This is the second (conclusive) part of a review in progress. Read the first part for context before continuing.
Previously, I spent a good deal of time singing praises of the first Bravely Default – warrentedly so, I hope. But I did slightly gloss over the game’s fatal flaw: namely, how it literally repeated entire bosses, dungeons, and ideas in the latter half of the game, grinding the previously great pace to a halt and miring the experience in tedium. While this was in service of plot reasons and a twist that would have been killer if better executed (it was foreshadowed to the point where it lost all impact), there’s no doubting that this is what diminished an otherwise excellent game in the minds of most people.
What proved most surprising to me about Bravely Default II is that, by the end, I was remembering much of the frustration I had back from the first game, feeling that the latter portions were plodding along at a sluggish, turgid pace that dragged out the ending hours longer than necessary. Even though the game didn’t recycle areas or bosses like its predecessor did, it felt like it stretched on and on through new dungeon levels and final boss fakeouts and phases and… it just became tiresome. I can’t remember the last time I felt so exhausted trying to finish a game. This isn’t even an egregiously long RPG – at 70 hours it’s long, but no longer than Bravely Default or Bravely Second, yet the last 10 or so feel as long as the preceding 30. It’s bizarre.
Perhaps part of that frustration stems from the game’s story, which is so hackneyed it could come straight out of a SNES – no, a NES game. There’s the big emperor with an evil adjudant who’s possessed by the Big Bad who is extremely evil for… Reasons, and the generic heroes who take them down. While my opinion of Adelle did improve a bit from the first part of my review (largely thanks to a mid-game twist that more solidly distinguished her from Edea in the first two games), Seth and Gloria never really improved. I simply didn’t care about them or the vast majority of villains they faced. And that’s the true death knell for any plot – when you just don’t care. Not enough to hate, or to appreciate, but simply shrugging off whatever meager scraps of character they have.
It’s strange, because the game does have a scant few characters that are quite well fleshed out. Elvis, as mentioned last time, is a lovable oaf, and there are a decent number of asterisk holders who get fleshed out in sidequests after their time in the main story is done. It’s not as if the game doesn’t have ANY characters worth the time of day. From the honorable Lonsdale to the cackling Vigintio, it has some antagonists who could be either nuanced or fun, respectively. But there were also swaths that just felt so bland as to be forgettable. It was a bizarre balance and the overall writing just feels… underwhelming.
What is not so underwhelming is the game’s principle side mode, B ‘n’ D, a card game which is unequivocally the best part of the whole package. It’s almost entirely optional (you need to play a few rounds to learn it and get an Asterisk, but after that you can play as much and as little as you want), but it provides a wonderful distraction from trudging through the plot or sidequests for a bit. Games are relatively quick but chill, involving you attempting to take as many squares on a 5×5 grid as possible, and there’s a surprising amount of depth. If Squeenix took this minigame and packaged it as a separate game for like $10-20 (with the ability to play against other people) I would recommend it in a heartbeat. It was almost disturbingly fun. I only wish the rest of the game could be so engaging.
That’s a bit uncharitable. The game’s job system does get more interesting towards the end as you unlock the more fun (i.e. overpowered) classes and attempt to figure out the best combinations. Bastion/White Mage can leave your healer nigh-indestructable; Phantom/Monk makes you absurdly fast and strong, Vanguard/Hellblade gives you fantastic attack and elemental coverage… and those are just some of the obvious ones. With enough tinkering you can find some very ludicrous combos. This is likely why the game draws out its ending bits; it wants you to experiment. But a poor level curve and a smattering of annoying design choices (again, there are several different Final Boss fakeouts, including fakeout endings, in conjunction with the cliche plot, just leave the last hours… boring. And bad.
And it’s frustrating, because this game isn’t without merit. The voice acting is consistently good from beginning to end, especially because the game adopts a similar approach to Xenoblade in having different accents for people from different areas of the world (everybody in Wiswald is Scottish, for example.) Little touches like Asterisk Holders going back to plain clothes after you take their Jobs are wonderful. Last time I complained about the soundtrack, and I fully walk that back, because Revo ends up doing what Revo does and putting out insane, melodramatic tunes. The normal encounter theme in the latter half of the game slaps unbelievably hard. There is some legitimate good to be found in this RPG.
And yet, as time wore on, I found myself picking at the game’s flaws more and more. Dungeons on the overworld that I had no incentive to visit. Sidequests that by and large felt like stale busywork with largely uninteresting rewards. The Weight system felt unwieldy and cumbersome, limiting some of the more interesting possibilities you could tackle with Job combinations. And so many of the dungeons simply lagged on for far longer than necessary.
It’s so strange that the game emulates the feeling of the first Bravely Default only in the way that I didn’t want. I wanted the charisma of its colorful cast, the freshness and familiarity of a new twist on old RPG systems, the sense that while Square Enix is ever-evolving they know how to put out a banger of a classic JRPG when they put their minds to it. Instead, it’s a second verse, without the magic of the first. It’s not bad. Just mediocre. And that’s a lot more frustrating.
They should’ve known from the first game that looping around with the same basic premise wouldn’t have turned out well. And yet… here we are. I’d love a Bravely Third. But I don’t know if I’d like a Bravely Default III.
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: February 26, 2021
Developer: Square Enix