When I reviewed the original Octopath Traveler almost five years ago, I absolutely loved it. I was completely smitten with its art style, its spiritual and artistic connections to the 16-bit JRPGs I grew up with, and its amazing battle system. Playing Octopath Traveler 2, I was excited to see everything I loved about the original return. What’s surprising, however, is how little it’s advanced in the last half-decade. In fact, outside of the specific stories being told, Octopath Traveler 2 is almost indistinguishable from its predecessor. That means it’s just as great in many ways, but that lack of novelty also makes it a bit less magical the second time around.
Because Octopath Traveler 2 is so similar to its excellent predecessor, there’s no reason not to go back and play the original first. But the stories aren’t directly connected either, so if you are considering starting the journey here, you should know that once again the name ”Octopath” refers to the eight playable characters and the paths they follow through the world. You can choose to start with any of them, and after playing through the first hour-long chapter of their story you’re stuck with that character for the rest of the campaign – meaning you can’t remove them from your party. You’re then free to wander the beautiful tilt-shift world, but areas are more or less locked out by their difficulty level. For example, if you enter an area with a “Danger Level 16” and you’re at level five, you’re going to be murdered pretty much instantly upon your first encounter. You might think to yourself “Ah, but I am a seasoned JRPG veteran, I know a thing or two about how to approach high-level zones,” but I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. If the area says it’s 16, you best have a party of characters at or above level 16.
Once you do begin wandering in your level-appropriate areas, you’ll come across new towns with new characters. Upon meeting a new character you’re given the option to play through their first chapter or just add them to your party. I liked that it gives you the choice, since I prefer powering my way through games and asking questions later, but what I didn’t like was discovering fairly late in the campaign how important it is to actually play through each chapter yourself. You’re just going to have to trust me to avoid spoilers, but it’s too bad it ends up feeling like a deceptive choice.
This time around, each character has a pair of special abilities: one for the day and one for the night. Day or night can be toggled at will, so it’s more like switching between modes than something you have to wait around for. It’s pretty cool, because there are some characters you need to interact with who only show up at night, so you can just swap between the different versions of the world rather than drudge across town and visit an inn or whatever.
Throné, the thief I chose as my starting character, pickpockets people during the day and “ambushes” them by night, putting them to sleep. The ambush skill is useful when, say, a doorway is blocked by an NPC, wgile pickpocket is a good way to load up on items without having to visit the shops. It’s win-win! Other characters’ abilities include recruiting townspeople to summon during battles, fighting townspeople to learn special combat moves, and capturing monsters to call in during encounters, to name a few. Some of them are basically reskins of other characters’ abilities – recruiting followers is the most common of the skills, for example, but it comes in handy when you have two or three extra sets of hands to summon in a battle. I like the system because it lets you pick and choose companions for future fights, but you can also just steal their stuff, too, and they don’t even mind!
The day/night cycle is most important in towns, but it also makes a difference in the overworld. Enemies are more difficult at night, which means more experience, so it can be a good idea to change to the night during your travels if you’re feeling confident.
Travel between towns is done via connecting paths rather than an open overworld. It’s more like traveling around in a Mana game or Chrono Trigger, versus a Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior game. That’s not a bad thing though, and I like that a game called “Octopath Traveler” makes you literally travel via paths from location to location. Beyond the towns and cities, there are temples to visit, which bless a character with a new “EX” ability. I recommend tracking down all these temples, because those abilities are extremely handy to have and make the late-game a little less arduous.
Each character has their own multi-chapter story to progress through, but I did like how they’re all quite different in tone and scope. For example, Hiroki’s tale starts off with what’s definitely the most epic and open of them all and most typical of what you’d expect in a massive 80-hour JRPG like this, while Partitio’s is much more humble – and yet this simple merchant’s story surprised me and ended up being my favorite out of them all. I especially enjoyed the way Cassti’s played out, with some entertaining fourth-wall-breaking moments. In fact, I found all of the individual stories’ conclusions satisfying, but the paths leading up to them didn’t always resonate with me, particularly the ones with less at stake. Again, it makes sense once you’ve completed them, but it’s harder to savor a story about a clumsy dancer trying to become famous in the moment when someone else is fighting to take back the stolen throne of their country. All the stories are at least an improvement over the original, although not so much that HBO is going to be optioning any of them for a gritty drama any time soon.
It’s fortunate that I’m still a big fan of the excellent turn-based battle system from the first game, because it returns almost unchanged here. Each enemy has one or more “weak points” to uncover by hitting them with the right weapon or elemental attack. (It’s not a glowing orb on the back of their head like you might be thinking for weak points in games, it’s a point of weakness.) Once you uncover the weak point of an enemy type, it’s displayed for every subsequent encounter. I loved the system in the first game, and I’m not surprised to see it return. However, it can get frustrating in some of the bigger boss battles, because you end up wasting so many attacks just trying to uncover weaknesses. Still, I really enjoy the extra dimenson it brings to fights as I try to line up my weak point attacks in a way that stuns a target so my most powerful regular attacks can do more damage, while also aiming to prevent the strongest enemies from getting a chance to attack me back.
However, lifetime of playing turn-based JRPGs means I’ve grown accustomed to a certain predictability with the nature of a weak point, and enemy weaknesses here often feel entirely random. If you encounter an enemy that’s clearly made of ice, the vocabulary of JRPGs (and, you know, physics) would suggest that creature would be weak to fire… but in Octopath Traveler 2 that’s rarely the case at all. That frozen elemental is actually weak to light magic! Or ice for some reason! If there’s a connection between enemy types and weaknesses it’s not immediately clear, which means the first round of each battle with a newly discovered enemy is an exercise in guesswork (outside of the few character abilities that will provide a little starting intel). You’re pretty safe shooting flying enemies with arrows to expose their weakness, but not always. It seems very arbitrary.
I’m glad I didn’t have to uncover weaknesses every time because there is a fair amount of grinding involved in Octopath Traveler 2, which I don’t necesarilly mind. Obviously opinions differ on this subject, but I find grinding in RPGs almost meditative, as long as putting in a little extra effort before a boss battle pays off in the end. You won’t progress your party if you don’t spend some time on that grind, as the leveling required to get to the next part of the story isn’t achieved simply by following the path laid out. You’re going to have to do some back and forth and running in circles and leveling up before you can move on.
That being said, if you enter into a “Danger Level 14” area and reach the boss with a party at or near level 14, you should be able to defeat it, so I always had a clear idea of how far off I was. You can brute-force your way through some of the earlier bosses, just like in any JRPG, but the abilities systems, weakness exploits, and battle-point bonuses forced me to get pretty strategic with my thinking in order to do so. After losing a boss battle more than once, I would immediately take a look at my party: What strengths do they have? What complimentary skills can I employ to improve their abilities? Am I equipping the right secondary jobs and weapons? In other words, you cannot live by the grind alone. Once I struck the right balance of all the different elements, I was able to retry and bring down even the trickiest bosses, and it was a lot more rewarding because of it.
That being said, the final boss sucks so much.
Without spoiling anything, I will say that I went into the final boss fight confident in my team’s abilities and strengths, only to be defeated time and time again. Of all the RPG boss battles I’ve played over the years, Octopath Traveler 2 gave me the most trouble. I was one attempt away from making a spreadsheet – and no, that is not a joke. The only reason I finally beat the boss wasn’t because I was over-leveled (which I was… by a lot), but because I took a deep breath and literally wrote out battle notes before my final attempt. I struck a balance of skills, weapons, character matches, and item use and gave more thought and organization to that final encounter than I think I’ve ever done in a game, ever. No joke, I spent more than 10 hours trying, and failing, to defeat the final boss. It was the most astonishingly brutal JRPG boss I can remember fighting, and when I finally got that victory, it was a joy like no other. It sounds crazy, but the way I had to rethink and plan out my entire approach to that final battle actually improved my opinion of this sequel.