Eight people walk into a bar and interact with each other slightly more.
Square Enix revisiting Octopath Traveler after a few years feels a little bit like a victory lap over the success of HD-2D games. When Octopath Traveler was revealed in 2017 and then released in 2018, the unique style made it stand out, conjuring visions of ‘90s JRPGs in a high-def way. Since the game’s debut, Square Enix trotted out the HD-2D look for a number of other games, whether it was the tactical stylings of Triangle Strategy or the stunning remake of Live A Live. Now, after nearly five years, Octopath Traveler II hits the scene, promising marked improvement over the original while still trying to touch on the same magical retro-inspired feel. For the most part, this sequel succeeds at improving on the original, but in some spots, it highlights some of the weaknesses of the first game without dramatically improving the experience.
Octopath Traveler II features eight new playable characters, complete with their own stories, that all settle approximately into the archetypes of the original’s eight characters. Some of the characters feel very different, like the warrior Hikari, a prince caught in a never-ending war he doesn’t want to participate in, while the warrior from the original was Olberic, an old knight from a lost kingdom. Others, not so much, like the hunters who both have quests to find a rare monster or three. That being said, the cast is very good with distinct stories. Twists and reveals throughout the stories hit the right notes, amplified by the sometimes overserious but always very good voice acting. I’m a big fan of the scholar Osvald, who starts off in prison for his first two chapters and has a compelling quest for revenge after being framed for the murder of his wife and daughter. Castti the amnesiac apothecary might hit on some memory-loss tropes, but the way the game presents her slow memory return is really neat. Even if some of the stories are kind of silly, like Partitio the merchant trying to get money to end poverty or the dancer Agnea trying to get famous, there’s a good balance between drama and relief. Some of the plots are stronger than others, but nothing is bad. There is variety in the formats of some of the stories where there are multiple places to go for each chapter, making the individual stories feel a lot longer than they were in the original. The pacing is good, rarely requiring the level of grinding I had to do in the first game.
One of the complaints about the original was the fact that none of the cast interacted with each other and that’s unfortunately still the case here. Their individual stories do not involve the other party members. You occasionally have some optional party banter, but most of those feel like opportunities to make jokes or asides, not really adding to anything meaningful. The biggest attempt at solving this are Shared Paths, which put two of the characters together in their own quest. Largely, these are somewhat throwaway filler side stories. The best thing about them is how they make use of two character’s abilities in interesting ways. The Shared Paths seem to share a similar fate as sailing. In the middle of the world, there is a giant sea that, well, you barely interact with until the late game. You can buy your own ship and explore at your leisure, but all of the sea content is pushed off until late in the game. Alongside that, there is a “Final Chapter” waiting for you at the end of everyone’s quests, but while the more direct manner of concluding the overall story is a marked improvement from the semi-hidden finale of the original, it still doesn’t come together in a way that makes up for the dozens of hours before that where everyone has their own tales. The finale brings the gang together in a way that makes me more frustrated that the preceding 50 hours were so disparate.
While the ending might not fully pay off, the changes to combat and how you interact with the world have expanded in meaningful ways. The combat system continues to blend Shin Megami Tensei’s Press Turn battle system with Square’s past work on the Bravely series into something that is reminiscent of those two but wholly its own. Each character is distinct, whether it is Temenos’ cleric being focused on healing or Throné’s thief emphasizing daggers and speed. If you played Octopath Traveler, this battle system will be familiar, but the changes deepen the variety and make characters more interesting to use. You can once again mix and match secondary classes to help customize your builds, but now there is more individuality in the Latent Powers and combat impact of the Path Actions. Latent Powers are special moves that are built up by breaking enemies and taking damage. They provide meaningful battle boosts, such as Partitio getting a full slate of action points or Hikari getting to pull from a list of devastating attacks. Along with that, every character now has two Path Actions, which add to their combat variety as well. For example, the hunter named Ochette can capture beasts and use them in battle as well as with her daytime Path Action called Provoke. That’s when she can use her beasts to beat up townspeople. Her nighttime Path Action is Befriend, where she can give townspeople meat and get them to join her in battle. Every single hero has a pair of Path Actions now, though like before they fit into a handful of types, whether it’s acquiring items, gaining battle support, or just putting a person face down in the ground.
All of these new flourishes feel like they might overcomplicate a solid battle system, but it all fits together elegantly. As you often have to change your party up to progress through each character’s story, I had a good deal of fun mixing and matching classes and equipment to try to make sure my various four-party teams would complement each other well. Having those extra abilities and powers did a great job at making this process more engaging with a better potential for variety.
One of the joys of the daytime and nighttime Path Actions is that this game also adds the ability to, with the press of a button, change the time of day. It’s a neat effect, seeing the sun rise and fall, and it’s a great way to highlight how much the visuals have improved since 2018. HD-2D has come a long way and while the visuals occasionally have some wonky lighting, the quality of the presentation is more in line with Triangle Strategy and Live A Live, showing fresher camera angles and a good variety of locales. While I’m excited by the visual improvements, I’m a little letdown by the soundtrack. The sequel has a high bar to hit since its predecessor has one of the best new soundtracks of the past few years, but Octopath Traveler II’s setlist does not have the same memorable earworm qualities of the original. By no means is it a bad soundtrack; it’s just merely good, and I don’t foresee it being the kind of soundtrack I still listen to periodically five years later like I do with Octopath 1.
On the whole, Octopath Traveler II is soundly an improvement on the original, but it’s been quite a long time since that first game and the impact of the visuals and ideas aren’t as fresh as they once were. This game will not solve the issues people who bounced off the first game want to see solved, as the stories are still disconnected and dungeons mostly amount to straight paths with treasure chests dotted along the way. However, if you really enjoyed Octopath Traveler and want a better, improved version of the combat and overall exploration, Octopath Traveler II will deliver that in spades. This is a strong RPG that I enjoyed my time with, but it’s not a bold new step forward. Instead, it moderately iterates on an enjoyable formula to good success.