Bravely Default was a risky game.
Released in the early 2010s, the 3DS title came out during a time of relative silence for the JRPG genre. Handheld games of a similar vein—“love letters” to classic JRPGs like Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light and Nostalgia—had mostly fallen on deaf ears. Conceived as a sequel to 4 Heroes, Bravely Default eventually warped into a mishmash of disparate JRPG conventions taking from Final Fantasy III and V with a splash of Dragon Quest, SaGa, and the less-known Brave Story.
Somehow, it worked. With a hefty amount of chibi charm, Bravely Default impishly played with our expectations going into a seemingly standard RPG. With a shocking 11th hour twist, addictive and exploitable job-based gameplay, and a story that was just competent enough, the game attained a cult following and signalled the beginning of a revival for retro-style JRPGs. In its wake, games like Octopath Traveler and Dragon Quest XI, as well as Western-developed indie efforts like Cosmic Star Heroine and, of course, Undertale, would find great success remixing elements of RPG favorites from the ‘90s. Bravely Default served as ample proof that JRPGs can still be interesting in their own right—that their evolutionary arc need not pivot towards conventional forms of innovation, but instead could toy with the familiar tropes that we love them for and that still feel fresh and exciting.
This is precisely why Bravely Default 2 doesn’t quite work. The game starts much the same way the original does; Gloria, the former princess of the dead kingdom Musa, is charged with recovering the four elemental crystals she lost the day Musa was sacked by the Holograd Empire. Three years after its destruction, Gloria is led by the Wind Crystal to Seth, a shipwrecked sailor found unconscious on the beach. Soon after they’re joined by Adelle and Elvis, who round out our group of quirky, statistically-interchangeable adventurers with a diverse set of European accents. The game wastes no time in throwing you directly into the action; within 30 minutes, you’ve got your first asterisk (Elvis comes equipped with the Black Mage job), have your full party, and are on your way to fight your first set of bosses.
A level of pathos is lost in the mad dash to the first chapter. By the game’s start, Musa’s destruction is a distant memory. Our entire investment in Gloria’s mission is dependent on her unwavering sense of duty, echoing familiar Final Fantasy heroines like X’s Yuna and XII’s Ashe. But unlike Yuna and Ashe, we see little of the needless destruction that led them to their resolve. We don’t see Gloria’s fall from grace and crumble into submission. As we move from chapter to chapter, time seems frozen in place, waiting for the protagonists to arrive and solve their resident problems they have seemingly been toiling with for years. Nothing in the continent of Excillant goes unobserved by the party; the world feels like a lifeless diorama, waiting to be beaten into flaccidity with clever job combinations.
Where Bravely Default 2 manages to shine is in its battle system, which is a marked improvement on Bravely Default and its earlier sequel, End Layer. The jobs have become entirely modular—as opposed to mages learning levels of spell competencies, each job level instead offers a unique spell that no other job may use. This means no job is inherently redundant, and any job can be useful or even gamebreaking depending on the combined subjob and abilities (passive skills learned in job trees that can be equipped no matter what job you are using).
Though battles can eventually be rendered perfunctory, there’s something beautiful and awe inspiring about optimizing your party into an impenetrable wall or an explosive group of glass cannons. The level of experimentation truly feels limitless, and offers a world of compulsive grinding and manic battle chains, especially when combined with the game’s built-in 4x speed.
Unfortunately, the game’s dungeons seem to all follow the exact same design principle: elaborate hedge mazes. Viewed from an almost top-down angle, you’ll be stumbling through identical corridors, entering into long battles, and retreading your steps after the ensuing disorientation. Each dungeon is truly lifeless, endcapped with a wooden smooth jazz score and copious surprise treasure chest ambushes. The game’s progression only exacerbates the problem. It follows a basic formula where the party travels to a new country and proceeds to traipse through a series of four or so dungeons, each of which leads to an elaborately-dressed asterisk user. Once the problem of each individual country is solved, the group moves to the next and repeats the process.
I’m not foolish enough to think every JRPG isn’t guilty of this to some degree, but Bravely Default 2 seems uncommitted to disguising the seams tenuously holding the game’s thin plot together. There are few mix-ups to the set progression, making the game feel something like a slow climb up an infinite, skyscraping flight of stairs, inevitably ending with a predictably cosmic climax. This is especially disappointing given the way Bravely Default played with conventions of JRPG structure; I was left expecting a last minute twist that never came.
Bravely Default 2 left me feeling quite depressed. As pulse-pounding as the game’s everchanging, high-stakes battles can be, marathoning my way through them felt like a siphon on my serotonin. There’s a harsh limit on how many times I can feel elated by seeing the numbers go up, and once the cheap thrill of leveling fades I’m left wandering a desolate world lacking in identity and conviction. The game’s a grim reminder of where “love letters” can go wrong—I need a little more than a reminder of a game I enjoyed 15 years ago to keep me going, especially one built on expectations set up by its own predecessor. Sometimes adoration for former greatness isn’t enough.
Bravely Default 2 was developed by Claytechworks and published by Nintendo in America and Square Enix in Japan. It’s available for the Switch.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire.