As a genre, JRPGs are in a challenging place; they need to revise and reinvent to remain relevant in a world of increasingly polished games, but if they stray too far from the genre’s expectations they risk becoming unmoored from their rich history.
Bravely Default 2 initially felt conservative to me, with its story harkening back to JRPGs of yore, but after a while it became clear that it was operating on a different level, and that it featured one of the most compelling and rewarding combat systems the genre has ever seen.
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Things start simply as your shipwrecked hero, Seth, is rescued by the Wind Crystal and chosen to become one of the Warriors of Light, burdened with following a road of hardship in order to save the world.
It’s a well worn story, straight out of the original Final Fantasy, as you must rescue four crystals from the clutches of the evil Holograd Empire, whose grim leader wants to unify the world through military subjugation using the power of the crystals. You party up early on with Gloria, a princess from the ruined kingdom of Musa – which originally held the crystals – and set upon your journey to claim them all back.
Joining you are Elvis, the rambunctious Scottish – sorry, Wiswaldian – mage, and his mercenary pal Adelle, who has a mysterious past. As you travel from kingdom to kingdom searching for the crystals, you’ll discover a dilemma in each that needs solving. Every place you visit is a hand-drawn delight with a pop-book feeling, but as much as Bravely Default 2 evokes the classic fairy tale feeling of older JRPGs, it also burrows into the darker themes.
Uncovering schemes behind the scenes in each kingdom will lead you into conflict with a handful of characters with their own dubious or outright evil ambitions, and a trail of dead bodies behind them. Invariably, these people will have been gifted an Asterisk – a crystal that confers them with the power to pursue their goals by giving them the power of a Job class such as Thief, Hunter, Berserker or Black Mage.
These Job classes are responsible for Bravely Default 2’s dizzying depth. Each Job will confer its user with an innate bonus, a set of commands they can use, a suite of unlockable passive abilities. as well as proficiency with one of six weapons. Characters can equip a main job and a sub job (the latter doesn’t give you its innate bonus), and they can also have five passive abilities from any class equipped at once.
This system provides a huge amount of tactical depth, with a potential to unlock powerful combos and synergies between classes and party members. Combat itself uses the Brave Point system from prior Bravely Default games. Each turn gives you the option to ignore fighting, and instead go into ‘Default’ – a guard mode which lets you bank a point to spend later.
You can also choose to go into debt, forfeiting turns until you reset to zero. The system effectively allows you to control the ebb and flow of battle, going into debt to set up buffs and bodyguard abilities, whilst banking points to unleash flurries of critical blows that leave enemies reeling.
You’ll need to get to grips with it as fast as possible though, as the game doesn’t pull any punches. Bravely Default 2 has an incredibly steep difficulty curve, and you’ll quickly come to rue Bosses. By the second half of the game I had resigned myself to going into every fight with one expecting a loss, using it instead to scope out their weakness and attack patterns.
Some of these titanic fights took me 10 or more attempts as I puzzled through combinations of jobs and equipment as I was punted back to the title screen over and over. The flipside to my frustration was the euphoria of figuring out a winning strategy – each boss feels like a puzzle designed to test your knowledge of the combat systems on offer.
Unlike most JRPGs, grinding is rarely the answer, as Jobs and abilities are more important than levels. There were only a few times where I found myself exploiting the lure items to boost characters through Job levels, but mostly battles were won through guile and strategy.
Eventually I was poring over items, jobs and abilities, trying to combine them to unlock the right tactic for each fight. Because there are endless possibilities, and because it rarely feels like there is one correct solution, some fights can feel insurmountable until the right combination clicks.
This is the game’s biggest flaw as it leads to fights that knock you out clean, but it is also its biggest triumph, as it never lets you rest on your laurels. You are instead forced to figure out the pros and cons of every class and party setup – there is no way to coast to victory by spamming attack here.
By the time the credits roll, you’ll have experienced a typical JRPG with all the twists and turns. It’s worth remembering it’s a Bravely Default title though, so even after the 60 hours it took me to hit the credits, there was still more to discover and unpick.
Whilst combat is certainly the bulk of the experience, I can’t ignore the presentation either. Bravely Default 2 retains the series’ cutesy aesthetic, with exquisitely hand-drawn towns and whimsical dungeons and overworlds to quest through. Character design is similarly top notch, with every of your party getting a slightly different twist on each job’s outfit, which only become more weird and inventive as the game progresses, and the rest of the game getting wonderfully caricatured designs.
As you’d expect from a modern JRPG the choice between Japanese and English audio is available, with both more than passing muster. The localisation deserves a special mention for giving its many-accented cast a great script to work with, and this might be the first game I can remember offhand where someone got called a Bampot, so plus points for that.
The cherry on the top is the audio work. Scored by Revo, the game’s music is a JRPG fan’s dream, with wild organ solos and electric guitars clashing thrillingly in its various, adrenaline fuelled battle themes.
Whilst Bravely Default 2 might be a JRPG firmly influenced by the halcyon days of the genre, it’s exciting and fresh in all the right ways. It won’t win over anyone who hates turn based combat, but for those who enjoy the genre it’s the most confident and deep take on the genre in years, that’s challenging enough to keep you entertained for weeks, if not months.
‘Bravely Default 2’ is now available for Nintendo Switch.
Bravely Default 2 is a refinement of the classic JRPG formula with all the pros and cons that invites. It’s a difficult game, with a seemingly endless amount of challenges to overcome, wrapped up in a stunning audio visual package. If you can weather its demands, it’s combat system has unparalleled depths for you to explore.
- A peerless combat system with almost limitless levels of depth to explore
- The main story is full of twists and turns, and the post-game offers a reason to stick around
- Presentation and localisation are sublime
- Every boss fight is a stiff challenge, and you’ll see the gameover screen a lot
- Tweaking your party layout can be tedious