Mastering systems is a major piece of the appeal of video games for me. I love it when I can dig into the mechanics of a title and develop a deep understanding for the possibilities, experimenting with different ideas to discover the most effective combinations of tools to succeed at the game. In games like Paper Mario and Bug Fables it’s all about choosing the badges/medals that best support my strategy for each section of the game or each boss battle. In a tabletop RPG like Mutants and Masterminds I’m looking for the selection of character abilities that allow me to maximize my performance in whatever party role I am playing, getting the biggest possible numbers even with the fickle dice sometimes working against me. In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I want to know which classes best feed into each other and grant skills that blend well in order to train students who are as powerful as they can be on the battlefield. Games that reward mastery bring me back again and again, and it’s been that aspect of Bravely Default II which has me thoroughly hooked on the game.
The Bravely Default series is built off of the combat mechanics of Final Fantasy V – a rich system of jobs with defined roles and abilities that you master over time and can combine in a number of ways. The majority of the game’s bosses get their powers through a plot device called asterisks, gemstones which contain the potential of the job (and the job’s costume) inside of them. Defeat a boss, get their powers – it’s a formula that’s worked since Mega Man and there’s a joy that comes with every new job earned in Bravely Default II. Each one represents new possibilities, new combinations of abilities that will help you to overcome the next set of challenges in the game. For me, a big part of the appeal of Bravely Default II is experimenting with different jobs to learn the combinations that are the most effective together. The game is designed to encourage this experimentation, to tease you with the possibility of some gamebreaking combo that will allow you to totally obliterate any opponent that gets in your way.
Because Bravely Default II (I’m gonna start shortening this to BD2 sometimes) also uses a weakness and vulnerability system where each enemy can be more easily damaged with certain weapons or elemental affinities, it is easy to feel like there is an “optimal” combination of jobs for any given boss. If you have just the right loadout a fight can be a breeze. Bring the wrong combination and it may feel impossible to overcome the obstacles in front of you. This can be a turnoff for some as it feels more like a puzzle than a game – once you know the solution then that’s all there is to it, right? Think of how much it would suck to come up against a boss with the exact wrong tools and end up getting wrecked! In my time with BD2 I’ve been on all ends of the spectrum, from “this loadout made a fight essentially impossible” to “wow I sneezed on that guy and it killed him.” And all of it, whether it was easy or difficult, worked together to show why mastery is such a fun element of the game. In this article I want to share a few stories of battles I’ve fought in the game and how each of them showed the concept of “mastery” from a different angle. Each experience, whether simple or challenging, highlights a facet of why I love the combat system in BD2 so much.
By the way – this article will have some mechanical spoilers for the first three chapters of the game, but I’ll be avoiding any story spoilers.
TALE #1: NOT YOUR MOMMA’S BRAVELY DEFAULT
My experience with previous Bravely Default titles had taught me some skills that I brought into this game, namely some simple strategies that I found effective for the early-game jobs as well as how to take advantage of the Brave and Default mechanics. If you’ve never played one of these games before, Brave and Default are the terms for either spending or saving up your character’s action in battle. When you Brave, you spend an extra turn to take two actions at once (you can do this three times for a total of four actions in one turn). If you Brave when you don’t have any turns banked up, you’re essentially taking out a loan that has to be paid back on future turns – you won’t take any action until you’ve paid up. When you Default, you forfeit your turn to take a defensive position and gain one BP (Brave Point), representing an opportunity to use that turn later for free. A common strategy for bosses is to default a few times to build up BP so that you can learn the enemy’s attack patterns from a position of relative safety. Once you see an opening, you can freely Brave without losing future actions. It’s a strategy that served me well in Bravely Default and Bravely Second, but BD2 has introduced some new mechanics that highlight the limitations of that approach.
There are a couple of other things I was pulling from previous titles that I want to dig in to real quick. These are habits or strategies I learned playing the other games that I stuck to at the beginning of this one. First of all, the starting jobs of vanguard, monk, white mage, and black mage operate pretty similarly to their counterparts in the previous games. A simple but effective strategy with them is to have the vanguard focus on blocking attacks for the other characters. The white mage can then focus primarily on healing one ally, leaving the monk and black mage open to dish out physical and magical damage, respectively. Additionally, I got into the habit in previous titles of waiting until I had a full set of four new jobs before I started using jobs from the new chapter. This gave me more time to dig into the jobs from the previous chapter and kept the characters in sync as far as learning their new roles at the same time. All of these approaches I’ve described worked together to create a perfect storm of leaving me totally unprepared for the final boss of chapter one.
So without spoiling any story elements, the chapter one boss is a berserker, a job focused on dealing heavy physical damage at the cost of being able to control their actions. The berserker’s special ability is Pierce Default, which means that his attacks ignore the defensive properties of the Default command. So my strategy of scouting his attacks from a defensive position with Default immediately fell apart. I still stuck to that plan to build some BP so I could unleash a big attack a few turns in. The berserker boss has a water weakness which made it appealing to try to unleash a barrage of Blizzaga spells with my black mage. The problem? The berserker’s counterattack, Crescent Moon, hits every party member and is activated by all three of the black mage’s elements. So casting a series of spells simply invited me to get hammered again and again by that counter, wiping out two of my party members immediately. My vanguard was useless for preventing the counter because AOEs bypass the Enrage ability, which normally provokes an enemy into targeting the vanguard specifically.
Already my whole plan was falling apart. My black mage was essentially worthless, defaulting was significantly nerfed, and braving a series of attacks opened my team to a series of counterattacks they couldn’t survive. I’d have to slow down and take the fight one turn at a time and avoid casting spells in order to avoid the berserker’s most dangerous abilities, but even then his attacks were devastating and the only options I had left didn’t do much damage to him at all. I recognized quickly that some of the new jobs I picked up – the bard and thief jobs – would have given me abilities that would be helpful for the fight. The thief has a physical wind attack that could be paired with daggers to hit two of the boss’s vulnerabilities, and the bard could buff the physical defense of my whole party at once as well as increasing all of their attack power so I could actually deal some real damage to the berserker. Without those tools I was at a serious disadvantage, but I still wanted to try and find a way to win the battle.
My vanguard was my best bet for dealing damage, but I couldn’t safely attack with the vanguard because I needed him to be drawing aggro with Enrage. I would have to protect my group well enough that they could endure some attacks without the vanguard’s protection. The white mage’s protect ability would theoretically allow me to do that, but protect only hits one character at a time so I’d need to build up BP in order to make it happen. That would require my white mage to default, so I wouldn’t have a healer during the turns she was building energy. I realized that my now-useless black mage could fill that role with items, showering my characters in potions during his turns to keep them healthy while my white mage built up BP. I still had a problem, though – my vanguard could barely sustain multiple hits without dying even with his high defense. Until I could get my protect wall up I needed another way to reduce damage to my characters. That’s where my monk came in – she had Defang from her own time training as a vanguard and I was able to use that ability to continuously reduce the berserker’s attack power, bringng it down to minimum.
Finally, I had a workable strategy. With my black mage covering the healing role so my white mage and monk could cover the role of reducing damage to the party, I finally had the opening I needed to unleash my vanguard’s most powerful moves and deal significant damage to the berserker. Even with a plan in place it was a brutal battle of attrition and I kept having to make mild adjustments as things went awry. My monk running out of MP for Defang meant that sometimes I needed to use an ether to get her energy back up, and when protect wore off the berserker’s AOE still ran the risk of killing one of my characters, at which point I’d have to spend some of my hard-earned BP to revive and heal the downed character and then start my cycle over again. I burned through about half my inventory and the fight took a significant amount of time, but I finally managed to take down the berserker with the exact wrong combination of jobs in my party.
“God that sounds like a pain,” you might say, but I loved every second of that experience. Having the wrong combination of jobs for that fight required me to have a deep understanding of the jobs I did have in play. I had to know that defang and protect would give me enough cushion to operate more freely despite the berserker’s attacks. I had to recognize the ways in which the black mage wasn’t equipped for the fight and be ready to change my strategy with him so that could be as effective as possible. The battle tested my skills and my preparation at a level beyond anything I had encountered in the game up to that point, and when it was all over I felt like I had really earned that berserker asterisk. The experience also taught me the importance of building up new job skills as soon as they are unlocked rather than waiting until I had new jobs for my whole party to begin training them, as well as showing me that with the counterattack mechanism in play I would need to be much smarter about how often I used Brave to unleash a lot of attacks at once. If each one procs a counter, you can easily get one or more characters wiped out with an irresponsible volley of attacks.
“Okay, but what if the set of jobs you chose was so bad you absolutely couldn’t win?” As it turns out, I’ve had this happen too! During chapter two I came up against a boss who had a minion character with them in the fight. The minion was fully immune to physical attacks – no weapon type could damage them at all. And as it turned out, this took place during a time when I was training all of my party members exclusively in physical jobs. I did have some healing magic of course but all of my offensive abilities were strictly physical, meaning I had no tools in my arsenal at all to take out the minion for this boss. Now in hindsight I think I probably could have squeaked out a victory by attacking the boss exclusively and just dealing with the minion’s interference the whole time, but at the time I didn’t think of that possibility and concluded that if I couldn’t defeat the minion, I wouldn’t be able to win the battle.
Fortunately, getting out of this type of situation is generally uncomplicated. It does require you to reset the game – there’s not a menu button to “respec and retry” or something along those lines. But every boss has an opportunity to save beforehand either in the form of a glowing save point or because they are encountered in a town, where you can save anywhere. So I was able to reset the game and quickly change my party combination to one that was more effective for the battle based on the information I had learned. Knowing the weaknesses of the boss and his minion allowed me to quickly set up a team that was better designed to take them out, and having that correct combination made it a lot easier for me to clear the fight. And since cut scenes all have a skip button, you don’t even have to rewatch the villain monologues before jumpng back into a fight you had to reset. So while it is possible to come in with a crew so poorly-made that victory is essentially impossible, recovering from that is not a complicated process. This could definitely go sideways if you A.) forgot to save or B.) don’t have a better combination of jobs trained up, but if you are taking encounters at a healthy pace and you switch jobs enough to have at least one character trained in each one then you should be able to respec effectively for any given battle.
TALE #2: THE PERFECT GAME
I took the lessons I learned from that boss battle and I applied them rigorously throughout chapters two and three. Any time I pick up a new job I immediately begin working with it to add the new abilities to my collection. I try to bring a balanced team into every boss fight with a variety of physical and magical attacks available so I don’t get trapped in situations like the ones I described above. Creating exciting combinations of jobs allows me to experiment with combining different passive abilities together, or seeing which passive abilities best enhance the potential of the active abilities for different jobs. This experimentation – and a bit of luck – created a scenario where I was perfectly equipped to make a major boss battle into a total joke.
My opponents were a spiritmaster and a swordmaster, the former a role focused on healing with some potential for magical damage while the latter specializes in physical damage and counterattacks. On my own team I had a white mage and black mage with the pictomancer and red mage sub-jobs, respectively. This gave me at least one way to attack with every major element and two characters with healing abilities, as well as the potential to debuff enemies. In my tank role I had a shieldbearer with the vanguard sub-job, enabling me to both draw aggro and to jump in front of allies when they got attacked. And in my physical offense role I had a dragoon with the berserker sub-job, giving me a variety of single and multitarget physical attacks.
On the offensive front, the combination of jobs I had available allowed me to perfectly capitalize on the vulnerabilities of my targets. The shieldbearer and dragoon have just enough difference in their weapon proficiencies that I was able to hit the physical weaknesses of both bosses. Additionally, each of their sub-jobs had what was essentially a perfect attack for hitting two weak points on each. One was vulnerable to spears and water while the other took extra damage from axes and earth. Because I had the berserker’s water strike on my spear-wielding dragoon and the vanguard’s sword of stone on my axe-wielding shieldbearer, it was really easy for me to hit my opponents for massive physical damage. I was no slouch on the magical side either – because these bosses are weak against opposite elements on two spectrums (earth and wind, and dark and light) my red mage and pictomancer sub-jobs turned out to be perfect too! Every character in my party could exploit the vulnerabilities of both bosses in the fight, so anyone with a free turn they didn’t have to spend on healing or defense could get in a big hit.
What really made this battle a breeze though wasn’t just my solid offense. I had the ideal defense for the battle, too, and that defense was key to nullifying one of the most potentially frustrating aspects of the boss fight: the swordmaster’s One Step Ahead ability. One Step Ahead is a special counterattack that procs before your character uses an offensive ability. So say you go to make an attack on that nice squishy spiritmaster – before you get to land your blow, the swordmaster gets an opportunity to hit you first and potentially kill you before you even get to deal damage. Her hitting power is pretty impressive and depending on which swordmaster stance she is using, her counterattack may involve getting multiple hits in before you get to execute the move you lined up.
My accidental solution to this problem came from the combination of a particular passive ability with one of the shieldbearer’s key skills. The passive was Counter-Savvy from the ranger job. This ability makes it so that the character is guaranteed to dodge counterattack skills that deal physical damage. As I mentioned with the berserker fight, counterattacks force you to play a lot more cautiously in Bravely Default 2 and can be really punishing when you unleash a huge barrage. Counter-Savvy is the answer to that problem as long as the counter is physical, allowing your character to attack with impunity without having to worry about suffering damage. Counter-Savvy reaches a whole new level though when placed on a shieldbearer. See, shieldbearers have an activated ability called Defender of the People that allows them to take up to three attacks in the place of any of their allies. This allows the shieldmaster to literally jump in the way of enemy attacks, and when that attack is a physical counterattack, Counter-Savvy allows them to then avoid it completely so that none of your characters take damage at all.
This boss battle, a fight against not one but two asterisk bearers, took me only a few minutes. Once I scanned the enemies and found their vulnerabilities, I was able to immediately start hitting them for massive damage (I’m talking some hits doing as much as 6000) with Stonega and Aeroga, Chiaro and Scuro, and Water Damage and Sword of Stone. This prompted the swordmaster to quickly activate One Step Ahead to get ahead of us and execute some powerful counters, but with my shieldbearer intercepting the attacks and totally nullifying their damage thanks to Counter-Savvy, there was nothing she could do to stop me. I quickly wiped out the healer and then could focus my efforts on debuffing and destroying the swordmaster. It was probably the easiest boss fight I’ve fought the whole game, and knowing that this happened because I’d successfully experimented with interesting job combinations was deeply satisfying.
Now this of course introduces the concern that such a combination of abilities could make the game too easy. If a certain combo by a specific set of jobs essentially becomes a win button, there’s no challenge left in the game and no purpose in further discovery of job abilities. But while that set of jobs and abilities was essentially tailor-made for the boss fight I just described, I have used essentially the same combination in another boss battle and watched it nearly fail. It’s impressive, really, how small changes in a strategy can mean the difference between watching it play out effectively and watching it totally fall apart. In the battle I am about to describe, the only meaningful differences are the patterns of the boss themselves and the fact that my white mage was instead a red mage, but still had her white magic abilities as her sub-job. So I ultimately had access to the same set of spells and abilities.
While the combo I described previously was fantastic for the spiritmaster and swordmaster, it was essentially useless for the salvemaker, an optional boss you can face starting in chapter three onward. The salvemaker’s counterattack, like the berserker’s, is an AOE, which means that the shieldbearer can’t intercept it for other characters. On top of that, it isn’t a physical attack, so Counter-Savvy does nothing to prevent the damage it deals. Finally, it rubs salt in the wound by inflicting a very debilitating status condition called contagion that is essentially “poison” but for MP, draining 100+ MP per turn from each character afflicted. For those without the context to know whether or not that’s a lot of MP, it is a LOT of MP, more than even the most expensive spells for the black, red, and white mages. And while my red mage still had white magic for getting rid of contagion, not actually being in the white mage job meant I didn’t have the ability to expand the range of that spell to cure the whole party of contagion at once.
I did end up beating the salvemaker, but similar to the berserker it was a fight where I barely came out by the skin of my teeth. A strategy that was almost beat-for-beat the approach that made the previously-described boss battle a cakewalk was very nearly my downfall in a different fight. That to me is an important part of the appeal of Bravely Default II and its experimentation – so far at least, no combo I’ve been able to discover is a magical win button that makes every single battle a joke. You may be able to find the ultimate combo for one fight, or maybe even a combo that’s highly effective against a few different boss battles, but as enemy patterns change and become more nuanced the tools you need to overcome them change too. There is no win button, and when what’s working stops working that’s a good reminder to continue to develop your jobs, experiment with new loadouts, and figure out what solution makes the most sense for the problem that’s right in front of you.
I’m not sure how much left of BD2 I’ve got to go. At the time of writing, I started the game just shy of a week ago and I’ve already put in almost 45 hours. I’m nearing the end of chapter three and it feels from a story perspective that this will mean a big turning point for the game in terms of the structure. It’s the shift from the characters discovering their destiny and settling into their roles into being ready to take meaningful action. It feels as though plot threads are coming to a head, and I wouldn’t be surprised if chapter five ends up being the game’s conclusion (putting me at about 60% finished currently if I’m correct). I say all that to show just how much this game has captured me. Two days out of seven playing a video game you just got is a lot of time! So much of that has been experimenting with different job combinations to see which abilities have the greatest potential together. I currently have 18 jobs and each of my characters has mastered 11-12 of them – pursuit of mastery is the driving force behind why I enjoy Bravely Default II so much.
Whether the battles that loom ahead go smoothly or whether they have me gritting my teeth as I dump my entire inventory onto the party, I’m excited to see the new possibilities they introduce and the new challenges they present for me to figure out. I’m having fun with BD2 both when it hits me hard and when I breeze through it, because both outcomes are ultimately a test of how much I know the game. Can I prepare the best tools beforehand to make the fight easy? And having failed that, can I maximize the use of what I have available to overcome the obstacles anyway? Each new boss fight is an opportunity to answer those questions again, and discovering the answers has been a blast each and every time.