If it feels like Bravely Default: Flying Fairy was a long time ago, it was. The 3DS JRPG, which embodied a lot of what people loved about old school games in the genre, released back in 2012.
Since then, the 3DS and New 3DS and Wii U have come and gone, with the game heading to the Switch for a much bigger screen. In many ways, Bravely Default II has grown up, but in some ways, it remains stubbornly stuck in its ways.
A tale of crystals and jobs
Bravely Default II never hides how influenced it is by the Final Fantasy games of old. The story revolves around four crystals, and a world in chaos. Jobs, items and magic spells have been taken wholesale from Final Fantasy games, from White Mage to Phoenix Down. To get you started, the various jobs that are familiar from Final Fantasy games can really help you shape your party, but the real fun comes in with jobs that do things you aren’t expecting, or have interesting new tricks.
For example, I love the game’s Berserker job. All Berserkers can pierce through Default, meaning you don’t care one whit about enemies blocking. They also have a range of big hits, to a single enemy or the whole enemy party. As you level Berserker you get access to abilities that let you shrug off mental effects, or enjoy the benefits of going into a rage, but still be able to pick your skills and attacks, meaning you get all that attack power for free with very few hangups.
But it was the newer jobs that really got me excited. One is a support class that summons a spirit to avoid detrimental effects and give the entire team a buff. These buffs range from removing status effects to giving everyone a little bit of healing or regenerating some MP. Another is an assassin type that hits with multiple attacks, or gets free turns when killing an enemy with certain abilities.
To get you started, the various jobs that are familiar from Final Fantasy games can really help you shape your party, but the real fun comes in with jobs that do things you aren’t expecting, or have interesting new tricks.
With so many classes, it can be difficult to settle on who does what in your team. You probably want a healer, someone who takes all the damage for the party and some heavy hitters, but don’t stick a character in a single job or role. There are many benefits for levelling jobs, giving you access to various powerful character abilities that you can equip. Why not have your spellcasters regenerate MP when they fight during the day or have your tank’s max HP increase if they are healed beyond their max health? Or maybe you want your AOE abilities to be as effective as single-target options? There is a great ability in the Dragoon job for that, so take your White Mage or Black Mage down that route. Thankfully swapping jobs is a lot easier now, as there is no longer a penalty for using high-level gear with a low-level job equipped. That said, the classes don’t feel too balanced, and I found myself gravitating towards favourites.
Power at a cost
With the bump in power going from the 3DS to the Switch, I expected some pretty visuals and in a way, the game did provide those. Character outfits are better than before, with small details like buckles, belts and netting really making it a pleasure to see the differences in Asterisk outfits on the four heroes, and the texture on clothes looks really good. The same can be said for weapons and shields, which make getting a new weapon rather exciting.
Almost every boss fight is meant to beat you at least once as you take note of the enemy’s weaknesses and which attack types and abilities are countered by the boss.
The problem comes with the game’s rather spell effect heavy combat. Even when playing at normal speed, the game’s framerate jogs, drops and stutters as you play, and it gets worse as you increase the speed. Due to the massive amount of grinding involved in the game, you will spend almost all of your time playing at about 3x speed to get through fights, which just makes it easier to notice the sluggish frame rate. Considering how much time you spend in combat, and how much important information just pops up on the screen for a few moments, having the game’s framerate shudder and groan doesn’t help in already tense situations. The drop in framerate is visible in handheld and docked modes, so there is no option of picking one to get away from it.
Less of an homage
Bravely Default 1 had a problem that too much of your time was spent going through various tropes. Every character you met with an Asterisk was an awful stereotype of that job, from attitude to accent. While some of that persists here, there is a lot more space for characters show their depth and complexity. The seemingly carefree boozer has a complicated past and is fiercely loyal, while the princess bound by duty and purpose and the like is allowed a few moments to show more than the weight of leadership. I found myself caring a lot more about most of the characters, except for the main villains who have that moustache twirling brand of villainy with a lack of any real motivation and the main plot might be a bit too derivative and nostalgic for its own good
Even when playing at normal speed, the game’s framerate jogs, drops and stutters as you play, and it gets worse as you increase the speed.
The combat system has been refined since the last outing, making you think of the action as a flowing dance, rather than a “my turn, your turn” affair. You input commands per character rather than per party, which lets you respond to changes in the battlefield state. It doesn’t sound like a big change, but it means you can respond quickly to things and you won’t have your character doing something useless because you had to guess as to what they would need to do.
I mentioned that some jobs feel tremendously powerful compared to their peers, and that isn’t the only aspect of the game that requires some balance. The demo of the game was met with many posts and discussions about difficulty, and it feels like the same has happened here. The first game was known for some terrible bosses that forced pretty much everyone to use an Alchemist and items for big hits to finish the fight quickly. That same problem persists, but it kicks in earlier on this time around. The issue is with bosses being given extra actions to try to balance the action economy of a group of four beating on one big bad, while the boss also has several party destroying attacks. Almost every boss fight is meant to beat you at least once as you take note of the enemy’s weaknesses and which attack types and abilities are countered by the boss. This isn’t the Final Fantasy style “use fire element weapons for an easier fight”. This is fighting a boss to take down notes of everything they do and then building a party specifically to counter or mitigate the worst elements.
Sure you could use the weapons that an enemy is weak to, but are you ready to deal with a counterattack on almost every hit? Or worse yet, the new job you got is specifically targeted by counters on any ability used by that job? As fights progress, new counters can be added to the mix, which might bring your strategy to a halt or force you to battle through it. Players that enjoy a good challenge might enjoy this, but it feels too heavy-handed. Eventually, I settled on a turtling defensive strategy with only one damage dealer. Fights were overly long, made longer by having to start the fight once just to see that your team is all in the wrong jobs for a fight before dying, loading up a save and equipping jobs and accessories that might help me survive the fight.
The only answer to a fight that beats you up, (after you changed your jobs to try to counter the punishment they are tossing out) is to go grinding. A lot of your stat growth is tied to your level, and dungeons are sprawling affairs full of creatures. While random encounters are gone, you will need to fight a lot of enemies to level up enough to stand a chance of beating the boss, which makes every dungeon turn into a long affair as you fight enemies again and again. One sidequest to get a new Asterisk took me around four hours as I fought through area after area. Thankfully this meant less grinding in the next dungeon, but prepare yourself for long stretches away from town and the item store.
In the end, Bravely Default II stubbornly overstays its welcome. Some events and dungeons happen at a glacial pace and high difficulty bordering on unfair boss fights mean that despite the options to speed up combat, you are in this for a long, long time. While I enjoyed the adventures of Seth and his merry band, by the end I was no longer interested in fake-out endings and multi-phase boss fights. I just wanted it to end to see what happened because I had done far too much of this before.