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Octopath Traveler's First 3 Hours Are a Beautiful RPG Dream

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Is it July 13 yet?

From the second I saw Octopath Traveler, I was in love. Way back when it was teased during our first-ever look at Nintendo Switch, it caught my attention with its beautiful pixel-art graphics and promise of a return to the NES and Super NES JRPGs I grew up on. Half throwback, half tilt-shifted diorama, its aesthetic charm hooked me deeply and completely.

During E3 2018, a second, more refined Octopath Traveler demo was announced for Nintendo Switch, and I cursed myself for having left my Switch behind. It almost seemed too good to be true: three hours of Octopath bliss, with progress that carries over to the final game. I had played the initial demo and enjoyed it, but with more characters, choices, and locations in the recent demo, would Octopath Traveler manage to scratch my desire for turn-based combat both familiar and fresh feeling? After completing the demo, I'm very much looking forward to the final game.

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It's the graphics that first grabbed my attention.

It's the graphics that first grabbed my attention. Octopath Traveler looks like a Super NES RPG. Specifically, its style looks like Final Fantasy 6, one of the best, if not the best, RPG of the 16-bit era. But everything is tilt-shifted, making it look like a pixel-art papercraft. Enemies aren't entirely static like in the 16-bit era. They undulate slightly, as though affected by a small but steady breeze. Every pixel in the frame of focus is razor-sharp, but what really makes Octopath Traveler's visuals burst are the incredible lighting effects. Spells will overwhelm a scene with light, but realistic shadows are cast, taking into account both the characters on screen and the environment in which they're fighting. In the desert area, the sand shimmers in the soft-focus of the edges, making it feel both alive and realistic in spite of its pixelated representation. It's such a lovely twist on the pixel-art aesthetic and I just can't wait to see more of it.

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The demo is extremely generous in what you can do. I had to travel pretty far off the beaten path to find its limit. At the beginning, you pick any one of the eight playable characters to start on your quest, and as you progress in the demo, you can pick up other characters, as well. You can also see their stories to understand the motivations that drive their individual quests. I started my adventure as Therion, the thief, whose ability to steal from practically anyone or anything makes him an incredibly powerful character from the get-go. His story starts off simply enough: he's been shackled with a prison bracelet and is being blackmailed to have it removed.

...you pick any one of the 8 playable characters to start on your quest.

In some ways, Therion's special steal abilities are a little too overpowered. He can steal from almost anyone in a town, with the odds of success clearly spelled out. Seeing the odds made it so I never bothered to get my reputation sullied with a failed attempt, but knowing I could pop into a tavern and regain my reputation took away the feeling of risk. Hopefully this ability is inflated for the purposes of the demo.

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I met two more characters along my journey: Primrose the dancer and Olberich the knight. Both meetings give the option to watch or skip the characters origin stories before they join your party. I loved watching, and playing through, the opening chapters of the characters' stories. Even though they're loaded with extremely JRPG-ish tropes, it comes off as so earnest and fits the tone of the game so perfectly, anything else would have felt out of place.

Every enemy has a set of weaknesses you discover in the course of battle

Anyone who's played Bravely Default or its excellent sequel Bravely Second will feel familiar with Octopath Traveler's battle system. In the Bravely games, you can skip a turn in battle to build up your "Brave Points," letting you unleash a single powerful attack instead of several smaller ones. Octopath builds up boost points on every turn, and you can spend these to launch a flurry of attacks or an especially strong skill-based attack, buff, or heal. Every enemy has a set of weaknesses you discover in the course of battle, as well as a shield with a number in it.

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Hitting an enemy with an attack they're weak against brings the number down until it reaches zero, at which point you "break" their defense. When an enemy's defense is broken, they're effectively stunned and miss out on a turn. Bosses and stronger enemies have higher resistance to these breaking attacks, so building up and spending your boost points wisely is the key to winning the harder-fought battles.

I grew up on turn-based RPGs, so I absolutely loved Octopath Traveler's battle system. Once I got a feel for the system, battles felt awesome. Timing the attacks to break an enemy's defenses, and then following up with a devastating blow gives Octopath Traveler's battles a sense of rhythm not found in the JRPGs it pays homage to.

Aesthetically, Octopath Traveler delivers so much more than it needs to. It had my attention with its throwback style, but the way the pixel art is layered to look like living, breathing dioramas has me completely enamored. The battle system is a satisfying twist on the turn-based JRPG formula of the games that inspired it, and I'm looking forward to finding and following all eight characters. The three hours I spent with the demo didn't seem anywhere near long enough, and I can definitely see plenty of late nights playing this in bed to find just one more dungeon or story to explore.

Check out our Octopath Traveler preorder guide to learn about what bonuses and editions you can get ahead of its July 13 release date.

Seth Macy is IGN's tech and commerce editor and retro-enthusiast. Chat with him on Twitter @sethmacy.