Bravely Default II Should Have Done More
Updated: Oct 17, 2022
Disclaimer: All blog posts reflect the opinions, analyses, and interpretations of their author, and as such do not reflect the viewpoints of any past or present employers.
Oh, Square Enix, what went wrong?
Well, many things, let's be honest. NFTs, All the Bravest, selling endings as DLC, completely mismanaging Final Fantasy XV Versus Nukem Forever XIII, missing the entire point of Thief, forgetting Hrist exists, treating Legacy of Kain like garbage, having enough money to put the GDP of most small countries to shame and yet still letting Star Ocean look like it takes place in the Uncanny Valley, that time they greenlit a game sexualising a little girl trapped inside the corpse of her dead sister and made horny adverts of the cadaver (yes, that really happened)... Honestly, these days, it often feels easier to name the years where Square Enix didn’t make headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Yet, despite the company’s mistakes, one thing always gave me hope: the faint possibility that, someday, they'd port Xenogears to the Switch and finally bring it to Europe. C'mon, guys, Chrono Trigger got one, so what's your excuse here? Well, that and Bravely Default; which, if you didn’t read my now-defunct old website, I basically regard as the best Final Fantasy ever made It took all the retro stuff I liked and gave it a much-needed overhaul, thereby becoming one of the best games on the 3DS. I was even able to look past my usual pet peeves of a dull main character and tedious endgame because I had such an absolute blast with the rest of it. Finally, I thought, here was a Square Enix franchise that I, as someone who doesn’t care that much for Final Fantasy, could fall for.
Then the sequel came out, and that hope was murdered faster than you can say “Aerith”. If the experience of playing Bravely Default was like eating a perfectly-baked chocolate cake, Bravely Second was like being served an even bigger cake only to sink your teeth in and realise it’s made of dog turds. The chefs did a great job disguising the look and smell but, once I bit into it, I tasted nothing but horror and disgust.
Gone were the charming dweebs and classic 90s energy of the first game, replaced with an appalling amount of misogyny and apologetics for child molesters. No, really. Just in case you thought The 3rd Birthday was low as things could go, Bravely Second literally had a quest that involved helping a convicted rapist and paedophile secure his new teaching job, and you had to do it to get all the character classes. No, it wasn't treated as “the bad option”: the game seriously had the chrome titanium balls to consider it a perfectly valid moral choice. You didn't lose karma or anything for helping a sex offender who drugged a 15 year-old. I think I speak for us all when I ask, "What the Hell were they thinking?"
So, after that atrocity, I wasn't at all surprised that Bravely cut ties with its first world to focus on a brand new setting for Bravely Default II. Now, I'll say this for the oddly-titled third game in the series: it's not bad. Not bad at all, to be honest. Compared to Bravely Second alone, it's an absolute godsend. The problem is that it's not merely comparable to just that game but every other classic-style role-playing game that came out during the latest console generation. So, how does it fare in the larger fantasy arena as a whole? Not that well, if I'm being hone
Like I said: the game is, as a complete package, entirely fine. Its systems are competently put-together, the graphics are cute enough and brought to life by a pleasant voice cast, and the game itself is at least consistently playable. Also, the villain isn't motivated by "insanity", so, you know, that instantly puts its writing on a higher tier than most Final Fantasy games for me. I’ve certainly gotten through worse games before and yet, despite BDII being basically okay, putting my thoughts on it together has been like pulling teeth. Why is that? How can I be so unenthusiastic about a game that’s apparently decent to play? Because it’s meaningless. It is the cultural equivalent of burnt toast: edible but wholly unappetising.
It bring me no pleasure at all to say that BDII is an utterly bland, cookie-cutter RPG without one single significant or original thought in its head. The story starts with you taking control of yet another generic brown-haired swordboy whose entire personality can be boiled down to “Is good” going on a quest to find four elemental crystals, naturally at the behest of a princess from a fallen kingdom who needs to get the shinies back to prevent the return of some vaguely-defined apocalypse. Along the way, he is chosen by the Wind Crystal, because of course he is, and must do battle against an evil empire that seeks to conquer the world despite clearly being manipulated by a greater-scope villain. If that sounds familiar to you, don't worry, I think it's only been the plot of about eleventy-billion other Square Enix games.
If it sounds like I’m being overly harsh on BDII, it’s only because I’m so disappointed. The original Bravely Default was a game that legitimately had something to say for itself. Sure, it also had a pretty cliched opening, but the story was something of a meta-commentary on the very nature of Final Fantasy and whether its classic formula even had a place in the modern age of gaming. The moral of the story was explicitly “Have the courage to disobey”; a warning to the player to break free of the traditions locking them in a stagnant, unchanging world and build a better, more-informed society. By examining the multiple roads down which history might’ve gone, we saw the game's many characters in alternate scenarios, thereby getting a full understanding of the problems we never saw first time around that ultimately helped to paint a picture of a world full of living, breathing people.
By contrast, BDII has one of the most vapidly uninspired parties I’ve ever seen. I don’t hate them in the same cold, venomous way I despise absolutely everyone from Bravely Second, but I regret to say I cannot name one compelling thing about any of them. The spotlight this time is on Seth, the dull swordboy that continues the Bravely tradition of having its protagonist be an absolute charisma vacuum; Adelle, a mercenary I only remember because she has the same name as a more interesting woman; Elvis, a drunk Scottish wizard who likes titties, which I suppose gives him at least three more personality traits than everyone else; and Gloria, a stuffy princess whose only purpose is being The Girl — and not in a cool, reclaiming, feminist-punk sort of way, like riding unicorns while blasting people with pink heart-lasers, but in that very boring and humourless sense that only serves to reveal that no one still working on this franchise has ever spoken to a real woman.
To be fair, BDII doesn't openly resent women the same way that Bravely Second did, but I find it telling that these writers are apparently incapable of coming up with a single heroine who doesn't want to bonk one of the men on their team. Gloria in particular deserves special criticism because, despite being the axis around which the destiny of the world revolves, she is one of the most aggressively monotonous characters I’ve ever seen, and her obligatory romance with Seth is about as erotic and passionate as dropping a rock on top of a slightly bigger rock. Voice actor Charlotte Ritchie does her best with what she's been given, God bless her, but she's just got nothing to work with. I wouldn't normally harp, but Gloria's complete failure to hold my interest annoys me as much as it does because I’ve seen this series do her exact archetype before, and so much better, too.
Us fans of the first game adored Agnès Oblige because she was the most compelling person in its plot. Within only a few minutes of meeting her, it was painfully obvious that whatever stuffy pretentiousness she displayed came from a place of having prepared to be a priestess her whole life. Robbed of the temple that was her birthright, she was left with no idea about how to function in the world beyond, which is why it was so funny to watch her do stuff like use a bow as a melee weapon, or get all flustered about boys for the first time like a blushy schoolgirl despite being in her early 20s (yes, I know she was a teenager in the Japanese version: the dub’s change made it funnier).
My point is: we still remember Agnès fondly because she had a clear — nay, wonderful arc. Her initial lack of charm was, ironically, incredibly charming, and her sincere commitment to trying to make the world a better place made her a legitimate joy to have on-screen. Despite being naive, impulsive, and having all the social graces of a pissed hippo on roller skates, she was nevertheless able to gradually grow into the lovable saviour she was always meant to be. That journey would have been nowhere near as memorable if the writers had sanded off all those many, many awkward edges and made her a generically capable little ball of blandness. Tragically, that’s exactly what you get with Gloria. Not since Final Fantasy XIII have I seen a hero so utterly uninteresting that they make me want to eat my own face off just to alleviate the tedium.
Well, okay, I guess that's not entirely fair. Gloria's got more of a backbone than most of her predecessors, I'll give her that, but there’s no spice to her to liven up her vanilla princess schtick. She never went behind an arranged fiancé’s back to bang the cute maid she was really interested in, there are no dirty secrets about the time she built a bong and set fire to her room, she’s got no surprising connections to an underground gambling ring she and her girlfriends used to blow their allowances in, the woman doesn’t even have a hidden porn stash for Chaos's sake! She’s just another boringly adequate character in a boringly adequate story, bringing not a shred of originality to the table. I'm not mad, because it's just a silly video game and I've got bigger things to worry about, but I sure am disappointed.
So, the story's a wash. What about gameplay? Well, it’s another Bravely game; which means we can stack turns while defending, or “Defaulting”, and spend what we’ve saved all in one go by “Braving”. It’s pretty much the same as before, except now the turn-order is somewhat-based on each character’s agility stat as opposed to the old round-by-round system. So, theoretically, it’s possible to crank up your speed enough to act sooner than your enemies, but I wouldn’t worry too much about gaming the system. BDII is very old school in its thinking: no matter what you do, you’ll either roll over every enemy without issue, or be randomly unexpectedly murdered by some angry rabbits and have to spend half an hour grinding levels to avoid getting Monty Python’d a second time. Some enemies have elemental weaknesses that you’re meant to take advantage of but unlike in good games, like Persona or Octopath Traveler, there's no strategy to be found in exploiting them. You just get some extra damage that's barely noticeable after the halfway point.
My advice? Go all in on the bulkiest jobs and enjoy the heightened durability they come with, because, as in every other Squeenix game I’ve played, the damage calculations for magic are complete bollocks. Around the time of the second town, I got annoyed with all the random mobs wasting my resources, so I had the bright idea of taking a few hours to power-level my Black Mage until he learned the strongest fire spell. My assumption was that the application of a thermonuclear explosion would vaporise the evil plants and skeletons rampaging around the overworld, but it only did about 700 damage. That sounds like a lot out of context, but the most basic fire spell was doing about 400 a pop and cost less than a fourth of the mana to cast, so I had to wonder why I should even bother using high-level magic when clearly it’s so much more efficient to spam the cheaper ones. If I were a wizard in this world, I tell you now I’d be feeling a right mug.
None of this is helped by the bosses being a complete slog, either. They’re not especially difficult from a tactical perspective, they just commit the old sin of having massively inflated numbers and special attacks, so beating them often feels more down to luck than any kind of strategy. Now, admittedly, that's something of an original sin for many turn-based RPGs, but the good ones will at least give you some way to be proactive about solving the issue. Shin Megami Tensei V , for instance, was great at giving you tonnes of different buffs and support magic that you could stack before wiping out a chunk of an enemy's health bar. So, what about Bravely? Did Squeenix finally get the memo that you should make support magic useful? Did they chuff. Sure, Haste is always useful, but let's be honest: you've never beaten a boss in these games thanks to debuffs, have you?
This frustration with the game's combat culminated for me, appropriately, with the final boss; for whom I did genuinely take the time to lay out a careful plan to defeat. My party was a well-balanced squad that covered each other's weaknesses almost perfectly, armed to the teeth with endgame loot and all sorts of complementary abilities. Once I rolled up to the villain's lair and started doing some damage, however, they responded by doing a bunch of what I can only presume was pre-scripted nonsense that didn’t make sense, then some cutscenes happened and and it was over. I still have no actual idea how I managed to beat the game but, if I’d known it was going to play itself for the last half-hour, I might as well have had everyone turn up in their underpants for all the good my hours of optimisation did.
Speaking of conclusion, you know how the original Bravely Default, and dare I say even Second, had a cool secret ending thing that was meant to be a reward for figuring out what you were meant to do based on context clues? Well, having one secret ending apparently wasn’t enough for BDII. You've got to go through no less than two whole fakeout finales, then do a bunch of arbitrary sidequest bollocks that the game assures you is somehow relevant before you finally save the day. There isn’t even any real detective work this time: you just have to play through all the tedious false endings before you can fight the real villain and, when you do, peace is restored, the world is okay again, the rightful autocrat’s destiny is fulfilled, and all the serfs who weren’t lucky enough to be anointed by fate presumably go on knowing their place forever. It is exactly the sort of milquetoast ending you would expect from a story with no ambitions beyond wallowing in the muck of nostalgia.
The music? It's okay. Leaves a bit to be desired, though. Much like the rest of the game, it’s not the worst thing I’ve encountered, but I think it’s telling that I spent about 60 hours in this world and the few songs I recall tend to be those that remixed something from the first game. The soundtrack has over four and a half hours of music, and only a handful are anywhere close to memorable. The first Bravely Default had roughly half that, yet every song stood out. They had to, because the budget wasn’t big enough to avoid reusing tracks, so each one had to be good enough that you wouldn’t mind hearing it five or six times a run. BDII, on the other hand, is a masterclass in why sometimes more is less. The desert theme sounds how you’d expect a desert to sound, the jaunty battle theme sure is a jaunty battle theme all right, and the creepy dungeon music adequately captures the feeling of being inside a creepy dungeon. It’s like if you got an algorithm to compose a fantasy RPG, which only adds to my general sense of ennui.
I suspect some will say I’m being far too hard on a game that is, ultimately, supposed to be a glorified nostalgia trip for my generation of nerds. Perhaps I am, but is this really all we want from the Bravely brand? Endless pseudo-remakes of Final Fantasy V, with a bunch of arbitrary endings tacked on because the first game did it and now it’s an obligation? Airy’s themes remixed in perpetuity? Storytelling that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place back in the early 90s? Don’t get me wrong, if that’s all you want from this series, then shine on you crazy diamonds. All credit to you, the game is certainly playable, but it's not much more than another chapter in an increasingly-formulaic series. If you like that formula, though, by all means drink up. We all have our nostalgic comfort games and, if this is yours, a single negative review written by some millennial curmudgeon really shouldn't bother you. It’s exactly what you’re used to; you’ll probably like it.
Me, though? I was really hoping to try something new.