Image courtesy of Square Enix Co., Ltd.

Octopath Traveler II builds a bigger, bolder world in its stunning HD-2D style

Mike Williams |
August 22, 2023
Acquire Corp. is a game studio that was established in 1994. Acquire is known for the Tenchu series, What Did I Do to Deserve This, My Lord?, Road to Dragons, and for the development of Octopath Traveler, and now Octopath Traveler II.
Square Enix is the publisher behind some of the biggest RPGs worldwide, including the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises. While games in those franchises continue to move forward with impressive 3D graphics and fast-paced action combat, sometimes it’s good to go back to a simpler time.

With this in mind, Square Enix and Acquire—the studio behind What Did I Do to Deserve This, My Lord?, and Tenchu—came together to create Project Octopath Traveler. It was developed with an aim of reproducing the older pixel graphics in “a rich way with current technology,” according to director Keisuke Miyauchi. The result of that vision is “HD-2D,” presenting 2D pixels in a lush 3D environment, featuring eight different characters and their own distinct stories that players could experience in any order.
 

When it was released in 2018, the title was simply shortened to Octopath Traveler. Polygon called the original Octopath Traveler “the magical RPG the Nintendo Switch needed,” and IGN said that the HD-2D style lent the game “a delightful old-school charm while giving it a modern flavor.”

Five years later, Square Enix and Acquire have returned to HD-2D with Octopath Traveler II on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5. Octopath Traveler II is already seeing praise that surpasses the original, with GameSpot saying it's “an ideal sequel” and VG247 calling it “superior to its predecessor in more or less every way.” We talked with Square Enix and Acquire about improving the HD-2D style, designing eight new heroes, and how Unreal Engine helped the team craft the game’s heart-pounding encounters.
 
Image courtesy of Square Enix Co., Ltd.

Were there any goals you had coming into the sequel?

Acquire Corp:
We settled on “evolution, not transformation” as our game concept when we started working on the sequel. In Octopath Traveler, our goal was to come up with a modern take on memories of playing pixel-art RPGs in the SNES era; in Octopath Traveler II, we wanted to further expand upon memories of playing the original, instead.

The first Octopath Traveler blazed a trail with its HD-2D art style. Are there any ways in which you set out to improve the art style for the second game?

Acquire:
We tried to create high-resolution artwork that just barely looked like it could belong in a pixel-art game while still leaving the same visual impression as Octopath Traveler. For example, the characters in both the original game and the sequel have similarly pixelated faces, but the characters in Octopath Traveler II have a smaller head-to-body ratio, which allowed us to fit more action into events and battles. We also increased the resolution of the maps, giving each a unique, organic pixel-art appearance. Finally, we think that we have given players a strong sense of the graphical improvements in Octopath Traveler II through the dynamic day and night lighting we have applied to these high-resolution graphics.
 
Image courtesy of Square Enix Co., Ltd.

Are there any challenges designing a “2.5D” game versus a more traditional 2D or 3D world?

Acquire:
Because the characters are drawn using 2D pixel art, they resemble flat sheets of paper. The backgrounds, on the other hand, are almost entirely rendered in 3D, so we struggled to figure out how to make them look natural alongside the characters in this game.

We also made particularly heavy use of 3D camerawork in Octopath Traveler II, so another challenge was determining how far we could rotate the camera without compromising graphical fidelity. We really pushed ourselves to rotate the camera nearly 90 degrees in some battle effects and 180 degrees in some events.

Besides visuals, were there any ways in which the team was able to build upon the first game for Octopath Traveler II?

Acquire:
The world’s sense of scale has changed in a big way. This game has two continents separated by an ocean; players can move freely between them by boat, and the protagonists’ stories unfold simultaneously on a grand scale on both sides of the ocean. Players are also rewarded for exploring each map more than they were in the first game.

How does Octopath Traveler II’s world compare to its predecessor?

Square Enix:
We made Octopath Traveler II around the theme of a more expansive world and era.

Whereas the original game was set in a relatively-constrained world modeled after medieval Europe, the sequel is set in Solistia, a world that is split into an Eastern and Western continent separated by an ocean, at a time when large ships travel along established sea lanes and new steam-powered technologies are being invented.

In addition to the cities with rather advanced civilizations, there are also a variety of different cultures and scenery for players to enjoy, including new countries that have an Asian aesthetic and even islands of beast people.

Incidentally, the two Octopath Traveler games tell entirely different stories, so the sequel can even be enjoyed by new players.

How does the team approach designing maps to give players room to explore?

Acquire:
As in the first game, Octopath Traveler II uses a fixed camera while the player is traveling, so we tried to keep places that the player would like to visit on a single screen. From thinking about how to get to distant treasure chests, to wondering whether the next map will be covered in sand or snow, to sensing that a town or dungeon is nearby, there is more to explore in this game and more modes of transportation to use, including ladders, canoes, and seafaring boats. There may even be some places that players didn’t realize they could reach.

Octopath Traveler II pushes the world further into a more modern era, with additions like railroads and steam engine trains. Why did this time jump make sense for the game?

Acquire:
We constructed a world in more modern times to convey at a glance that Octopath Traveler II takes a different approach to world-building and story than the first game. That said, we didn’t simply make everything brand-new; there are also fields and towns that still have some medieval qualities like the original Octopath Traveler. We designed the entire world to let players enjoy aspects of both the old and the new.
 
Image courtesy of Square Enix Co., Ltd.

Are there any ways the new day/night cycle changes how players will interact in the game?

Acquire:
The new day/night cycle is not just a cosmetic change: it affects the movement patterns of NPCs in towns and the Path Actions that the protagonists can use. It even introduces some strategic gameplay elements; for example, if you’d like to move an NPC who’s blocking a door, you could use the Hunter’s daytime action, “Provoke,” which has a lower chance of success, or the Thief’s nighttime action, “Ambush,” which can easily knock out NPCs.
Image courtesy of Square Enix Co., Ltd.
While Octopath Traveler II is a standalone experience, are there any story connections to the previous game?

Acquire:
No, not really, but there are a few Easter eggs for players of the first game to find.

How did the team approach designing all of the brand-new playable characters?

Square Enix:
We started by collecting details on each character with the scenario team, then we asked the head of character design, Naoki Ikushima, to quickly make some pencil sketches for us that we roughly designed.

After making sure that we had a good balance of physiques and other traits for every character, we started filling in more details for characters like the Warrior and the Dancer. For example, in Octopath Traveler II, we came up with the idea for Hikari’s character after wondering what it would be like for the Warrior to use skill and speed to win instead of being portrayed as the archetypical muscular swordsman like Olberic from the original Octopath Traveler.

This is one example of how the team at Acquire designed characters in the sequel in contrast to their counterparts from the first game. It was easy to make the outfits of characters like Throné (the Thief) and Partitio (the Merchant) reflect the game’s milieu, which we also think set them apart from their counterparts from the original Octopath Traveler.
Image courtesy of Square Enix Co., Ltd.
The original Octopath Traveler offered moments where different playable characters could briefly interact. Will the playable characters in the sequel be able to interact more with each other?

Acquire:
Characters in the sequel have “cross stories” that unfold together. Through the dialogue and events that take place in them, cross stories touch on different sides of the characters than the main story. And, of course, Travel Banter is still alive and well in the sequel.

Latent Power is a new system added to Octopath Traveler's overall combat system. Can you elaborate on how it works and how you went about designing it?

Acquire:
The Latent Power system uses a gauge that fills during combat to pull off special abilities. Each character has a different Latent Power that has the potential to turn the tide when players find themselves in a tight spot.

We added the Latent Power system to build drama unique to each player in combat. While fighting a powerful boss, players can unleash their Latent Power at just the right time to get out of a bind, or they can grow impatient as they wait for the Latent Power gauge to fill. By introducing this new gameplay element to battles that have a tendency to grow formulaic, especially boss battles, we allowed them to play out in a more exciting way.
Image courtesy of Square Enix Co., Ltd.
In the first game, each playable character had a Path Action which gave them unique ways to interact with the world, like Olberic being able to challenge random characters to a duel. What's an interesting Path Action that you'd like to highlight?

Acquire:
First of all, we’d like to highlight all the new nighttime Path Actions that were added in this game while also pointing out that several daytime Path Actions have changed, too. For example, the Warrior can use the “Challenge” Path Action to learn skills from defeated opponents, and the dancer can initiate a Dance Session in combat with NPCs after successfully using the “Allure” Path Action on them.

Why is Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?

Acquire:
Unreal Engine gives artists the freedom to experiment on their own. In Octopath Traveler II, we implemented the day/night cycle using Unreal Engine’s Sequencer. In the original Octopath Traveler, we sometimes had to play tricks with the lighting to make the characters and the background look well together; this required us to consider a variety of approaches using both 2D and 3D graphics. We think that Unreal Engine empowered our artists to initiate this rigorous process of trial-and-error themselves.

Unreal Engine also lets game developers iterate quickly using the Blueprint Visual Scripting System along with console commands, profilers, and a plethora of other standard debugging tools. Changing specifications often require code to be refactored while a game is under development, but with Unreal Engine, it’s possible to quickly and easily refactor code by reorganizing Blueprints. We also think that Unreal Engine is suited to game development because it has a simple and flexible system for extending its debugging features.

Did the team have any particular UE tools or features they found helpful?

Acquire:
We used Sequencer a lot while making Octopath Traveler II. This was not just limited to the day/night cycle: we also used Sequencer during encounters, when showing abilities in battle, and when moving the camera during events. Because Sequencer makes it easy to change parameters and preview them in real time, we could quickly check in-game animations while also having more programmatic control over them; this allowed us to add more depth to our visual effects.

Unlike the first game's Switch-only launch, Octopath Traveler II is launching on Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5. Were there ways in which Unreal Engine helped you develop the game's various ports?

Acquire:
The ability to change per-platform settings in real time was extremely helpful. Using the console commands, we could adjust and apply quality settings in real time without the need to rebuild the project after each change. As a result, we could fine-tune the game’s performance and quality while looking at the results on-screen, which made multi-platform development more efficient.

Thank you for your time. Where can people go to learn more about Octopath Traveler II?

Our official websites are here: If you’re still on the fence about whether the game is for you, we invite you to try the free Octopath Traveler II–Prologue Demo Version! You can always migrate your save data to the retail version later.

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