Xbox Game Pass subscribers got a big surprise earlier this month, when they learned that Octopath Traveler would soon be available on Microsoft’s subscription service.
The former Switch exclusive had made its way to PC, but never to another game console — and certainly never as part of a subscription package. Still, just as Microsoft promised, Octopath Traveler did indeed debut on Xbox on March 24. And if you have any affinity at all for JRPGs, you should download and play it ASAP.
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When Octopath Traveler debuted on the Nintendo Switch back in 2018, a 60-hour Japanese RPG sounded exhausting, even one that I could take with me everywhere. I had places to go and things to do — there was no time to follow the exploits of eight charming adventurers as they worked their way through a series of personal quests. But times have changed, and gaming comfort food has kept a lot of us sane during an unprecedented public health crisis.
I wasn’t quite willing to part with $60 to play Octopath Traveler, but I already have an Xbox Game Pass subscription. If I wanted to try the game, all I had to lose was a Saturday afternoon. So I downloaded the game and booted it up — and a week later, it’s still my go-to game as soon as work is done for the day.
Octopath Traveler on Xbox Game Pass
For gamers who haven’t tried Octopath Traveler yet, it’s an homage to the classic JRPGs of the late SNES and early PS1 eras. You explore the gorgeously rendered world of Orsterra, which looks like a 16-bit setting brought to life with semi-3D backgrounds.
The game's action is decidedly old-school in some ways as well, with turn-based battles, character job systems and — if I’m being perfectly honest — a lot of grinding to tackle the difficult bosses. Octopath Traveler’s structure is decidedly modern, however.
Rather than taking control of a single hero, gathering a party and working your way through a predetermined narrative, Octopath Traveler lets you choose your own path. There are eight different characters, and you can start the game as any one of them. As you explore the world, you’ll meet the seven other party members, each of whom has their own personal story to pursue.
What grabbed me immediately about Octopath Traveler was just how open-ended it was. I started the game as Cyrus: a well-bred scholar who sets out on a mission to recover a powerful ancient tome. After I left the town of Atlasdam, there were no instructions on where to go or what to do next. I consulted my map, and it almost totally empty, save for the immediate area I’d just explored.
All I had to go on were eight distant markers on a piece of blank parchment: Cyrus’ second chapter, or the other seven party members’ introductions. Deciding that I would need a healer to continue my quest, I set out in the general direction of Ophilia, the priestess — only to learn that she was located in a much more difficult area than I could tackle at the moment. I started exploring in the other direction, eventually running across Tressa the merchant, and starting her story.
In the end, I worked my way in a huge circle around the map, recruiting every new party member as I went. The game never prompted me with “go here next.” It simply gave me objectives and let me decide how to complete them, along with general guidelines for how powerful I’d need to be.
Octopath Traveler’s nonlinear design comes with a few tradeoffs, of course. In the 12 hours or so it’s taken me to gather all eight companions, I haven’t advanced Cyrus’ personal story at all. He’s had no meaningful interaction with the rest of the party; everyone’s just traveling together because it’s convenient to do so.
Part of what makes JRPGs so appealing is that the overarching story usually collides with your party’s personal stories as the game progresses. But in Octopath Traveler, there’s not much overarching story to speak of. While individual characters get a lot of development, the lack of a larger party dynamic limits how invested you’ll feel in the story.
Octopath Traveler gameplay
On the other hand, the gameplay is riveting, particularly once you have a full four-person party at your disposal. At first glance, Octopath Traveler has a fairly standard turn-based battle system. You wait your turn, you select your desired action (attacking, casting spells, healing, defending, etc.), the enemy takes its turn and the process begins again.
What sets Octopath Traveler apart is your ability to "Boost" actions and the enemies’ "Vulnerabilities." Each enemy is susceptible to a different type of attack, whether it’s fire magic or a dagger strike. Exploit a Vulnerability long enough, and the enemy will “Break,” leaving it unable to attack for a turn, and much more prone to damage.
At the same time, you can Boost your characters, which lets them attack multiple times in the same turn, or empower special abilities. Boosts build up slowly over the course of battle, and you can only stockpile a limited number of them at a time. As such, each battle is a fine balance between making enemies vulnerable, then Boosting to deal as much damage as possible in a short time.
This is pretty simple during random encounters, but boss battles force you to make some difficult choices. Will you save a Boost for a much-needed healing spell, or risk it all to deal massive damage? Should you spend all your Boosts breaking an enemy’s defense — especially if that enemy is about to unleash a massive strike? And how much damage can you withstand if your plan fails?
The one downside here is that Octopath Traveler makes you work for your fun. You need to use all eight party members for various quests, but they won’t gain any XP unless they participate in battle. As such, each new chapter usually begins with a lot of level-grinding, especially since the bosses can and will obliterate under-leveled party members in one hit. Random encounters get repetitive once you find the right attack pattern, and they don’t give much XP, either.
Still, Octopath Traveler has turned out to be a pleasant surprise in two ways. First, it was a surprise to find it on a whole new console with no preamble whatsoever. Second, it was a surprise to learn that Xbox Game Pass players can experience the whole adventure at no additional cost.
As for what the future holds, I do wonder whether Xbox Game Pass will continue to be the best deal in console gaming — or whether Microsoft will jack the price, or impose some kind of restrictions, once the service hits critical mass.
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