Octopath Traveler: How to Design JRPG Combat

Octopath Traveler is a JRPG developed and published by Square Enix exclusively for the Nintendo Switch in 2018. It costs $60.

Let’s gush about RPGs for a bit!

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I love RPGs because I get to see my characters grow stronger over time, I get to be a part of their stories, and I get to defeat enemies in satisfying combat. In Action RPGs, you carry out the characters’ combat actions yourself. In Tactical RPGs, you maneuver and position your units. And in traditional, turn-based JRPGs, each encounter becomes a brain-teasing skirmish.

JRPGs tend to have a hardest time of the three selling their combat systems. But when done right, JRPGs really get my strategic brain going. I have to ask things like, “Who’s the most important enemy to take out first?” “Should I buff my party or heal them?” And “What skill is best for this situation?” In a good JRPG, those choices matter and will affect your outcome. If you approach the game intelligently, you won’t need to just level up to victory.

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Octopath Traveler has exactly that kind of JRPG combat; in fact, it has the best turn-based system I’ve seen in a long time. It has so many moving parts you need to manage, and the game guides you from one mastery level to the next as you take down bigger bosses.

The Break mechanic is incredibly satisfying to exploit. You learn right away that finding enemy weaknesses and breaking their defenses is priority one, and it never gets tiring to do. Having the turn order at the top of the screen helps you plan out your moves. You’ll need to manipulate that order so you can break the enemy before they can attack. Battle Points (BP) build up each turn and need to be used with good timing or else you’ll leave yourself exposed. And finally, each traveler has their own unique skills, from Cyrus prying into the enemy’s weaknesses, to H’aanit capturing monsters and recalling them like Pokemon. And each traveler can eventually take a second job to add even more skills to their arsenal.

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Thanks to this design, combat in each new fight falls into this pattern:

  1. Try different attacks to find the enemy’s weaknesses
  2. Buff your party to improve defense / speed
  3. Use your characters’ skills or BP to break the enemy, being careful to conserve at lease some BP for after they break
  4. Buff your party’s offense (if you have the chance)
  5. Dish out the damage!

I actually looked forward to random encouters just because I loved following this pattern so much. However, it doesn’t stop there.

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Each act in the game takes you through several layers of how you approach combat. The beginning of the next act (marked by the next chapter in the characters’ stories) marks a difficulty spike where you need to change your strategy. I’ve noticed the progression goes as follows:

  • Act 1: understand the Break mechanic, learn to find enemy weaknesses, and learn SP/BP management
  • Act 2: understand your skills, learn second jobs, and master SP/BP management
  • Act 3: control the turn order, master second jobs, and learn divine skills
  • Act 4: master all the mechanics across a longer, more involved fight

I want to emphasize that these difficulty spikes aren’t to get you to level grind. They’re meant to make you regroup and try out different strategies in random encounters. If you explore and experiment as you go, you’ll be at the right level and you won’t need to grind before a boss.

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Speaking of bosses, most of these guys can “bend the rules” of that combat, and are easily the highlights of the game. Some bosses will increase their armor points, others will change weaknesses, and one even temporarily clouded out my turn order at the top of the screen. I don’t always go for post-game bosses in JRPGs, but in Octopath Traveler I’m going after each one because they all deliver a thoroughly satisfying strategic experience.

What did you think of Octopath Traveler? What RPG combat mechanics have been your favorites?

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