Bravely Default 2 Review
Not Quite Excillant
Remember when people used to claim that JRPGs were dead? It seems like such a silly statement to make, because a quick glance at the gaming landscape would suggest that they aren’t at all dead, and are in fact possibly more alive than ever. You don’t even have to delve that deep into the catalogue of games available on the Nintendo Switch to see that a smorgasbord of JRPG treats adorn the platform. Xenoblade Chronicles, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and the Mana series are just a few notable examples. Bravely Default 2 is another traditional turn-based JRPG that has joined this enviable catalogue of titles, offering up a new experience that is crafted in the same mould as the classics.
When it comes to its narrative, Bravely Default 2 takes a very conservative approach, one that will feel familiar to almost anybody that has played a JRPG. You assume the role of Seth, a young sailor who washes upon the shores of Excillant after his ship perishes in a dangerous storm, with his memory of the events clouded by amnesia. Throughout the game's opening hour or so you are introduced to Gloria, Adelle and Elvis, the crew that will accompany Seth on an adventure through the various kingdoms of Excillant. Gloria happens to be the princess of a fallen kingdom that once kept the crystals of Excillant in the balance. When her kingdom was attacked, the crystals were stolen, weakening the seal that holds back a wicked evil. In order to save the world from plunging into chaos, Gloria enlists the help of the others to join her in retrieving the crystals. As a team they head out to various locales in order to track them down, quickly realising the negative effects the crystals are causing the neighbouring kingdoms.
Although the narrative isn’t poor, it feels like it was written using every cliche you’d expect to find on a “JRPG Story Tropes” Bingo Card. You’ve got your amnesia suffering protagonist, a quartet of characters destined to go on a globetrotting journey, and even elemental crystals, a recurring plot device featured in Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series. Despite the lack of originality in the plot, it still remains decent enough with some story beats taking me by surprise. Its strongest moments come in the form of the self contained stories that are told in the cities you encounter along the way. They go down paths I largely wasn’t expecting, focusing on topics such as loss, betrayal, corruption. Getting so much story content in the places you visit aides Bravely Default 2 in feeling truly alive and lived in, an aspect which is often crucial in keeping you enveloped in a world that demands plenty of your time to reach its conclusion.
The biggest letdown with Bravely Default 2’s narrative is that it struggles with wayward pacing in part due to the slow and grind heavy gameplay loop that accompanies it. An interesting story moment may be just minutes away from being revealed, only for you to be forced to grind and backtrack to get items to ready you for a fight, eroding all sense of anticipation for the events that are soon to occur. Even though the tale told is more predictable than it is surprising, it's frustrating to have moments of investment in the narrative slowly snuffed out by grinding and backtracking that can easily outstay their welcome, an issue you will feel even more if you find yourself underleveled or underprepared. To the game's credit, it isn’t always like this, but in the moments where you are struggling with a boss fight and need to grind for a little bit, the care factor for the narrative wanes as a result.
Gameplay is roughly what you’d expect from a JRPG, albeit with a couple twists on the formula that are commonplace in the Bravely Default series. You make your way through various dungeons engaging in turn-based battles with your foes, levelling up your characters as well as their jobs. Yes, the job system from Bravely Default returns again, allowing you to equip each of the four characters with the skill sets of your choosing. Jobs can be changed whenever you like, meaning you are always free to tinker with your strategy to best suit the battles you face. Characters can even be equipped with sub-jobs, which allows them to access moves from that job that have been acquired during its use as a main job, with the caveat being that the job will not gain experience. It’s a particularly complex system that needs to be adjusted accordingly throughout the game in order to have sustained success. Overleveling characters before each major boss fight might make the jobs you have equipped less important, but the best word of advice I can give is to consistently be willing to chop and change jobs. You will gather more jobs to play with as you progress throughout the story, with items known as asterisks required to inherit new job classes.
Adding further strategy and complexity to the gameplay are the titular Brave and Default moves. These options in battle allow you to save or spend Brave Points (BP), a crucial currency that serves as the biggest twist the Bravely Default series enacts on what is otherwise a traditional turn-based formula. Using the Default option, you can bank up to three Brave Points at a time, allowing you to defend and forgo a turn in order to be able to attack multiple times in a future turn of your choosing. Adding further fuel to the strategic fire is the fact you can spend Brave Points you don’t have, meaning you can let out an almighty assault on your foe, with the downside being that you will be vulnerable for however many turns you’ve gone into the negative. This unique system puts an intriguing spin on a gameplay loop that can otherwise feel like selecting an option from the battle menu and watching as you and the enemy take turns hitting each other.
The risk and reward factor that the Brave and Default provide remains an addictive event no matter when you use it, whether it be going negative with each character in the hopes you may do enough damage to kill a tough boss, or when you’ve managed to save enough Brave Points to perform multiple attacks without having to render your characters useless for multiple turns. Spending your Brave Points may leave you vulnerable, or it may give you enough firepower to rid of an enemy just a turn before they were going to eviscerate you with a powerful attack of their own, and for that it is extremely satisfying.
Battles in the overworld tend to not be overly strenuous and can often be completed in quick succession by spending BP, granting you the ability to fight with a little less stress in order to level and compile a class of characters primed and ready to take on whatever boss battle awaits. Fighting minions in the overworld may not be too hard, but boss battles are a whole new ball game, quickly making you feel useless if you aren’t levelled enough or taking note of their strengths and weaknesses. Boss battles are where the turn-based battles feel the most engaging and epic, requiring you to always be on your toes with your Brave Point expenditure and the composition of your characters. These intense boss battles are also where the quality soundtrack shines the brightest, with a main track that remains fun to listen to no matter how often it is repeated.
When not in battles or dungeon crawling you are free to take in the sights and surrounds of the beautiful world of Excillant, whether it be to find and complete side quests, or to gawk at Bravely Default 2’s interesting look. Side-quests, which can be found throughout the world in kingdoms or in the overworld, are a good way to get your hands on handy items. They often boil down to basic fetch quests, with some particularly egregious in their evil desire to see you run back and forth doing nothing more than talk to two different people in order to progress the quest. Most of the time they are worth completing for the reward, but I wouldn’t say they are deserving of your time. The same can’t be said for finding hidden chests, which are a fun way to blow off steam after battling in the overworld for lengthy periods of time.
You’ll also spend a chunk of your time rummaging through the various menus to ensure your squad is as efficiently prepped as possible. Whether it be simply healing yourself, equipping new weapons, or monitoring the state of each character's job, the menus are here to make that process a breeze. Being swamped by various menus in a JRPG can often feel overwhelming, however Bravely Default 2 succeeds in providing plenty of information in an easily digestible and pretty form. The user interface in these moments show you exactly what you need to see, meaning comparing something like the stat changes between weapons is fun and not daunting.
From a visual standpoint, Bravely Default 2 is an amalgamation of various art styles. The characters have cute chibi appearances while locales such as the overworld and dungeons have a 3D look you’d expect to accompany them. The kingdoms you journey to exhibit a beautiful hand-painted visual aesthetic that is easily the most striking. Akin to the pre-rendered background that accompanied the polygonal protagonists of the PlayStation era Final Fantasy titles, the chibi character models stand out against the background in a way that looks quirky and not jarring. It isn’t the prettiest visual look when blown up on a big TV display, but for the most part it does a serviceable job.
Serviceable is probably the best word to use when summarizing Bravely Default 2’s performance. For the most part it performs well, but the frame rate is prone to the odd dip in both handheld and docked modes. A frame hiccup here and there in a turn-based JRPG isn’t exactly going to impact the gameplay that much, but it is still a bit disheartening to see in a game that the Switch should easily handle.
Bravely Default 2 does make some engaging and welcome tweaks to the JRPG formula, but at the same time it isn’t afraid to revel in its traditional roots, for better or worse. Its impact is stifled by poor pacing, underwhelming side quests and a desire to have you grind more than that one overly eager guy at the club, resulting in a good experience that easily could have been a great one if some refinements were made. If you enjoy lengthy JRPGs cut from the same cloth as the Final Fantasy titles of yesteryear, the serviceable story, glorious soundtrack, and tough but rewarding combat will likely keep you entertained for hours on end. If you don’t, and the thought of grinding levels for hours and completing mundane fetch quests in the overworld makes you sick to your stomach, Bravely Default 2 probably isn’t for you, and that’s okay too.