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Bravely Second steps out of Final Fantasy's shadow

A brave, second installment

I'll start this off with an important fact: Bravely Second lets you play as a Cat Mancer. It's almost exactly what you're thinking. You get feline ears of a variety and also a hat designed to resemble a gargantuan cat head. All your attacks involve evoking a tabby of some variety. It's cute. Really cute. Tooth-achingly cute.

Anyway. There are some things that you need to know about Bravely Second: End Layer. It's the quintessential JRPG, in that it features linear progression, turn-based combat, the need to save the world, and a gratuitous amount of grinding. It's a very direct sequel to Bravely Default, which in turn was a kind-of-but-not-quite successor to Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. And it is actually quite good.

For those who have played the original, Bravely Second feels considerably more playful than its predecessors, happily referencing pop culture staples like Star Wars and indulging in gratuitous, sometimes painful pun work. (The Cat Mancer's the worst culprit. I'm not even kitten here.) The developers have also made an attempt to make the game more open-ended, requiring you to choose between jobs and their associated ideologies instead of simply mowing your way to your prize.

But asides from that? It feels very much like a strict continuation. The world of Luxendarc remains visually stunning, when you're not otherwise pottering through the world map or a dungeon. Every town you visit is a watercolour masterpiece, beautiful in both halves of the day, and a pleasure to walk your tiny avatar through. It's a mild pity that the character models aren't quite as detailed as the settlements you visit, but you can't have everything, can you?

Bravely Second opens on a very perilous note, introducing what appears to be the main antagonist, the debonair-looking Kaiser Oblivion, right off the bat. After a quick, one-sided battle, he gallivants off with the Pope (yes, Pope) Agnes Oblige. Defeated but unbowed, 16-year-old Yew Genealogia races off to gather his friends and embark on a rescue mission.

Things quickly go awry but Edea Lee, one of the main characters from the first game, shows up in time for you to acquire your first asterisk. It should be noted here that classes don't quite function the same way they do in other JRPGs. For one, they're neither character-specific nor something that can be easily learned. You acquire new "jobs" by beating up an asterisk holder - which seems like such a disconcertingly violent method for requisitioning knowledge, really. But once you've thrashed the unfortunate keeper, you will pick up the asterisk, allowing you to acquire their skill-set for use whenever possible.

There are about 30 asterisks in all to acquire, ranging from Final Fantasy staples like the Black Mage to the exotic such as the Patissier (cake-wielding support character). As with any other RPGs, all of these can be improved via experience points, with each new level unlocking the class' potential a little further. Bravely Second provides incentive to master them all by allowing you to pick and match passive abilities that you've earned, and also through the presence of a secondary job slot, which can be used to bolster whatever you've selected as your main. If you're the kind who enjoys min-maxing your characters, this is going to rock your world.

And since we're on the topic of combat, let's talk about how it actually works. For the most part, it's not dissimilar from your average RPG. Every character, be they ally or foe, will get a turn. Each turn, you'll be able to elect an action - do a regular attack, deploy a special ability, utilise an item, call a friend from another world (we'll get into that in the full review next month), use a condition-specific ability of sizable power, and so on. But there's also a slight twist. Bravely Second, much like Bravely Default, includes two unusual options: Brave or Default. If you use Default, your character will skip their turn, but add a turn into their pool. Inversely, if you use Brave, the individual in question will be able to act twice, but lose their opportunity to act in the following round unless you've got enough turns stored up.

And it's a really simple conceit but it opens up a barrel of strategic possibilities (and opportunities to totally misread the situation and die horribly to a mob of regular enemies). On a vaguely related tangent, it's also possible to set up different autobattle commands, which can make grinding less of a chore. (You can also turn off encounters entirely, but why would you want to do that?)

I'm about 35 hours into the game so far and I like it. If nothing else, the game itself seems freer, for lack of better words. Like the developers have ceased worrying about being living up to the legacy of Final Fantasy, and are looking to indulge their own whimsies.

The optional quests feel emblematic of this shift. To provide more context, Edea is sometimes called upon to choose between two ideologies. For example, deciding whether a school should be open to everyone or restricted to a single gender, or whether the needs of a single family are more important than opening a trading port. Whatever you decide, you have to fight the loser after first navigating a small dungeon. Now, some of these sequences can be lacklustre, but a large proportion seems to delight in their own absurdity. Similarly, the main storyline is also imbued with day-to-day silliness, from awkward flirtations to hot spring shenanigans to Edea's eternal obsession with sweet things.

I'm also rather enamored of how Bravely Second revisits the landscape of the first game. My cynical side insists it's just a clever use of available assets in order to avoid accruing a ridiculous budget. But the nostalgia trip does work, especially given the fact we've both Edea and Tiz (yes, he comes back) to provide background where necessary. I'm significantly less certain about how the "mini-games," if they can even be called that. The first will be familiar to anyone who has played Bravely Default. For reasons that aren't very well explained, you'll need to rebuild a settlement by dedicating manpower to individual tasks. All this entails is the allocation of the proper resources and a lot of waiting. However, unlike in the first game, you won't be rebuilding a small town. No, you'll be reconstructing a lunar base. Why? Because, I guess.

Chompcraft is slightly more interesting, but no less bizarre. Where the former rewards you with items and new "specials," Chompcraft, which has all your characters volunteering in a plushie sweatshop, gives you access to music. And coinage too, I suppose, but you'll need to sell a lot of fluffy reptiles for that to work. It's weirdly reminiscent of the free-to-play games you get in mobile app stores, and equally as mindless. But it is cute.

Minor grousing aside, Bravely Second is a wonderful, witty follow-up to the original. You don't need to have played its progenitor to enjoy it, although an affection for Bravely Default will certainly contribute to the experience. Either way, my recommendation for JRPG lovers everywhere is this: get hyped.

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Bravely Second: End Layer

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Cassandra Khaw