It's not very often that a game like Octopath Traveler comes around. In the mid-to-late 90s, the video game scene was bustling with great Japanese role-playing games offering interesting stories and in-depth combat mechanics. Through time, that classic JRPG feeling was eventually lost in a flood of new titles touting white-knuckle action and gritty, ultra-realistic graphics. Despite developers' best efforts to rejuvenate the traditional JRPG form, nothing seemed to really stick — until now. Octopath Traveler represents the best of just about everything players hope for in throwback JRPG, all neatly bundled together in an attractive package that contains way more content and depth than players might expect from a classically-styled release.
2D Style Meets The Modern World
One of the biggest draws to Octopath Traveler is the title's unique "HD-2D" style of graphics. The game functions like just about any other 2D RPG from the Super NES era, where characters are represented by flat sprites and can move around in largely two-dimensional environments. However, the visual style is bolstered by a number of modern effects that blur backgrounds at further distances, make sandy shores glint in the sunlight, and cast dramatic shadows across battle arenas when enemies or characters are struck with weapons or spells.
Like with the graphics, the gameplay itself too appears simple but with a few modern touches. Each of the game's eight different heroes start with one default job class, but later jobs can be unlocked by finding shrines, allowing players to assign secondary jobs to each hero. This means that any hero can make use of the attribute bonuses and skills for any other job class in the game. Not only that, heroes can also learn passive abilities that can be equipped no matter which secondary job is chosen, giving players a huge amount of options for party customization.
Some Things Never Change
Of course, being a JRPG, the general tone of the game should be pretty familiar to genre fans: after a hero is chosen, he or she will eventually stumble across new towns with different heroes at various stages of their own adventures. Side quests are available through specific non-player characters, and town merchants offer healing items, armor, weapons, accessories, and various other goodies. Players just starting the game won't find any kind of overarching narrative that unites all the heroes together — instead, each of the character's stories are told in discrete segments, with each new chapter building upon the characters and situations from previous chapters.
The bulk of the story is told through short cutscenes with limited animation and loads of text dialog — the accoutrement of the classic Japanese role-playing genre — though players can enjoy spoken dialog in either English or Japanese during specific cutscenes, usually before and after end-chapter boss battles. What that said, dialog in Octopath Traveler is particularly dry and long-winded, offering too little in the way of plot details and too much in the way of useless character discussion. The dialog isn't bad enough to turn most gamers away, but when players have to sit through five- or ten- minute cutscenes, it'd be nice if half of the dialog wasn't meaningless fluff.
Leveling Up Expectations
Still, it's hard to stay mad at a game that manages to be as charming, addictive, and downright pretty as Octopath Traveler. The details alone are entrancing: players seeking out dungeons or shrines can simply study the overworld map to locate points of interest, and later bosses really ramp up the difficulty level, requiring players to put special emphases on their chosen weapons and armor as well as each character's job, skills, and stat bonuses — to say nothing of battle strategies themselves.
All of this is topped off with features and presentation that leave no stone left unturned. Small updates on recent character progression can be found in the in-game menu, equipment can be automatically removed or optimized at will, past cutscenes can be replayed at any time, save points are peppered liberally throughout each environment, and players can fast travel to any town they've discovered whenever they like so long as they aren't in battle. There's nothing stopping players from enjoying quick one-hour sessions or exploring the entire continent of Orsterra marathon-style, save for the occasional framerate hiccup here and there or the party's tendency to get hung up on small obstacles when walking around the environment.
The New Standard for Classically-Styled JRPGs
Too many developers have tried and failed to capture the nostalgic and often magical feelings that players have for the JRPG genre. Pared-down retro releases and fluffed-up remakes come and go, yet none of them seem to get things exactly right. Fortunately, Octopath Traveler succeeds where other classically-styled RPGs fail: the presentation is spot-on, the combat is addictive, and the potential for party customization is tremendous. Small stumbles with dialog and framerate can be forgiven simply because the rest of the game is an absolute delight. This is an experience that players can easily get lost in for dozens of hours, and it's sure to be counted among the best Nintendo Switch exclusives released to date.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch download code provided by the publisher. Octopath Traveler will be available in retail and digital stores on July 13 for $59.99. The game has been rated T for Teen by the ESRB.