Octopath Traveler preview (Switch)

(Image courtesy of Square Enix)

The long-awaited JRPG Octopath Traveler is finally near release. A joint product of developers Square Enix and Acquire, it was announced in January 2017 and has been eagerly awaited by those craving a 16-bit throwback. A limited demo was released in September 2017, and a demo in which all eight characters were playable was released during E3 2018. This newest demo allows up to three hours of gameplay for whichever character the player chooses; the progress can be carried over to the full game when it releases on July 13, 2018.

Despite never having been a JRPG fanatic (the western branch of the genre is more to my liking), Square Enix’s take on a classic 16-bit adventure caught my attention. From the hyper-stylized graphics (courtesy of the Unreal Engine) to the promise of a multi-faceted story, it was clear that the Kingdom Hearts developer wasn’t crafting a half-hearted experience. And after having spent three glorious hours with Octopath Traveler, I can confidently say I was proven (almost) right.

When you begin the demo, you are immediately faced with a dilemma: who do I choose? As the title suggests, there are eight playable characters. They aren’t all as fresh and original as I’d hoped unfortunately; magic-wielding Cyrus Albright is predictably obsessed with teaching and knowledge, while Primrose Azelhart is a noble seeking revenge for her father’s murder. These two, among others, have a “been there, played that” feeling which dulls the storytelling (but I’m only three hours in and imagine they’ll become better fleshed out down the road).

I began my story as Tressa Colozone, the young merchant seeking to make her way in the world. Again, this isn’t a groundbreaking premise, but the voice actor breathed life into this character. Tressa strikes out from her seaside home of Rippletide to become the world’s most famous merchant. Her defining aspirations don’t simply fade away as a greater conflict rises; she can utilize her knowledge of haggling to buy items from NPCs. This concept even extends to combat as Tressa can summon hired muscle to help her fight even if she’s no slouch. This added a level of immersion I needed to be sold on Square Enix and Acquire’s promise of greatness.

It’s been confirmed that the stories for each playable character can be seen in one playthrough; this is a noticeable deviation from the tradition of requiring multiple save files in order to fully experience a game’s branching paths (perhaps they borrowed this concept from Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance?).

As the demo is timed, I only encountered Cyrus while battling and exploring throughout beautifully rendered environments. I was able to play through his backstory, however, before adding him to my party and striking out once more. It is an assumption on my part that the levels of the other characters you meet will scale as your progress through the game, but I’m not completely sure.

As mentioned above, the environments were gorgeous. The seaside landscape was brought to life by distant wildlife, realistic water and shimmering beaches; caves were a more ominous affair, but similarly stunning. I never expected a 16-bit game to be rendered so soulfully. The demo sequesters certain paths to keep us focused, so there’s a lot I didn’t get to explore (but really, really want to). If it were my choice, I’d gladly take Tressa’s place at her parents shop, working my days away on the edge of a beautiful, never-ending ocean; unfortunately, I have to return to my day job on Monday.

The soundtrack was pretty, but not as awe inspiring as I’d hoped. Each track did feel well suited to its environment or scene, so there’s that. I found myself pausing to enjoy the main theme a few times, though. When it comes to any game’s score, I simply expect it to not be distracting. The Octopath Traveler soundtrack exceeds this expectation, though not with flying colors. Of course, I only heard a snippet of what this JRPG has to offer; the rest of the soundtrack is sure to have some surprises.

And when my allotted three hours were up, I immediately wanted more.

This is a good sign for Octopath Traveler. Cyrus and Tressa are colorful and charismatic, though not entirely new or original as far as their motives and backstories are concerned. The visuals are impressive and the soundtrack is reminiscent of other decent-enough scores out there. Overall, I’m anxious to continue my quest and learn what each of the eight characters have to offer and how they’re all connected.

Promises of greatness are meant to be broken, of course, so I’ll have to wait until July 13 to see if Square Enix and Acquire have kept theirs.

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