The Elden Ring of JRPGs
Early in my adventures through Octopath Traveler II, a new video game from Square Enix about eight people on adventures (hence the title), I ran into a young boy who triggered a side quest. First he asked for a healing grape. So I gave him one. Then he asked for an olive. Gave him one of those too. Then he asked for a grape again and I realized that he was just screwing with me.
I used one of my party members to scrutinize him, giving me a brief description of his inner psyche, and learned that he was a spoiled rich kid whose father, across the ocean in another town, sent him off to find independence. Later in the game, I ran into a rich man whose own inner thoughts revealed the existence of a son. So I used another party member’s ability to get the father to tag along with me, brought him back to the rich brat and triggered a fun little cut-scene that ended the quest.
Most video games would have presented a side quest like this with a series of clear objectives and big flashing markers to show you exactly where to go and what to do. But Octopath Traveler II, following a old-school video game tradition that was likely started to get kids to spend their parents’ money on strategy guides and phone calls to the Nintendo Power hotline, embraces opacity. The entire game is full of quests that give you a few hints and expect you to piece together the rest on your own, like little puzzles that are always a delight to solve. After 50+ hours, I’m still wrestling with some of them, including this one island maze that I haven’t quite solved just yet.
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This sense of mystery is just one of the reasons Octopath Traveler II is so great, building on the rough foundation established by its predecessor to create a gorgeous house. (Perhaps even House of the Year?) The first Octopath Traveler had plenty of its own mysterious side quests, but Octopath Traveler II improves upon them with better writing, a more interesting world map and most importantly, an entire structural overhaul. The first game was so formulaic and repetitive, it usually felt like a chore to play. The sequel shakes things up. I haven’t been this hooked on a game since I marathoned Elden Ring a year ago, and that opacity is one key reason.
Games that present you with map markers and task lists can be appealing in a lizard brain kind of way, like going to the grocery store with a pen and a piece of paper and getting a minor endorphin rush every time you cross off the seltzer or chickpeas. It can be fun to blast your way from checkpoint to checkpoint in the likes of Horizon or God of War, especially when they’ve got solid combat and strong stories. But the games that really engage me are the ones that activate my brain — games like Elden Ring, Return of the Obra Dinn, The Case of the Golden Idol, Outer Wilds, and so on.
I never thought Octopath Traveler II would be on that list. But here we are.
And now for our semi-regular roundups…
Things I did recently
Published a big feature on the launch of Hogwarts Legacy, the new Harry Potter game from Warner Bros. and Avalanche Software that has been overshadowed by JK Rowling’s views on transgender people.
Talked with my Triple Click co-hosts about the same topic
Broke news on this year’s new Call of Duty (a Modern Warfare II expansion turned full release) and EA cancelling a secret Apex Legends/Titanfall project (that was not in fact Titanfall 3)
Dug into the future of Halo in the wake of mass layoffs at developer 343 Industries
Things I liked recently
Tracers in the Dark by Andy Greenberg, a fantastic book about the fascinating people who hunt for cryptocurrency criminals
This old Awl blog post about Dilbert, a comic book series I loved so much as a child that I collected all the printed book versions of them, and reckoning with the repugnant views of its creator, who is getting dropped from newspapers after some racist comments. (An enjoyable quote from the San Francisco Chronicle’s editor in New York Times: “Very few readers noticed when we killed it, and we only had a handful of complaints.”)
Crypto Island, an illuminating podcast from PJ Vogt that explores all things crypto in entertaining and curious fashion.
Natasha Lyonne’s wonderful new show Poker Face, an episodic murder mystery series starring a crass but spirited woman who can tell when people are lying. Her catchphrase, “Bullshit!”, is an all-timer.
I find this interesting, because so far I have mostly read criticism about OT2. This is the first positive review I have read.
Have been very surprised to hear so many good things about Octopath II from so many different sources! Hadn't even considered buying it a week ago, but now I'm thinking I'll probably own it before the end of this week.