It’s not terribly often that a video game allows me to dip into my English Lit studies so blatantly, but Octopath Traveler for the Nintendo Switch isn’t your typical video game.
Square-Enix quite proudly declares that Octopath Traveler harkens back to the days of “old school RPGs,” and it indeed does that, both good and ill. From the heavy grind elements, to the heavily padded play time created by the necessary grind, to the somewhat disjointed narrative elements, to the endless excuses the game presents to make you do anything but what you’re supposed to be doing… there’s a lot of things that modern games tend to not do, and for good reason.
Old-school RPGs generally did not respect a player’s time, and neither does Octopath Traveler. Be prepared to either spend several days in deep marathon sessions, or be willing to spend months just taking it in piece by piece (and hope to remember just what you were trying to accomplish between sessions).
That said, there is definitely some good elements of old-school RPGs that I was happy to see again. In many ways, the RPGs of those ol’ times were almost as much puzzle solvers as they were adventures. Octopath Traveler brings that back in spades with a depth of turn-based combat I have not seen too many times before, if ever. There is a delight of accomplishment in putting together a chain of attacks that completely turn the tide of battle that you really can’t do in the active time or hybrid combat that modern RPGs prefer to utilize.
The sprite artwork of the characters and environments doesn’t always mesh perfectly with the more modern particle and lighting effects the game uses, and if you’re prone to motion sickness, you might find the very obvious focus line as the scene shifts from foreground to background extremely jarring. But said effects are breathtaking, especially in combat.
But honestly, the best analogy I could think of to describe Octopath Traveler is a Middle English long-form poem by Geoffrey Chaucer.
Much like the pilgrims in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the various stories of Octopath Traveler don’t overlap, and in fact have little to nothing to do with each other. On one hand, having a game’s narrative that doesn’t have some central, puppet master type antagonist is a fairly novel one, and creates an illusion of a very big world, one in which no singular person could hope to wholly influence.
On the other hand, only the protagonist of any given story chapter will interact in said story (the other members of your party completely vanish outside of combat). It can be jarring to suddenly lose those you had been fighting alongside up until that narrative step. In fact, interactions between party members are restricted to occasional events in various pubs, and it feels like a tremendous missed opportunity to create a much more engaging narrative.
As a result, Octopath Traveler feels unfinished in a way, much like the poem that Chaucer was unable to complete. It feels like there was so much more that could have been done to turn what is a very good RPG into a great one.
How much you enjoy Octopath Traveler will depend entirely on how much your enjoyment of “old school RPGs” is tainted by the rose colored glasses of nostalgia. You’ll either be delighted by all the things that have slowly vanished from the genre… or be reminded why games aren’t really made this way anymore.