Octopath Traveler (Nintendo Switch)
After the success of Bravely Default, Square Enix have continued to put their faith in nostalgia, developing a turn-based JRPG (Japanese role-playing game) with pixel-art people and places, a cast of characters with personalities that range from roguish to pious and a class system that, while familiar, keeps the combat fresh and fluid after dozens of hours of play.
In actuality, there is nothing in Octopath Traveler that will surprise fans of the great JRPGs of the ‘90s — this game is the epitome of ‘retro’, but that doesn’t matter when everything it delivers is expertly polished to a mirror sheen.
The environments are stunning, with depth-of-field trickery that utilises modern engines, HD particle and water effects and 16-bit sprite animations that on paper should clash horridly, but in practice provide some of the most compelling and delightful environments I’ve seen in a game in years. The towns are abuzz with quaint character sprites bustling about; the forests glisten with shimmering light; and every detail – from the shop signs to the flower pots – has been designed with what could only be called craftsmanship.
As far as the story goes, it’s a rather tame tale. Disjointed chapters with pitiful agency do little to hurry the characters along their path and the eight protagonists themselves, while delightful, barely acknowledge each other’s existence. They battle together on the road but their stories are kept entirely separate, each with his/her own motivations. What saves this mess of a story are the protagonists themselves: colorful, varied and delightfully camp (my favorite being H’aanit, a young female hunter who speaks in an inexplicably ridiculous Shakespearean dialect).
The glue holding everything together is the combat system. Taking the turn-based system of old and revamping it with some clever modern twists (such as the boost/break system which hides untold depths of strategy), this game balances itself to provide a system of tactics and micromanagement that remains fresh right until the fiftieth hour.
Octopath Traveler is a charming, engaging and challenging romp that sells itself on nostalgia but reveals itself to be something truly important and memorable.
Dragon Quest XI (PlayStation 4)
The tried-and-true formula of the classic JRPG is tested once again. The recipe includes an orchestral soundtrack, cast of quirky characters, chosen hero, campsites, save points, quests, armor shops, turn-based battles and campy villains. Here is a game with all of that — enough to make even fans despair with its over-familiarity — and yet, manages to be perhaps the best JRPG experience in a decade. How have Square Enix pulled this off, exactly?
With attention to detail and of course, the always charming character designs of Akira Toriyama. If an RPG must have towns, let them be beautiful, dynamic, varied, filled with fascinating NPCs, fun and funny side-quests and delightful earworms for you to enjoy for days. If a game must have enemies to fight, let their names be stupid puns, their designs playful and their death animations endlessly funny.
Here is a game that knows exactly what it is and doesn’t pull a single punch in delivering the ultimate classic JRPG experience. The combat feels satisfying, with camera shakes and crunching sound effects; the soundtrack (by series mainstay Koichi Sugiyama), which frames the mood of every village and forest, is playful and full of joy. Just as with Octopath Traveller the characters are outrageously campy, their English voices all being performed with true dedication to their wonderfully over-the-top dialogue. Setting and character designs are finely detailed and radiate with bright pastel vibrancy. Every aspect of this game is a celebration of its genre and every player’s experience will feel as close to a love affair as playing a video game can get.
Not for years has a JRPG come along that looks and feels like it was pieced together with nothing but love, attention, sweetness and sunshine. Here is a game that, through its simplicity and attention to detail, oozes charm and guarantees to keep an aching smile plastered across the face of every player for hours on end. An unforgettable experience.