Bravely Second: End Layer isn’t quite the innovative powerhouse its predecessor was, but offers a more refined experience that learns from Bravely Default‘s mistakes.
Role-playing games are in a vastly different place now than they were at the time of Bravely Default‘s release in 2012. Back then, Square Enix and Silicon Studio teamed together to revisit the classic genre elements that had made JRPG titles a powerhouse at the turn of the century, a project that was ambitious and risky – the era of the JRPG appeared to be over, and western studio RPGs like The Elder Scrolls, Witcher, and Fallout appeared to be the future. As it turns out, however, the industry had underestimated just how many fans of the bygone genre still remained, and Bravely Default became a surprise smash hit that eventually got a western release a few years later alongside a sequel named Bravely Second: End Layer.
Gaming in 2016, however, is not the same as gaming just four years ago. 2016 looks to be the year that JRPGs become culturally relevant once more, as the releases of Final Fantasy 15 and Persona 5 are coming later this year and fans have taken a renewed interest in the genre. Bravely Second now has more competition, and just being a loving homage to turn-based hits like old school Final Fantasy titles or Chrono Trigger won’t be enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the biggest releases of the year. So, how do the team at Silicon Studio manage Bravely Second with the weight of fan expectation on their shoulders?
The answer, which Japanese gamers have had the pleasure of knowing for almost a year now, is that Bravely Second is a worthy successor to Bravely Default and improves on the already-refined elements that made the first game such a joy to play. It’s clear that Bravely Second isn’t trying to reinvent anything that Silicon Studio produced in the first title. Instead, Bravely Second offers more of the same gameplay and narrative choices that defined Silcon Studio’s fledgling effort, a choice that both helps and hinders the title in different places.
Bravely Second has players reprise their role as a happy-go-lucky protagonist seeking to save the world of Luxendarc from an evil threat. While it’s not exactly the most promising start in a genre that has been critiqued for many years as narratively stagnant, Bravely Second‘s story slowly gains steam and becomes a fascinating examination of fantasy world politics and the struggle between reconciling duty and individual will. This is particularly important because much of the criticism regarding Bravely Default‘s story came in that game’s second half, which was almost entirely back-tracking through recycled towns and cities. Bravely Second is, arguably, a much stronger game during the back half than the front.
That being said, however, the biggest issue with Bravely Second is the way its characters are written. The game’s love of puns can be a delight when one arrives unexpectedly in the middle of an otherwise standard RPG conversation between a helpful quest NPC and the player character, but they start to get out of hand quickly. Central character Yew Geneolgia’s alternating catchphrases of “for the gravy” or “coup de gravy” are duds from the start, and characters initially skeptical of his childlike behaviour eventually encourage and participate in it – making it all the more annoying.
Bravely Second‘s first half also gives Yew and crew, including returning characters Tiz, Edea, and Agnes (the latter through use of a magical pendant), plenty of opportunity to develop as characters, but they never seem to latch onto it. Yew will simply nod along to important dialogue before offering up a pun – he never becomes self aware and his party members never hold him accountable. Bravely Second has a lot of potential in its narrative to seriously examine some of the common JRPG tropes, and, at times, it succeeds. When Edea is forced to mediate between two returning villains from the first game as part of the side quests, it’s genuinely moving. Yet that happens far too little for a genre that is dependent upon good, mostly linear storytelling, and it can make the game feel plodding at points, especially during the first few hours of gameplay.
Outside of the character development and early stumbles in narrative, however, Bravely Second is an extremely well-crafted game. The Brave and Default battle mechanics return, alongside the Second mechanic that now shares its name with the sequel’s title. The ability to chain multiple attacks in a row during the same turn or pausing the flow of battle to ensure a critical hit on the enemy adds a welcome layer of strategy to a game that is already extremely deep in regards to its combat.
That depth is largely because of Bravely Second‘s job system, which is one of the game’s best features. Gamers are presented with the standard RPG fare of wizard, black mage, white mage, thief, summoner, and so on, but Bravely Second really shines in the more ridiculous jobs it offers. In a world where a pastry chef is the profession of a genuinely threatening assassin, choosing to play as a wizard can feel like a bit of a cop-out. That’s good, because Bravely Second has drastically reduced the attack point penalty assigned to low-level jobs, which means players are able to switch their characters’ jobs without much difficulty. Gamers are encouraged to experiment in Bravely Second‘s combat and character systems, and when they do so they are presented with a rewarding, exciting experience.
Player satisfaction is, in fact, the top priority for Silicon Studio, and it shows in virtually every facet of Bravely Second. Players can save on the world map and are given plenty of savepoints in dungeons, but those limping to the finish line with a boss on the horizon are given more options than a teleport item out of the dungeon or emptying out their stockpile of potions. Bravely Second lets players control their random encounter rate once the party picks up Tiz, which happens about five hours into the game. It’s a welcome ease-of-life feature that makes dungeon exploration and grinding enemies an experience crafted not just by Bravely Second‘s beautiful design, but one that occurs solely at the discretion of each player who picks up the game.
The party chat system also returns and is accompanied by rare over-night conversations occurring in tents, prompted by a magical fox. As absurd as that might sound, these events actually provide some of the game’s best writing, exploring the characters in mundane circumstances and letting their personalities shine. Side quests, although relatively scarce, provide choices between jobs that were available in the first game, and force players to make meaningful decisions.
Bravely Second also has a few extra sub-games to break up the traditional JRPG grind. The time-intensive lunar base rebuilding sub-game is reminiscent of the rebuilding process that Tiz’s hometown goes through in the first game, and is a neat if unexciting way to kill some time that rewards players with some in-game bonuses. The Chomp building sub-game, however, grows tiring very quickly, and requires way more time investment and repetition than any sub-game has any right demanding of players in an already long game.
Bravely Second constantly straddles the line between very good and truly great. For every dumb one-liner that falls flat, there’s a new job that gamers will want to obsessively level up just to have fun with. For every beautiful, almost water-color rendition of the game world, there’s a social media-esque sub-game that quickly grows tiresome. This constant navigation between some sublime RPG elements and some monotonous character-building choices makes the game difficult to pin down at times.
Yet, at its heart, Bravely Default is a game that executes turn-based RPG strategy as well as any of the genre’s forefathers ever has, and its beautiful game world and charming quirks still make it a standout classic JRPG worthy of gamers’ time. It’s just hard not to look at the finished product and think that, with a little more seriousness and some more character development, Bravely Second could be a reason all by itself to own a Nintendo 3DS rather than a game people who already own the system should definitely check out.
Bravely Second: End Layer is available now on the Nintendo 3DS.