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I'm still not really sure what possessed me to go all-in on Octopath Traveler II. Team Asano's 2018 outing felt like a miss to me; among a slew of complaints about OT1's mechanics feeling half-baked and Team Asano's now-signature HD2D look not quite finding its footing, its very loosely connected plot and minimal character interactivity felt like a waste of a wonderful setting and good characters and left me lukewarm on the possibility of more Octopath. As it'd turn out, it's always darkest...
Flash forward a bit: Team Asano's much-praised LIVE A LIVE remake (I've had some choice words to say about it here on backloggd) went WAY over on me while raising questions. "If this existed before, why did Octopath feel like a step back?" The blueprint was right there! LAL didn't even play around with the pretense of needing the characters to all be in the same region -- without spoiling much, characters' connectivity felt thematic and driven by a late-game plot event -- and the way things came together legitimately felt like a surprise. My faith restored, even if only in part, I figured the team could learn from both longstanding criticisms of OT while looking toward a game like LIVE A LIVE to draw some inspiration. With that in mind, I decided to give Octopath Traveler II a tentative go.
I came out of it feeling vindicated for taking a leap; Octopath Traveler II is everything its predecessor couldn't be. Although it doesn't change much of its series core DNA -- you're still playing through 8 different narratives, combat is largely untouched save for a couple new bells and whistles, the music still absolutely rocks -- II massively improves on many of the weak points presented by the original. Characters' stories now sprinkle some breadcrumbs hinting at an overarching narrative, the cast now acknowledges each other more frequently (even in battle!), and perhaps most importantly, a few joint chapters and skits throughout the game give some of the main cast an opportunity to bond and lean on each other's strengths to solve problems and uncover truths of their world in a way that doesn't feel cobbled together and inelegant. They really did it.
Of course, I do have my squabbles. Exploration feels very dioramic; although the world is "open", for lack of a better term, nearly every field and dungeon lays its cards out on the table with a minimap/radar highlighting points of interest for players to simply sprint over to without a second thought. It does work for some highly "Point-A-to-Point-B" gaming -- I lovingly referred to it more than once as a "blue collar RPG" -- but it's the sort of inorganic lean that really does turn the moments between into box-ticking with some turn-based combat sprinkled in. Personal actions are very similar in that regard, making every town a checklist of NPCs to harass for info, hidden treasures, skills, and so forth. The world of Solistia is teeming with a ton of essentially non-essential lore revealed by using these actions, though; every town feels like Value Town. This focus on details permeates through other portions of the game, too, with some incredibly well-planned moments even revolving around integrating character abilities directly into plot progression.
Character stories are largely better in II (Agnea's and Partitio's were personal favorites), though it was a bit strange that the scenario team still hasn't quite nailed how to put the cast in situations that at least consider the presence of party members, be it through a couple extra lines of optional dialogue or even a slight deviation in how a chapter plays out. Still, it's a monumental step above OT, even moreso emphasized by a jaw-dropping final chapter that felt like it was crafted specifically to address everything I thought the first game missed out on.
Octopath II sticks its landing cleaner than I thought it would. Really, I think the only place it DOESN'T far outstrip its predecessor is its music...but even that isn't because of a dip in quality, I just thought OT1's soundtrack was that good. By the time credits rolled, I had been moved and entertained in ways that OT hadn't compelled me to be, making this one a huge bright spot in my recent gaming landscape and a worthy GOTY candidate. Go into this one with confidence if you love and appreciate modern craftsmanship and classic RPGs.
After my second "proper" way through this game, I feel a lot better in general about its systems than I did the first go-around...and I didn't even dislike them to begin with!
Truly an excellent game that manages to channel the spirit of the series' first instalment while feeling altogether new. I have my share of superficial nitpicks about Breath of the Wild, both in 2017 and in 2023 (having all your toys at the onset and never being gated by new tools being a blessing and a curse, truncated dungeon/setpiece sequences), but none of them really stood in the way of me and a good time.
Something that always stuck out to me was how friendly the game is about letting players solve problems their way. My second playthrough was SIGNIFICANTLY different from my first, and not necessarily just because I walked a different route (or because I played entirely with the base 3 hearts). BOTW inspires creativity in problem solving in a way that previous Zelda games simply didn't accommodate for in their design, something I sincerely hope carries over into Tears of the Kingdom. From the very early looks we've had, it seems likely that's the case.
Even after all these years it's still baffling to me that Camelot was able to fit SO much onto a GBA cartridge. TLA, even moreso than its predecessor, is a technical marvel on merits of its scale alone.
Still, that ends up being something of a double-edged sword. Dungeons tend to run on the long side and don't have any in-game maps, and rooms often have to be retreaded just to do one or two small tasks ad infinitum, and many don't even have a payoff boss to cap the experience off. Combined with the GBA's already miniscule screen space, these elements make it a bit ill-suited for the same style of pick-up-and-play that made even Golden Sun so appealing as a handheld RPG.
At least the added depth makes for a much grander back half of the saga. Felix and co.'s journey around the world feels leaps beyond the first game's narrative foundations, both in weight and in spectacle, so it's easy to forgive some of the slower segments in favor of some solid story and worldbuilding payoffs. It's also surprisingly crispy on the gameplay side, with tons of stuff to collect, excellent visuals and fast-flowing turn-based combat.
Overall I strongly prefer this to the first game and appreciate playing through it every now and again. Just wish dungeons took a little less of this game's time in favor of bosses/setpieces.