhere. Primrose’s is awful and overly grim through most of it, but has a ridiculous and very cathartic climax.

I could go on about the ways the various plots depict different steps on a single larger journey towards personal fulfillment, but that’s a whole ‘nother essay, really. Also the way the game is structured to make sure the player always has a balanced party no matter what character they decide to start with, and how the placement of characters around the world map is a guide to their relationships. But again, that’s too much to get into right now.

What’s interesting is that there’s a lot of worldbuilding done in the background of all of these stories, and they ultimately build to the real final challenge in the post-game. There’s a series of sidequests that tells the story of a typical JRPG protagonist who ends up being the key to that final challenge, which is a fun little twist.

In a sense, this game throws back way further than the SNES JRPGs from which it draws its graphical style, back to the 8-bit era. It is a very focused experience, with no bells and whistles. It feels like it was made under strict constraints, but whether they were budgetary or personally imposed it’s impossible to say.

It’s not the best JPRG ever made, it lacks a lot of the variety and personality that defines much of the genre, but on it’s own terms it is an amazing accomplishment. It’s a funky, weird little game, and I ended up loving it to pieces.

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