TORONTO – “Octopath Traveler” may look like a nostalgic throwback to the beloved 16-bit era of console role-playing games, but the new Nintendo Switch release has a narrative structure unlike anything from that era.
The result is an RPG from one of the genre’s foremost developers that honours the past while forging its own way forward.
“Octopath Traveler” has been anticipated by “Final Fantasy” fans as the spiritual successor to the popular sixth game in the series, and in some key ways developer Square-Enix delivers on that front.
Artistically, the game has clearly been developed with the classic RPG fan in mind. The muddy, low-resolution graphics and catchy but tinny musical score might not be appreciated by gamers who cut their teeth on modern titles, but the presentation of “Octopath Traveler” does a fantastic job of recreating the best elements of the 16-bit era.
Where “Octopath Traveler” diverges from its past influences is in its original narrative structure, which offers a more open-ended approach than the linear offerings of previous games. As the name would suggest, “Octopath Traveler” follows eight different protagonists, each with their own motivations and agendas.
The characters are based on common fantasy archetypes — thief, warrior, scholar and the like. In this way it is similar to “Final Fantasy VI,” which had 14 playable characters that mostly fit into well-established roles.
The big difference is that the characters in “FF6” were all involved in one large, linear story arc, while the characters in “Octopath Traveler” are only interested in resolving their own place within a greater world. This allows for more flexibility for players, who can choose any one character to start the story and recruit the others as they see fit while they explore the game’s world.
But while each character gets fleshed out reasonably well in his or her own story arc, the game’s design means there is no involvement in other storylines as the individual tales can be experienced in any order and with a variety of party compositions. So while the characters travel together while pursuing their disparate storylines, there is little reason for them to be together save to fill out the roster.
By sacrificing the interaction between party members to allow for an original structure in “Octopath Traveler” Square-Enix cuts out a huge part of what made “Final Fantasy VI” memorable. The advantage of a predictable, linear narrative is the ability to factor in friendships, affairs and rivalries between the game’s actors, something “FF6” excelled at.
And yet, while “Octopath Traveler” can’t really be considered the spiritual successor to “FF6” in a narrative sense, that is not to the game’s detriment. It’s a refreshing change in this genre to be able to poke around a game’s world map at one’s own pace, seeing the story through little vignettes rather than having to deal with one overarching plot point.
And the world is a joy to traverse, thanks to a combat system that does enough different from traditional turn-based RPGs to be interesting.
A fun new mechanic lets characters spend a combat currency called “boost points” to unleash powerful attacks. These can be spent to make multiple martial attacks, or increase the damage of a spell.
Enemies have a shield gauge that is depleted when hit by attacks they are vulnerable to. Fully draining the shield gauge will “break” an enemy, causing it to become stunned and take increased damage from attacks.
Knowing when to best use boost and figuring out how to keep enemies in “break” adds complexity to a basic and intuitive combat system, and makes fights against more powerful adversaries strategically satisfying.
“Octopath Traveler” is a respectful homage to the golden age of console RPGs without being a slavish love letter to what came before. It is not a spiritual successor to any of Square-Enix’s past successes, and is a stronger game for it.
“Octopath Traveler” is rated T for teen gamers and retails for about $80. A collector’s “Wayfarer’s Edition,” including a pop-up book, soundtrack CD, cloth map and souvenir coin runs about $130.