Octopath Traveler II on Nintendo Switch
In 2018, the Nintendo Switch was gifted a stellar timed exclusive in the form of Square Enix’s Octopath Traveler. It boasted a rock-solid battle system, gorgeous visuals, a lilting soundtrack, and countless hours worth of content. It was, and remains to this day, one of my favorite games on the hybrid console.
Having spent a significant amount of time with its successor brings a lot of emotions, proving to be a distillation of everything that made the first title good, and yet, still falling short in many of the same ways. Trying to unpack how to feel about that is ultimately a question of what you really want from a sequel, and it’s one that I’m still pondering the answer to.
First, let’s hash out the fundamentals. As alluded to in our preview, Octopath Traveler II is a self-contained follow-up to the runaway success JRPG from yesteryear. You select one of eight protagonists, travel the continents and assemble the rest of the team, working together in turn-based battles as each character continues their own tale, chapter by chapter.
These characters are, for the most part, just as solid as the heroes from the original. The animalistic hunter Ochette is particularly endearing, and the cleric Temenos’ whimsical approach to theology is well-written. Of course, some of their motivations are clearly more compelling than others; the grizzled scholar Osvald is seeking revenge for the murder of his family, while the dancer Agnea is in pursuit of fame. Why Osvald would humor her by joining forces is far beyond me (five years in prison made him hanker for a bit of glitz?), but we will circle back to story interconnectedness later on.
Just like Octopath Traveler I — for better or worse, we will be referring to that game a lot — every character’s checkpoints are dotted around the map, which makes sense from a gameplay front while rendering the narrative flow somewhat inconsistent, especially if it’s been a while since you explored a particular hero’s progression. All eight stories are satisfying in their own way once you overcome this hurdle, though they do tend to dip into the well of double-crosses a bit too often. To wit; you will experience a lot of “curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal” moments.
The battle system revolves around two major concepts; enemy weaknesses and Boost Points (BP). Each of the protagonists comes equipped with either one or two different weapons, as well as a range of elemental abilities. Should you hit an enemy with an attack it is weak to, its Shield Points will reduce by one. When that value reaches zero, you will Break the foe, leaving it unable to act on the next turn and rendering all of your attacks critical for that duration of time.
Trying to guess what an enemy might be weak to is part of the fun, and once you know what they dislike, you can take advantage of those Boost Points. Every turn, you will add one more BP to your characters (with a maximum of five). Using those BP allows you to unleash multiple weapon strikes in a row, up to four at a time. This way, you can hack through Shield Points at a faster clip, though it takes an extra turn before your BP will begin stocking again after use.
New to the formula are Latent Powers; a special ability unique to each character tied to a gauge that fills upon receiving damage, or Breaking foes. The thief Throné receives another action in the same turn, while the warrior Hikari temporarily gains access to a fresh range of powerful attacks, and so on.
These serve as a welcome addition for the most part, however there is a disparate gap in their value that quickly becomes apparent. Temenos can exploit a weakness with any weapon type, whereas Agnea is able to attack all targets with her next blow. Considering she can now dish out the overpowered Ruinous Kick to multiple enemies — which naturally Breaks defenses anyway — she typically leaves the clergyman in the dust.
The combat system is complex and nuanced, with opportunities to add a secondary class to each character and other such wrinkles, and mastering it is a satisfying, engrossing process. This is especially true the further you progress in the game, where powerful bosses will test your gray matter with their attack patterns.
It’s all presented in the HD-2D visuals that remain bewitching to this day, having attained a level of near perfection. Octopath Traveler I had an over-reliance on focus pulls and a native shadow bordering aesthetic that made environments feel somewhat limited in their scope, an issue which has been overcome in the years since. The suitably immersive soundtrack, on the other hand, is equally up to the task, with a capability to still surprise: I did not expect to hear an electric guitar and saxophone duet in Partitio’s theme, but once it kicked in, I yee-hawed my dang heart out.
The animations are more fleshed out and fluid, and it is downright invigorating to see a boss character blown up into a hulking, menacing threat once you’ve engaged with them in mortal combat. If you want an example of what sprite work should look like, it is very much this, plain and simple.
The surrounding locations are vibrant and fascinating, and some are even quite breathtaking. The layout of New Delsta makes it feel as it should; the glamorous big city, whose thin veneer of opulence belies a seedy underbelly of poverty and crime.
There are also a lot of lovely little details sprinkled throughout. When one character Breaks an enemy, the next one to act will thank them, or express concern after seeing a comrade sustain large amounts of damage. Selecting a fully BP-charged technique will cause the camera to swoop across the battlefield in a dynamic manner as it’s unleashed. This game has such a distinct personality to it, and it will quickly work its way into your heart.
The look and feel of Octopath was never really the problem, though. The biggest question is no doubt whether the protagonists play any role in each other’s tales, and the unfortunate answer is no, they do not. As the heroes commence their major storyline arcs, cut scenes will be presented as if they had been travelling solo the whole time. I felt like it was Octopath Traveler’s biggest weakness back in 2018, and it’s back to estrange me once again.
The story proper, as alluring as it may be, remains eight anthologies that operate independently of one another, and that is an absolute shame. It’s a consistent issue with Octopath’s design philosophy, wherein you technically could progress through the entirety of one protagonist’s tale before bothering with the others, but the level cap would make this mundane and impractical.
If we have that superficial barrier of the grind in place, why can’t we have subsequent chapters locked behind the progression of other storylines, in order to interweave these stories? Are these eight people just that disinterested in each other’s lives?
There are post-cutscene dialogue opportunities that you can trigger called Travel Banter, and they do alleviate the pain somewhat. Listening to the cast bounce off one another is delightful, I just wish that it actually impacted the overlying narrative. You can go an entire playthrough without ever bothering to partake in these interactions, should you so choose.
The feature I was most looking forward to in Octopath Traveler II are the newly introduced Shared Paths, which pairs two of the characters in their own adventures. On paper, this is exactly what I wanted, but in application, it turns out to be somewhat underwhelming.
Each of the Shared Paths, though enjoyable in their own way, are side stories that don’t influence things much one way or the other. They’re more like expanded Travel Banter than their own chapters, and again, you may elect to pass them over entirely; effectively the JRPG version of anime filler.
The introduction of Shared Paths was Square Enix’s opportunity to intertwine lore, and remove the feeling of isolation that plagued the original. Instead, they are applied mildly — almost timidly — as a nicety rather than a necessity, and once again, major plot beats proceed as a monologue, rather than an ensemble.
With that said, Octopath Traveler II’s greatest flaw is that it plays things far too safe, acting like an enhanced version of the game that came before it instead of a unique, can’t-miss experience. There are canoes (and later on, a full galleon) that you can use to traverse the waterways of the world, and a day/night mechanic that adjusts the gameplay in a few minor ways, but ultimately, everything it adds is a shiny bauble on the otherwise identical structure of the original.
On the one hand, that will likely serve the established fan base just fine; they didn’t mess with something that worked perfectly well in the first place, giving us more of the same. Critically, however, you can clearly point to the familiar drawbacks; the narrative that proceeds along oblivious to the very travelers partaking of it, and a somewhat repetitive gameplay loop of arriving at a town, entering a dungeon, and fighting a boss.
These things were glossed over — and yes, the Shared Paths are a fun diversion that offer an extra dash of camaraderie — leaving us with what is ultimately a souped up edition of a game we’ve already played before.
In a vacuum, Octopath Traveler II is superior to its predecessor in practically every way, with improvements across the board. If you were into the first one, you will almost assuredly love this one, too. To praise it in this way is partially backhanded, however, as it fails to eke out its own legacy in any way, shape or form.
I liked it back in 2018, and sure, I like it in 2022, as well. It would be disingenuous not to highly recommend it to JRPG fans, or single-player gamers in general. But make no mistake; should a third entry spring forth, I will be expecting something definitively new and unique. Call it selfish if you must, I just want to see the true Latent Power this franchise holds.
Reviewer: Tony Cocking | Award: Editor’s Choice | Copy provided by Publisher.
- Complex, satisfying battle system.
- Content rich, with options to customize your party.
- Interesting protagonists and solid storytelling.
- Main plot still proceeds independently of other characters.
- Fails to tread new ground.
Feb. 24, 2023
Square Enix, Acquire
Switch, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC
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