Octopath Traveler broke some impressive ground back in 2018. As the first effort with the all-new HD-2D visual engine, it presented us with a new vision of what sprite-based games could look like. It backed that up with a wonderful fusion of the kind of turn-based gameplay that had been popularised with the Bravely Default series, and an adventure that focused on the epic stories of eight different heroes.
The game was a success on just about every level. Some found the narratives a little flat, perhaps, and there were issues with the pacing and “grinding”, but for a game that was aiming to be as classical as possible, the game hit its brief in a very impressive way.
Now the demo for the sequel, Octopath Traveler II, is readily available, and critics are also starting to work towards their reviews. It’s Square Enix’s first big game for the year, and it’s pretty clear, right from the outset, that the team didn’t feel the need to change much about what they had established with the first. It’s still uses that gorgeous, HD-2D engine, and still features the stories of eight intrepid heroes from all kinds of backgrounds striking out from (typically) humble beginnings in the search of fame, fortune, or destiny.
The differences between the original and the sequel will be matters of nuance, but I do think the developers have listened to the community where it matters. Most importantly, it’s so much easier to care about the characters this time. Having spent more time with the HD-2D engine, the developers have iterated it in a way that allows them to pack more personality into each figure you control or bump into. Sprites are nicely detailed and even more nicely animated, and every one of them has unique behaviours and mannerisms that make it easier to connect with them than what we saw previously. While I can only talk about the opening chapter so far, each one of those introductions does a good job of introducing a broad range of story arcs, and the promises of some excellent adventures to come.
Another new touch that I thought was really neat was the way that each character now gets two abilities that are unique to them and their “job” type – one ability works during the day, and the other ability kicks in at night. This has dual effects. Firstly, it helps keep the gameplay fresh through each chapter by giving you all these different sides to each character. Secondly, it helps deepen the characters themselves by better defining them by their roles. Naturally, we’ll need to see how each full arc plays out, but Octopath Traveler 2’s group of characters are immediately compelling.
The combat has been brought over from the predecessor quite closely. The game retains the “Bravely” system, allowing you to launch multiple attacks in one turn after spending a few turns stockpiling some energy. Each of the characters has combat abilities that are tied to their class, and it’s important to engage with the full gamut of them, because many of the enemy encounters are built to challenge those particular characters (this is particularly true of the bosses). The one downside so far is that some battles drag on for far too long, with enemies soaking up way too much punishment. It’s likely because the developers wanted players to work with the full range of abilities available, but they can drag on.
Still, Octopath Traveler II is off to a great start and, as a big-time fan of the original, I’m encouraged that this sequel is more a case of the developers being confident in their vision than trying to fundamentally what made the original so distinctive and interesting. Expect this one to make a good splash when it lands in a few weeks.