Octopath Traveler melts the JRPG down to its pure, comforting core

Screenshot: Octopath Traveler (Ninetendo)

Underneath all the melodramatic cutscenes and ornamental belts, even today’s flashiest JRPGs are often built on a skeleton that ages back to Dragon Quest and the genre’s emergence. The game starts and something pushes your main character into a journey. They leave their home and travel to a new place, probably fighting some monsters along the way. In that new town, you talk to folks, maybe set about fixing their troubles or maybe pick up a new companion or a few wares. Then it’s onto the next town, and so on and so forth until the game’s end. That cycle is the heart of everything from the first Dragon Quest to every single Pokémon to Final Fantasy XII. It’s endured because it works. It creates pleasant pacing, rewarding your prolonged battling with a place of guaranteed safety. And unlike the abstract (but still oh so satisfying) concept of watching statistics grow as you level up, the towns serve as explicit in-world markers of progress, a literal measure of how far your adventurers have come.

Octopath Traveler, Square Enix’s Nintendo Switch exclusive, has garnered a ton of attention for being a throwback to the simpler JRPGs of the early ’90s. It tosses in modern flourishes to spice things up—primitive 3D environments and contemporary lighting surrounding its pixelated characters; an ingenious system of enemy weaknesses that encourages you to toy with the pacing of its turn-based battles—but it’s a jarringly spartan journey, to the point that some avid JRPG enthusiasts, like Jason Schreier of our sister site Kotaku, ended up disappointed by the shallowness of it all.

<i>Octopath Traveler </i>melts the JRPG down to its pure, comforting core<em></em>
Screenshot: Octopath Traveler (Nintendo)

And those detractors aren’t wrong. Octopath is a strangely monotonous, unwieldy thing. The eight characters and arcs that serve as its namesake are mostly bare fantasy cliches and each one plays out exactly the same: Enter a town, take control of a single character, sit through some story scenes, fight through a dungeon, battle a boss, leave town, repeat a few dozen times. Worse, they don’t intertwine in any meaningful way even after the characters have come together into an adventuring party. When you’re following a new story beat for one of your party members, all the other characters basically disappear. They only show up for time spent wandering around town, battling enemies, or short, contrived dialogues where your compatriots offer some—usually dopey, occasionally cringeworthy—commentary. It’s an experiment in fractured, character-focused storytelling that just doesn’t come together, and it’s undoubtedly Octopath’s biggest stumbling point.

But for someone like me, who only casually dabbles in today’s JRPGs and almost always bounces off them, all the ruthless streamlining done to Octopath is what makes it as compulsively playable as it is. Everything the game forgoes—a sweeping story with world-shattering stakes, a meaningful mingling of each character’s arc, some change of pace to relieve the repetition—is sacrificed in the name of melting this genre down to its purest and most comforting form. The stories of these eight travelers are simple tales of self-discovery and vengeance and redemption, all meant to keep you locked in that familiar, gratifying town-to-town routine. The vague threads tying each location and chapter together are just enough keep the game coherent, but what actually keeps me playing is simply the gratification of going on a journey, of wandering to those new places and interacting with the townspeople, of watching as my serendipitously connected characters march to the outer edges of their little world and visit bigger and bigger cities.

<i>Octopath Traveler </i>melts the JRPG down to its pure, comforting core<em></em>
Screenshot: Octopath Traveler (Nintendo)

The game’s much-heralded battle system is built around a similar whittling away of all but the most primitively satisfying bits. When you smack an enemy with its weakness enough times, whether it be fire or swords or whatever, you break through their defenses, knocking them out for a turn and making them extra vulnerable. “Breaking” an enemy is accompanied with a tiny moment of audiovisual euphoria. Time slows down and the camera zooms in ever so slightly as you hear glass shatter and shards come flying off the unfortunate monster. At this point, you’re free to unleash hell on your prey, cashing in boosts to turn a single ax-strike into three slashes or max out your sage’s fireball spell for humongous damage, each meaty hit prompting an explosion of big red numbers. There’s nothing in Octopath Traveler, or many other games this year, as consistently empowering as executing the perfect sequence of turns and bombing broken enemies with your damage numbers soaring into the quadruple digits. Luckily, the game is designed to make those little victories happen as often as possible, and dozens of hours of action do little to lessen just how damn good they feel.

That’s seemingly Octopath Traveler’s entire ethos: Grab hold of the simplest parts of classic JRPGs that have been enrapturing us for decades—the exploration and journeying and growth—and peel back everything else so those exciting, time-tested bits are constantly jolting our pleasure centers. Does that leave it shallow and repetitive? Most definitely, but that’s seemingly by design. It wants to be doling out rewarding moments at a constant clip, making itself worth playing whether it’s for five minutes or five hours. It helps that it’s wrapped in a beautiful yet unobtrusive presentation, a collision of low-tech and high-tech graphics that itself stems from the same desire to apply a modern eye to classic ideas.

A.V. Club games editor and pin-wearing member of the society since 2012.

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