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The eight playable characters in Octopath Traveler 2, shown as individual water-color paintings

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Octopath Traveler 2 makes the case for more ‘short story’ games

Dark Souls, heist movies, and Alexandre Dumas converge in Acquire’s new JRPG

Image: Acquire/Square Enix
Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

For all of its flaws, I adored the first Octopath Traveler. Its braid story was as ambitious as it was redundant, following eight playable characters around a circular continent on which quests were thrilling until they became hopelessly rote. Although it began on a note of promise, with gripping origin stories for each character, and ramped up as those plots gained steam alongside one another, it fell apart down the stretch. The stories grew repetitive. The braid came loose.

Still, it represented the best of what I consider a compelling but painfully overlooked format: the “short story collection” video game. While most releases live and die by a singular plot told in one storytelling genre (Cyberpunk! Norse mythology! Greek epics!), Octopath Traveler threw caution to the wind and dabbled in nearly all of them. Sure, its design conceits fell into a neat genre — the turn-based JRPG — but its narrative ambitions were all over the map. Messy? Sure. Fun as hell? Absolutely.

The party members fight a boss in a castle entryway in Octopath Traveler 2 Image: Acquire, Square Enix/Square Enix via Polygon

I’ve only recruited five playable characters in Octopath Traveler 2, but it’s already clear that developer Acquire wanted to push this variety further in the sequel. I chose Osvald the scholar as my starting character, and his prison-break-meets-revenge-tale of a first chapter is basically Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo if it took place in the frozen north. However, once I traveled south, I met the cleric Temenos, whose role as a courier of the “Sacred Flame” has Dark Souls written all over it. (As an inquisitor, he sets off to investigate the murder of a church official whose death was tied to rituals involving old gods, hulking demonic beasts, and a plot to extinguish said sacred flame.) Turning southwest, I entered the city of New Delstra, a doppelganger of Paris, complete with catacombs and a jazzy soundtrack, just as a heist has gone sideways. Throné, the potential successor to the leaders of a murderous thieves guild, encounters no fewer than five betrayals in the first 20 minutes of her story.

Despite the array of storytelling genres at play, the whole plot already feels tighter than that of its predecessor. Each character is investigating their own mystery, or escaping their own debacle, or pursing their own act of revenge, but each subsequent chapter in their stories feels fresher than the one that came before. Acquire isn’t just jumping between gameplay conceits (Temenos’ quests often involve investigations, while Throné’s are more about infiltration), it’s also deftly balancing storytelling genres. It’s entirely possible that Octopath 2, like the first game, will eventually grow stale. But I’m completely committed to finding out.

I wish this format wasn’t so rare. Last year’s remake of the 1994 JRPG Live a Live, despite the stumbles in its final chapters, nimbly leapt from Imperial China to Edo Japan to the American Wild West. The time-hopping epic Chrono Trigger was a critical and commercial success all the way back in 1995, further cementing the statuses of Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yuji Horii, and Akira Toriyama. Even the first-person shooter series TimeSplitters mined the short-story formula for three games, with a new entry reportedly on the way.

All of which is to say that, as with literary short-story collections, the format provides developers with enough constraints to keep things focused, but enough malleability to get weird. I’m heartened to see the formula already evolving in Octopath Traveler 2. And here’s hoping more developers brush up on their Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Karen Russell, George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, and Denis Johnson in the meantime.