The First Three Hours of Octopath Traveler

I haven’t given my Switch much love recently. It’s a great machine and the purchase from a petrol station car park I least regret, but after Mario Odyssey was done, Shovel Knight didn’t quite gel and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker still feels years away (it’s actually out this month, I’m just impatient), my excitement for current-gen Nintendo threatened to fizzle. Last week, after exhausting my list of low-cost Steam purchases, I was delighted to find that, once more, I had the itch to Switch!

Octopath Traveler is a new RPG from Japanese developer/publisher Square Enix, which I guess makes it a JRPG. I’ve never been a huge JRPG guy. Chrono Trigger was awesome, way back when, and I got on well with the psychic puzzling of Golden Sun but bar the odd exception, role-playing games always felt a bit much, and I’d aggressively veer from anything more mechanically rich than a screwdriver. To me, these things were frustrating time sinks. Take a ridiculously high bar to entry, add in screeds of systems and buffs, hour long fights, where it took at least half that to realise that you were horribly under-leveled, and (most) JRPGs didn’t speak to me in manner I much cared for. In 2015, a turn-based thingy popped up – so far so not-so-great – with an art style best described as “tilt-shift diorama smeared slightly with Vaseline”. Now, you’ve got me.

Octopath looked glorious and the first three hours now available for free courtesy of the good folks at Square and the Nintendo e-Shop, it was time to dive in. To see if JRPGs and I could finally play nice.

What I Liked

I’ve exhausted my free allotment with Octopath Traveler and thankfully, I can report that it’s a very nice video game. Technically firing on all cylinders, Octopath offers a consistent frame rate, smooth animations and art as weird and shiny as the developer promised. The overarching story feels loved and expansive, allowing you to pick from eight (Octopath, get it?) protagonists from the outset, and though quite dry, dialogue between characters doesn’t come across as simply a bridge between action. In the first forty minutes, my scholar character Cyrus had to deal with two students who’d fallen for him (one a lot more discreet about it), a bunch of ranting about academic policy from the Principal of the academy for which he worked, and someone nicking a book from the town library (a crime most foul). It was all good fun and the sound design, full of onomatopoeic “hrumghs” and “grumhps” from the minor characters and fully voiced bits of chat from our heroes, had the whole thing a well-oiled barrel of monkeys.

The Not-So-Great

It’s been over a decade since I last sat down with a JRPG and it’s now undeniable: I cannot get on with turn-based combat. Outside of Worms and Advance Wars, turn-based stuff always feels too didactic, sucking the life from anything with a pulse via trawls through text and over-complex nonsense. Time slows to a crawl when you’re here, chipping away with weird, weightless attacks. Forty minutes into Octopath and I was entering a cellar only to be assaulted by what I’d term a levitating tea kettle. Gone was the story, the enjoyment of getting to know the area and people. I killed a few things and then I died. Thanks, bloke who’d stolen the aforementioned bit of literature. By the second death, I was out. That intense frustration and boredom, seldom felt since the third disk of Final Fantasy VIII, was back and I had zero desire to continue.

I’m sure I’d dig Octopath were it a fully-fledged adventure game. It’s a gorgeous place that you can tell the developers spent years stuffing full of interesting tidbits and lore… But, if I ever end up squinting at minuscule type, waiting for those wretched bars to refill or trying to figure out just what a ‘break’ is or more importantly, does, it’ll be entirely too soon.

Abe is a platforming, puzzle and Donkey Kong enthusiast now living it up somewhere in the Scottish Lowlands.