Octopath Traveler (Switch) - Review

Video Review:

With the reveal of Bravely Default 2, you may be looking for a good traditional JRPG to tide you over until its 2020 release date. For this post, I’m going to be reviewing Octopath Traveler, originally released in July of 2018 and developed by Square Enix and Acquire. While the Nintendo Switch already has a growing library of JRPGs, Octopath Traveler had a lot of hype because it was a game developed by Square Enix and its use of 16/32bit sprite art that looks more like Final Fantasy 6 than a modern JRPG. While Square Enix has published other well-received RPGs on the Switch, such as Lost Sphear and I Am Setsuna, this time they are more involved in the development side lending Octopath Traveler more clout and exposure to more gamers.

This will be a more in-depth review, compared to my rushed reviews, as I really want to dig deep into what I feel worked well and also felt was lacking. After spending about 70 hours with Octopath Traveler, I’ll give my thoughts on the game’s main features and hopefully, it helps some of you who are on the fence about purchasing it. If you like the format of this review, share it with someone or leave a comment below, and consider subscribing to my channel if you found this helpful. This will also be a non-spoiler review, with some story details from the first act of the characters you meet along the way.

Let’s first dive into the art direction since that is what initially sets this game apart from other JRPGs. If you’re reading this review then you’re most likely already a fan of the 16 or 32-bit retro-style graphics, as it may put off players who don’t have nostalgia for this era. The art style wasn’t the main selling point for me, but the still images don’t do the game justice. While the characters are static and don’t have much emotes to show expressions, what I enjoyed most was the beautiful environments in the game. Going from snow-covered mountaintops to vast deserts, and beachside port towns all made use of the foreground and background in new ways to show how much detail went into the game. The way the light sparkles off snow, reflects off water, and makes dungeons feel mysterious is amazing. Its better looking than any 2D game I’ve ever played, and I loved going into battle screen seeing how the enemies transform, appearing larger than life and formidable. Even more satisfying was seeing the enemies disintegrate into a cloud of smoke after being defeated. I loved the concept art and still images that made it into the game but wished there was more of it, even if it was an unlockable somewhere in the menu for completing achievements.

Moving onto the combat, the game uses the traditional turn-based system with some added mechanics. Similar to Final Fantasy 10, there is an indicator at the top of your screen indicating the order of who will be attacking, for the current turn and also upcoming turn. Together with the breaking mechanic, this added a layer of complexity that kept battles more engaging. Each enemy in the game has a variety of weakness, to different types of magic and physical weapons. When you attack an enemy with their weakness, their armor value does down by one, and once their armor goes down to zero, they skip what remains of their current turn and their entire next turn as well. During this state, you also deal much more damage with all your attacks. An additional mechanic that plays a vital role is the BP system. You gain 1 BP per turn and can hold up to 5. You can consume BP, up to 3 a turn, to attack multiple times, or level up your spells to do more damage. Once you use any amount of BP you will not gain BP the next turn. So there is value in knowing when to attack multiple times to break an enemy’s armor or save your BP to do a devastating attack once their armor is already broken.

While my least liked feature of old school JRPGS is the random battles, you do learn skills early on to reduce the frequency of battles or the success of running away.

This leads me to the skill and job system. Each character, whether it’s the one you start with or recruit later into your party, starts with a specific job, including the scholar, merchant, thief, cleric, hunter, apothecary, warrior, and dancer. After battles, along with experience and gold, you gain Job points. These job points are spent to unlock abilities and skills. Skills unlock after you learn a specific number of abilities/spells for that class, and each character can equip 4 skills total regardless of what job they currently are. You will be able to unlock jobs by finding shrines located around the map during the game. You can’t change your original job, but you can equip a secondary job of your choice. So you can have a warrior as your primary and cleric as your secondary if you choose, allowing you to learn and use healing abilities. You will be able to unlock the original 8 class jobs pretty easily if you know where to look, but there are also end game classes that are among the toughest bosses in the game to unlock an additional 4 jobs, the Sorcerer, Runelord, Warmaster, and Starseer.

These additional jobs are where the game gets even more depth and customization. As long as you have enough job points to spend, you can unlock and equip any skill from other jobs. Some skills such as doing more than 9,999 damage, reducing mana cost, or healing above your max health can make some of the more difficult battles a breeze. But since you can only equip up to 4 skills you always feel you need to make trade-offs and will be switching them out to experiment on their effectiveness.

The downside is that I didn’t encounter this added complexity more than halfway into the game, which was about 35 hours in. If you don’t naturally run into these job shrines, which happened in my case because I was primarily going from town to town, I felt limited in which party member I needed to have in my party at all times. For example, I tended to stick with my scholar, who I started that game with so he could not be removed from the party, my cleric who was the most efficient healer, the merchant who I needed to gain additional money from battles, and the thief who has the still to steal and open locked chests that made it easier to get better items. When I needed to progress the story of a character who is not in my main party, they were always far below in level because characters not in your party do not level up. In the early game, there is no choice but to have them in your party and grind enemies to boost them up, for the additional HP and stats they receive, otherwise, they would be one-shotted by many boss’s attacks.

Each story chapter has a recommended level, and I was trying to get my character close to that before starting it, but later on in the game, I was able to have characters level much below the required level as long as I equipped the low-level character with the best equipment, and accessories to make up for the level gap. That is another thing about the game that I did enjoy, leveling up your character does give you more HP and stats, but a majority of the character's stats come from weapons/equipment and equipment is not restricted by character level. There are weapon restrictions for classes, such as the scholar using a staff, and thieves using daggers, but this also worked because it encouraged you to balance your weapon types and spells in a party to break the enemy’s armor. Because weapons and armor are essential to your survival, you will spend a lot of time trying to get more money to spend on the next upgrade.

Returning to what I previously mentioned about story chapters and recommended levels, I want to go into how the story progresses. Other than the art style that sets this game apart, the 8 characters and 8 stories are also the cornerstones of the game’s concept. It might sound confusing at first to think that there are 8 different stories to the game, but it plays out more simply. Essentially each character has 4 chapters in their complete story. You can start with any character and will automatically be introduced to that character's 1st chapter. After you complete that first chapter you will be shown on the map where the next chapter begins. Each chapter has a recommended level, such as 1, 15, 30, and 45, and as I mentioned previously can start at any level, lower or higher. While you are making your way to different towns you will encounter the other characters which you can speak to and start their 1st chapter. You will naturally tend to complete each character’s first chapter as it will help you level up to the next recommended level to begin chapter 2 of a character’s story. Or you can choose to only recruit 3 characters to fill your party of 4, as you can choose not to play a character’s 1st chapter and in turn not have them join your party. There’s also nothing from preventing you from going it alone but I could imagine it would be extremely hard and time-consuming to complete the game with only your starting character.

Each story chapter lasts about 1 hour long, which involves starting in a town, talking to townsfolk, incorporating the use of your character's action/talent, and going into a dungeon type area to kill a boss character before returning to town. The special action and talent depends on your character’s starting job, with the scholar being able to inquire to get information out of townspeople or the thief being able to steal, with the chance of success based on the character’s level. While the action/talent system does give a reason to use other party members as side quests involve using their different talents, half of these are reused between characters such as the warrior/hunter, cleric/dancer, scholar/apothecary, and merchant/thief. I would have liked to see all 8 classes having distinct abilities to add to the variety.

Regarding the quality of each story, because you have 4 chapters each lasting about an hour. Each character’s story is about 4 hours long. There’s not much you can do to develop a captivating story in 4 hours, but I was surprised how satisfying they were by the end. Honestly, the first and second chapters do begin slow, and there was almost a month I lost interest in the game because those chapters do seem generic. However, once you get to the 3rd and 4th chapters the stories, characters, and voice acting get leaps and bounds better. So if you start the game and feel the same as I did, I encourage you to push through since it does get much better during the 2nd half. I felt that the villains in each character's arc were more interesting than the main characters as they felt more complex and flawed, whereas your main characters are all morally unwavering with everything working out in their favor by the end.

With 8 distinct stories, it doesn’t feel as memorable as one cohesive story. There isn’t a feeling of a catastrophic event or entity that is threatening the world but instead focuses more on smaller personal stories for each character. You also don’t get the feeling that the members of your party are working together toward a bigger goal or have a vested interest to help each other, and why they are ultimately traveling together. There are optional dialogue scenes incorporated where members of your party will interact, but because story chapters only involve that specific character, it doesn’t feel like there is any genuine connection between your party members. While having the 8 different stories within a game is unique, it would have preferred if they developed less stories with more depth, chapters, and something tying them all together. While the overall stories are satisfying, there is only so much you can do with 4 hours per character.

So essentially with 8 characters, there are about 32 hours of story content, which is about half the time I spent with the game. You will spend much more time exploring the map. Once you travel to a town you can fast travel back to that town, directly from the map. Other than the shines allowing you to unlock jobs, you will also encounter various dungeons. All have treasures to be found, and some others will also have a strong boss at the end, often related to a side-quest. Like story chapters, dungeons also have suggested levels but the game doesn’t prevent you from challenging yourself to enter. Sometime you will find the boss at the end way out of your league but other times you may find that once you know the boss’s weaknesses and attack patterns you can take them on, even if you are below their level.

Side quests are another thing that you can spend your time doing, which will also benefit you by rewarding you with money and items. I left the side-quest system lacking as all of them were nowhere as interesting as the main quest and wasn’t as guided as the main quests. While there was a side-quest log to keep track, I never felt compelled to complete side quests as their goals tended to be stealing, inquiring, or defeating something found all the way across the map.

I can't finish talking about the highlights without mentioning the music. As you would expect from a Square Enix or Final Fantasy title, the music is beautiful and the sound track is top notch. Music will cut out when scenes are tense, and the battle music will ramp up to get you hyped for an encounter. Overall the sound, voice acting, and music are memorable. Voice acting is only present in about a third of the main cut scenes, with short repeatable comments used over the dialogue boxes. Sometimes these comments don't exactly match the scene, but I do appreciate it compared to not having it at all.

That leads me to my biggest complaint with the game, which is the fact that all the depth and best parts are only highlighted during the 2nd half of the game. For example, the best bosses, and the best jobs, are not unlocked until the end of the game. It was in one of these optional bosses that, after more than 30 minutes, I had to risk dealing damage versus healing knowing that I could wipe if I couldn’t defeat it this turn. Applying buffs to your party, debuffs to the enemy, and waiting to break your opponent all came into play.

Similar to the gameplay the story also takes time to get interesting. To get a satisfying payoff to the characters of the game you first have to get through the first 30 or so hours that aren’t as enjoyable. There are times where I was grinding for experience, or gold, for hours that dragged on the overall experience. I do find games I put more time into more satisfying when I do finally complete it, and my favorable review of the game can be attributed to the pacing of the game.

One of my biggest criticism of the game industry and specifically mainstream review sites is that many do not complete the entire game before writing a review. If you asked me what I thought of the game halfway through or only experiencing half of the story, I would have said that the game was mediocre and wasn’t worth the hype. But after about 70 hours and beating the toughest content, I can definitely say that this game is worth it for those that enjoy traditional RPGs. While it does start slow, by the end I was surprised to see that the mechanics that started out simple had grown in complexity, allowing freedom to customize your character, and somehow making 8 distinct stories each feel satisfying by the end.

I hope you all enjoyed the review, and an extra thank you for those who made it to the end. While I haven’t been consistent with the reviews, there are more games I’m excited to play and make posts for. Let me know any feedback to improve the quality of reviews and videos, I know there’s a lot. I hope you all have a great holiday season and new year!