Octopath Traveler 2 review: a retro-inspired JRPG with soul
| Last updated
Featured Image Credit: Square Enix
We’ve all experienced games that simply refuse to leave your mind, even weeks after completing them. These are rare gems though - a game’s intriguing concept, ambition or positive critical acclaim can never guarantee such an effect actually happening. They require a certain spark. A soul. A heart.
These are qualities that Octopath Traveler II is overflowing with. After pouring over 60 hours of playtime into the retro-style JRPG, I still can’t stop my mind from drifting over to the gorgeous land of Solistia, its loveable characters, deep lore and engaging gameplay loop that never gets old.
Take a look at the trailer for Octopath Traveler II on Nintendo Switch below.
First thing’s first, it has to be said that Solistia is just beautiful. I’m a sucker for the HD-2D art style which Square Enix has perfected over the past few years, and all of the little touches that build Octopath Traveler II’s breathtaking scenery make its world feel truly alive. The sun shines brightly on the water and glistens in the snow, the trees rustle in the wind as leaves gently fall to the ground, and the light subtly changes on the ground as clouds pass overhead - visually, it’s a work of art, and there’s not a single area in the game that feels lacking in this regard.
Accompanying the diorama-like vistas is a phenomenal soundtrack - one that’s already up there with some of my favourite video game music of all time. Each track does an exceptional job of encapsulating the energy of the locations they’re played in, and the battle music is on a whole other level. I kid you not, the first time I ran into an optional boss, the song that played quite literally put the fear of God in me. Seriously, it’s so good that you’d think it was final boss music, and that’s not an exaggeration.
As the name suggests, Octopath Traveler II follows the individual tales of eight different protagonists. Since each character has their own story, it’s impossible to give a summary of the entire plot, so here’s a quick rundown of all their basic motivations. Ochette is a Beastling (half-human, half-animal) tasked with saving her island from a great calamity by seeking out the help of three legendary beasts, while Castti is an apothecary suffering from amnesia, on a journey to recover her memories. Temenos is an easygoing cleric-cum-detective who sets out to solve the mystery behind a murder in the church, and Osvald is a once-renowned scholar who’s been jailed for murder and must break out of prison to get revenge on the man who ruined his life. Partitio the merchant is an optimistic guy who aspires to bring prosperity to the land, while the young dancer Agnea sets out to chase her lifelong dream of becoming a superstar like her mother. Throné the thief is desperate to escape the cycle of bloodshed that she’s been brought up in, and Hikari is the prince of an endlessly-warring kingdom, whose goal is to put a stop to the violence and bring about an era of peace.
From the get-go, each narrative is enticing in its own way. Most have a central mystery or two which are sure to keep players hooked, while a couple of them - namely, Agnea and Partitio’s - rely more heavily on the characters’ likeable personalities to really draw you in. That’s not to say that they don’t do this well - I’d like to personally apologise to Partitio, who in my preview, I noted hadn’t really struck me as particularly interesting. Well, I take that all back - while I didn’t find his plot as exciting as Osvald’s (which is definitely the strongest, in my opinion), he quickly proved to be one of my favourite characters, and that alone was enough to keep me engrossed.
For both of these reasons, it’s so easy to dive from chapter to chapter to find out how everyone’s journeys unfold - throughout my time with the game, I kept playing far longer than I intended to in pretty much every session simply because I continually convinced myself that I’d do “just one more”. Unlike its predecessor, the sequel also features branching paths for a number of chapters, but at the end of the day, you’ll end up at the same place - the choice only applies to which parts you complete first rather than what plot points you’ll experience (and due to the varying recommended levels, most will probably end up following the ‘intended’ order anyway). This isn’t a criticism, mind you - the split chapters mean that most characters end up visiting more locations on their travels, making the areas much more memorable. Also, without spoiling anything, yes, there’s a final endgame chapter available once everyone’s tales are complete. Do with that information what you will.
In many ways though, Octopath Traveler II feels a lot more about the journey than the destination. The vibrant world is overflowing with hidden paths containing treasure and secret dungeons home to powerful optional bosses, all of which are oh-so-tempting to seek out. Hell, it’s reward enough to wander the land and take in the spectacular views. As intriguing as the individual stories are, I personally felt more drawn to explore these off-the-beaten-track locations tucked away across the map, and even after the dozens of hours I’ve poured in already, I know that I still have so much left to find.
But how about the combat? As I wrote in my preview, the battle system is pretty much the same as Octopath Traveler’s - it offers an engaging twist on standard turn-based combat by allowing you to accumulate Boost Points with each passing turn, which can be spent to either unleash a barrage of regular attacks or charge up one particularly strong one. Exploiting an enemy’s weak spots will eventually ‘Break’ them, at which point they become extra vulnerable. Boost Points can therefore be cashed in to help inflict Break in the first place, or hit ‘em hard when they’re already down. Working out what these weaknesses are and then launching a coordinated attack with your party to maximise damage is immensely satisfying, especially in the larger boss fights.
Each character sets out with a base ‘job’ (class), but over the course of the game you’re able to collect ‘licences’ which allow party members to equip a secondary one. When equipped, a character can learn and use all the skills (as well as weapons) from their secondary job in addition to their base one, and the passive skills unlocked by learning them can be carried over to any build you want. For example, a party member who learns five skills from the Warrior job will unlock access to the ‘Deal More Damage’ passive, which allows users to exceed the 9,999 damage cap. This can then be equipped regardless of if they have a Warrior licence assigned to them. Ultimately, this allows for a great deal of customisation, and can be used to craft specific battle tactics for different fights.
One main change that the sequel has made to the battle system is the addition of Latent Powers - powerful moves unique to each character. These charge up both when you dish out damage and when you get hit by moves, and can be used in tandem with Boost Points to unleash huge attacks. To name a couple, Temenos’ allows him to hit an enemy’s weak spot regardless of the attack he launches, while Castti’s allows her to use whatever ingredients she wants while utilising her Talent, Concoct, without losing them from your inventory.
Talents, like Latent Powers, are specific to each party member and can’t be learnt by anyone else. Tying into her apothecary know-how, Castti’s Concoct can be used to create healing items for the party or dangerous substances to attack the enemy with. Meanwhile, Osvald can identify one of the enemy’s weaknesses without having to attack them at all. Additionally, each character has two Path Actions which are used to interact with the overworld - these change between Day and Night (a feature new to the sequel). Throné, for example, can steal things from unassuming NPCs in the day and ambush them at night to knock them out and get access to blocked off areas.
In some ways, it can be argued that Octopath Traveler II is almost faithful to a fault to its predecessor - I imagine that anyone who’s played the original is probably getting some serious déjà vu from the battle mechanics outlined above. I mean, even the party members’ Jobs are the same as the original, albeit attached to very different characters. Truthfully, there aren’t that many drastic changes to how the game works, despite the fact that the plot is completely standalone and doesn’t require you to have played the first to understand it. However, I’m firmly of the belief that the sequel is everything that Octopath Traveler SHOULD have been, and in the places where Square Enix missed the mark the first time around, the devs have gone back and brought everything together in the best way possible.
The most obvious example of this is in the way that the party interacts together. Upon playing the original game, I was disappointed that despite spending upwards of 60 hours together across the events of the main story, the eight party members never really seemed to gel. They felt like strangers for the entire game, with their only interactions coming in the form of the brief ‘Travel Banter’ sections in the middle of chapters. It never truly felt as if a real team had been formed. In many ways, it felt wildly unrealistic that they’d fight side by side as they did, as they seemed so disjointed.
Meanwhile in Octopath Traveler II, in addition to Travel Banter, mini chapters dubbed as ‘Crossed Paths’ have been added which add whole new narratives diverging from the main paths solely dedicated to the heroes’ interactions together. One follows Throné and Temenos trying to find a legendary treasure hidden in a church, while another sees Partitio and Osvald team up to help a poor scholar recover his life’s work from a loan shark. These scenarios do a fantastic job of showing the protagonists’ chemistry, and they truly help the party feel whole.
This is further solidified by the voice lines that play during battle. As with many JRPGs, battles are loud - the characters are constantly shouting out their attacks and making remarks at the enemy to make sure that everyone in the building knows what you’re playing, but they also now react to each other. They sometimes compliment each others’ attacks, and if a battle is particularly tough and one member takes a lot of damage, the others will check in with them to make sure they’re okay. It’s a small change, but one that’s made a world of difference when it comes to illustrating the party’s relationships. Oh, and on that note, the voice acting is superb - pretty much every line of dialogue is fully voiced, making each of the characters’ personalities more distinct.
Additionally, the grind of the first game has been toned down significantly - there are now multiple skills (and items) which can be stacked to significantly increase your EXP gain throughout the game, so if you play your cards correctly and keep all your gear up to date, there’s no need to grind levels at all for the main chapters.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the onslaught of random encounters - the game’s insistence of being a love letter to retro RPGs has proven to be a letdown to the exploration aspect. It’s frustrating to be presented with a wondrous world when walking through it for even 20 seconds means that you’re subjected to a fight. When all you want to do is discover what’s dwelling at the end of a winding path, but you get hit with an additional three battles in the process, it almost feels as though you’re being punished for your curiosity.
While the Scholar job gets access to a passive skill which reduces the encounter rate, this doesn’t remove the problem entirely - an option to switch off encounters would elevate the game’s exploration to a whole new level, and it’d be a lot easier to enjoy simply basking in the lovingly-constructed scenery without the annoyance of encountering an enemy that could be squashed in a single hit anyway. Other retro-inspired RPGs like Chained Echoes have proven that random encounters aren’t what make games like this feel nostalgic - it’s a feature that’s generally gotten on everyone’s nerves ever since its inception, so why bring it back?
As I said at the very top of this review though, Octopath Traveler II is overflowing with heart and soul, and is an absolute joy to experience. Ever since I loaded up the game, I’ve wanted to do little more than explore Solistia, perfect my team and fight all the tough bosses I can find, even if only to listen to the outstanding music that will surely accompany the fight. If you’re going to dedicate your time to any long RPG this year, let it be this one.
Pros: A delightful cast of memorable characters, engrossing gameplay, a stunning world, and a soundtrack full of absolute bangers.
Cons: The frequency of random encounters is frustrating, not much has been added to spice things up from the first game.
For fans of: Bravely Default, Chrono Trigger, spending 70+ hours on RPGs.
Octopath Traveler II releases for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch (version tested) on 24 February. Code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a complete guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.