When I first saw advertisements for the original Bravely Default, I was so excited to get my hands on a traditional JRPG from the company behind the classic Final Fantasy titles. Final Fantasy had lost its way in my mind and Squeenix’s last attempt at something more traditional (Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light) I had bounced off of hard. Bravely Default excited me even more because it seemed to capture the same mechanics of my favorite game in the series, Final Fantasy V. I kept an eye out for it throughout the marketing cycle and when it finally hit shelves, I was eager to go out and grab the game.
I had a lot of fun with Bravely Default during the early hours. Discovering new jobs and their abilities allowed me to uncover lots of creative possibilities with my characters. The quality of life features such as auto-battle and fast forwarding as well as clear quest markers made it easy to fit in time with the game between my college classes and to split time between grinding sessions and concentrated efforts to work through the story. However, the original Bravely Default started to fall apart for me once the game hit its fifth chapter. Due to story elements in the game, starting at chapter five the heroes began to experience again the same locations and battles from the first four chapters with little in the way of new dialogue. The battles were harder but they existed only to provide some additional challenge and to serve as a more effective tool for grinding in a world where the characters were well beyond the random encounters. When the game ultimately punished me with a bad ending for figuring out the story’s plot twist and breaking the cycle, I decided to set Bravely Default aside.
Despite the rough finale, I still enjoyed the core premise of Bravely Default and the idea of an old-school JRPG with a rich job system never ceased to appeal to me. That’s why when Bravely Second and then Bravely Default II came around, I was open to giving those games a try as well. And yes, those are two different games! Bravely Default II is the most recent entry in the series and even though it is titled like a numbered sequel, it is more of a reboot – exploring similar ideas as the first game with a whole new setting and cast of characters. The question is, then, whether or not Bravely Default II captures the magic of the original while also improving and building on what it brought to the table.
The basic premise of Bravely Default II is one that most JRPG fans will find recognizable: an amnesiac boy joins up with a princess, a scholar, and a mercenary to recover the four elemental crystals which keep the natural world in balance and also serve to protect it from a dark force that has been sealed away. In the fashion of the first game they do this through the power of Asterisks, glowing gems that confer upon the bearer the knowledge and abilities of various jobs. Jobs mostly fall into series staples with predictable roles – black mage, white mage, ranger, dragoon, etc. – but these familiar roles have been revitalized somewhat by changing the sorts of passive abilities and specialties which they bring to the table. This, then, is your core loop – a story beat requires you to go to a dungeon-like location with enemy encounters and treasures that allow you to gain some experience and beef up your current jobs. At the end you’ll face an Asterisk-bearer and, upon defeating them, gain their job as your own. This gives you a new job to experiment with as you start the loop again.
A few mechanics have changed about Bravely Default II, some of which I appreciate and some which I preferred the old way of doing things. Random encounters are gone in favor of encounters which you can see on the map in the overworld. Normally folks sing the praises of games that rid you of random encounters, but the specific way that Bravely Default handled them – with a slider that allowed you to turn them off as well as adjust how often they showed up – actually had some advantages that are lost in BD2. If you’re overleveled from a job grind and just want to rush to the end of a dungeon without dealing with enemies, you now have to try to maneuver around enemies in narrow hallways hoping not to touch them and initiate an encounter. And if you’re doing a focused grinding session, you have to run all over the place looking for enemies to spawn instead of being able to amp up the encounter rate and get into a battle every few steps. Most of the time removing random encounters in video games gives the player more control over whether or not they engage in a battle; Bravely Default II managed to find the one way to make it give the player less control.
Other mechanical changes took place in BD2. Equipment now has a weight stat and different jobs have different carrying capacities, making it easier for a vanguard to wear heavy armor and wield big axes compared to a thief, who prefers lighter gear. The encumbrance system felt a bit unnecessary and felt like it restricted creative builds in a game that otherwise wants you to experiment; I would have preferred a proficiency system similar to what the game has with weapons where a black mage in heavy armor won’t get as many benefits. It’s even weirder because armor pieces have little labels that suggest what kind of job they most suit, so the game was already halfway to an armor proficiency system but then used weight to arbitrarily create restrictions instead. This particularly bothered me late-game when using the freelancer job, which has a pretty average carrying capacity that hurts your ability to wear heavy armor or to dual-wield weapons.
I’ve been pretty negative so far on BD2 but I think it’s important to emphasize that early in my time with the game, most of what I described above were mild inconveniences eclipsed by what the game does well. One of my favorite mechanical changes was the introduction of an aggro system through a stat in the game called “chance to be targeted by the enemy.” Really rolls off the tongue, eh? Despite the perhaps too on the nose name, it’s a neat stat that gives you a clear visual representation of how likely your characters are to be attacked relative to one another. And by making that a statistic tied to your equipment and job roles, the game makes it an element of combat that you can actively manipulate and plan for. This made jobs like the vanguard, the shieldbearer, and the bastion more effective than they were in previous titles because their role as tank wasn’t enforced only by their job abilities, but also by their stats. I was also able to use this stat to draw aggro to the counter-happy swordmaster class and bait the enemy into giving me more opportunities to attack.
Because building job levels is so significant to the appeal of BD2, the game makes sure you can accrue job experience quickly via an item called monster treats. Monster treats allow you to bait monsters of a specific type to rush towards you instead of avoiding or ignoring you in the overworld, and encountering a monster in this fashion causes more waves to show up to attack you after the first. Each wave you fight at once makes the battle more difficult because of course you’re spending more and more resources per fight, and you have to more carefully manage how often you use the Brave mechanic to take extra actions in exchange for losing future turns. However, these more difficult wave encounters give multipliers to job points that allow you to very quickly level up new jobs. When you combine this multiplier with other bonuses (such as the JP-boosting skills from the freelancer class or the underdog bonus for leveling up a brand new job against tough enemies) you can easily gain two or three job levels at a time at lower levels and can gain higher job levels in only three or four encounters.
Gaining job levels quickly is essential because the real meat of Bravely Default II is in mastering jobs and using their abilities to create experimental combinations for boss battles. I talked pretty in depth about the combat in my previous BD2 article but I’ll review some elements again here. Different enemies in the game have vulnerabilities to specific elements or weapons, and boss characters have certain status conditions which can affect them as well as patterns of attack and defense that can be interrupted by the right combination of jobs and abilities. An enemy who counterattacks any magical attack with a powerful physical blow could stop you from bringing a black mage to the battle – but if you have the ranger’s Counter-Savvy ability on that character, they can cast spells without fear. An enemy who buffs before unleashing a torrent of powerful attacks can be incrementally shut down by stealing their buffs one at a time with the thief, or using the freelancer to completely reset all of their stats to neutral in one fell swoop.
Bravely Default II is strongest during its first four chapters. The steady flow of new jobs to your party means you are regularly engaging with new mechanics and experimenting with the optimal combinations of an ever-growing list of abilities. Bosses are challenging tests of whether or not you have mastered enough jobs to be able to cobble together an effective party; thorough preparation and a bit of luck will make those battles pass quickly while a poor party makeup can really test your abilities to make the most of a bad situation. And while the story and characters aren’t necessarily of award-winning quality, they are not a rote repeat of elements from previous games in the series and some villains employ their job abilities in really interesting ways in the setting (particularly during chapter two). These parts of the game kept me most engaged from both a mechanical and a storytelling perspective.
Unfortunately, BD2 falls into the same trap as the original game in that things start to fall apart once you’ve collected a majority of the jobs. Experimentation is less rewarding as the late-game jobs introduce some pretty obvious win buttons that are effective regardless of the bosses you face. The story has no idea how to end; there are three endings to Bravely Default II but to call them “good” or “bad” endings really wouldn’t be accurate. There are two very obvious false endings and then finally a proper conclusion well after the game has worn out its welcome. The end of the game is used to dump exposition and shove story elements that would have been better incorporated had they been sprinkled throughout the preceding chapters instead of all being piled at the back end. The endgame also incorporates what I can only refer to as some “Undertale bullshit,” but unlike Undertale which is dedicated from top to bottom to turning gaming and specifically RPG conventions on their head, Bravely Default II is too normal for too long for the sudden meta experimentations at the end to feel like they are earned.
If you’re reading this review as someone who has Bravely Default II but hasn’t finished it yet, or you are planning to get it soon, allow me to share some endgame advice. After your first false ending the game unlocks some new features that will appeal to your most “gamer” instincts and make you think it’s time to buckle down and do some intense grinding. “Things are getting real now,” you’ll think, and you will be tempted to grind for cool overpowered weapons and to maximize as many jobs as possible in preparation for what MUST be an incredible final boss encounter. Don’t fall for it. The game does not dramatically spike in difficulty after the first ending and the more powerful tools you are given starting in chapter six are overkill for the challenges that are coming. The bonus bosses you fight during this section are more difficult than the actual final boss, and giving in to the urge to grind unnecessarily will not only make the final stretch of the game take longer, but it will make the payoff of your final victory feel much weaker since your party is so utterly broken.
My pal Frosti over at Frostilyte Writes often says of the first Bravely Default that it’s a broken game. He describes how a specific combination of jobs allows for a combo that renders every subsequent battle a joke, allowing him to beat the final boss and many bosses preceding it without even taking a single point of damage. While I personally haven’t yet found a combination quite that broken for Bravely Default II, you really don’t even need to look that hard because what breaks the game worst than anything is the first job you ever get: the freelancer. Mastering the freelancer gives them a specialty called “late bloomer” which gives the freelancer a stat bonus for every other job you’ve mastered in the game. If you’re playing the game well you’ve probably mastered a bunch of jobs by the later chapters – in my case I maybe had four jobs per character that weren’t mastered yet when I got to chapter six – and the stat bonuses from the Late Bloomer ability will be absolutely massive. Changing my characters into freelancers made them ridiculously broken. Their stats were so high that even the special late-game bosses could barely touch them with a majority of their attacks. And forget about the final boss doing even a mite of damage. During the challenges I wasn’t trying to figure out the combination that would make me win – I was looking for the right set of abilities to make me win fast, because with the freelancer and Late Bloomer equipped winning was a foregone conclusion.
Some of my negative impressions of Bravely Default II absolutely come from the fact that I played the last section of the game less than optimally, and I think other players can have a more positive experience by just focusing on the story and resisting the urge to maximize their mechanical performance. But the problem is that BD2 is very much a game about maximizing your mechanical performance. That is the primary appeal of the game. So the fact that at the end the game gives you lots of tools to really go wild with the jobs and equipment but no sufficient challenge to require that level of investment is really disappointing. Maybe I would have had a better experience on hard difficulty? It’s too late to say now. All I know is my experience of BD2’s conclusion could have been about 10 hours shorter had I simply played it through rather that getting sucked into the idea that the new tools unlocked during the endgame meant something big was coming.
Ultimately, Bravely Default II is another entry into a series which has maintained the same appeal – and the same problems – across its lifespan. For as long as the game offers you new jobs to discover and sufficient challenges to merit experimentation with those jobs, it is a fun and compelling mechanical experience with a passably pleasant story and characters. The game struggles at the end due to an inability to come to a simple, satisfying conclusion and due to losing the element of challenge that made experimentation with a variety of jobs and abilities warranted. You’ll perhaps have a better experience at a higher difficulty but on normal, most of the endgame activities aren’t necessary and instead work to make you so ridiculously powerful as to render the finale anticlimactic.