Pre-release demos are always a bit of a tricky thing to look at.

And I mean cases like this, genuinely well before release where not everything is ready to show to the public. It's one thing when you play something like Overwatch's "public beta", which was effectively the exact game that got pressed to discs. With that, it's not really that much different from reviewing a game with a just-before-release review code. It might be a touch buggy, or missing something that's part of the day 1 patch, but you're basically looking at the whole game.

This, this is something very different. What I, or rather we have here, since this is a public hype-building demo, is a taste of the cookie dough before it's fully baked. It's not the first time we've seen these, of course. Nioh famously had multiple demos that really showed the hefty changes the game's core systems went through on its way to final release, for a recent example.

So what do we actually have here to look at? Project Octopath Traveler is a JRPG, one steeped in the aesthetic of the late SNES, early PSX era for the genre. One of the chief ideas they're playing up is that there are eight protagonists, each with a very different story in the same world to tell, and who you pick as your core protagonist will mean very different events happening through the course of the game. Eight, octo, octopath, you get the idea.

Now, what remains to be seen is how much this will actually be true. On the one hand, we've seen a fair few games that had characters who started in very different circumstances...aaand then quickly fell into the same circumstances as everyone else. Think of something like Dragon Age: Origins, where the vastly different starting points lasted for about an hour, and then an extra sidequest in one of the areas you went to, but the rest of the game was the same every time.

But on the other hand, the game has fewer moving parts to worry about than DAO ever did. Text is easy, voice-acted sprites are efficient, and the environments are fairly light to put together, by the looks of things. This is no overwhelmingly elaborate 3D environment, with every bolt and pebble painstakingly modeled in full. Rather, it's an interesting mix of sprites and light model work for lighting effects, a mix that looks quite impressive once you properly get used to it.

Much as the graphics are a mix of vintage and modern, so too is the gameplay on display here. Out and about, every character has a special ability, such as Primrose's "Allure" to draw NPCs in and lead them where you please. Then once you actually enter battle, we see more new mixups. The core of the combat is your classic JRPG menu-driven gameplay, with the usual Attack, Item, Defend, special ability mix, but Project Octopath Traveler brings a few key spins to the formula. The first is something partially inspired by Bravely Default, the Boost system. Each turn you get a charge of Boost; with a simple tap of the R button, you can put that charge (up to three turns worth) into your attacks, giving you an extra base attack or putting more power into your special moves.

But it's only when combined with the other piece of the pie, that the combat system starts getting interesting. Just about every enemy, at least within the confines of the demo, has a weakness, a weapon type (or, presumably, elemental type) they're weaker against than any other...And not only that, but an amount of defense, measured in how many times they can handle being struck by whatever they're weak to. Bring that number down, and you Break the enemy, stunning them for a turn or two. They take extra damage in this state, too.

Extra damage that stacks with the buff you can put with a couple of Boosts.

The difference between an unbroken enemy whittled down, and a broken one struck with a single decisive blow, can be massive. Understanding, and thus planning, around these mechanics is absolutely going to be key to your success in this game.

Of course, all of that just lays down the framework, gives you context. The other thing to look at is opinions. What I think of it. And so far...I like it quite a bit. It's got just enough interesting new pieces to play with, the characters are a bit archetypical but well-realized, and the audio work is a cut above the old standards. They've pulled some really solid actors to perform, especially for the major characters; The knight Olberic, who I played first, made a wonderful impression on me after years of...baaasically alright voicework in JRPGs. Some of the NPCs do fall a bit into being utter cliches of faux-European accentry, but such is life. And of course, if all else fails, you can always just snap it over to the Japanese audio tracks under your English text.

Like all things, we do have a couple of flaws. The biggest one for me, though, is simple; the cutscenes (or rather, non-interactive segments) aren't skippable. Which, considering I first went into the demo boss fight underequipped and undersupplied, meant I had to hammer my A button to get me through the same cutscene a few times before I finally won.

That quality voice-acting and interesting dialogue is suddenly a lot less fun when it's between you and your third attempt at the same fight.

But that's also not something they couldn't, you know, fix. A skip or fast-forward mode wouldn't be very difficult to add at all, especially for a game still in active development.

I've got a few other things, but they're mostly nitpicks. Some of the text is a little small on the Switch's screen, but it's fine on a decent TV. The Boost warcries can get a little repetitive, but that just needs a few more recorded for the final game. Things like that.

The real meat, the story and central mechanics, though? They're good. The whole thing still needs a little more time in the oven before we can judge it in whole, but it's definitely looking like it's off to a great start.

Project Octopath Traveler is currently planned to release in 2018.