iOS Game of the Week: Octopath Traveler — Champions of the Continent is so good, I can't believe it's free-to-play
And no, I'm not paying a cent.
Every time you tap open Octopath Traveler: Champions of the Continent, you're prompted with a disclaimer that reads:
It's a message that surprises me each time I open Octopath Traveler: CotC. The fact that Square Enix wants players to know A) they'll likely spend a lot of time playing this game (as one does with the publisher's RPGs) and B) it's not necessary to toy with its monetization efforts to accelerate the game's story, is a wild note to relay to folks every time they play. And yet, when it comes to playing the actual game, I can't help but think about the message. Mostly because, well, Octopath Traveler: CotC is so damn good, it's almost unfair to call it a gacha game.
Let's back up.
It's not as baity as you think
Octopath Traveler: Champions of the Continent is the newest entry in the Octopath Traveler series. It's a free-to-play mobile exclusive, developed by Acquire and Square Enix, that serves as a prequel to the original 2018 title. It was made with Unreal Engine 4 — so yes, it looks as good, if not better, than the Nintendo Switch version — and although the game's original director, Keisuke Miyauchi, is missing from its credits, writer Kakunoshin Futsuzawa and composer Yasunori Nishiki make their return. It's got phenomenal Japanese voice acting, decent English subtitles, and all the tropes of a JRPG you'd come to expect.
It's also a gacha game. If you've been reading the op-eds around this title, you've likely seen the hatred spewing around that fact. If you've seen Square Enix's press cycle surrounding the game, you've probably barely seen a mention of its gacha mechanics.
However, I'm calling it straight: Dismissing Octopath Traveler — Champions of the Continent as a gacha game cash grab is a mistake, and not playing it is an even bigger one. I'm nine hours into this game and I've yet to pay to unlock a single thing.
An improvement from its predecessor
If you can manage to bear through its opening text-heavy tutorials, the game is as straightforward as a JRPG can get, though an improvement from its predecessor. Battles are much faster and more fluid now. There's a mini-map that you can tap to automatically travel throughout a town or dungeon, without the need to hold your finger down on your screen.
The game has also completely done away with healing items — a novel idea for a JRPG. Instead of playing with a party of four, you can now use up to eight characters, and switch them between the front and rear rows during battles. If a party member needs to heal their HP or SP (magic), you can swap them to the rear row so they can passively rest. Those at the front will actively attack. It makes for a satisfying fight experience that goes beyond the mindless tapping of "Attack" for a group of weaker foes.
Those two rows are also a great way to strategize with Octopath Traveler's weakness fighting system. In Octopath Traveler, enemies have weaknesses that correlate with your party's powers. They may be weak against physical or fire attacks, for example, and when receiving those attacks from your characters, their guards will break, exposing them to higher attacks from your party. Swapping between these two rows for strategic healing and firepower makes Champions of the Continent feel like more of a challenge.
How you fill your party up is where Octopath Traveler: CotC's gacha tactics come in. At the beginning of the game, your initial party leader — in JRPG tradition, deemed the generic "chosen one" — is presented to you through gacha. You'll be asked to pick one of three motivations for your character: wealth, power, or fame. Each main quest has a major antagonist that shows off these qualities tenfold, while you, on the other hand, will be able to use those traits to your advantage. You can recruit other NPCs as allies through the use of bartering (wealth), fighting (power), and charisma (fame) to enlist. You can also take on side quests with these traits as major themes.
Along your journey, you'll recruit other characters for your party, each with their own caps on what they're able to learn, as far as abilities and skills go. Your gacha mechanic is paying for the chance to win stronger characters. That is not at all necessary for beating the game, though producer Hirohito Suzuki has gone on record to say that if you're interested in hearing more about a specific character's arc, you'll have to dig into your wallet to discover more. Out of my nine hours of playing, I've yet to even think about doing that.
That said, this game's main storyline is a whopping 60 hours long, and if you're into pulling slots, then hey, gacha is there to partake. There are over 64 characters in this game with more going live as updates roll out. Personally speaking, I don't think any of them are worth a buck.
A single-player RPG worth sinking into
Octopath Traveler: Champions of the Continent is likely going to be a game ignored and unfairly bashed by skeptics, but held near to the hearts of diehards who thrive in JRPG world-building. I'm no fan of JRPGs myself — I can only take so many random encounters and text boxes about nothing with NPCs — but Champions of the Continent is a truly impressive experience. It's got the classes, weapons, and characters you'll fall in love with if you give it a shot, regardless if you've played the original title.
Those looking for a mobile game that can replicate time spent with a lengthy single-player console game should definitely try this out. It's one of the best free iPhone games, and honestly, it feels like playing an awesome adventure title on a dedicated handheld console. Just don't let the smoke of gacha gaming kill the enthusiasm.
Octopath Traveler: Champions of the Continent
In this prequel to the critically-acclaimed JRPG Octopath Traveler, players must free the land of Orsterra from three wicked tyrants who seek wealth, power, and fame.
Download from: App Store (opens in new tab)
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Kevin Cortez is a culture and product journalist with over nine years of experience. He was most recently the style editor for a leading product-recommendation site and previously covered the music and podcasting industries at Mass Appeal and The A.V. Club. He has also written for Leafly, Input, Vulture and Genius.