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Friday, February 26, 2021

Review: Bravely Default II (Nintendo Switch)


Review by Matt S.

Warmth infuses every moment of Bravely Default II. This is a confident, charming and intelligent play on every single thing that people who grew up with JRPGs love about the genre. To call it a “love letter” would be misunderstanding its appeal, though. Tokyo RPG Factory (I Am Setsuna, Oninaki) produces love letters, cribbing classic mechanics and themes in a deliberate effort to remind nostalgic players of the games they grew up with. Bravely Default II is such a precise homage that it comes across as too deeply self-aware to be in the same vein. Instead, it acts as a kind of deconstruction of or commentary on the genre. It's an effort to explain, within the context of a JRPG, just what people loved about the JRPGs of yesteryear. As a result, this one should appeal to a demographic that is far more broad than just those nostalgic for their childhoods.


From the most basic building blocks, the developers make the effort to be both nostalgic and modern with this tile clear. Within Bravely Default II, you've got the motif of the crystals of old school Final Fantasy, and the deterministic idea of a team of heroes bound by fate to decide what happens to the universe around them. However, Bravely Default II isn’t quite as earnestly beholden to the philosophy as, say, Final Fantasy V (FFV being the most direct point of comparison between Bravely Default and the series that most explicitly inspired it). Bravely Default II is subversive enough to scratch away at that particular thematic sticking point of too many older JRPGs while also ensuring that it still forms the core of the narrative, in the process appealing to the nostalgic while avoiding the game being too "traditional" to more modern players.

The core combat system is another brilliant example of how carefully the developers straddle the nostalgic and surprisingly modern. You’ve also got the classical turn-based combat system, with enemies that have weaknesses that need exploiting, and a little over a half dozen weapons and a range of elemental attacks to do that task. This is backed up by a job system that, again, works just like Final Fantasy V – characters gain experience in their jobs in parallel to their standard experience levels, and with every new job level, they gain a new ability. They can subsequently take two different jobs into battle, encouraging you to play mix-and-match with the combinations to come up with some dynamic, versatile parties (also characters have a huge range of real cute costumes linked to the jobs and it’s fun to play dress-up).


The above is all completely standard for the genre. However, as with the previous two Bravely Default games, Bravely Default II would have you believe that it’s modernising the combat system up a bit with the “Bravely” and “Default” systems; you can take up to four “turns” in one go by going into a “turn debt” – once you’ve walloped the enemy with those four attacks you won’t be able to do anything for the next three turns while you wait for the debt to be repaid. Alternatively, you can skip turns to build up “credit”, allowing you to unleash those massive attacks at just the right time.

Many would see this as a risk-reward system, tempting you to go all-out, but punishing you with multiple turns of counter-attacks if you misjudge your ability to wipe out the enemy in one turn. In practice, it’s not really that. Rather it speeds up encounters with regular enemies and limits their ability to hurt you in return, allowing you to delve deeper into the dungeons and with greater efficiency. It’s only really in the boss battles where this system gets potentially interesting, and since the enemies have access to the same system in allows those battles to become particularly brutal – there will be times you need to be able to able to withstand a wild string of attacks. It can feel unfair, and even frustrating, but finally nutting out the solution to each boss feels like a real achievement in return.

The grand sum of the above is that Bravely Default II plays more traditionally than the bravely system suggests that it’s trying to be, however, that system also means that the game exaggerates the traditional war of attrition with common enemies before the tough boss at the end of a dungeon of the genre. Here, progress through dungeons is much less of a relentless grind than the old JRPGs could be, but those bosses are even more dramatic, dynamic, edge-of-your-seat encounters than is usual. It’s a bit of genius on the part of the developers, to emphasise the strengths of the genre, de-emphasise the weaknesses (without doing away with them entirely, and for nostalgia’s sake there is still some grinding involved), and Bravely Default II ends up presenting a vision of the “perfect” retro JRPG as a result. With difficulty settings that allow you to easily scale things up and down to suit your tolerance threshold at will through the adventure, the balance of this game is spot-on, and it’s very difficult to argue against that vision.


Outside of combat, Bravely Default II does absolutely nothing that isn’t entirely standard for the genre on the one level. The difference is that it just does it all right. For instance, there are side quests, and those are typical fetch quests and involve running around in previously-completed areas to net some extra experience points to ensure that your party is properly levelled for the upcoming narrative beats. Most JRPGs turn these side-quests into an exhausting process, but Bravely Default II knows how dull these things can be and solves that by minimising the number of them that you’ll do. Even if you’re like me and have an inability to leave these things uncomplete, you’ll only have two or three active at any one time, and very few to complete in each new area in total. It might seem like thin content to some, but this game absolutely knows what it’s doing. There’s a side-quest early on where you need to run back and forth to a dungeon to give a dude a packed lunch, then his flask of drink, then the fork he forgot… yes, Bravely Default II is firmly tongue-in-cheek about how exhausting these side quests are. It has them in there because that’s what JRPGs need to do, but the bulk of the game's length (and it is a long one) is instead focused on dungeons, exploration and characterisation.

There are some other side activities that are far more involved, though, and they’re great fun. There’s a pirate ship management mini-game that you get access to early on, and lets you send a ship out on expeditions for various loot and rewards. It’s the game’s answer to the village management thing from the original Bravely Default, if you’ve played that. But the real winner here is the card game, which you’ll unlock about ten hours in, and is basically Triple Triad from Final Fantasy VIII crossed with the Chinese game of Go. It’s every bit as good as that sounds, too, tasking you with collecting up a deck of cards that depict the various people and monsters that you encounter, and then laying them out on a board in such a way that you capture more spaces on the board than your opponent. Plenty of cards have special effects, and building up a potent deck and strategy is every bit as involved as the best CCGs out there. There has been a trend for RPGs – both from Japan and the west – to include card games as a side distraction. The Witcher 3 had Gwent and we all know how good that is. Well, this is every bit as good and I would play this as a standalone game. What’s more, with Bravely Default II you are incentivised to play around with this “distraction” – rewards include a really good and useful new character class… with a cute costume to match.

Bravely Default 2 is absolutely beautiful. When you’re wandering around towns, the aesthetic is that of a “pop-up book” or diorama, with a fixed camera giving you a view of the distinctive and consistently creative city-scapes. Out in the field or in dungeons, meanwhile, it’s a flexible, but isometric camera angle, that does a good job of giving you a sense of scale in the world, while also tapping into the nostalgia of a time where this was the standard. In battle you’re going to see cute bobble-headed heroes, in their various job costumes, whaling away at a range of adorable, detailed enemies. Bravely Default II even preserves the old “palette swap” tradition, where the same basic enemy design would have slightly different colours to be a different enemy entirely. In ye olde days that was done to preserve memory and make sure that players had new enemies to fight in each new area. Here it’s an aesthetic decision, done completely unnecessarily to preserve the “retro” artifice. It comes across as so twee that it’s both adorable and often quite amusing.


All of this is, of course, backed up with a soaring music score that riffs on genre tradition without being trite about it. If Bravely Default II was truly a slavish homage to yesteryear you can be sure the MIDI tones would have been broken out. Instead, here, we get the vision without compromise; as with so much else of this game, the artists are aware, but not dogmatic in this glorious genre that they’re exploring.

Of everything, however, the thing that I love most about Bravely Default 2 is the character interactions. Whether it’s in the service of the main plot, or the little optional vignettes that pop up with some frequency along the way, the sense of the bonds of friendship are strong within Bravely Default 2. They’re handled with greater subtlety than previous entries in the series, too; one of the four protagonists, Elvis is, initially, going to be seen as the clown that we expect after having seen Ringabel in Bravely Default, but very quickly shows himself to be more… Australian… then clownish (no, really), and he’s a delightful, complex, and nuanced character that just has a dry and laconic outlook on life. Meanwhile, without a doubt, I miss the “Mrgrgrgrs” of Edea from Bravely Default and its sequel, but Adelle is… well she’s one special character, no spoilers here. You’re meant to fall very deeply in love with Adelle – her narrative arc depends on it – and you absolutely will. With four such distinct personalities (and the occasional guest characters that tag along for a while), the banter between the group of friends remains refreshing and dynamic throughout, and without a doubt one of the key motivating factors in pushing through this game and its occasional “long spots” is the knowledge that there’s more characterisation coming up.

Once again, here, too, Bravely Default II shows itself to be equal parts homage and deconstruction of the genre roots. These characters are, in broad strokes, traditional to the genre. But they’re all given twists and quirks that pull them very far out of those typecasts and encourages you to engage with them on a far deeper level. It’s more difficult for writers of "modern retro" games to achieve this balance; push things too far and it starts to look like a lampoon or dismissal of the retro experiences that it draws from, but there is the need to deepen and broaden the characters in some way to make the game relevant to the modern audience, and that’s what really elevates Bravely Default II; most “retro JRPGs” don't bother and stick with standard tropes that leave them of interest only to the JRPG veteran. This one takes the basis of traditional character tropes and enhances them in such a way that modern audiences can start to appreciate the appeal of them.


It seems inevitable to me that there are going to be a lot of people that dismiss Bravely Default II as a “retro-style JRPG.” They’ll see the turn-based combat, the very “JRPG” design of the characters, and all the other genre tropes that the game indulges, and assume that that’s all there is to it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nuanced writing, impeccable design and subtle subversion highlight that Bravely Default II is, instead, a game that uses its genre rather than allow it to become beholden to it. In many ways, it's a highly metafictional thesis that explores what people love about JRPGs, and what is genuinely important to the genre. In doing so the game has become this wonderfully nuanced, beautiful, entertaining and emotive experience, and in my book, that makes it a masterpiece.



- Matt S.
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb


Review: Bravely Default II (Nintendo Switch)
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