The Bravely series has always excelled at evoking the feeling of playing classic Final Fantasy-style RPGs, while sanding off some of the rough edges that may make those classic games less approachable to modern audiences. Bravely Default II, confusingly enough the third game in the franchise, maintains much of its predecessors' retro charm--but it actually removes some of the quality-of-life features that made the first two such breezy nostalgic throwbacks. Instead of simply reminding you of the satisfaction of playing a classic RPG, Bravely Default II demands that you relive the entire experience, faults and all.
For the uninitiated, Bravely Default gets its namesake from its innovative risk-reward combat system. Along with your typical health and magic meters, you have Brave Points (BP). And rather than a standard Defend command, you can choose to Default, which both defends and banks BP for later use. You can spend up to four actions using Brave command, but if you don't have enough BP banked you go into debt and skip future turns undefended.
This has always been key to Bravely Default's battle system, and it remains essentially untouched here. The approach is a little less novel the third time around, but it still creates a unique wrinkle of strategic RPG battle planning. Do you go into debt to unleash a flurry of attacks or do some emergency healing? Do you bank first and take the damage for a few turns? Bravely veterans will fall right back into the habit, but nothing about it feels too complex that it should give newcomers trouble. And newcomers will be able to jump in here because, like Final Fantasy, Bravely Default II's story is disconnected from any continuity. Four strangers come together as the selfless Heroes of Light to stave off certain doom--you know the drill.
Bravely Default has also been known for its job system, another throwback to games like Final Fantasy V. As you level up your heroes in different jobs, they'll gain access to new active and passive abilities, and when you switch to a new job you can set a subclass to retain some of your previously learned skills. At their best, Bravely games recall classics like Final Fantasy Tactics by allowing you to experiment and combine job abilities in ways that feel almost like cheating in the best way. You could combine a job that attracts enemy aggression with passive abilities that boost your power level every time you sustain an attack, or pair a regenerating Mana Points (MP) pool ability with a spellcaster who specializes in high-cost damage-dealing. Exploring and finding these combinations feels like solving a puzzle and becoming a tactical mastermind.
Obtaining new jobs is a major plot element in Bravely Default II, as you learn new jobs by defeating the holders of Asterisks--gems that contain the knowledge and skills of a specialized job. If you see a new character sporting a particularly unique set of clothing, you can be relatively assured they have an Asterisk to nab.
True to its roots, Bravely Default is a grind-heavy series. Both leveling up and mastering the wide variety of jobs available takes hours of battling low-level enemies in dungeons, but both Bravely Default and Bravely Second greased these squeaky wheels with some welcome features. You could toggle the encounter rate to occur more frequently in the overworld, set your characters to auto-battle, and adjust the combat speed to fast-forward through encounters. If your party was strong enough to handle smaller enemies, you could easily run around the battlefield getting into random battles while, for example, marathoning a TV show. You could walk away with a ton of experience within the span of one or two Breaking Bads. It was one of the key ways that the Bravely games captured the essence of classic games without bringing all of their baggage along for the ride.
Bravely Default II jettisons some of these options and suffers for it. Enemy encounters are no longer random--you see enemies roaming the overworld and run into them to initiate--so your time in the overworld is spent hunting down visible creatures. (Obnoxiously, weaker enemies run away from you, forcing you to chase them down if you're trying to farm.) You can no longer set the characters to auto-battle either; instead, you need to manually prompt your characters or hit the "repeat last action" function. Because of this, leveling your party feels like old school grinding again, both commanding your near-full attention and significantly slowing the process of hunting enemies. The experience and job progression milestones are set roughly as high as they were in the two previous games, but with the shortcuts removed, regularly leveling your characters for that next tough boss becomes a chore.
Battles can still be sped up, but the default speed setting is so languid it's hard to imagine ever playing in anything but 2x or 3x speed. And 4x can be too fast to properly see what's happening, so you'll sometimes have your party wiped before you even realize which attack was being queued up. Being able to turn up the battle speed mid-battle certainly helps mitigate the level-grinding by making individual battles snappier, but the lack of automation is still a drag. The Bravely games had created a beautiful blend of systems with auto-battles, encounter rate sliders, and battle speed sliders. Those systems worked in concert with each other to trim the extraneous work of classic RPGs while keeping the substance. Still having the option to increase the battle speed is better than nothing, but it also makes the absence of the other quality-of-life improvements that much more pronounced.
All of this is delivered with a presentation that is better-looking than ever before, and still endearingly simplistic. The characters look like vinyl figurines, and there's real joy in seeing how the different jobs are reenvisioned. The White Mage job, for example, eschews the usual priestly robes and instead sports a white jacket and hat combo reminiscent of a K-pop band. The Pictomancer, one of the more creative inclusions, looks like a classic painter complete with a beret and color-splotched apron. Anytime I got access to a new job, I would immediately play dolls with my four heroes, seeing each of their unique looks in the new outfits.
Despite its cute look, though, Bravely Default II explores some heavy themes. One chapter centers around the death of a child and how the grief and guilt has impacted her parents and family friends. Another has themes of religious persecution echoing the Salem witch trials, with its chief inquisitor convinced he's obeying divine influence instead of his own prejudices. These stories are delivered like vignettes, as individual chapters will shift the focus to an entirely new cast of characters and locale. These story beats exist within a minimalist framework, and that disarming contrast made their tonal impact hit harder than if they'd been delivered in a game that was more overtly grisly or philosophical.
Given that sophisticated approach to individual story moments, though, it's disappointing that the overarching plot is so threadbare. The vast majority of the story involves an evil empire waging war on surrounding kingdoms in pursuit of power, and four chosen Heroes of Light are looking to defend the world from encroaching darkness. The characters are likable--particularly the scholar Elvis, who sports a thick brogue and addresses the rest of the cast like an elder statesman--but they're mostly not much more than archetypes.
Of course there's a little more to it, but the story doesn't come off as self-aware or winking about its own stock-standard presentation. It's almost entirely straight-faced, which is hard to sustain for a 50-hour adventure.
I say almost, because the Bravely series has a habit of taking wild swings with huge metatextual twists. Bravely Default II is no exception, and after the credits roll it becomes clear that there's more to uncover. I've only started to scratch the surface on this post-game content, but what I've seen looks audacious. One scene even reminded me of the left-field twist from Bravely Second, though I have yet to see how Bravely Default II pays off this narrative development based on the several hours of post-game content I've seen.
Saving the twist and more game content for as long as Bravely Default II does proves to be a stumbling block.
However, saving the twist and more game content for as long as Bravely Default II does proves to be another stumbling block. The enjoyment of a Bravely game comes from tinkering with the job mechanics and finding game-breaking combinations of abilities. The jobs available throughout the vast majority of Bravely Default II are fairly typical. Even Pictomancer, one of the more creative additions, is still essentially a standard buff/debuff support job. As such, there's not much playfulness in cooking up overpowered job combinations throughout the main story, and the sluggish pace of leveling up means it's hard to get a wide array of abilities that could combo well anyway. This may change in the post-game, but finishing a grind-heavy 50-hour RPG before reaching that point is a heavy lift.
I'm left with mixed feelings about Bravely Default II. There's a lot to like and a core that's still fun and engaging. But the removal of some key quality-of-life features gives this experience a lot more friction than the prior games. I've loved the Bravely Default series for letting me feel like I'm 15 again--with all the time in the world to grind out a full set of level-99 characters--while still respecting my time by recognizing I don't actually want to do that. Bravely Default II asked me to put in the tedious work and lost some of the series' identity in the process.