Octopath Traveler Review: The Past Recast

What if you could reach back into your past and clutch hold of that one JRPG, the one that [...]

What if you could reach back into your past and clutch hold of that one JRPG, the one that delighted your imagination, and showed you impossible worlds? That one 16-bit classic that made you fall in love with gaming as a storytelling medium; what if you could drag it back with you into modernity and experience it new, and what if it looked and sounded exactly as you remember it in your mind's eye?

Octopath Traveler was directed and produced by an inspired group of 30-somethings who grew up playing games in the golden age of 16-bit JRPGs, and their goal was to make just such a modern revival possible. By some wonderful techno-alchemical process they have managed isolate those jewels of nostalgia that sparkle in the hearts of nerdy grownups, break them down, refine them, and recombine them into something totally novel, yet warm, cozy, and familiar.

Octopath Traveler's gorgeous "HD-2D" aesthetic is where new and retro most noticeably collide. The combination of polygonal geometry, pixel-art coats of paint, sprites, and modern lighting effects make for a dazzling show. There's something undeniably charming about watching Alfyn the apothecary's four-frame running animation as he crosses a bridge over beautifully-rendered, 3D running water that glistens and casts realistic light reflections against the camera. A potent depth of field effect and 16-bit drapings over 3D buildings make every corner of every town look like a beautiful pop-up book diorama.

octopath flamesgrace
(Photo: Nintendo)

As I write this review I'm listening to the Octopath Traveler OST, and I can soberly say that this is one of the best video game OSTs of the generation. Composer Yasunori Nishiki has achieved something truly worthy of this special project. Here you'll find clarinets and strings to melt your heart; bells and woodwinds to spur you on in your adventure into unknown lands; and booming orchestral crescendos to get your blood pumping during combat.

There are certain compositions from Nobuo Uematsu that can still bring a tear to my eye and remind me of my childhood, and it's wonderful to think that, 20 years from now, some of you younger gamers will hear a piece of music from this game that will affect you in the same bittersweet way.

That's enough about the sights and sounds. You guys are here for a story, and lucky for you, you get eight of them. The titular "Octopath" refers to the eight separate paths these eight protagonists take, and each is unique. Pretty much every journey and adventure archetype is represented here. Tragic heroes looking to restore their purpose, devil-may-care thieves looking to prove that they're the best at what they do, bored merchants looking for coin and adventure, the stout-hearted knight looking for justice, the pure-hearted priestess looking for light... They're all here, and more besides.

octopath characters
(Photo: Nintendo)

Due to the variety of motives and personality quirks you'll encounter throughout your play time, you're sure to meet some heroes you love, and some that you don't care for so much. I resonated with all eight protags, fortunately, but a robust job system ensures that you can keep your favorite characters in your party for the majority of your playtime without conceding the skills or attacks you find most useful.

Each character also has his or her own unique "path action," which gives them unique abilities in, but more importantly out, of battle. The thief Therion can attempt to steal items from most of the NPCs you encounter, and some extremely powerful and valuable items can be procured this way. Ophilia can "guide" NPCs to help in battle, and Alfyn can speak to town residents to find hidden items or unlock special discounts. Every single path action has its utility, and the more characters you recruit, the more rewarding exploring towns and cities becomes.

Some side-quests require you to think outside of the box and make the most of the path actions available to you at any given time. Figuring out who you need in your party and when adds a neat little layer to what would otherwise be ho-hum fetch or combat side-quests.

With the return to the "golden age" of JRPGs comes the revival of some annoying quirks that haven't aged so well. Random encounters trigger frequently, making exploration feel tedious at times. Thankfully there's a passive skill you can unlock for Cyrus to reduce the encounter rate.

octopath battle
(Photo: Nintendo)

Combat is also, for the most part, fast and fun. Discovering and exploiting enemy weaknesses allows you to "break" them, rendering them defenseless and stunned for a turn. Your toons also build up boost points each turn, which can stack and be used at your discretion. There's no better feeling than wearing down and breaking a boss, then unleashing a torrent of fully-boosted and buffed attacks from your entire party.

I found Octopath Traveler to be a satisfying challenge, demanding that I approach every story chapter properly equipped and appropriately leveled. The pacing is wonderful, and item hoarders may find their stock running low by the mid-game.

And when I say mid-game, I'm talking anywhere from 30-40 hours into your journey. For those of you who, like me, enjoy taking your time, peering into every nook and cranny, and completing side-quests as you go, Octopath Traveler can easily provide 70-100 hours of enjoyment. This is a game that bids you take your time, and if you're willing to indulge your patient curiosity, I think you'll relish your time with this game.

Octopath Traveler isn't without its flaws, and it's not for everyone, but you already knew clicking into this review whether the game is "for you" or not. If the beautiful HD-2D visuals arrested your attention, and you've been craving a game that could faithfully capture the magic you felt playing RPGs as a kid, then this is something that belongs in your library. Octopath Traveler is absolutely enchanting, and a time-bending classic that, itself, will stand the test of time.

ComicBook's Score: 4.5 / 5