Throughout the last decade, Square Enix has been getting more ambitious with its Japanese role playing games. One of its more interesting ideas came in 2018 with the release of Octopath Traveler, a classic-style JRPG that focuses on eight different protagonists. It wasn't a perfect effort, but it showed a lot of potential for the future. Five years later, Square Enix and ACQUIRE Corp have returned with Octopath Traveler 2, which follows the exploits of eight brand new heroes who share little in common with one another. It's a game that capably builds on its predecessor with some exciting new ideas, mechanics, and character interactions, but still doesn't feel like it's the best game it could be.
Octopath Traveler 2 has eight different protagonists. The "lead" character is ultimately determined by the player at the start of the game, as the story will start out with the origin of the chosen hero. After that character's opening chapter, it's time to embark into an expansive world. The dev team gives players a sizable world to explore, one that spans three continents. The towns all look mostly the same and the connecting roads don't add too much, so expect to use the fast travel feature often. Things get more interesting much farther into the game when players unlock sea travel, which opens up new horizons and engaging battles.
Those looking for traditional turn-based battles will love what they see with Octopath Traveler 2. Each character can wield different weapons and use select elemental magic spells. For the first half of the game, the challenge is in mixing and matching party members. Only four characters can battle at a time, meaning players have to determine who fits what situation. This gets easier much later in the game once secondary jobs become available and expand each character's weapon and magic capabilities.
All of this feeds into the Break and Boost system, which plays similarly to other Square Enix JRPGs like Bravely Default. The Boost mechanic means characters can bank moves to string together later into a combination of strikes that do heavier damage. The Break system involves exploiting enemy weaknesses. If a foe is hit with a weapon or magic spell that they're weak to, it will deplete their Break meter. Once it's depleted completely, the enemy is stunned and susceptible to greater damage. It's a system that makes prioritizing specific enemies critical and puts an emphasis on plotting out which characters should attack with which attacks.
It's all of this combined with each protagonist's individual abilities that make Octopath Traveler 2's combat so enjoyable. Some characters have special abilities that only activate during the day or night. They also have special Latent Powers that trigger after a certain number of turns. Some will deal greater damage, others will affect the Break and Boost systems, and some can take area-of-effect spells and focus them on a single target and vice versa. The combat system is refreshingly deep, which is what makes some of the game's shortcomings that much more frustrating. More on that shortly.
Traveling across the overworld and battling enemies gets deeper with the aforementioned day and night cycle. Each character has two different Path Actions, one for the day and one to use at night. Some are helpful while others are also helpful, but take players down a morally ambiguous path. I liked the idea of these Path Actions, but the problem is that a lot of them start to feel too similar to one another. For example, Partitio the Merchant can hire townspeople to aid in battle, but Agnea the Dancer can "Allure" them to follow her. In essence, it's the same thing. Similarly, about three characters have different abilities that let them challenge NPCs to battle. Few of these Path Actions truly stood out and, worse, I frequently didn't feel the need to use them, because I was getting by just fine without them.
The heroes of their own story
Let's take a moment to discuss the eight Octopath Traveler 2 stories, because they're honestly some of the highlights of the game. As one might expect, some of these tales are better than others. The ones that hit, though, are genuinely compelling. Temenos the Cleric taking players into a murder mystery, Castti the Apothecary struggling to regain her memory, Osvald the Scholar's quest for murderous revenge on the man who framed him for a heinous crime, and Hikari the Warrior looking to overthrow his warlord brother and regain his lost kingdom are strong enough narratives that they could carry a game by themselves. I greatly enjoyed the character's motives, their quirks, and even some of the voice acting and all of these tales are enhanced by some of the most beautiful HD-2D graphics I've seen to date. This art style continues to amaze and they're a treat in Octopath Traveler 2, thanks to some gorgeously detailed landscapes that are complemented by some amazing lighting effects.
Granted, not all of it is perfect. Family members passing by as I played Partitio the Merchant's story couldn't help but mock his prospector accent. There were some issues with the voice acting and some of the delivery, though that's much more noticeable because of a bigger problem. Some of the cutscenes and narrative plot points drag way too long. There isn't enough of a balance between story and gameplay, which becomes a much greater issue for reasons I'll get into in just a little bit. (Wait until I talk about the grind.) I came to like these characters a lot, but I would have liked to see shorter cutscenes and more action and gameplay woven into the story.
On the topic of characters, one of the biggest criticisms of the original Octopath Traveler was that characters too often didn't interact with one another. Square and ACQUIRE do make an effort to address this. In addition to each character getting their own stories with individual chapters, there will often be chapter interludes in which two protagonists' stories will intersect. This goes a long way towards making this game feel more like an ensemble tale. The game also makes an attempt in later chapters to have protagonists banter with their party members through a series of dialogue balloons, a dynamic that feels like it's pulled out of a Sunday comics page.
Unfortunately, even with Octopath Traveler 2's noticeable improvements, the game isn't without critical issues. First, even with the attempts to tie characters into each other's stories, they still feel like solitary tales at their core. When running through an individual character's chapters, the game still treats it as their story alone. The rest of the party is superfluous and, in fact, sometimes NPCs won't even acknowledge their existence. For example, the later chapters of Throne's story had her traveling with her party and fighting with her colleagues, but cutscenes and dialogue will play out as if she's by herself. I wouldn't describe this as bad, but I would say that it's a glaring example of this series not living up to its potential. I talked about the Sunday comics-style dialogue, but that honestly feels tacked on and ultimately adds nothing to the story.
The much more serious issue is that Octopath Traveler 2 is grindy to an unbearable degree. I've gotten used to grindy in my Square Enix RPGs, particularly during the last few years, and the slog to level up never gets any easier. It's especially egregious here. It isn't long before characters need to level into their 30s and 40s in order to continue their stories. Worse, the party only fits four at a time and idle party members don't earn experience. Add to that the paltry amounts of EXP that enemies give out (even with party member perks that award extra experience points) and it tacks tens of unnecessary hours onto this journey.
The long road ahead
Octopath Traveler 2 puts in a good effort to improve on the original. A refined combat design, engaging characters, interesting stories, eye catching environments, and a dynamite soundtrack make this a game worth experiencing. It's a strong outing, one that will do right by classic JRPG fans. Unfortunately, it gets undone by awkward narrative pacing and an unbearably long grind. I didn't go into this game expecting a short journey and I knew what I was getting into with this love letter to old school JRPGs, but when I looked at the game clock and saw that 20-25 hours had passed and I barely made a dent in the overall narrative, it felt almost discouraging.
I give Square Enix and ACQUIRE Corp props for ambition, but there's still a ways to go before the Octopath Traveler lives up to its potential and reaches its final form.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch digital code provided by the publisher. Octopath Traveler 2 will be available Friday, February 24 on PC, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch for $59.99 USD. The game is rated T.
Octopath Traveler 2
- Engaging stories
- Deep turn-based combat system
- Fun, if inconsequential, character interactions
- Beautiful art and environments
- Fantastic soundtrack
- Level grinding is brutal
- Some cutscenes drag too long
- Character Path Actions sometimes feel too similar
- Few ways to adjust encounter rate
- Stories still feel too tied to single individuals