Square Enix's line of retro JRPGs continues with an all-new world and tale for Bravely Default, though some of the old problems persist.
Sometimes, there's nothing quite so reassuring as a good old JRPG. This is a comfort blanket of a genre for players of a certain age, games that happily consume entire lazy afternoons curled up on a sofa as you slowly push numbers ever upwards. They don't come much more comforting than those producer Tomoya Asano and his team have made an art of in recent years; dipping into Square Enix's remarkable history of evocative greats, they've given us modern takes on the classic JRPG formula such as 2018's Octopath Traveler and 2012's Bravely Default.
Such was the success of the original Bravely Default that it saw a small number of follow-ups, though this being the convoluted world of JRPG titling it's only now we're getting a Bravely Default 2 - that number denoting a clean break from prior games in the same way that each new Final Fantasy presents an entirely new world, characters and story. It's a new studio working in tandem with Asano and team at Square Enix too, with Clay Tech Studios having veterans of Bravely Default and Bravely Second developer Silicon Studio among its number.
Plenty is familiar, though, as you'd expect from a game whose main currency is nostalgia. There's your party that takes in the amnesiac hero, an exiled princess, a roguish scholar and a stern mercenary all united on a quest for four crystals that takes them across the kingdoms of Excillant, stopping by on towns found out in the overworld and getting involved in cutesy busywork.
It's a less excitable thing than Bravely Second on the whole, I'm pleased to say, the tone having been ratcheted down a notch or two until it's more in keeping with the first game, though I can't say I was ever particularly hooked; it's a swash of knowing cliches that left me unmoved, the English dub's attempt to capture some of the varying regional accents commonplace in Dragon Quest falling flat (the Japanese voice acting is thankfully always ready to hand). I should confess, though, that my own attraction to JRPGs typically lies beyond the story and more in the systems, an area in which Bravely Default 2 excels.
Before we get to that, it's worth noting it's a slightly new look for Bravely Default this time round. Maybe it's something to do with the absence of original character artist Akihiko Yoshida, or maybe it's the aesthetic being pushed beyond the more humble resolution of the 3DS screen, but Bravely Default 2 never quite musters the same appeal as its predecessors. It's still a world of leather and lace, the world of classic fantasy served up with a little gothic flair, its hand-painted towns elaborate pop-up watercolours that host all manner of diversions and sidequests. For all that beauty, though, the overworlds are often featureless and flat, the characters themselves rendered with an unfortunate dead-eyed plastic sheen.
It's a small shame, and something that makes getting to the real meat of Bravely Default 2 that little bit harder. Part of that disappointment comes from how successfully Octopath Traveler merged the aesthetic of the 16-bit era with more modern sensibilities, and the recent arrival of Project Triangle Strategy demo - Octopath's successor - only emphasises the gulf between the two approaches. Still, it's unfair to dwell on what Bravely Default 2 isn't when it comes to its art-style, because when it comes to its systems it's often exquisite.
This is a traditional turn-based JRPG battle system - and an important distinction to be made is that Bravely Default 2 isn't round-based like its predecessors, a small but significant tweak - and once again the traditional Final Fantasy format is enlivened with a few of Bravely Default's own flourishes. There's the default system, by which you can effectively bank turns and then later unleash them in one mad flurry - a round of buffs for the party, perhaps, or the more primal thrill of unleashing attack after attack after attack on a single enemy. Encounters in Bravely Default 2 have a push and pull energy, and when it all chimes together in unison with Revo's thumping theme it's enough to convince me this belongs there up with the very best turn-based battle systems.
It's certainly got the very best taste, cribbing from only the finest Final Fantasy games. Once again Final Fantasy 5 informs the job system, which here sees you taking on primary roles and levelling them up to unlock new abilities, with a secondary slot allowing you to then use those abilities at will as you mix and match classes. It's a simple system that enables an incredible amount of complexity - Bravely Default 2 is a theorycrafter's dream - with thousands of team builds on offer, the vast majority of them viable. Want to mix your black mage and white mage together, or get a bit more experimental and throw together a salve-maker and shield master? The stage is all yours.
Bravely Default 2 is quick to put your creations to the test, too, though, with a difficulty level that's quick to bare its teeth. There are soon move counters and jammers to contend with, the juggling of buffs and debuffs intensifying after only a handful of hours while boss encounters are quick to put you on your arse as you reassess your strategy before dusting yourself down and heading back to the grind. And there is a lot of grind here, almost to the exclusion of much else.
The battle system's merits are enough to carry Bravely Default 2 through, though after 20 hours I'd had more than my fill, making the back end of the campaign's sprawl something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed - and by that point I was left wondering what this sequel had brought to the table. It jettisons some of the gimmicks of older games (while introducing a new online quest mode that's slim enough to be mostly optional), and throws away some of the mod cons too - the options for play out in the field don't extend far beyond a trio of difficulty settings, and even the lowest of those will prove off-putting for all but the most dedicated of players.
Perhaps that's yourself, someone looking for 60 hours of hard-edged if predictable traditional JRPG action, served by a battle system of considerable pep and complexity. Perhaps, though, like me, you turn to something like Bravely Default 2 as a salve, and are looking to get lost in its rhythms. For all it does right, and for all it ignites the passion and nostalgia for the JRPG's golden age, Bravely Default 2 offers up a comfort blanket that aggravates a mite too soon.