Bravely Default II (Switch) Review
Where do I even start with Bravely Default II? It’s a game that has consumed me this past month, both in terms of man-hours and in terms of mental capacity. Even when not playing, it’s been on my mind, picking away at my sanity, forcing strategies and customisation options to the front of my psyche. It’s a frustrating game, and it really didn’t need to be, but there’s a very good game at its core. It’s just unfortunate that you have to spend tens of hours smashing your face into a brick wall to get to that core.
Bravely Default II is, confusingly, the third game in the Bravely series, after the first Bravely Default game and its sequel Bravely Second, both of which released on the 3DS. The Bravely series is Square Enix’s approach to keeping classic Final Fantasy-esque gameplay alive; as that series moves more towards fast action live gameplay, Bravely retains its turn-based combat roots… with a few twists. At the core of the Bravely series is two extra commands in combat: Brave, and Default. The latter allows you to go on the defensive and “store” a turn, while the former allows you to spend your stored turns all at once, or go into a turn “debt” to make extra actions. It’s small, but its a fun twist to classic gameplay that separates Bravely Default from its retro predecessors. Bravely Default, and Bravely Second, were lauded for this system, and its refinements in Square Enix’s latest are worth applauding too.
But before we get too deep into its gameplay systems, let’s talk about its story. Bravely Default II tells the story of four burgeoning heroes, each with their own threadlines to follow that, as is common in these games, brings them all together for a common journey. At the core of this story is Gloria, Princess of the fallen kingdom of Musa, a diplomatic young lady whose goal is to reclaim the four cardinal crystals stolen from her broken homeland during its invasion, in order to prevent a world-scale calamity. Along for the ride are Elvis, a brash former noble who cast aside his heritage to study magic under a powerful sorceress, now aiming to unravel his teacher’s cryptic writings, and Adelle, a roaming mercenary-for-hire with an uncertain past and a more uncertain future. And lastly, there’s the player character, called Seth by default but able to be renamed as you start your journey. Seth was a simple sailor, before a shipwreck cast him overboard and he washed ashore right near the town where Gloria happened to be. Each of these characters has a rich, interesting place in the world, and they interact with each other and others in the world in believable, but fascinating, ways.
After these four heroes-to-be gather, they set out on a journey to each of the world’s many kingdoms to reclaim the crystals, uncovering a swathe of fantastic mini-stories at each city they visit. These more localised stories, mostly (but not entirely) detached from the overarching goal, are hands-down the best part of the game. In one city, you’re faced with investigating a criminal conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, in another you’re uncovering the truth behind the disappearance of dozens of adults and sudden changes in behaviour, and in another yet you’re faced with a town embroiled in the depths of religious zealotry and extremism. That last one, in particular, is a deeply interesting story to be told, with some real big The Crucible vibes at the forefront of its threadline, complete with extra-legal executions and self-serving accusations.
It’s not afraid to get dark, either, in ways that I won’t reveal for fear of spoiling their impact, but in ways that caused me on more than one occasion to message a colleague also reviewing the game to say “hey, dude, how messed up was that??” It helps, too, that these darker moments, along with most moments in the game really, are handled with thoughtfulness and maturity. A game like this might often err on the side of presenting every situation as very black and white, but Bravely Default II masterfully and respectfully presents those often-binary stories with a staggering amount of grey in the mix, in a way you simply wouldn’t expect from any other lower-budget game from a large publisher. The game’s overarching story of crystals and kingdoms is much less interesting, but it frankly doesn’t really need to be — it’s a mechanism to deliver you from one good story to the next, and it serves its role admirably, even if it’s a little stilted at times.
So let’s talk about that gameplay. This game takes a slightly different approach to its turn-based system compared to previous games in the series, introducing what’s more of an ATB approach. For those not up to date with the lingo of JRPGs, and the Final Fantasy series more specifically, there are basically two approaches to party-focused turn-based combat: true turn-based, and active time battle, or ATB. In a true turn-based combat system, you’d select the moves for all of your party members at the same time, and then they (and your enemies) would join a queue of actions in accordance to their speed or the speed of their abilities that then plays out, concluding in the turn ending after everyone’s had their turn and you getting to pick your next set of actions. ATB systems work a little differently, with each character (friend or foe) essentially given a cooldown timer after making a move. Rather than picking every party member’s moves at once, you wait for your little ATB bar to fill up, then when it’s full, you choose your action, it plays out, and whoever’s bar fills up next is whoever acts next. This means that faster characters, like an Assassin for example, may get two or three moves in the same time it takes for a slower character, like a Defender, to get one.
It’s a refreshing change for the series, and it works well, offering a lot of really complex strategies that put your brain to work. If my slow white mage comes up for a turn, I might know that it’s going to take a while for their turn to come back up again, so the healing I do is likely to be bigger, to compensate for the fact that they may not get to heal again soon. On the other side of things, my speedy monk gets lots of turns very quickly, so I can afford to set up some buffs before going on the attack. Some moves even refresh the ATB bar more quickly or slowly, and some jobs have innate abilities that speed up or slow down the timer for Braving or Defaulting.
And that brings me to the next core element: the job system. Bravely Default II offers a LOT of jobs, over 20 in fact, from the normal white/red/black mage archetypes all the way up to the weird and whacky ones like the Gambler, the Pictomancer, or the Salve-Maker. Each of these jobs has a unique set of stats, actions, abilities, and earnable passive skills, and no two jobs really overlap in any significant way. To add on to that, each character can have two jobs equipped, a main and a sub-job, with the sub-job offering access to all the actions of a job without having to lock into its stats, abilities, or weapon proficiencies. If my back-of-the-napkin maths is correct, there’s over 500 possible combinations between sub-job and main job for each party member, and while not every combination is going to be good (for example, you probably won’t put black mage as a sub-job for swordmaster, there’s just not a lot of synergy), there’s enough options there to keep anyone busy for as long as they like.
The issue with the job system is that earning Job Points, which are required to unlock more actions and abilities within each job, is an absolute pain. Each battle offers a paltry amount of JP as a reward, which can be boosted with consecutive battles using a new food system… but nowhere near enough to make grinding up a job worth it. And while having a sub-job with all of its actions available to you helps offset that initial weakness, many jobs all but require the passives that come with being a main job to be viable. This becomes especially egregious in the late-game, where you’re likely to have two or more fully-levelled jobs available to each character — dropping an entire job’s worth of actions in order to very slowly level up a newly-attained job is a massive liability, because enemies hit very hard and you simply won’t be doing enough damage to survive. It would’ve been nice if there was some advanced system for drastically speeding up the levelling of a new job in the late game, but alas, there is no such system.
On that note, Bravely Default II has a huge problem with its lack of quality of life and playability features, too. The first two Bravely games offered the ability to fine-tune the frequency of battles, even giving the option to turn them off entirely if you’re just wanting to explore an area or knock out a fetch quest. It also had an auto-battle system, allowing your characters to endlessly repeat their last actions without player input, drastically reducing the mental drain of grinding — which, by the way, is just as necessary in this game as it was in previous games in the series. Neither of these options are available here, for absolutely no discernible reason at all. I could kind of understand the lack of a need for turning off encounters, since enemies are now represented as roaming creatures on the overworld instead of random battles that pop up as you wander around… but avoiding enemies can be difficult, especially in tight spaces, even if you’re much higher levelled than the enemy and they try to flee from you in the overworld. It’s an absolutely baffling decision, to actively remove quality of life features that made previous games that much more playable, and I can only hope that future updates for the title are planned to address this.
Bravely Default II also has huge issues with its difficulty curves, especially in the early-game. Halfway through the game’s first chapter you’re met with not one, but two devastatingly difficult battles, one almost immediately after the other, both gigantic spikes in difficulty from what came before and both requiring huge amounts of grinding to overcome. Bosses are effectual damage sponges, if sponges could fire flaming cannon balls and completely destroy any fun you were having. Going up against them requires massive amounts of planning and strategising, and even if you have the perfect strategy, there’s always a chance (and it’s a chance I ran into a lot) that you just don’t have the levels to make it through to the other side.
The result is boss fights that can take an hour or more, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get to the end of that hour and actually win. Sometimes you get to the end of that hour and lose while the boss has 100 HP left, and you walk away from your Switch and ponder how you got into this mess of wasting your precious life force on these god-forsaken, no-good, nonsense battles — okay, I got a little carried away there, but I think you get my point. Boss battles are an exercise in frustration and mental exhaustion, and they detract from what could otherwise be a really fun and intuitive battle system. And this is on Casual difficulty, the easiest of the three difficulty options! Once you really get into the groove with your jobs, and find some time to grind up to an acceptable level, the late-game is a lot more even in its difficulty curve. I imagine most people that would be easily frustrated by this kind of hostile design would give up at those early-game spikes anyway, leaving the (honestly, quite good) late-game untouched.
But, that aside, let’s talk about some positives. The game’s visuals are quite charming, with a watercolour popup book feel to the environments that make it one of the better-looking games on the platform. It’s a small departure from the 3DS games’ visuals, but it captures the same homely vibe those games did while upping the ante and taking advantage of the more powerful hardware. I’m not the biggest fan of the character designs themselves, as they come off as a bit uh, low-budget-bobblehead-y, but the costume design for each of the jobs is very good, especially since every character gets a few unique touches to each outfit. The music is absolutely phenomenal, with the very small exception of one or two short-lived environmental themes. Revo, the composer group who wrote music for the first game, have returned here and brought their absolute A-game, with a lively soundtrack that captures the feel of the game flawlessly. There’s a moment in chapter 4 where the regular battle them swaps to a new theme, where it stays for the rest of the game, and it’s an exciting and refreshing way to keep the battles from feeling monotonous after 30+ hours of hearing the same song.
There’s one more positive I’d like to mention, because it’s a feature that belongs to one of my favourite categories of gameplay: passive rewards. There are a number of games that reward the player for, well, not playing the game, like The World Ends With You, which has certain types of experience tied to leaving the game in sleep mode. The first Bravely Default had something like this too, allowing the player to accrue “sleep points” by leaving the game running in sleep mode, which could then be spent to gain an extra move in battles. Bravely Default II’s passive rewards come in the form of sailing, in which you send away a ship to explore the world before putting the game into sleep mode. When you come back, you’re treated to a log of your adventures while you were away, with cute little stories of your character’s interactions with the world, who they met (which can be other players), and what they found. And returning to a shipyard lets you claim those rewards, which can range from a small amount of gold to a large JP orb, an extremely rare and extremely valuable item that straight up hands you a bunch of JP. Frankly, I think every game should reward the player in some way for leaving the game in sleep mode, and this is just the latest example in a long history of games to do such a thing. It’s a small feature, but ultimately, it goes a long way in helping you feel like you’re making progress, even when you’re not.
There’s a little game I like to play in my head sometimes, when reviewing a video game: Is This Game Good, Or Is It Just Long? It pops up from time to time, when I look back at my notes upon starting to write and see overwhelmingly negative thoughts, but in that very moment, feel good about the experience. See, when a game is very long and very frustrating, as a player of the game you can drop it and move on to something more rewarding. But as a reviewer, you rarely have that opportunity — you’ve made a commitment to this game, to your outlet, to the game’s publisher, to your readers, and to stop playing would be to walk back on that commitment. And so, with some games that are very long and very frustrating, you often find yourself championing the moments where the game felt worth it, while ignoring and repressing the moments where it didn’t. It’s the most boring kind of Stockholm syndrome, and after hours of self-reflection and a rereading of my notes, I can usually come to a solid conclusion about whether the game really was good, or if it was just long. Bravely Default II is a perfect candidate for this little game, but after reflecting and reading through my notes, I’m still not entirely sure where I land, and I’m not sure I’ll ever really know for sure.
Bravely Default II is a game laden with frustration, with unfairness, with a lack of respect for the player’s time. It’s a game that could be massively improved, but only ever in small ways. It’s an active step backward in terms of quality of life and playability features for the series… But when it works, it works wonderfully, its combat systems soaring to satisfying heights, its storytelling exciting and chilling. It’s a game forever at conflict with itself, offering freedom then punishing you for pursuing it. I hate myself for loving it, but I love myself too much to ever go back to it. To sum it up, it’s an arduous, glorious, frustrating, beautiful mess. It’s a bit of a love-hate relationship.
+ Gorgeous visuals and soundtrack
+ Surprisingly solid storytelling
+ Satisfying combat systems
- Absolutely nonsense difficulty curve
- Levelling jobs is an exercise in frustration
- Absolutely refuses to respect your time