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Bravely Default 2 review: Bigger screen, few improvements

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There’s nothing worse than a sequel that can’t outshine its predecessor.

Bravely Default was praised as a creative remixing of RPG elements when it launched on Nintendo 3DS. There was an innovative job system where classes were as easy to change as your outfit. Rethought turn order allowed players to bank or spend actions for maximum impact. Despite a story that has been done to death — can we impose a ban on elemental crystals in video games, please? — there were enough fresh angles to justify the glowing reviews and praise.

The move from 3DS to Switch could have bolstered Bravely Default 2. The original game featured diorama-inspired town designs, and this sequel kicks that aesthetic up a notch with some intricately layered hub worlds. In one town, a massive tree has overtaken all the buildings; I run between shops and quests on its roots and branches. The overworld areas are also lush and vibrant, with waving grasslands or falling snow.

The winding pathways of Wiswald, a city overrun by trees.
Image; Square Enix/Nintendo

But comparing those beautiful landscapes to the character designs feels like hearing the Jurassic Park theme played on a recorder.

The character art is a jarring mix of chibi roundness with well-defined hands and facial features, topped off with flat eyes and unmoving hair. It’s even more unfortunate because my party is always getting ridiculous costume changes as their jobs become more and more ludicrous, only to end up looking like creepy waxworks. So many of the dramatic notes the game tries to hit are soured by how unflattering the characters look.

Four Bravely Default 2 characters have a conversation with a pig monster.

Image: Square Enix/Nintendo via Polygon

But dreadful character art isn’t the only missing piece here. Strange game design choices box in the potential gameplay freedom presented by the job system. Bravely Default 2 can’t even prop itself up with engaging characters or a gripping story; my journey felt strung together from better games that came before it.

New adventure, same old story

A kingdom was destroyed after evil forces went after four powerful elemental crystals. Now its last ruler, a young princess named Gloria, sets off on a quest to reclaim them. She meets the main protagonist, Seth, whose defining characteristic seems to be “man who washed up on a strange coast,” then bumps into two other folks with vague backgrounds, Elvis and Adelle. The four quickly become a squad set on adventure.

I usually devour stories in games, talking to every character, taking on every side quest, never skipping a cutscene or extraneous bit of world-building. But I’ve found it impossible to care about these stakes. Seth is particularly one-dimensional, even when compared to other main characters in similar RPGs. Gloria seems to be a palette-swapped version of Agnes, the crystal guardian from Bravely Default. And even when Elvis and Adelle take their turns in the spotlight, I just don’t feel invested. It also gets back to having these goofy-looking characters try to deliver sincere moments. At one point a child is killed in service of the plot, and the discussion of this moment is so gross coming out of these silly cartoon characters that it loses weight.

A forgettable story isn’t insurmountable, though — sometimes, complex combat is all the reward I need. But those systems are also uneven in Bravely Default 2.

Bravely Default’s defining feature is its job system. Rather than sticking to one character class, new jobs are doled out after you beat a boss that’s using that job. Whenever I meet someone in a ridiculous enough outfit, I know I’ll have to fight them to steal their skills for myself, which is one of my favorite details from the series. There are so many jobs; some are what you’d expect (black mage! monk!) and some have unique skill sets, like the pictomancer, who is a buff/debuff character that uses paints to apply their spells.

My frustration comes from how Bravely Default 2 encourages designing and leveling up those characters. Each chapter has three or four dungeon-style sections with smaller enemies leading to a boss. The damage-dealing classes do enough to make each fight feel like a fun challenge, but I’m rarely mowing over enemies. I can easily focus on the particular weaknesses of the mobs I find in the dungeon, and level up enough to feel my skills grow.

However, each boss fight makes all that hard work feel useless. Not only are the bosses overpowered, but many of the skills I spent all that time earning are ineffective against them. They are massive damage sponges, usually with the ability to heal themselves by a significant amount every one to three turns. The frequent healing wipes away the net gains from my toughest attacks — the ones that suck up a lot of my own hit points or magic points to cast. Buff and debuff skills aren’t effective enough to warrant their magic point cost; the most common ones only debuff 15% damage over three turns. Battles often became a matter of patience and resources, and that makes me feel like I have to be overleveled and overprepared to succeed.

I’m even more baffled by the enemies for which I don’t even get the correct tools to fight. Bravely Default 2 makes it easy to find all enemy weaknesses when I use a turn to inspect them, but some enemies are weak to energy types that I didn’t gain access to for a whole two chapters after I first encountered their symbol. The peak of this frustration was when I fought a boss with a beefy minion that was vulnerable only to electricity and light, and completely invulnerable to all physical attacks. I had one character who could cast electrical attacks, and I still had yet to see light energy.

I won, but only after an entire damned hour of stuffing that character full of mana potions so he could chip away at that minion’s health, while the main boss kept buffing and shielding. Despite all the potential flexibility of the job system, I feel like many battles only have one “correct” way for me to proceed, as later bosses boast punishing counterattacks or a long list of invulnerabilites.

And there are just so many boss flights to slog through, since they are the main way to gain jobs and unlock new areas in the game. The rhythm of dungeons and bosses doesn’t change much, either. While there are side quests, they’re little more than messages from townspeople that include a bit of flavor text, and they don’t offer rewards like experience points, job points (the most valuable currency earned in the game), or rare items I can’t buy in a shop.

Two characters with dramatic hair and robes talk on a bridge

Image: Square Enix/Nintendo

They don’t even provide interesting drama or character insight. Some are just tedious fetch quests that have me running back and forth between two characters multiple times.

Bravely Default 2 is a struggle, even in a time when I have nothing else to do but sink into a long, involved Japanese RPG full of dense systems. Every time I find my rhythm in the grind through a dungeon, it’ll throw me a challenge that hours of playing haven’t prepared me for. I’ll spend more time grinding, hoping that some skill farther down the tree will be the key to defeating the boss.

There just isn’t anything else engaging enough — not characters, story, or even the feeling of accomplishment in finding the perfect combination of job skills — to reward the churn.

Bravely Default 2 will be released Feb. 26 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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