I remember watching the announcement event for the Nintendo Switch (in fact, I even kinda wrote about it here) and catching a few seconds from a clip of a game that looked like Dragon Quest 7 and Final Fantasy 6 had a baby and didn’t tell anyone. It turned out to be the 2D/3D JRPG Octopath Traveler, and the second I saw it I knew I was going to buy a Switch.
Mario and Link and all the Nintendo characters are great, but my NES and SNES days as a kid were soaked up by Final Fantasies, Secrets of Manas, Lufias, Lunars (Sega CD, I know), Actraisers and anything that had numbers that go up wrapped around deep, winding narratives.
A great deal of this had to do with the fact that I lived in the driftless area of Wisconsin, which, if you’ve never been, looks like a landscape straight out of J.R.R. Tolkein’s books. Rolling hills, whispering creeks (or cricks, as the locals call them), dense, dark forests and valleys of such beauty that they make the works of the great American landscape painters look like hotel art. As a boy with a penchant for nerdy ass video games living in this storybook setting, to me, every tree branch was a sword and every twisted stump or fallen tree was a goblin who required slaying. So it made sense for me to spend countless hours grinding through combat menus for hours on end when I had to sit indoors during the long winters.
However, I was 9 years old then, I’m 34 now. As much as I’d like to, I just don’t have the time to dedicate to a dense JRPG that requires hundreds of hours of play. As an example of this, I just two days ago completed the main story in The Witcher 3 and it took me three years to do so. Granted, I had to start over after a two year absence from playing through Geralt’s excellent adventure, but even so, I sacrificed countless hours of sleep on weeknights just to complete that small personal goal.
Enter Octopath Traveler – a game 9-year-old me would have been deeply disappointed with because of the lack of one cohesive narrative, almost completely absent party interactions and storylines that border on formulaic. But 34-year-old me is absolutely in love with this game. The reasons for this go beyond the excellent music (which is some of Square Enix’s best since Final Fantasy 6 – when they were just plain old Squaresoft), challenging and diverse combat and gorgeous visual flair. For the first time in a long time, I have a JRPG that I can consume in 30-40 minute bites on my lunch break, or when my girlfriend is showering or getting ready.
My gaming schedule could be best classified as “how much sleep do I feel like losing?” Call me not an asshole, but I’m not a big fan of hogging the TV when I get home from work so I can play games and my girlfriend can figure out something else to do. Because there’s that whole love thing that’s way more important than games. But I would be lying if I said I don’t crave the old days of being able to sit in front of my TV for an entire Saturday from morning to bed time, trying to rush through a game before having to return to to Blockbuster on Monday.
Octopath Traveler is structured perfectly for the Switch. Each character’s chapter is the perfect length (30 mins to two hours), and because the narrative doesn’t require remembering the stories or NPCs of your other party characters, I don’t feel lost after taking several days away from the game. I’m able to pick up the compartmentalized portion of the narrative I’m choosing to tackle based on how much time I have. Only have 20 minutes during my lunch break? Grind out some levels and unlock new skills. Taking an excessively long poop? Bring in the Switch and explore a cave or two for treasures.
It really is a wonderful little game. It feels like it has all the big budget production value of a flagship SNES RPG, but geared toward people like me who may have fallen off JRPGs because of the massive time investment needed. Especially nice is the ability to put the Switch to sleep whenever you want to. This makes 30-40 minute boss battles something you can tackle piecemeal instead of having to assure the non-gamers in your life that you “have to beat this boss so I can save it – then we can leave.”
At 8 hours in, I don’t see Octopath Traveler eclipsing Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy 6 as one of my favorite JRPGs, but it will be one of the first JRPG’s I’ve been able to play to completion in a number of years. And the 9-year-old in my bones is absolutely loving it.