When looking back on pieces of entertainment we loved 20+ years ago, we tend to see them through rose-colored glasses. While plenty of classics hold up, things like movies and video games tend to look and sound better in our memories than they do when you actually put them on a screen.
Octopath Traveler, a new turn-based roleplaying game for the Nintendo Switch, doesn't just evoke the look and feel of classic RPGs from the Super Nintendo era -- it evokes what we wanted those games to look and feel like. The biggest scenes have fully-voiced dialogue, the music is orchestrated, the special effects in battles are flashy... But what stands out most are the visuals. The game has two-dimensional character sprites reminiscent of Final Fantasy VI, but they inhabit a striking 3D landscape that looks as if you're simply able to see depth in an old SNES game for the first time.
The game tells the stories of eight adventurers (hence the "octo" part of the admittedly-weird title), each with their own individual quests to complete. While some of these cast members are weaker than others, they are impressively varied, including a young woman learning to be a merchant, a scholar searching for a long-missing book, a cleric on a spiritual pilgrimage and an exotic dancer out for revenge. The game's world is pretty open, and these character's stories can be tackled in an order that makes sense to you.
The only problem? Octopath Traveler doesn't do a very good job of taking advantage of this cast as an ensemble. Full disclosure: I have not yet finished the entire game, but even about 20 hours into the adventure, the game treats every character's story separately, not even acknowledging the fact that they're hanging out with seven other people. On occasion you can opt into some optional bits of dialogue in which a couple of characters discuss current events, but the main plot doesn't seem interested in developing strong relationships among the cast.
Maybe that changes after a couple more dozen hours playing, and to be fair, many of those individual character stories are engaging as-is, but this feels like a major missed opportunity for storytelling -- especially if you're hoping for ensemble interactions similar to classics like Secret of Mana or Final Fantasy VI.
Sure, Octopath Traveler gets a lot of mileage out of nostalgia from people who grew up on those old Final Fantasy games, but those fumes can still only take you so far. Fortunately, the game is more than a mere throwback, sporting gameplay mechanics and quality-of-life improvements that prove its developers have learned lessons from modern games, even if they're aiming for that old-school vibe.
For example, fast travel between major towns in the game world is quick and painless, meaning you don't have to hike for miles on foot (encountering dozens of random battles along the way) just to backtrack for a quest. Save points are also plentiful, meaning you are less likely to feel the despair of losing large chunks of dungeon progress after one battle goes bad. The game is also missing some modern features you might wish for (for instance, characters not in your party don't earn experience or job points, so you'll find yourself grinding a fair amount), but overall it strikes a good balance between old and new.
While walking around towns and the rest of the world, each character also has a unique "path action" they can use to help you complete quests, get items or pick up information. The thief character, for example, can steal things off of non-playable characters (with a chance to fail, of course), which could save you a lot of money if you opt to pick pockets instead of buy equipment. The scholar, meanwhile, can pry secrets out of people he talks to, while the warrior can challenge people to duels (useful if you need to, say, rough up somebody who's extorting and innocent townsperson).
When not walking and talking, you'll spend your time fighting. Fights work in a very familiar way, if you've played RPGs of yore: Wait for your character's turn, pick an action (usually to attack with a weapon or use a special skill), then watch as that that action plays out. There is a lot of added strategy, though, because of two elements in particular: Enemy weaknesses and Battle Points.
Both are relatively simple. Every type of enemy is weak to certain types of weapons or attacks, which you have to discover via trial and error. One enemy, for example, might be weak to spears, bows and fire magic. Not only will these attacks do more damage than others, they will also lead to you "breaking" the enemy -- which essentially knocks them out of commission for a turn, allowing you to lay into them for massive damage.
That's even easier when you have Battle Points, which build up over the course of the fight. For every turn that a character is standing up and acting normally, they'll earn one BP. On any turn, you can cash in up to three BP to augment your character's action. For standard weapon attacks, like with swords or daggers, using three BP means you will attack four times in a row. For magic, BP basically provides a major damage boost.
For those who love this sort of turn-based strategy, there's a lot to love. The game's enemies, especially the bosses, are typically challenging enough that the game isn't a cakewalk, yet the action is rarely so frustrating that you'll want to throw your controller.
Even when its storytelling structure is disappointing, Octopath Traveler is a very effective love letter to fans of 16-bit RPGs. It evokes nostalgia in all the right ways while never feeling like an outdated relic of the past. It could have reached greater heights, but it accomplishes most of what it set out to do, and it's made this old-school fan very happy.
Octopath Traveler is available July 13 for the Nintendo Switch. There is a free demo that allows you to play the first three hours of the adventure, after which your progress can carry over to the full game.