A new art style and aesthetics can change game design and make a whole new genre interesting again, bringing potential to other genres of classic games.
As Octopath Traveler 2 has recently been released to a warm critical reception on the Nintendo Switch, it is worth delving into its art style and what it means for gaming as a whole. The game is one of a line up of Square Enix titles released mostly on the Switch that come with the HD-2D art style.
All of these HD-2D titles have been RPGS and remakes confined to Square Enix. However, the potential here is much greater than just remakes of older RPGs in terms of new genres that this art style could be applied to as well as companies who would do something similar with remakes of older games.
This art style actually made its presence originally felt during the original Octopath Traveler trailer and release, but since then appeared in a number of other Square Enix titles that came out. A notable example was the remake of Super Famicom-exclusive RPG, Live a Live, for the Nintendo Switch, which was reported to have sold more than 500k copies from July to September of last year.
This form of aesthetic works really well on mobile devices and the portable Nintendo Switch display because it feels almost like looking at mini figures inside a display. The games come to life with a mix of graphical techniques that make the experience feel alive and not flat as in traditional sprite-based games.
One can think of it as if the games loop around to the viewer and the characters feel alive despite them being pixel-art or sprite based. This is due to the rest of the backdrop being 3D or 2D with bells and whistles thrown in. There is a tilt shift aspect or shader that really brings this point home and makes this art style unique in gaming.
The art style still uses pixel art or traditional 2D sprites, but adds modern twists to them — such as fog, lighting effects, 3D background objects like homes or trees, and volumetric fog. In previous generations of consoles, this art style was used to a degree, but in a more limited way and often dubbed isometric 2D or other names of this sort. Examples of this would be Breath of Fire III on the original Playstation or the Disgaea games.
However, the HD-2D aesthetic goes beyond adding just a few effects and isometric design to a game. It truly is making old games come alive, but is confined to Square Enix’s lineup of games thus far (some remakes and some new titles within the JRPG genre).
Square Enix has previously stated (even before the release of Liva a Live) that they planned on bringing more classic Super Nintendo RPGs back into the modern era using this aesthetic. It really brings potential to modern gamers being able to relive games of the past that they would not be inclined to pick up with the graphics or outdated aesthetics, sound and display support options they are limited to.
However, one can argue that this form of art style can go beyond just RPG titles and can bring back other genres to modern sensibilities. One genre that this art style can have a similar impact on would be the 2D sidescroller or platformer with parallax scrolling and other techniques being improved for the modern gamer.
In fact, Square Enix Producer Tomoya Asano mentioned a notable RPG-platformer hybrid from the Super Nintendo era that could be remade using this art style and hinted at such a possibility.
“We lined up all of them and made a presentation that Live A Live was the most suitable,” he said. The second place was ActRaiser.”
Like RPGs, many platformers have always had a strong focus on backgrounds and backdrop aesthetics so the action can be enjoyed for long periods of play time and to make games in overcrowded genres (during the 16 bit eras of gaming and before) stand out. There are many games in both genres that can be brought back using such an aesthetic and there may be other games and genres that can also benefit from it beyond these two.
It is worth pondering what other games will be remade using this aesthetic from the Super Nintendo Nintendo era of Square Enix RPGs and beyond just this company if it chooses to either license it out or if other developers do something similar with their backlog of titles. So many games could benefit from it — like the Donkey Kong Country trilogy or the Mega Man titles. Former Enix RPGs like Dragon Quest also seem ripe for receiving such a treatment.
Even if it continues to stay bound within a limited set of releases, at the very least, the future of this HD-2D art style should be interesting as Square Enix continues to experiment with it and add new touches to it with each release. Let us hope it is not just a fad of recent times and dies off like other gaming art styles within a generation or so, but continues to thrive for the long term.