A lot has changed in the past few decades of video games, but one thing that has remained constant is that, when Square releases a new RPG, it is an event. And in that sense, Square Enix’s Bravely Default II on Nintendo Switch lives up to expectations. It is a meaty, high-quality role-playing experience with an intricate combat system that will keep you hooked for dozens of hours. However, like in the original Bravely Default, the narrative is still pretty weak overall, which will likely disappoint the Square faithful who are used to better storytelling.
Bravely default to a generic story
The narrative in Bravely Default II follows an extremely familiar premise: Four heroes of light are drawn together by fate to collect the four elemental crystals and save the world from a villainous empire. There are a couple cool little twists and shockingly dark moments in the middle of the game, and the narrative actually continues well beyond the so-called “final battle” — but most of the story is extremely predictable. Likewise, almost all of the characters are stock characters you’ve seen in other games, including the protagonists themselves. The heroes are at least likeable, but it’s disappointing that they remain so generic across 50+ hours of dialogue and adventuring.
Incidentally, it’s actually the job system in Bravely Default II that sabotages its storytelling. The game makes use of “Asterisks,” magical objects that prescribe a job to your characters and change their appearance accordingly. However, you obtain all these Asterisks from fighting and taking them from other people. That means you know with absolute certainty that, every time a person with a cool outfit appears on screen, you will definitely beat that person up at some point, even if it’s ostensibly a good guy. Story boss fights are almost exclusively against humans wielding these Asterisks as well, so the entire story revolves around contriving boss fights. It feels really dull and unnatural most of the time. There is a fun full-blown collectible card game hidden inside the game though, which might serve as a nice distraction.
The soundtrack will keep you going even when the visuals don’t
The actual presentation of Bravely Default II fares a little better than the story. For starters, the soundtrack is outstanding, constantly capturing the mood while always being catchy. It is certainly a strong early candidate for soundtrack of the year for 2021. Additionally, all of the towns in Bravely Default II are beautiful like in past games, hand-drawn in meticulous detail.
However, the rest of the visuals vary in quality. Sometimes the character models have great little details; sometimes they don’t look much better than 3DS models. There are gorgeous ice caverns and attractive forests, and then there are locales that just feel a bit generic. The animations also feel a bit simplistic, especially in story scenes where characters all stand in a row talking to each other most of the time. Even the monsters are recycled with color swaps too often.
Plus, the game will actually outright pause for a couple seconds while it loads dialogue scenes or other odd things, even docked. The stuttering is frequent enough to be a bit annoying, and the load times between areas aren’t awful but aren’t terrific either. The game is not a technical marvel.
But none of that ultimately bothered me much, because the battle system is the main draw of Bravely Default II. And the battle system is fantastic.
Bravely Default II: Come for the combat… stay for the combat
The Bravely Default battle system fans know returns, with some tweaks. In battle, all characters and enemies have Brave Points (BP) that can be accumulated through ability effects or through defending with the Default command. BP is required to act, but you can spend it all at once or even operate at a deficit in order to act upward of four times at once with one character. Judging risk versus reward is a massive part of the game — deciding when to bide your time or go all-in for a massive attack.
However, in Bravely Default II, rather than having set “rounds” of combat where everyone acts, the flow of action is continuous. It’s not like Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battle system where enemies will attack without waiting for you, but rather like in Grandia, where there is an ongoing timeline of action. But unlike in Grandia, the game never outright tells you who will act next. There are meters to show how close your characters are to being able to act, but monsters only get a vague exclamation point symbol over their bodies when they are planning to attack. Knowing vaguely but not precisely when monsters will attack adds a unique additional layer of strategy to the risk/reward gameplay.
Spicing up the combat further in Bravely Default II is the aforementioned job system and Asterisks. Each job has its own stats, unique abilities, and weapon proficiencies. Most jobs fall into clear, albeit unstated categories, like tanking, physical offense, or support. Yet each job feels distinctive and offers abilities that might pair extremely well with abilities from another class. You can equip a main job and a sub job, where only the main job dictates your stats and receives job points (JP) to level up, but you can use any skills you’ve learned in the sub job during battle or in the field.
The job and ability combinations are incredibly expansive and ripe for experimentation, offering a ton of replay value for those who enjoy character customization. For example, it is both easy and even recommended to create a tank who is also an ace healer, since a straight magic user can’t handle hits so well. And while it is not as easy to create overpowered characters as it was in the original game (not until late in the game, anyway), the game still strongly encourages you to create the most broken parties possible.
For instance, by some point in Chapter 2, I had built a character who could instantly kill everything on screen at the start of battle, which was extraordinary because most battles till then had required at least some deliberate strategy. I had to provide a similar build to a second character later on to maintain the strategy, but what it ultimately meant is that I effortlessly steamrolled every normal enemy encounter in the game for dozens of hours. I saved literally hours of time with this strategy, because dungeons are frequent, surprisingly large and maze-like, and feature tons of enemies roaming around on screen. The games does value your time though; you can run around maps at high speeds and crank up the speed of battle animations to a blistering pace.
On one hand, I could still bemoan that Bravely Default II has so many battles that would require so much time to win if I hadn’t used one cheap strategy to sidestep it all. But on the other hand, it was my decision to use the strategy, mindlessly slaughtering everyone in my path was its own kind of fun, and all those fast battles helped me grind for the boss fights, which are the game’s ultimate test.
Most bosses in the game feel unique because almost all of them are using the powers of a distinct Asterisk. If you don’t understand the game’s mechanics, you will die. However, Bravely Default II eases you into its difficulty. Powerful support NPCs will help you fight during the prologue and early chapters, and on rare occasion they even become a surprisingly integral part of strategy. Curiously though, I found bosses in the early chapters of the game to be the most difficult, perhaps because my options were more limited and bosses completely shrug off certain types of attacks. There was one boss battle where at one point I just stared at the screen and thought, “Well, now what?”
The game becomes much more manageable — often even easy, in my opinion — past Chapter 2 though. Ultimately, the greatest danger in Bravely Default II comes from the enemies’ counter abilities. Some enemies and bosses have a chance of automatically activating a counter to specific types of character actions, like attacking or even just defending or healing. Enemy counters are always a scary wild card you must figure out yourself on the fly, and they might change as a boss fight progresses. It’s tense and exciting, but it also becomes outright cheap in a few instances — especially against the true final boss, who regularly wipes all your MP to 0. Square Enix had no chill designing that fight.
Bravely try this game
In Bravely Default II, you either break the battle system with some beautiful strategy, or it breaks you. And that’s the thrill of it. Taking charge of massive customization options to build a party that can uniquely demolish the varied bosses is incredibly satisfying and never gets old. When you couple that stellar action with a phenomenal soundtrack, it becomes possible to forgive the game’s uninspired story and technical hiccups. And while I really wish Square Enix were not struggling so much to tell a great story lately, Bravely Default II is still an utterly addicting RPG and an excellent addition to the Nintendo Switch library.
A review code was provided by the publisher.