"Working title," Square Enix claims. Well, it sure ain’t working for me. Surely it’s no surprise that Project Octopath Traveler is being developed by the same team that developed Bravely Default — and, perhaps more tellingly, Bravely Second End Layer. Square Enix really, badly needs to fire its naming associates.
Title comedy aside, Project Octopath Traveler was one of the most intriguing games shown at the Switch unveiling, and, aside from that brief reveal trailer, absolutely nothing was known about it until just recently, when Square Enix released a short, playable demo featuring two of the game’s eight heroes: the knight Olberic and the dancer Primrose. Let’s dive into the demo and see what’s what!
The first thing I can say about the demo is that, for the most part, the writing is absolutely top-notch. There are very mature themes at play here, and the writers handle them with grace, neither dodging them nor being lurid. Primrose, the "dancer," is quite clearly a prostitute. Furthermore, she is a prostitute not entirely of her own volition; while "sex slave" is a bit too strong and rather misses the point, she’s certainly in an unpleasant, coercive environment; leaving is not really an option. The game neither neuters this situation nor makes it cartoony; Primrose’s pimp is portrayed as an awful, abusive, lecherous man whom she tolerates because she has to, and the game makes it very clear to us that we can be sympathetic to Primrose, but also makes it clear that her situation is of her own making. She is seeking revenge against the men who killed her father, and is prepared to stop at nothing to get it; that quest for revenge has led her here, to this brothel, and she believes it’s a price she has to bear to get her vengeance.
Primrose — a character I expected to hate — is absolutely the star of this show. The writing is mature enough not to dump left-wing slogans on the player and assume that solves all the problems ever; Primrose is a strong woman in her way (and, of course, as a playable character, has all sorts of neat attacks and such), but there’s no 1970s grrl power nonsense on display. The game resolutely refuses, in fact, to portray Primrose as an innocent victim of The Patriarchy; she is a fascinating character precisely because she’s done (and is doing) wrong. We the players can see that her single-minded pursuit of vengeance will destroy her; in fact, we can see that it already is destroying her. We don’t wonder if Primrose will get her revenge so much as we wonder if she’ll survive her own demons.
In contrast, Olberic is a rather vanilla ronin — his king was murdered by a traitor, sending Olberic into exile where he lives as a typical "hedge knight" defending a border town from bandits. He’s biding his time until he can get his revenge too, just like Primrose, but his path is less complex, his motivations easier to swallow; it’s the typical ronin stuff about duty and honor and redemption. It’s not bad, mind you — and, once again, it’s very well-written — but it’s not a patch on Primrose’s material. And the game’s one-and-only complete ham hock of a line belongs to Olberic himself:
Oof. Well, never mind that; take a look at that screenshot. If you see anything other than the Super Nintendo with a high-resolution font, I don’t know what to tell you; Square Enix is calling this style "HD-2D," and, honestly, that’s about right. The battle graphics call the mind back to Final Fantasy III on the SNES, but with more spectacular effects and smaller fonts, whereas the world graphics remind me of nothing so much as the criminally-underrated 3D Dot Game Heroes, complete with exaggerated depth-of-field effects.
Outside of combat, it’s a pretty standard JRPG experience; wander around, talk to NPCs, complete quests, rest at the inn. All the usual trappings. The main twist is that the characters each have special actions they can perform; Olberic can challenge people to a duel, whereas Primrose can seduce them. This is interesting, though, based on what’s in the demo, not very well balanced; Olberic’s skill can move blocking NPCs out of the way (and yield a bit of XP and loot), but can also result in really tough fights. Primrose’s skill, on the other hand, moves blocking NPCs out of the way and adds them to the party, providing valuable backup in tough situations. Presumably the final game varies the usability of the skills a bit (and maybe provides a reason not to seduce everybody Primrose sees), but they’re still a fun addition regardless.
Combat plays like an evolved version of the systems in Bravely Default, in that characters can choose to take extra turns as they please; the primary difference is that characters can never run a turn deficit. That mechanic led to trouble in Bravely Default, in that trash mobs often became either a first-turn kill or a complete wipe, since the optimal strategy was generally to brave everybody to 4 in the first round and take a ton of actions before the mobs got a turn. That’s not an option here, which leads to more level combats.
On the other hand, the trash mobs are pretty tough. Their toughness is designed to be worked around, though, rather than through, by taking advantage of weaknesses. Every mob is weak against at least one kind of attack, and, every time it takes a hit from an attack of that type, it loses one "shield." When a mob runs out of shields, its defense is broken and it becomes stunned, missing its next turn and taking greatly increased damage for the duration. Combat, then, becomes a kind of a dance among cheap or AOE abilities to wear down shields, and then heavy hits against broken targets. It also provides a reason to spend boost meter on things other than megadamage, since those extra turns could instead be spend wearing down multiple shields. It’s quite an interesting and sophisticated mechanic, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays with more than just two characters and basic moves.
I was already favorably disposed toward Project Octopath Traveler, but this demo has actually made me even more excited. The game looks, sounds, reads, and plays fantastic. Now if only they’d do something about that title.