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  • Angelo M. D'Argenio

Review: Bravely Default 2 puts system over story, and that’s a good thing

What’s the reason we play RPGs? Many people would say “the story” and that’s understandable. The RPG was one of the first genres to really focus on in-depth narrative in a time when all we had was sprites and white text on black backgrounds.

But story is only half the RPG formula. The other half is system. Part of the fun with this genre is mashing mechanics together to see how high you can make your numbers go. Every RPG from classic to new has some systems to exploit, from tech trees and skill points to the job systems of early Final Fantasies and the Materia system of Final Fantasy VII and its remake. Breaking these systems gives you a sense of accomplishment as your now overpowered characters get to stomp everything in the game and it’s all because of how clever you were.

Bravely Default 2 is a very system-focused RPG. Yes, it has a story, but it’s a very shallow story, little more than a morality tale about four heroes collecting crystals and defeating evil. There are a few plot-twists but nothing groundbreaking. Most of them hit as you work toward the game’s true ending, but even then it’s the twists in its system that are more memorable than the twists in its story.

If you haven’t played this franchise before, the Bravely series mimics classic job-focused Final Fantasy titles like Final Fantasy III and V. You have a party of four that you are introduced to very early on, and you stick with them the whole game. However, by changing their jobs you change their stats and learn new abilities, altering their function in battle. Eventually, you get to mix and match your favorite abilities from your favorite jobs, customizing your characters to be the perfect multi-class hybrid that you always wanted.

This is the center of Bravely Default 2’s gameplay. Everything revolves around the job system. There’s a lot of grinding, but it’s fun because you are constantly unlocking and trying out new abilities every few battles. The game is difficult, some would say “old-school difficult” but that’s because each battle is a puzzle that can be solved with the right combination of jobs and abilities. Most of the bosses reward you with gaining access to new jobs, right up until the very end of the game, and those that don’t revolve around adding new secondary abilities to the jobs you already have.

Every aspect of its design is laser-focused on giving you more job-related toys without putting up too many barriers. For example, its side quest system puts markers on the map leading you directly to where you need to go, what you need to find, or who you need to fight to complete each side quest. It doesn’t want you lost and wandering around a map. It wants you to be grinding. Rewards for side quests usually include a piece of equipment that works well with a certain job or customization items that allow you to quickly level up your jobs.

Online features allow you to connect with other users in your downtime, which provides you with items that alter your stats and/or level up your jobs. Major story revelations add new abilities to your jobs. Spending all your time wasting your money at the in-game casino? Better believe that gets you a job as well.

This is the central gameplay loop. Do something, ANYTHING, and you’ll get a new job, job ability, or item that enhances a job. Equip your new toy, get into more battles, lather, rinse, repeat, until you are overflowing with customization options. It’s this steady clip of new abilities that keeps battles fun and prevents difficult battles from being frustrating. Enemy blocking your magic? Switch everyone over to berserker and beat his face into the ground. Boss hitting you too hard? Switch to a Pitctomancer and debuff him. In fact, I’m proud to say that Bravely Default 2 is one of the rare JRPGs that allows you to actually cast status effects on bosses, which means your debuffing jobs aren’t useless.

There are lots of small quality of life changes that prevent the game from dragging, from a fast forward setting in battle, a quick heal button in the menu, fast-travel that is unlocked at the very beginning of the game, and much more. Nothing stands in the way between you and the gameplay.

But are these systems enough to carry you through the shallow story? For the most part, yes, because Bravely Default 2 is acutely aware of what sort of game it is. For example, it knows that its story is little more than a series of moral tales, with evildoers being evil for evil’s sake and heroes coming up to defeat them. Its graphics push that theme even harder. Its character models look like marionettes and its maps look like handpainted sets, giving the whole presentation a feeling of a puppet show. It’s a perfect aesthetic for simple moral tales of fantasy and wonder and keeps otherwise shallow plotlines amusing.

If you are into it, you can watch a whole bunch of extra scenes to find out more about your characters’ backstories. If you aren’t, you can skip them. If you regret it later, you can still watch these scenes at your own pace. The same holds true for basically any story cutscene, which can be skipped at the push of a button. In a sense, you can interact with the story as much as you want. Some days you’ll hang on to every word. Some days you’ll skip major story scenes because you know where the plot is going. But you are never punished for a lapse of attention. Everything can be recapped at a touch of a button and your current goal is always clear, spelled out in your travelogue, and marked on the map with a destination marker. Your enjoyment of Bravely Default 2 will largely hinge on your enjoyment of systems-first RPGs, and that probably has a little to do with the era of gaming you grew up with. If you remember the old golden age of the 16-bit RPG, then the overwhelming nostalgia of the simple plot and complex systems will keep you playing for hours. Heck, I personally jumped right into the grind, battling for over eight hours before the prologue even ended.

If you are looking for something with a huge sweeping melodramatic story with characters you care about and major stakes, then you should probably look elsewhere. This is an RPG where the story isn’t the point and to enjoy it, you have to be OK with that.

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