When the Switch was fully revealed during its January event it became apparent it lacked two elements its predecessor, the 3DS, has. The first is dual screen gaming, a feature players have grown accustomed to ever since the original DS’s launch back in 2004. The second feature is the titular 3D functionality of the handheld.
While the 3D effect caused many a headache during its early years, developers gradually learned how to more effectively implement it over time. Today’s Metroid: Samus Returns can be considered the culmination of those efforts, as it boasts some of the most impressive 3D effects to date. Other examples include the Bravely Default RPGs that featured intricately layered towns and dungeons that made sceneries pop from their world into ours. Now the same developer that made the Bravely games, Silicon Studio, is working on Project Octopath Traveller exclusively for the Switch. After playing the demo, it’s clear that they are not letting the lack of a dedicated 3D function keep them from attempting to accomplish the same feat.
Octopath Traveler appropriately describes its graphical style as “HD-2D”, and it’s this HD-2D that, ironically, goes a long way in creating a false 3D effect. By now players are used to seeing detailed textures and complex shadows in games with hyper-realistic graphics but to see such polish alongside pixel art is something else. Seeing the pixelized denizens of Orsterra meandering about the streets and roads of the demo not only emphasizes the finely detailed environments around them but also creates something of a dissonance within the player.
Dissonance is a type of internal conflict that we strive to resolve when it occurs. Octopath Traveler’s mix of 2D and 3D unconsciously comes across as strange, so the mind resolves that conflict by interpreting the image as 3D. This is analogous to how the 3DS accomplishes its 3D effect by sending a different 2D image into each eye. The brain resolves the difference in information by interpreting the two separate images as a single 3D image.
This alone isn’t enough to create a faux 3D effect, though. After all, there are other games out there that mix 2D sprites and 3D environments. Falcom’s Trails in the Sky trilogy is a prime example of such. What separates Octopath Traveler from the Trails in the Sky games and other similar looking titles, however, is its camera placement. Foregoing the standard top-down, isometric view, Octopath Traveler brings the camera down so that the player is looking into the scenery, rather than onto it. This is an important distinction to make as it brings into perspective another key aspect of the game’s presentation: proportionality.
The camera being positioned so low allows the player to see how the characters stack up to their surroundings. Upon inspection, one realizes just how realistically proportioned all the 3D environments are to their 2D counterparts. Cliff faces appropriately loom overhead as Olberic navigates their trails. Shadows dynamically grow and shrink as Primrose explores the catacombs with a lantern in hand. A building’s exterior accurately reflects the size of its interior.
All these elements contribute to a sense of scale, as if a sprawling fantasy world has been perfectly shrunk to size with all its dimensions intact. The world of Orsterra becomes a stage set for a play, akin to a living diorama. The Switch’s crisp screen while playing in handheld mode provides the perfect opportunity for watching this play unfold. Without even realizing it, that plastic barrier gradually begins to fade from the consciousness leaving behind a simple window to another world. It’s that engrossing nature of the game that creates a 3D effect where there is none, and Silicon Studios deserves praise for accomplishing such a feat.