I have to be honest, I didn’t actually have very many expectations from Bravely Default II. Whereas I love RPGs in all their forms and guises, and I especially love JRPGs, nothing about Bravely Default II looked that appealing. The art style appeared off puttingly cheap and low budget, the two demos that the developers had released for the game failed to make much of an impression (or at least a positive one), and the last game in the series, Bravely Second, hadn’t exactly been a convincing follow up to the surprisingly revelatory original. Suffice it to say, then, that going into this game, I really didn’t expect much at all.
Which was why the more I played Bravely Default II, and the more it won me over, the more surprised I was at just how thoroughly it was subverting my expectations and pre-conceived notions. Bravely Default II is not the next Persona 5, it’s not the new great landmark JRPG that sets a new milestone for the genre. What it is, and what it’s interested in being, is a straightforward turn based JRPG, that fans of the genre’s 16- and 32-bit heyday will instantly take to and embrace. If you grew up playing Final Fantasy 4, 6, 7, or 9, then Bravely Default II will feel like a warm, comforting homecoming of sorts. It represents something we used to get so much of, but don’t anymore – a mid-budget JRPG that is neither interested in cutting costs and pandering to the lowest common denominator, nor in being cutting edge, or pushing the boundaries of what a JRPG can be. Rather, just on delivering more of the very comfortable same.
This warm, comfortable feeling isn’t actually apparent from the get go. Indeed, Bravely Default II actually makes a remarkably poor first impression, one that serves to reinforce a lot of the misgivings I had about the game. The storytelling feels juvenile, low-stakes, rushed, and tropey, the mechanics feel restrictive and overly tutorialized, and the graphics can take a while to get used to. However, it actually doesn’t take long for the game to begin sinking its hooks into you, and to start opening up in ways that belie the opening hours. The good news is that in under an hour, Bravely Default II is already getting into the swing of things, and it starts doing things that impress, paradoxically in all the same ways that its opening bits may have suggested disappointment.
"The more I played Bravely Default II, and the more it won me over, the more surprised I was at just how thoroughly it was subverting my expectations and pre-conceived notions."
The most immediate and striking of these is actually the graphics. While the visuals in the overworld, and during cutscenes zooming in on the chibi models, throw the divisive graphical style into sharp relief, the moment you enter a town or even a dungeon, the game shines. Hand-drawn backdrops give towns and cities a gorgeous and distinct look, and very honestly, with no exaggeration, if the entire game had looked as good as it does in cities, it would rank as among the best looking JRPGs ever. As it stands, just how good it looks in cities manages to make the contrast with the overworld and cutscene segments even more unfortunate, but simultaneously, it also helps you slowly acclimatize to the game’s visual palette.
This gradual easing into the game’s world is also reflected in other aspects – for example, where the game’s story and storytelling can come off as low-stakes and juvenile at first, it settles into a fairly epic scope, if on well trodden ground involving crystals and an impending apocalypse, pretty quickly, and outlines the parameters of the journey you will be taking through the game’s world with distinct clarity, while also introducing a boisterous cast for you to get attached to, with some generally good voice acting (though NPC voice acting ranges from middling to bad, at least in English).
Bravely Default II’s story never ends up being as self important as most modern Square Enix games, and it retains a remarkable clarity of vision and simplicity of purpose, which makes it refreshing. It gives you enough to chew on and invest in, it gives you enough context to provide a framework for your hero’s journey, but otherwise, it doesn’t beat you over the head with obnoxious made-up words, ridiculous characters, and cutscenes that can give Hideo Kojima a run for his money. In other words, Bravely Default II isn’t interested in impressing you with its story, it’s interested in pulling you into its world – and that, again, helps it resemble those games of a bygone era it is emulating in more good ways than one.
Much like its predecessors, Bravely Default II does break from said classic JRPGs when it comes to mechanics, however. Shortly after the initial hours, the game’s mechanics open up, allowing for a range of player expression that modern JRPGs seldom manage. Bravely Default II, which retains the battle system from the previous games in the series, includes an immense amount of mechanical complexity, both in combat, and out-of-battle character and party composition meta-builds.
"Shortly after the initial hours, the game’s mechanics open up, allowing for a range of player expression that modern JRPGs seldom manage. "
Battles themselves will be familiar to anyone who’s played either of the two previous Bravely games – how many actions per turn you can perform is governed by how many Brave Points you have. You get 1 Brave Point per turn, and you can bank Brave Points (up to three) to be able to perform multiple actions on a later turn, at the cost of doing nothing but defending on your current turn. Conversely, you can also “borrow” Brave Points against future turns (again, up to three) to be able to perform multiple actions on your current one even if you didn’t have any Brave Points banked – at the cost of being immobile for as many turns as Brave Points you borrowed.
Combined with a clever system of elemental and physical weaknesses and resistances (that borrows a lot from older Final Fantasy games), as well as unique abilities that players get depending on what class their characters are, and “Special” summons style attacks they can unleash upon meeting certain conditions, battles end up being extremely involved, absorbing, and enjoyable affairs. Even fighting regular enemies can be extremely fun, giving you as it does the opportunity to experiment some new strategies and combos you may not want to try for the first time during a bigger boss battle, for example.
Bravely Default II complements these combat mechanics with some ridiculously deep character building options too. Featuring a ridiculously expansive job system, the game allows the option to spec and respec characters based on your current needs while throwing little in the way of penalties. There are dozens of jobs in Bravely Default 2, and the game expects you to be switching among them across all characters at a routine basis (something that it also enables by letting you level up and max out a job extremely quickly). By allowing you to have a main job (which you get experience for and level up) and sub-job (which you retain abilities for, but don’t get EXP for), it lets you create all sorts of crazy broken and overpowered character builds.
In general, the freedom of character builds in Bravely Default II, and how forthcoming the game is with that, is indicative of another admirable tendency: Bravely Default II is also conscious of never wanting to waste the player’s time, something that is apparent in other ways too. Take, for instance, battles. While the options to control the rate of encounter frequency from its predecessors are gone, so are random encounters entirely. Enemies now show up on the overworld, and you know when you are engaging them (choosing to sneak up on and attack them on the overworld gives you the initiative in battle and starts you out with 1BP each, while being ambushed by an enemy does the opposite). In case you are adamant about not wanting to battle at all, the game includes items that repel encounters (with items that attract encounters also available). Or consider the game’s extremely generous difficulty options, which you can switch at any time to your liking.
"In general, the freedom of character builds in Bravely Default II, and how forthcoming the game is with that, is indicative of another admirable tendency: Bravely Default II is also conscious of never wanting to waste the player’s time."
There are some QoL ways, however, that Bravely Default 2 represents a step back from its predecessors. Take, for instance, side quests. These themselves can be of varying quality, but their content aside, tracking them can be a big pain. There appears to be no central log that keeps track of side quests you have taken upon, and though the travelogue map can track them for you, it maxes out at tracking only three active ones at a time – while also not including a list of side quests you have completed. Why there is no consolidated quest tracker (which is a fairly basic ask in an RPG), I don’t know, but here we are. Bravely Default II also lacks an option to save multiple party composition loadouts, something that Bravely Second allowed – which is a damn shame, because, again, the game encourages and expects experimentation with player builds, and while the menus are fairly straightforward and pleasant to use, having some frequently used loadouts saved and instantly accessible would be much preferable to finagling with individual jobs, passives, gear, and weapons, per character, every single time you want to make a change.
On the other hand, in terms of music, Bravely Default II is a very clear winner over both its predecessors, which is no small praise, given how remarkable especially the original Bravely was on this front. In terms of dungeon design, Bravely II is, again, the best of the lot, including some extremely well designed labyrinths that have meaningful substantial branching paths with great loot for the player willing to go off the beaten path, as well as some great visual variety (and some remarkably well designed boss battles with unique, exacting strategies to boot). In terms of the towns and locations you visit, Bravely Default II makes a hell of an impression, delivering some memorable cities, each with their own distinct atmosphere, aesthetic, and some catchy tunes to go along with them to boot.
There’s a lot of Bravely Default II to go through, but through that substantial run time, the quality rarely, if ever, really flags. Unlike the original Bravely Default, the game also manages to sidestep the issues of repetition that plagued those games and kept them from reaching their full potential. Of course, Bravely II never reaches the highs of those games, or even hints at the kind of greatness they did, to begin with, but it delivers an extremely consistent and comfortable JRPG experience of the type that we simply don’t get too much of anymore. If you’re a fan of JRPGs, then Bravely Default II, warts and all, will be right up your alley.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
Incredibly mechanically expansive, allowing for a staggering range of player expression, both inside and outside of battle; great dungeon design and boss fights; extremely varied and distinct cities; breezy story that never gets in your way; great soundtrack; the game appears conscious of not wanting to waste the player's time
The graphical style can take some getting used to (and never settles into being good on the whole); a very poor first impression; missing some QoL options from its predecessors; some very poor voice acting for minor NPCs