|Release Date||February 26, 2021|
In addition to being one of the most important JRPGs of all time, Final Fantasy VII also serves as a generational dividing line. Us old farts that cut our teeth on Final Fantasy I through VI found ourselves suddenly in a strange place, playing a game far, far removed from its predecessors. I often described Bravely Default to the uninitiated like this: what if Square Enix had taken those 2D Final Fantasies and given them quality-of-life updates and graphical upgrades, but never truly changed their core? That’s exactly what Bravely Default II presents: a plot reminiscent of Final Fantasy I-IV, a job system in the vein of Final Fantasy V, and the polish of Final Fantasy VI. Does that still make for a great game in 2021? Let’s find out!
First, a note: there are undoubtedly spoilers in this section (the review proper is spoiler-free). I’m using my best judgment to keep these as vague as possible, but you’ve been warned. Also, while I have completed the primary post-game content, I haven’t completed every side quest.
Violence: Bravely Default II is not a bloody or gory game by any means, but it is violent. Players mostly fight monsters in dungeons, but the bosses are primarily humans, and many of them die. One plot point involves the intentional murder of a child (this is not seen, only discussed) and many other NPCs are murdered to advance nefarious purposes. Several characters are forced to jump off of a cliff to their deaths.
Sexuality: ESRB marked the game for “mild suggestive themes,” and I agree. At most, a few characters wear revealing outfits. There are a few hints at “I love you” (though it is never said) and “Are you two… a couple?”, but there is no kissing or anything further. Compared to many modern JRPGs, this is a welcome change.
Language: A few scattered d-mns and h-lls throughout, but I never saw anything else.
Alcohol/Drugs: Several characters love to imbibe and are shown tipsy for laughs.
Spirituality: One chapter of the game is a very classic “the church is evil” JRPG trope, and many people are killed because of nefarious church leaders. Demons, undead and the like are present in dungeons and in a few story beats; one chapter involves the false hope of raising a child from the dead.
Bravely Default II received a (Teen) rating from the ESRB.
(You are safe from spoilers now…. until the last section.)
A New Console, The Same Systems
I wasn’t sure what to think about Bravely Default making its inevitable move to the Switch. I was especially worried that the old school “super deformed” character models would not translate well, but my fears were unfounded (though my 6-year-old daughter kept asking me, “Why are those people the wrong size all over?”). The game is absolutely gorgeous, as is the music, and the voice acting is impeccable. I have to commend the developers for doing an early demo and soliciting feedback, because the final product is quite slick. For someone whose life was permanently changed by Final Fantasy IV and VI, it is truly amazing to see the extent to which this game is able to trigger my nostalgia.
Even though this is only the third game in the series, Bravely Default already has its own set of expectations, particularly with the game systems. Combat still centers around the Brave/Default concept, which allows players to sandbag extra turns or even go “in the hole” to take up to four turns in a row, possibly risking several turns of inaction afterwards. Paired with this is a Job system lifted straight out of Final Fantasy III and V. What really impressed me this time around was the extent to which the Job system started with a very simple set of parameters, and yet the creativity within those parameters was astounding. Some of the later abilities are incredibly clever; some are shockingly powerful; some are downright funny. It was also fun to see the way they weaved the job system into the story.
Of course, a JRPG wouldn’t be what it is without a ton of optional content, and there are 100 side quests in Bravely Default II. I found myself not wanting to leave this beautiful world even once the story was over, and I’m well on my way to knocking these out. Something about the little blue bubble showing the presence of a side quest is just so darn entrancing that I found myself getting distracted from the main quest, even though I had a review to write and knew better. In addition, there are entire locations and towns that have no bearing on the main quest at all, as well as optional bosses with awesome rewards. Players who like to sink the extra time into RPGs will be happy to do so here.
Did Quality of Life Go Up, or Down?
A distinctive feature of Bravely Default was always that it was incredibly familiar, old-school, but with incredibly strange quirks. One such quirk was the ability to completely change the random encounter rate, to the point of being able to turn off random encounters completely. I have vivid memories of exploring dungeons entirely free of encounters, saving just before the boss, and then grinding random encounters ad nauseum while watching anime. At that time, it seemed fantastic—why not compress the least interesting part of an RPG to something I can play idly while distracted? Yet, this is not possible in Bravely Default II.
The reason for this is twofold. The more obvious reason is that encounters are no longer “random”; enemies appear on the overworld and charge at you when close enough, or run away if they know they’re outgunned. Thus, the encounter slider is no longer present as an option. Yet, there’s another aspect to this that might be a bit jarring to casual JRPG fans: Bravely Default II is challenging. I played the entire game in Casual mode, and if I had not been told the difficulty ahead of time, I would assume I was in Normal mode. Games like the Trails series let you practically ignore overworld encounters in their Easy modes; in Bravely Default II, absentminded grinding could easily net you a Game Over. So, isn’t this just… worse than before?
That was my original thought. But think back on what that means: that I would rather play a game that I mostly ignore while I do something else, instead of a game that commands my full attention? Are we so addicted to screens that we have to have multiple going at once? I have to commend Bravely Default II for demanding that I respect it. However, players who insist on playing on Normal might endure more than I could bear. I’ve seen reviews and posts where players spent 50 hours just to get to the post-game content, and stopped from fatigue (to their detriment, as we’ll see). Playing through the post-game content up until the “true ending” took me 35 hours on Casual mode, and I found that to be an appropriate length.
Putting difficulty and grinding aside, almost everything you want from quality-of-life features in a JRPG is here. I can appreciate the old-school approach of allowing saves at certain spots in dungeons, and you can otherwise save anywhere in towns or in the overworld. There are plenty of options in the Settings, including the ability to turn Battle Speed up to 4x as fast as the standard rate (I played the game in its entirety this way) and to make running the standard movement speed rather than walking. None of the side quests are missable, which is absolutely fantastic, and should be the modern standard.
However, there are two features missing where other games have spoiled me, and I’d love to see these in an update. First, the Trails games have set a new industry standard by allowing players to quickly see recent dialogue simply with the push of a button. Bravely Default II provides access to all past cutscenes as all modern JRPGs should, but if you accidentally skip a single line of text, you’ll have to rewatch the entire cutscene to catch it. The second missing feature, ironically, proves how much I love Bravely Default II: shortly after getting the true ending, I decided I want to “Platinum” the game and do all the side quests and optional bosses. Unfortunately, the Switch does not have any kind of trophy system. Many games, whether on Switch or on PS4/5, have begun having their own in-game list of trophies and achievements. I sorely wish Bravely Default II had this, or at minimum, a way to see all completed, rather than just active, sidequests.
Lastly, I want to end this section on something Bravely Default II does that puts every other JRPG out there on notice that they need to keep up. In the Settings, amongst the inverted cameras and sound levels and game speeds, is a One-Handed Mode option. Many JRPGs have this “on accident” by double-mapping certain buttons so that you can (mostly) play with one hand, but Bravely Default II is much more intentional here. I went ahead and tried it for a while, and I’m amazed at the thought put into it. Using a left joy-con, the shoulder buttons are confirm/cancel, the stick is to move, minus brings up the menu, and the d-pad moves the camera. Unfortunately, some areas of Bravely Default II require the Y and X buttons as well, but those areas (menus, dungeons) are devoid of a camera, which is only present on the overworld. So the game adaptively maps Y and X to the d-pad when the camera is not present, and they really provide the full game experience with one joy con.
While it’s easy to crack jokes about one-handed modes, for Geeks Under Grace, this hits home. We had a staff member suffer a stroke a year or two ago, and he lost the ability to move one of his arms, shortly after his wife gave birth to their first child. It has been incredibly challenging for him, and his primary source of recreation and escape has likewise become nearly impossible as well. Recently I was able to recommend this game to him in full confidence, because the developers took the time to take accessibility seriously. I hope to eventually see all RPG studios do likewise.
Were the Writers as Brave as Before? [Very Mild Spoilers]
If you hear people talk about the first Bravely Default, they will usually bring up that thing. There is a sequence in the middle of Bravely Default that is an incredibly bold take on storytelling, but also a source of frustration for many players. Fortunately, I knew it was coming and mostly circumvented the frustrating aspect of it. When players bring it up, though, they often forget the extent to which both Bravely Default and Bravely Second were willing to flip the script on the “big reveals at the end of the game” JRPG trope and include some other crazy concepts and metanarratives. Everyone who played Bravely Second will certainly remember a different moment that still would give any JRPG fan nightmares.
So while the Bravely series is known for its old school aesthetic, simple but impactful spin on classic turn based gameplay, and the robust job system, it’s also known for its crazy plot twists that don’t feel like any other series out there. Given the divisive reaction to Bravely Default, fans might wonder whether they were willing to get this crazy again. The answer? Sort of.
Like before, the initial presentation of Bravely Default II’s plot is incredibly basic, and relies heavily on Final Fantasy nostalgia. Four Heroes of Light are chosen by The Crystals to save the world…sound familiar? Over time, the narrative expands, and certain side quests flesh out the lives of NPCs and even villains as they turn over new leaves.
Unfortunately, the juiciest parts of the plot, the ones that remind you just what series you’re playing, don’t happen until “post-game content”. I put that in quotes because you really haven’t finished this game until you’ve seen credits roll several times. While things never got as crazy as I hoped they would, I found myself mostly satisfied with the plot, with one exception: several of the key villains (one in particular) were never given the full treatment they deserved. Hopefully we’ll see a sequel (Bravely Second II…?) or DLC to shore that detail up, or simply to give me more Bravely Default II. Because I want more. And can I really give a higher compliment than that?
If Ain’t Broke… Keep Playing It
In many ways, Bravely Default II makes marginal yet important improvements on its predecessors, but leaves all the best stuff alone. It plays things a bit more safe than before, somewhat to its detriment, but not enough to keep the game from an easy recommendation. What a fantastic game to kick off 2021, and I can’t wait for the next game in the Bravely series.
Review copy generously provided by Nintendo of America.
The Bottom Line
Bravely Default II is a treat for old-school JRPG fans.