We all know that there are certain tired narrative techniques which just should not be done. The ringing alarm clock at the start of a film. Books which end by revealing it was all a dream. But what is the video-gaming equivalent?
I’d suggest it is the bleary-eyed protagonist waking up, shipwrecked on a deserted beach. Bonus points if they’re suffering amnesia too.
This might explain the eye-roll that Bravely Default II elicited from me within the first two minutes. From there it’s basically playing Japanese role-playing game bingo.
From the beach, your protagonist is rescued by Princess (check) Gloria and her loyal elderly knight (check), Sir Sloan, and within moments is embroiled within a quest to save the world (check). The macguffin of the plot is a set of missing elemental crystals (check). Along the way you encounter a mage (check), Elvis, and his strong female bodyguard (check), Adelle, who join the party as you explore a high-fantasy world stuffed with goblins and monsters (check), interesting-sounding but incorrectly-used English words (check) to defeat a one-dimensionally evil villain (BINGO!)
Every video-game genre has its conventions and Japanese role-playing games specialise in this sort of thing. The trouble is that Bravely Default II does nothing to make itself stand out. I won’t spoil the plot, but none of it surprised me. The basic beats are as rote as they come and the ‘twists’ were borrowed from other, better games. Even the side-quests are entirely about fetching things back and forth and do nothing to ingratiate you to the world or its characters.
The main characters are bland too. There were long chunks of the game where I spent every scene weighing up which of my party was the biggest personality vacuum (I think it’s the main character, Seth, but Princess Gloria gives him a good run for his money!)
I’m usually an absolute hog for cut-scenes, delighting in going through every single dialogue option, but the skip button called out to me every single time one came up. It’s a shame because there is some fun voice acting throughout. Elvis the mage seemed to be a Glasgow native, while an early villain had a thick Aussie twang which I enjoyed.
Still, while the story bores at every turn, the combat isn’t half bad. For those who haven’t played a Bravely Default game before, the title comes from the battle system. Like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, it’s turn-based combat with different characters specialising in different weapons or magic attacks. There are all kinds of ‘jobs’ you can use to customise each character’s attack style from ‘knight’ and ‘black mage’ to more unusual options like the pictomancer who uses art to perform spells.
The fun bits are the brave and default actions. By choosing ‘brave’ you can essentially borrow extra moves from the future: attack three times to do triple the damage in one turn, but then you have to sit out the next three turns. The ‘default’ option allows you to do nothing, boost your defence, and bank extra moves to use later. It takes a moment to get used to, but it’s a fun quirk which definitely adds a layer of strategy.
With weaker enemies you can have all four members of your party use three braves and wipe them out in one turn, but you might be better to use some defaults against tougher enemies.
It’s a good job that combat is fun because, as in most JRPGs, you find yourself doing a lot of it. Grinding through low-level enemies to increase your characters’ levels is a difficult thing to make compelling and, despite a decent battle system, Bravely Default II can be a slog. I often found myself ploughing hours into levelling up only to find myself facing bosses so tough it was all for naught.
There’s a difference between a game that is so challenging that you just want to give it another go and a game that seems to delight in wasting your time. Bravely Default II feels like the latter.
Each boss you beat unlocks a new job and you can swap and choose between them to your heart’s content. Whenever you give a character a new job, they get a new outfit which can lead to some fun combinations. The only trouble is that when you give a character a new job their ‘job-points’ reset to zero and you have to do yet more grinding to level them up.
One thing I haven’t mentioned here is the game’s aesthetic which is all over the place. The towns and cities are beautifully hand-drawn worlds that put me in mind of the Professor Layton games I loved as a child. From the first sight they’re impressive and as you progress to new locations they only get more so. One town has a giant tree whose branches have taken over all the buildings which is amazing.
But cut-scenes which are appalling. The characters are rendered in weird, chibi-forms which are entirely static with hair, costumes, and eyes frozen in place. I assume the flatness was to make things easier to animate given the variety of costumes characters can wear as they take on different jobs, but it feels very basic.
I found myself wishing for the character art of a game like Hades which manages to convey infinitely more in two dimensions than Bravely Default II can manage with a third.
All in all, Bravely Default II was… fine. It hits all of the usual story beats and it will scratch an itch for JRPG obsessives, but there’s an absolute lack of substance. There’s no discernable creativity, flair, or ingenuity in any part of it. It doesn’t want to either reinvent the wheel or even add a lick of polish to it. It is a game which exists and functions as it was meant to; a JRPG as by-the-numbers as they come, I just wish the developers had been brave enough to take a few more risks.