Octopath Traveler was a pleasant surprise when it debuted a few years back. Its then-new HD-2D engine was a delight to behold, and the gameplay drew inspiration from some of Square Enix's most storied franchises: a deep Final Fantasy-style class and customization system mixed with the non-linear exploration and story of the SaGa series with a dash of combat that took cues from Bravely Default. These are great inspirations to draw from, but it resulted in a game that, while excellent, seemed to be struggling for a distinct identity. Perhaps the developers recognized this as well--with Octopath Traveler II, Square Enix seems to be trying to add new gameplay elements that give the franchise a personality of its own. And, for the most part, it has succeeded admirably.
The core of Octopath Traveler II is a traditional, turn-based JRPG with many of the usual gameplay elements: towns and dungeons to explore, objectives to complete, etc. Where most JRPGs present a linear method of progression, however, Octopath Traveler takes a very different approach: You begin the game by selecting a "main" character from eight candidates. This character has their own unique background, story arc, and goals, and will serve as a constant presence throughout your playtime. After an introductory story chapter, you are then free to explore the world to your liking. Eventually, you'll meet the other seven characters, allowing you to bring them into your party and follow their storylines as well, all culminating in a finale that ties the individual story threads together.
The focus on individual character arcs rather than a huge, high-stakes threat for most of the game's runtime is refreshing, allowing Octopath Traveler II to tell a variety of intriguing stories that vary wildly in both tone and focus. Some of them are comparatively weaker, but others command and hold your attention and keep you eager for more. Agnea's star-struck search for fame is notably bland, for instance, while Temenos' investigation into a murder plot by a religious cult and Throne's quest to kill the adoptive parents who raised her are excellent stand-outs. My personal favorite questline is the story of Osvald, who I chose as my starting character--a tale of a scholar who plans a Count-of-Monte-Christo-style prison escape and revenge after being framed for the murder of his own family by a scheming colleague.
As soon as you finish the first part of a character's story, you're allowed to continue on to the subsequent chapters, as there are no hard barriers to progressing how you choose. That doesn't mean you can stroll anywhere in the world without a care, however: Some areas feature significantly more dangerous foes than others, and trying to stumble through them with a low-level party is quite an extreme risk--albeit one the game doesn't prevent you from attempting if you feel confident in your survival skills. In fact, going into risky places can yield some major rewards, but there's nothing particularly punishing about playing it safe, either. Octopath Traveler's lack of hand-holding compared to many other JRPGs may be off-putting at first--it doesn't offer much guidance aside from very basic tutorials--but the freedom it grants you to explore and attempt challenges at the comfort level you choose is one of its strongest points.
One of the most interesting facets to exploration are the Path Actions unique to each character. Path Actions are available when interacting with the majority of NPCs, allowing you to engage with them in a variety of ways: acquiring items, learning abilities, gaining extra information needed to complete main and subquests, and even recruiting them as helpers in combat. New to Octopath Traveler II is a day/night cycle (which, thankfully, you can control at will) that changes which NPCs appear and what Path Actions are available to you. For example, merchant Partitio can buy items from NPCs during daytime at discounted prices, while at night he can hire characters as assistants in combat. There is overlap in the functions of characters' Path Actions, but judging which is most useful in a given situation adds a fun layer of strategy not typically present in JRPG town exploration.
Then we come to combat, which is the most satisfying and engaging element of Octopath Traveler II. The turn-based encounters build upon the foundation set by the original, emphasizing the need to strategically break down enemy defenses through the use of specific skills and weapons. There's also a "boost" system that allows you to significantly increase the efficacy of characters' actions by consuming the Boost Points that build up slowly during each turn of combat. The unique nature of each character extends to their performance in combat: Every party member has several individual skills and quirks that significantly affect their specific actions and the flow of combat as a whole Samurai warrior Hikari brings combat skills learned from NPCs into the fray, while apothecary Castti can mix items together to create helpful or harmful concoctions. Perhaps the most fun of these skills is that of Ochette, a beast-woman who can capture enemies and cook them into health- and status-restoring meat--or keep them to use their skills in combat.
You don't have to be content with just the default skills of your characters, either. Like the original game, you can assign characters a sub-job, which will allow them to learn active and passive skills specific to each class, as well as equip a wider variety of weaponry. Playing around and discovering particularly effective combinations of gear, party composition, and skillsets is quite enjoyable and rewarding, with each new skill unlock adding something new to your overall repertoire--and hidden job classes and EX skills found over the course of the game add even more surprises and options. A new element of Octopath Traveler II's battle strategizing is Latent Powers, character-specific Limit-Break-style abilities that can dramatically affect combat when used at the right time. Every party member's Latent Ability is different: Osvald can transform multi-target attacks into intensely powerful single-target strikes, Throne can take an extra turn, Hikari and Ochette get access to new attack skills, and Temenos can break through defenses with any attack. Using these skills in tandem with a carefully crafted setup can create delightfully devious outcomes. For example, you can have others buff Osvald's magic attacks, attack to put the enemy into a broken state, and then use Osvald's Latent Ability and several boosts to create a massively damaging single-target spell strike that melts away enemy HP like butter. Finding effective tools and setups can allow you to get through combat situations that, typically, you might be horrendously under-leveled for, which yields immense satisfaction when all goes according to plan. Which, sometimes, it doesn't, but that's risk for you.
Octopath Traveler II isn't without some quibbles and frustrations, though. Every character that joins you starts out at a low level, requiring a time investment before they get up to parity with the rest of the party. Dungeon and field exploration is very basic, with little in the way of puzzles or gimmicks to spice up typical path-following--with only a few side roads leading to treasure chests taking you off the beaten path. Sometimes you're overwhelmed with choice paralysis as to what to do next in the various stories, while at other times you feel like all of your potential next moves are high-level adventures that may put you in way over your head. The risk/reward system for certain Path Actions is utterly nonsensical: I won't get my reputation in town tarnished for mugging or picking fights with people, but I will if I fail to entice an NPC to join my party? These aren't huge flaws by any stretch, but they are things that I hope will be ironed out and spruced up in potential future installments.
Octopath Traveler II is an ideal sequel. It builds upon the foundations of the original by improving on what worked, establishing common pillars of design and gameplay--combat mechanics, Path Actions, freeform progress--that will hopefully carry forth through future games. It also iterates upon concepts and ideas borrowed from other JRPGs--the day/night cycle and Latent Abilities--that enhance the overall experience. Octopath Traveler II is a delight from start to finish, and has left me looking forward to seeing where this series will take itself in the future.