Project Octopath Traveler Hands-on Preview – Golden JRPG

Project Octopath Traveler has finally gotten a playable demo, and I’ve gotten some good quality time running through it. The game is a new IP from the developers of the Bravely Default series, so it makes sense that Octopath Traveler is yet another throwback Japanese RPG.

From the moment you load up the demo, the game’s main menu demos the protagonists as they explore the landscapes, all to a glorious theme track that sets the stage for an engrossing adventure. You can play as Primrose the Dancer or Olberic the Warrior in this first demo.

Depending on which protagonist you play as, your combat abilities and Path Action will be totally different. Olberic’s Path Action let’s him challenge almost anyone to a duel, while Primrose can use her alluring pixelated body to entice anyone into following her or doing things for her.

Combat unfolds via classic turn-based mechanics and random enemy encounters, meaning yes – you’ll be exploring overworlds and grinding for EXP to level up your party like those JRPGs of yore. This game, however, uses BP (battle points?) that let you queue up simultaneous attacks or actions in one turn.

Each main character has their own story and their own motivations, as well as their own origin story to boot. Without spoiling too much, Primrose is a dancer seeking out her revenge, while Olberic is a disgraced warrior … also seeking out revenge. The game isn’t afraid of doing something that just works.

I haven’t really talked about the game’s visuals yet, which can only really be described as a Super Nintendo-era JRPG literally shoved into a 3D game engine. It’s weird and wonderful at first, and then it simply makes sense.

Character models are sprite-based, while environments are a mix of 3D geometry and nostalgic looking textures.

It really feels like you’re adventuring and exploring through some kind of lost gem from a bygone hardware generation. You know, one of those awkward ones that came out while the industry transitioned to mostly use 3D assets.

Since the game still behaves like a traditional 2D JRPG in terms of the camera, it still feels like an old grid-based RPG – however you do have full range of movement within the environments.

The developers naturally use this fixed camera angle to their advantage, hiding treasure chests and hidden paths that you have to find by experimenting.

One of the returning staples of JRPGs is that enemy sprites tend to just be massive in comparison to the character sprites, which are basically at the size and level of quality of stuff you’d see, once again, from a SNES-era Final Fantasy game.

Bosses in particular are hilariously big in proportion to everything else, a clear bid to emphasize how dangerous they are (and how much HP they have).

I really want to put a focus on how there is no loading screen between outer environments and the insides of buildings, or between world environments and towns. The insides of houses are mostly to scale with their outer shell, and the pseudo-3D look is simply awesome.

The developers really have struck an amazing balance between 3D environments and low-resolution textures, while also creating something wholly unique and still fresh looking.

This isn’t a lame RPG Maker level project in a cash grab from rose-tinted glasses nostalgia geeks, it’s a new thing entirely. There’s even modern effects like fog and ambient lighting that really fit well despite the pixelated sprites and the lower resolution textures.

If I had any gripes with the environments I’d have to say that just like the old JRPGs of yore it draws inspirations from, its overworld maps are a bit smaller in comparison to modern, 3D RPGs with large and expansive worlds.

This isn’t so much of a problem as I’m making it out to be, however when considering the scale of the entire world map to its individual biomes and towns, it pales in comparison when talking sheer scale.

My case in point: Primrose starts her journey in the Sunlands, specifically in the town of Sunshade – while Olberic starts off in the town of Cobbleston within the Highlands. I’d say there’s only a few screens in between each region, if that. I simply wanted to have more dungeons or things to see.

Now I have no idea if this is how the scale of the finished game is going to be, this is clearly a demo and its release won’t come until sometime next year. The above world maps are indicative of what to expect, so perhaps the focus is less on an expansive world and more on the protagonists.

There are eight protagonists to choose from and even within this demo you’re able to recruit the other protagonist to your cause, however any story elements to this aren’t implemented yet. It’ll be interesting to see how their stories intertwine, or how they might work together.

I have to commend Square Enix for having a more adult storyline with more adult language, something I think they’ve sort of avoided in their main RPGs (NieR is an exception). This demo has sexual innuendo, themes of slavery, war, and more. I can’t wait to see how far they go with its themes.

The game’s soundtrack is exceptional, inspiring, and overwhelming in how impressive it is. Town themes, overworld themes, battle themes, and more just shine with excellence. The game even has full voice acting in key events, and the voice actors really get into their roles with some impressive work.

Overall, Project Octopath Traveler comes off as a very interesting and promising experiment from Square Enix. It feels almost as if they took the Bravely Default team and said “Ok, we’ll let you guys just make whatever you want for your next project,” and thus this game was born.

The game is a shining example of how good older Japanese RPGs were, and how those key mechanics and themes can still appeal to modern audiences today. I have nothing but excitement for this game, and I wholeheartedly believe it will be a surprise hit for the Nintendo Switch.

I legitimately couldn’t put the game down and explored every inch of the demo’s playable areas – at certain points you’re literally stopped by NPCs who apologize for the game only being a demo. That is the extent of how badly I want the full version of this game.

Project Octopath Traveler is launching worldwide sometime next year, for the Nintendo Switch.

Brandon Orselli

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Big Papa Overlord at Niche Gamer. Italian. Dad. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry. I also write about music, food, & beer. Also an IT guy.