When Square Enix first revealed Project Octopath Traveler in Fall 2017, it immediately entranced me with its distinctive HD-2D visuals and promise to revive the forgotten genre of classic turn-based JRPGs. Call me a stubborn purist, but I will always favor rich sprite work over even the most photo-realistic polygons. I was bound to love it, regardless of what the experience ultimately turned out to be.
It released on the Nintendo Switch a few short months later, in July 2018, and turned out to be pretty much everything I had hoped for. Octopath Traveler garnered near universal acclaim, though its detractors decried its somewhat derivative and predictable gameplay loop. It proved to be an honor to those halcyon Super Nintendo and PlayStation games it imitated, without ever approaching the same heights in its own right.
Fast forward almost five years later, and we’ve been treated to a myriad of gorgeous, fascinating titles crafted in the same style. 2022 brought us both the turn-based strategy effort Triangle Strategy and a retooled version of mid-90s JRPG Live a Live, and by now, Square Enix has perfected the HD-2D aesthetic (but tragically, not the subtle art of titling).
It’s been a long time between drinks in the Octopath universe, and with Octopath Traveler II now in our hands, there is a newfound sense of pressure not quite so apparent in its predecessors. We’ve seen what this franchise can do, so the most pressing question is what lengths the team have gone to, to elevate it to even higher levels?
The moment you boot Octopath Traveler II up, you are bound to feel a sense of familiarity. Its orchestral score and vibrant locales are just as whimsical as ever; with the latter receiving a significant upgrade from the original. You probably won’t notice it until you put the two side-by-side, but even with the same art direction, the richness of Octopath II’s textures makes the first title look almost washed out in comparison.
From there, you know the drill. Choose one of eight protagonists to start with — yes, the first letter of their names does still spell out the word Octopath — and discover the details of their past. Without someone as immediately affable as Alfyn jumping out at me, I elected for Partitio based solely on his unmatched levels of swag. Coincidentally, he turned out to also be a country bumpkin just like the apothecary from Clearbrook, suggesting that I have a definite type.
Without revealing too much, Parti’s story details his life as the son of a silver miner on the wild frontier, all the way back to his childhood years. The story itself is suitable without necessarily feeling groundbreaking, but again, the presentation is simply stellar. Major events play out with a time lapse mechanic that is so damned effective, it’s practically hypnotic.
Once you’ve started the adventure proper, you’ll drop right on back into the flow of gameplay without a single hitch. Octopath’s battle system remains rock solid, highlighted by enemy weaknesses that can be exploited to the point of stunning them for the next round, and multiple attack opportunities that stack when unused.
The big addition here is Latent Powers that you can unlock towards the end of each hero’s introductory chapter. Breaking foes or taking damage fills up a gauge, and activating the power will yield some kind of massive benefit for a single turn. Partitio immediately maxes out his Boost Points to dish out as many hits as possible, while the dancer Agnea will be able to strike all enemies with attacks that normally only focus on one. Each of these tricks are interesting and useful, though the speed at which the gauge fills up can make them somewhat overpowered when you consider their scope.
Once Parti had thwarted the dastardly villains plaguing his town, it was time to set off for a new horizon. Just like the original, you are free to explore the world map as you see fit, and also just like the original, your immediate destinations will likely be towards the cities housing the other playable characters. Venturing out further leaves you vulnerable to getting OHKO’d by powerful monsters, plus you won’t be able to proceed in the story until you have the relevant character who needs to visit the locations off the beaten path.
If it sounds as though I’m referencing the first Octopath Traveler a lot, it is due to the fact that this game is very much beholden to the standards it set. It’s a completely standalone story set in a different land, but for the most part, you’ll be doing more of the same. There is a day/night mechanic that swaps character path actions (parley you can conduct with NPCs, such as buying items or interrogating them for info), while also making the roads more dangerous in the twilight hours. It’s neat, and yet, kind of the same as well, by doubling your available activities.
My sense of this game so far has been that it understands what worked, and it is not about to reinvent the wheel; for many of us, it is probably providing exactly what we wanted, which is the same core gameplay, upgraded and presented with a new coat of paint.
Scanning over Square Enix’s official post on 8 things you need to know about Octopath Traveler II reveals that, even internally, its main features are improvements, rather than innovations. They’re all suitable and welcome, but for the most part, it still feels like I’m playing the same game I was half a decade ago. Point #7, on character interaction, is likely the biggest plus, and one that we will circle back to in the final review.
There is still a lot more for me to do yet, and how the narrative evolves may prove the true barometer of my impression of the game. Once I’ve had a better chance to wring out the land of Solistia for all it’s worth, I’ll know for sure whether it stands head and shoulders above the journey that took place all those years before it.