Review: ‘Octopath Traveler II’ retains its predecessor’s novel approach


In the summer of 2018, Square Enix dropped a retro-inspired JRPG throwback called Octopath Traveler. The game was unique in that it paid homage to the classic SNES JRPGs that helped put the company on the map, but made use of a custom “HD-2D” engine to successfully marry the old and the new, making for one of the best role-playing experiences in ages. Five years later, the series returns with Octopath Traveler II, bringing back everything players loved about the first game. Despite being a sequel, there’s a new cast of characters to discover and play as, and as you complete their individual stories, you’ll discover how they are woven into a much greater narrative.

Octopath Traveler II doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. The core mechanics are essentially the same as the first game, but what has changed are the eight characters, or travelers, that make up your team, each with a personal dilemma that must be overcome during the main campaign’s 70+ hour story. The new travelers are well crafted, with each backstory fleshed out, and the motivations that send them on a journey of a lifetime are new, fresh, and exciting.

I’m usually a sword-and-shield player when it comes to RPGs, but I decided to change it up for Octopath Traveler II. After reading each of the character bios, I eventually settled on Osvald V. Vanstein, a scholar of magic (read: magic user) wrongly imprisoned for the murder of his wife and child. Osvald spends his days doing hard labor and thinks of nothing but revenge against Harvey, the man he believes both set the fire that killed his family and framed him for the murder. I connected with the Count of Monte Cristo-like tale and eschewed my usual gameplay preferences to help Osvald get his revenge.

Octopath Traveler II Osvald
Screenshot via Square Enix

The learning curve for starting out with a magic user took some getting used to, as swords and assorted blades don’t rely on Spell Points (SP) to attack, and I quickly found myself having to manage plums to restore lost SP. Once I got going, I was sucked into Osvald’s plight, and in-game cutscenes began to show the greater story of the scholar’s relationship with Harvey and how everything came to a fiery end for Osvald’s wife, Rita, and daughter, Elena. Octopath Traveler II doesn’t skimp on the narrative, fully rounding out each of the eight travelers to the point that the player feels like they know them personally.

I broke Osvald out of prison and was soon on the run in the land of Solistia, stumbling into towns and meeting other playable travelers that had their own issues to deal with. When you come across one of these principal characters, you have the choice to stop the main story and go back and play their opening chapters, meaning you can’t go wrong with your initial choice since you’ll always have the opportunity to experience each character’s journey.

That mechanic is the key to fully enjoying Octopath Traveler II. You have the option to play the entire story in one playthrough and see what pushes each character forward. I compared the first game to a novel that you get to play, and the sequel stays is much the same in that regard.

Octopath Traveler Throné
Screenshot via Square Enix

Back to our fugitive scholar — Osvald quickly meets a gorgeous street thief named Throné, who works for the Blacksnakes, a black market gang in the town of New Delsta. I dive into her story and instantly fall in love with her. Together, we set out and meet another playable character, Castti, in the burg of Temenos. My party quickly fills up, and I’m truly enjoying playing their stories and learning more. Octopath Traveler II slowly and surely opens up into a much bigger story, and each of the eight actors in this particular play has a key role, creating a deep, well-conceived experience like no other.

Battles retain that classic turn-based feel, and encounters are random, further blurring the line between old and new. Like its predecessor, Octopath Traveler II‘s battles feature boosts and breaking. Each turn, a character earns a boost point that can be saved up and stored, and you can up cash up to three of them in for power attacks — the more boost points you use, the stronger your attack will be. They are devastating, and knowing when to store and when to unleash them is paramount to success. By breaking an enemy, usually by attacking with something they’re weak to, you leave them open for boost attacks and more. You’ll discover weaknesses by trial and error, or by using a study-type skill — something a scholar would have, for instance — to learn all you can about your adversaries.

The “HD-2D” graphics look absolutely stunning, all while maintaining that classic 16-bit feel in every town, building, and battle you come across. Water glistens with reflected light, and cloud and smoke effects are well employed, with pixelated character designs interacting with them seamlessly. This game — and now franchise — is a love letter to the great RPGs that gave a generation of fans so much joy, and I can’t even find the words to explain what it feels like to experience these types of games again. The first Octopath Traveler laid a solid foundation for this particular art style, and Octopath Traveler II builds upon it with each passing second of the story.

Octopath Traveler II Combat
Screenshot via Square Enix

Music and sound effects are also modernized, featuring full orchestrations in favor of classic MIDI scores made famous by the likes of Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. The “playable eight” are fully voiced, and while some of the performances aren’t as strong as others, those flaws are still endearing in their own right.

Octopath Traveler II takes a familiar, yet novel approach to video game storytelling in that it creates a playable novel. The individual stories of each traveler are stuffed with exposition and motivations, and it makes for an incredible journey that sticks with you long after the final credits roll. The graphics and throwback battles offer something for both old and new players to enjoy, and I have often found myself marveling at the execution and level of polish that developer Acquire has pulled off. The Octopath Traveler franchise has very quickly become one of my favorites, and I do hope that we won’t have to wait another five years to meet a new cast of eight new travelers embarking on a journey of a lifetime.

This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by Square Enix.

Octopath Traveler II

Octopath Traveler II sticks with what works, weaving the lives of eight unique characters -- each with their own story and motivations -- to create an epic narrative that old-school gamers will absolutely love.