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RPGs — more specifically, those from Square Enix — are having a nostalgia moment. Dispensing with the graphical and gameplay trappings of modern games, like Dragon Age: Inquisition or Persona 5, Square Enix has released multiple games similar to the RPGs of yore. These are the games with sprite art, turn-based combat and deep stories told in text boxes. One of their first ventures in this throwback genre was 2018’s Octopath Traveler.
Now the sequel, Octopath Traveler II, is out. And it begs the question: How do you improve on the original while sticking to the vision of an old-school RPG? The answer is in the subtle differences and the gameplay tweaks. OT2 builds on the original in small ways, rather than with large changes, and what we’ve got is a game that is an upgrade in most ways that matter — though it’s still not entirely it’s own entity.
Octopath Traveler II, despite being a sequel, follows a new cast of eight characters in a new world with new problems. They are:
- Osvald, a scholar out for revenge after being framed for the murder of his family.
- Castti, an amnesiac apothecary out to discover her true identity.
- Throné, a career thief out to slay the abusive masters who control her.
- Ochette, a beastly hunter out to prevent an oncoming calamity.
- Partitio, a merchant out to save his impoverished hometown.
- Agnea, a dancer out to become rich and famous.
- Temenos, a cleric out to solve a series of mysterious murders.
- Hikari, a samurai out to help the nation that exiled him
As the above suggests, each character has their own story, with the first one you play acting as the point-person for the party in all non-specific interactions. I chose Temenos (because I’m always down to solve a murder mystery) and later experienced the other characters’ stories when he encountered them.
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A golden light: What’s to like
The new octet of heroes are a diverse bunch, in the sense that you’ll find among them whatever story you might wish to play. Agnea’s tale about becoming a dancer is simple and straightforward, while Throné’s story about freeing herself from the control of her abusive handlers is dark and complex. Each story rolls out in a somewhat organic fashion, with each character progressing individually as the party visits the locations where each chapter plays out.
I won’t go too much into the overarching story for the sake of spoilers, but I appreciated that, as it unfolds, aspects of each character’s tale become intertwined. It makes the party feel like they’re meant to be doing what they’re doing, rather than a random bunch of characters thrown together by chance. I also appreciate that none of them are princes or legendary heroes — they’re working-class people with issues. It helps keep the game from feeling too melodramatic, like some others I could name (*cough* Triangle Strategy).
As with the previous game, Octopath Traveler II is absolutely stunning. Perhaps the sprite art mixed with 3D backgrounds isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it beautiful. And it’s not just the background art, either — the character sprites are also well done. One of the highlights of the game is during boss battles, when the boss character gets larger, more detailed artwork. That’s when you know you’re in for a good time.
I also liked the voice acting in this game a bit more than the previous one. Perhaps this is because I played primarily as Temenos, who has a puckish streak I wasn’t expecting for a cleric detective and a voice to match. But while neither game had terrible voice acting, I liked the voices in the sequel a little bit more. Even the NPCs have personality and color.
The job system from the first Octopath Traveler has also returned, where characters can get secondary jobs in addition to their main one. One welcome tweak in OT2 is that you obtain secondary jobs by getting guild licenses, and multiple characters can have the same secondary job. This opens up more gameplay possibilities and combat options.
Combat tweaks and social encounters
Combat is about what you’d expect from a turn-based RPG, but with a few extra bells and whistles to keep it interesting. The breaking and boosting system from the first game returns, where the party can exploit their opponents’ weaknesses to break their defenses and use a boost point to unleash multiple or enhanced attacks in a single turn. Players have their own skills — which they can deploy using skill points (SP) — and access to multiple types of weapons for some variety.
In addition to their SP and boost points, OT2’s characters also have a gauge that fills up as combat progresses. Once it’s full, they can unleash their “latent power,” an ultimate ability that provides various combat buffs. For example, Throné can move twice in one turn, while Agnea can use single-use skills on multiple enemies. These make the gameplay more interesting, if not especially challenging, and are one of the most interesting new mechanics in the game.
In addition to their combat chops, each character in OT2 has their own social skills that they can use on NPCs in the world. Ochette can challenge townsfolk to battles, while Throné can steal from them. Some of these skills come with risk — as in, if you fail, townsfolk won’t like you as much. Some of them are redundant: Castti’s Inquire, Osvald’s Scrutinize and Hikari’s Bribe all accomplish the same goal of getting information out of someone. But at least it gives you some options.
Octopath Traveler II introduces a day-night cycle, one of its major departures from the original game. This affects certain combat skills, but it seems to have an even greater effect on the social skills. Each character has separate skills for day and night, meaning that if you need a daytime skill and it’s nighttime in game, you just hit a button and it instantly switches over. It’s fun to mix-and-match skills at any given time, seeing what gives you the best solution for any given situation.
The darker aspects: What’s not to like
That being said, I can’t help but feel that a lot of the things for which I praise OT2 are the same things I could say about the original Octopath Traveler. The sequel is not particularly inventive — and it doesn’t necessarily have to be. But the first game was by no means perfect, and it’s a little disappointing that the developers haven’t really built much from its foundation.
One of the problems with Octopath Traveler was the lack of interactions between the group. For a game that was literally named after its squad of characters, each one rarely acknowledged that the other party members existed. OT2 attempts to fix this by adding “Crossed Paths,” short episodes where two characters team up to go on a mission together. In theory, this fixes the issue, except there are only four such episodes and each party member is in precisely one.
I first saw the Crossed Path with Throné and Temenos, because they were my first characters. I was delighted — until I realized neither would have a similar mission with the other party members. If you wanted to see Agnea team up with Ochette? Or Osvald with Hikari? Nope, forget about it. I understand there’s a lot going on in this game already, but that’s my point. This is a RPG — they’re supposed to be big. I don’t think adding a few more team-up missions would cause the cup to runneth over.
There’s also a bit of a boring grind problem — again, not dissimilar to the first game. When I completed Throné’s first chapter and linked her up with the party, I scanned the map to see where it was located, and the map helpfully informed me that the recommended level for that mission was 16. For reference, Throné was level 7 at the time. And the best way to get up to that level? Random encounters. It’s not exactly unusual for an RPG, but it still feels like a chore.
A beautiful world with beautiful promise
When it’s at its best — and it is for the most part — Octopath Traveler II is a fantastic RPG that offers straightforward challenges with relatable heroes and easy-to-learn mechanics. There’s a simple joy in the combat and gameplay mechanics, especially once the characters become more powerful. It’s still a treat to look at and the protagonists’ stories are varied and complex.
The main issue I have with OT2 is in its similarities to its predecessor. It’s a fun and excellent example of the genre, but doesn’t really stretch beyond it. I suppose there are worse sins a game can commit than just not feeling much different from its great predecessor. Still, if Octopath Traveler wasn’t your thing, Octopath Traveler II likely won’t be, either.
Square Enix provided us with a copy of this game for the purposes of review. Octopath Traveler II is currently available on Nintendo Switch.
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