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One of the great RPG battle systems returns in Octopath Traveler 2

Break on through to the other side

A giant shark menaces a line of four pixelated characters standing on the deck of a ship in Octopath Traveler 2 Image: Acquire/Square Enix
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Octopath Traveler 2 is quintessential gaming comfort food. It’s expansive, but simple and streamlined, changing virtually nothing that made the original game work. It’s nostalgic and figurative; it boils big, adult melodramas down into the visual language of the games of our childhood — a few frames of animation here, a few winking pixels there. And it’s luxurious, too, wrapping its retro look in lavish visual effects and accompanying it with an all-timer of an epic, orchestral score by Yasunori Nishiki.

But, as comforting as it is, Octopath 2 also has a surprising amount of bite where it counts. Its turn-based battle system, returning from the first Octopath, is one of the most refined and strategic iterations on the design of classic Japanese RPGs you can find. It has an eye on tradition and doesn’t overwhelm the player with complexity, but through a few simple rules sets up a web of cause and effect that will keep you constantly on your toes, even during the most mundane moments of grind.

It works like this: Every enemy has a set of specific weaknesses, either to elemental magic attacks or to physical attacks from certain weapons. They also have a defense level, which you can break down by exploiting their weaknesses. Once their defense level reaches zero, you Break them, stunning them for a turn and dramatically increasing damage done against them.

The battle screen in Octopath Traveler 2, showing four characters ranged against four lizardman enemies Image: Acquire/Square Enix

Meanwhile, player characters in your party of four acquire Boost Points with every turn, up to a maximum of five. Up to three of these can be spent at once to multiply the number or power of the character’s attacks and skills. You can spend BP to quickly break an enemy, or save them to maximize the power of your attacks against a broken enemy.

This is, essentially, it: Break and Boost. There’s a simple, immensely satisfying rhythm to this process of banking BP and spending them at the right moment, enhanced by the game’s punchy visual and sound effects. Beyond that, it brings so many of the game’s other design elements into focus. Squad composition, for one: When putting together your team of four from the eight available characters, you need to consider not just character levels and their traditional roles of caster, healer, or tank, but also a good spread of weapon types and elemental attacks that will cover enemy weaknesses, to get you those crucial Breaks in the most efficient way possible.

Another is turn order. An oft-neglected element of turn-based combat, characters’ speed determines the order in which they make their moves each turn. You’ll seldom watch the future turn order as closely as in Octopath Traveler 2, as you consider where to direct attacks, which order to attempt to Break your enemies in, when to drop in healing, buffing, and debuffing, when to deploy Boost, and when to use Break to nullify strong boss attacks.

A character hits three enemies with a powerful magic attack, and the word BREAK appears three times, in battle in Octopath Traveler 2 Image: Acquire/Square Enix

There’s always something to think about. Even when mindlessly grinding around the overworld map, it’s hard not to latch onto the hooks that Octopath 2’s battle system offers you and try to optimize your strategy, rather than just spamming basic attacks. Finding a way to comprehensively unpack the defenses of a gaggle of humble monsters is richly satisfying in its own way; it helps that there’s a generous experience reward for defeating enemies untouched. Meanwhile, the substantial, lengthy, and multi-phase boss fights find new puzzle-solving challenges in the battle formula. For example, some bosses summon minions who defend the boss’s weaknesses, locking them up and making the boss hard or impossible to Break until you can clear the minions out of the way.

Octopath 2 wisely chooses to leave the first game’s near-perfect battle system almost untouched, remixing the skills of the eight returning character classes rather than doing anything dramatic to the superstructure of combat. The game’s headlining day-night cycle, which can be switched at will and which affects characters’ Path skills, has a bigger effect in the overworld than in battle for most characters (although the increased frequency of random battles at nighttime is a boon for grinding). The other big addition is Latent Powers, a free-use special skill for each class that charges up over time. Some of these just unlock powerful new skills, but the more interesting ones reach into the ticking clockwork of the battle system to give you an extra advantage, such as two actions per turn, a full charge of BP, the ability to apply single-target skills to all targets, or vice versa, to focus all your damage on one opponent.

Latent powers are a fun addition, but they don’t do much to disturb the beautiful craftsmanship of Octopath Traveler’s combat design. Here is a system that, through the shifting, complex relationships between a few simple layers, keeps you constantly engaged, shifting tactics to keep up with its syncopated rhythms, and never settling into too easy a routine. Octopath Traveler 2 is comfort gaming — but it never lets you get too comfortable.