The team behind Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler are back with a new JRPG.
Bravely Default is one of the best JRPGs released over the last decade - yes, it's that good. Whenever discussing the best titles in the genre over the last few years, Bravely Default should always be mentioned along with groundbreaking titles such as Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Persona 5 Royal, Nier: Automata and Xenoblade Chronicles. After the development team took a break from the Bravely series to make Octopath Traveler, they are now ready to bring back the Bravely series, this time for the Switch.
For all of its brilliant aspects, Bravely Default had two issues that turned many players away. The first was the Groundhog Day-like elements that were introduced about halfway through the main story, causing a lot of repetition that didn't exactly resonate with many players. The second was the simple fact that it was on 3DS, a portable system that, for all its strengths and benefits, simply wasn't the preferred platform when playing a title that could go on for tens or maybe even hundreds of hours. Plus, the limited hardware didn't do the game's beautiful art style justice.
Whether the first issue is avoided in Bravely Default II remains to be seen, as I've only been playing the first two chapters for this preview. The second, however, is no longer a concern. Or, at least, not as great a concern as before, but we'll get back to that later.
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"Hold on a second," you may say. "What's up with the title? Didn't they already make a sequel to Bravely Default?" Yes, that's true, but whereas Bravely Second: End Layer was a direct sequel to Bravely Default placed within the same world and starring several of the same characters, Bravely Default II makes a fresh start with a whole new world, new story, and new characters, while keeping the same gameplay mechanics. In that sense, you could compare it to Final Fantasy: Though certain elements may reoccur over all installments of the series (Moogles, Chocobos and a character named Cid are almost always present in every Final Fantasy game), the main titles are all separate from one another and can be enjoyed on an individual basis.
To explain what the Bravely games are, we should stick to Final Fantasy as an example, as the games draw a lot of inspiration from the golden age of the series (though the definition of the term is up for debate, I would claim it includes Final Fantasy IV to X with VI-IX as its undisputable core). To make the inspiration from classic Final Fantasy games even more clear, we only need to look at the title of Bravely Default's spiritual forerunner, Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. Take the turn-based combat from Final Fantasy III and X, the job system from Final Fantasy III and V, the character models from Final Fantasy IX, and a story centered around four elemental crystals that could come from any old school Final Fantasy title, and voila, you have the Bravely games. Does that mean you need to know these old titles to enjoy Bravely Default II? Not at all! Bravely Default II is a perfect place for newcomers to start, but its old school roots are certainly a selling point for gamers missing the gist and feel of JRPGs from yesteryear.
Our story begins with a storm that washes our main character Seth onto a distant shore in the land of Halcyonia. There he encounters Gloria, princess of the lost kingdom of Musa and guardian of the four elemental crystals. Three of the crystals were lost during the fall of Musa three years prior, and now nature's balance is starting to crumble under one irregularity after another. Accompanied by the scholar Elvis and his mercenary companion Adelle, the four set out on a journey to locate the four crystals and restore the balance before an all-consuming calamity breaks out.
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The core of any JRPG is its main cast, and Bravely Default II seems to follow its predecessor closely in that regard, giving us two great characters and two more that are "just okay." Seth is a rather bland main character, and Gloria is too much of a princess with a savior complex to make a good first impression. Over the course of the game, however, all four characters start to grow on you thanks to the party chats, which are small conversations between the four characters that pop up now and again. Just like the skits in the Tales games, these party chats are well-written and can easily make you smile and chuckle from the quirks and eccentricities of the characters. More importantly, these party chats strengthen the dynamic between the characters and make them grow on you as a player. The voice acting also helps build your bond with the characters, though the English voices are not as sharp and humorous as the original Japanese.
Any character flaws are soon forgotten as you start playing the game, however, because the art style and music is simply superb. Once again, the team manages to bring their beautiful art style to life digitally, bringing you to gorgeous and exotic cities. The tiny, "chibi"-like characters and their colorful clothes are wonderfully brought to life, and seeing mere screenshots of this game doesn't do it justice. The dungeons are a little bland during the first two chapters of the game, but they're still fun to explore and push through while you test your new abilities and search for new clues to the main story's mystery. The mood is perfectly set thanks to the musical work of Revo, the artist famous for his work on Attack on Titan who composed Bravely Default's majestic and unforgettable soundtrack. Several of the first game's musical themes return in a different arrangement, and the range and scope of the soundtrack is truly promising so far.
Though the developers have more hardware power available this time around thanks to the Switch, there are still some technical issues to be found. There are certain cases of high input lag as well as framerate and resolution drops that are easily noticeable by the naked eye. So far, I haven't encountered anything game breaking or serious that spoils the fun. What does ruin the fun, however, is the open world exploration. The map is rather empty except for the roaming monsters, and the camera does its best to present the surrounding area from the worst possible angles available. The camera in the cities and dungeons is static, and to be honest the game's better that way. One exploratory part of the game that's a plus, however, is the mini-game that kicks in when you put the game in sleep mode. A tiny ship will sail and explore the oceans and bring you back the spoils once you reactivate the game, sometimes giving your characters useful stat boost items. The Bravely games have always included fun stuff like this, and honestly, it wouldn't hurt seeing something similar in other games.
The main course on the game's menu is its combat system, which centers around the use of two core mechanics: Brave and Default. All combat is purely turn-based, but a character may use several actions per turn by using the Brave function. Each turn gives your characters one action, or Brave Point. The Brave function enables a character to use up to four actions per turn. If you are in desperate need of reviving and healing your team, or if the enemy is exposed and weak, you may use Brave to give your characters more actions in one turn. Using more Brace Points than you have saved up will cause your characters to be inactive for the next turns until their Brave Points are regained, unless you have used the defending Default action in a previous turn, which will save your Brave Point for a later turn. Knowing when to go all in with Brave and when to defend and accumulate Brave Points with Default is crucial to the gameplay of the Bravely series, especially in the tricky boss fights. Once you have mastered this system, you can crank the battles up to 4x speed and let the characters just hack and slash away (Bravely Default was one of the first games from Square Enix to introduce faster combat speed, something they have later implemented in remasters of older JRPGs with great success). At times, you will also have assistance from guests joining your party, which comes especially handy during the start of the game.
Facing bosses will reward you with an Asterisk, a jewel that opens a new job (the series' term for character classes). New jobs will give you access to new abilities, and you will level up both your characters and their jobs during combat with experience points and job points. The characters can equip both a main job and a sub-job, where only the former is levelled up in combat but still gives the character access to the abilities of the latter. Once a job is levelled up to a certain level, you can equip the character with a passive ability attained through this job. Experimenting with all these possibilities and combinations on top of the Brave and Default combat mechanics is truly rewarding, and pushing on to tackle a new boss and gain a new job is always fun. The early jobs are pretty standard for any role-playing game, but even after two chapters there are some interesting new jobs to experiment with.
After the first two chapters, a lot of the staples you would expect from a Bravely Default game are certainly present. You have gorgeous artwork laying the foundation for some unique visuals, a captivating combat system, a soundtrack that always manages to set the right mood, and a party of four main characters where one half is more interesting than the other. Whether this formula will keep growing from good to great remains to be seen. The twists and turns in the story were the things that made Bravely Default so great. Only more time with the title will tell if the sequel does the same.