Project Octopath Traveler has been on my radar since its reveal trailer during the big January pre-Switch release Nintendo Direct. It’s innovative blend of classic 16 bit graphics rendered within a fully lighted and textured 3D environment really left an impression. The recent Nintendo Direct revealed more details about the game such as having eight playable characters, each with their own story and a unique way to interact with the world. They showcased Primrose, a Dancer that can charm NPC’s who she can then use as allies in battle. And Olberic, a Warrior that can challenge any NPC to a duel. The premise is that any of these subtle changes like knocking out an NPC or removing them from a location could have ramifications in the story, which sounds really cool and interesting. To top off that segment of the presentation, they proceeded to announce that a demo of the game would be available on the eShop that same day! And, downloading it was the first thing I did when I got home.
Primrose The Dancer
Not surprising, the demo allows players to play either Primrose or Olberic’s story. Thinking about their unique Path abilities, Allure and Challenge, I decided to start with Primrose. The concept of enlisting random NPC’s as allies sounded pretty cool! The next thirty minutes left me pretty conflicted. Well, maybe not conflicted, but definitely struck. This game is not for all ages. The setting and story for Primrose is very dark and filled with sexual innuendo; some of which is pretty direct. Mainstream RPG’s have had exotic dancer/prostitute characters before, but I have never encountered them presented in such language. Granted, nothing shown on the screen is pornographic. But, the dialog on the other hand is very blunt.
That aside, the premise of Primrose’s story is interesting. When she was a child, she witnessed her father being murdered at their home by three mysterious men. She has since spent her life trying to track down these men, only having the crow tattoo they all shared in common as a lead. This is what has lead her to become an exotic dancer within what seems like an entertainment centered city somewhere in the dessert; one of these men frequents the club she works in. Sadly, this portion of the story is exposed through a very quick flash back cutscene and some self dialog by Primrose. The rest of the demo introduction felt slow and drawn out, dealing with her sleazy boss and the nightly drama at the club. Her Allure Path Action is introduced during this section of the demo when she is asked to lure more customers into the club.
As expected, once this portion of the introduction is completed, the man she is after finally shows up at the club and Primrose secretly follows him out of town. This is where players finally get exposed to dungeon crawling and combat. The area itself reminded me of jail type dungeons in classic JRPG’s, albeit without any actual jail cells. What made it really stand out was how the area was completely dark and Primrose had to use a lantern to see, casting shadows and reflections off of the different surfaces.
Combat is handled in turns, with each participant (enemies and player characters) selecting and taking their actions in a specific order, probably dictated by some speed stat. Enemies have a guard value, represented by a shield with a number on it. After they are hit that many times with an attack they are weak too, a “Break” will occur, stunning the enemy for one turn. With multiple enemies showing at once with different guard levels each, it became an interesting game of maximizing how many enemies I could have stunned to minimize how much damage I was taking. To help with this, each turn grants characters a Boost charge. Characters can then use up to four of these charges at once to increase the damage and effects of abilities, increase damage mitigated by the Defend command, or have their primary physical attack hit multiple times. This last one can be very useful since it allows players to Break monsters with higher Guard values in fewer turns. It reminded me a lot of Bravely Default’s Brave Point system.
That said, unlike older RPG’s, there seems to be an emphasis on using Abilities, which consume SP (the game’s Magic Points or Ability Points). Standard attacks, although generally useful for Breaking due to their ability to hit multiple times, do very weak damage in comparison with Abilities; even against regular enemies encountered in the field. Luckily, anytime the characters level up, their health and SP are replenished so I did not find myself running low until closer to the end of the demo when I had to use items to replenish SP and health during the boss fight.
Olberic The Warrior
Once done with Primrose’s chapter, the demo allows players to explore the rest of the demo areas, including the town where Olberic (the other playable character) is located. Talking to Olberic lets Primrose recruit him as a party member but nothing of his story is revealed. To play through Olberic’s story, player’s need to start a new game and select his path.
Olberic’s path is much less dark and starts with a flashback to a battle where he valiantly leads his troops in the defense of their kingdom. Having received no recent communication from the king, Olberic rushes back to find the king’s guard murdered and the betrayer about to assassinate the king, which Olberic is too late to stop. What makes the scene sting further for the famed knight is that the murderer is none other than a fellow knight whom he seems to have a long friendship with.
At this point, focus is returned to the present seeing Olberic, now hiding his true identity as a knight, helping a small town by training its men and helping defend it. Long story short: bandits attack, Olberic chases them into their lair and fights their boss. Once defeated and only after a long dialog sequence, the boss reveals a clue that could lead Olberic to find the betrayer that killed his king. Shortly after, a small scene shows the town saying their farewells to Olberic as he sets out to follow the bandit leader’s lead and, hopefully, find the betrayer and the answers to why he did what he did. At this point the demo chapter is complete.
As a Path ability, Olberic can challenge NPC’s to duels. Defeating them will just knock them out, so players should not worry about accidentally killing important characters. Before the duel, much like with the Allure ability, the NPC’s difficulty will be displayed on screen, with higher difficulties rewarding more experience points if the challenge is won.
When it comes to battle, Olberic plays very similar to Primrose. His key difference is that he can wield both a large sword or a polearm. When selecting the attack command, players can hit left or right on the controller to switch between the two. This is utilized well as different enemies have weaknesses to different weapon types. Olberic’s abilities also vary between being considered sword attacks or polearm attacks. There is no weapon icon on the abilities themselves but their descriptions are pretty self explanatory. Another minor difference between Olberic and Primrose is speed. Where Primrose would always act first, there were several enemies that performed attacks before Olberic got his chance. This made me actually have to pay attention to the turn order bar at the top of the screen during certain encounters, especially during the boss fight.
Lastly, after either demo chapter is completed, a few side quests become available if players talk to their appropriate NPC’s. Exploring these is a great way to see how a character’s Path Action can alter the flow and outcome of each quest.
Although both playable chapters were relatively short, the Project Octopath Demo does a good job of showcasing several of the game’s charms. First and foremost is its artistic approach with that hard-to-explain blend of 16 bit graphics with modern 3D lighting and shading; “HD-2D” as it is being called by the development team. Second, the different characters, each with a unique story and Path action, should keep the entire experience interesting and fresh as players move from one character to the next. It is unclear however if character paths will eventually cross with one another, ending in an all out party. We can only hope!
The combat is also worth pointing out, accomplishing a nice blend of classic turn based combat using random monster encounters, with new mechanics like boosting attacks and Breaking enemies; adding just enough layers to avoid feeling entirely like a game from the mid 90’s.
Frankly, I cannot wait for the full game release to see how all of these elements play together in a larger scale and how far Square Enix goes with the artistic direction of the environments, character and monster design. It is also exciting to see the company place a strong bet on the Nintendo Switch by making this a console exclusive. It has been a while since a Nintendo console becomes the home of strong RPG’s. If releases like I Am Setsuna and its upcoming spiritual successor together with Project Octopath Traveler fare well on the Switch, we could be seeing even stronger support in the future.