I’ve been a sucker for role-playing games ever since I first rented Super Mario RPG and stuck it in my Super Nintendo (yes, I know, I’m old). Give me a solid battle system with a semi-deep story and the promise of character progression, and I am there. However, I was a bit late to the 3DS party back in the day, and wound up missing Bravely Default‘s debut. Thankfully, like seemingly every other gaming franchise in existence, Bravely Default is getting reintroduced to the masses through the Nintendo Switch, and instead of going the easy port route, Square Enix is delivering a full-blown sequel in the form of Bravely Default II (not to be confused with 2015’s Bravely Second).
As part of its pre-launch push, Square Enix released an initial demo last March right around the time the world fell apart due to the coronavirus pandemic, and then dropped a clean-up “final” demo late in the year. With the game releasing today, I figured now was as good a time as any to give the demo a try and see if the game could fill that RPG void that had been empty since the end of Dragon Quest Builders 2. What I got was an intriguing but uneven experience from a game that seemed to try to cram every RPG mechanic ever devised into a single title, and while I enjoyed the game, I wouldn’t recommend it as a gateway to the genre.
The BD2 final demo only gives you five hours to hurry through the campaign, but the story hooked me pretty fast (even though I had mostly forgotten the overall plot of the game from the original trailer). The kingdom of Musa has been destroyed and its precious
plot devices elemental crystals stolen, and you have to lead a team of four intrepid heroes (why they team up is left unspecified) on a mission to reclaim the lost treasures. The story came across as a bit cookie-cutter at first, but it got much more interesting as the intrigue and interactions starting happening (who got saved, who got shafted, etc.) and the characters (especially Anihal) gained a lot of depth over time. While I’d heard complaints about the voice acting in other previews, I actually found that the voices gave the characters some personality and charm, helping cover for the lack of a truly cohesive backstory. In addition to the crystals, however, there are also Asterisks, which are never really explained beyond their ability to unlock roles (mages, fighters, thieves, bards, etc.) for your characters to take on. I got two of these (bard and beastmaster) through winning boss battles in the demo, but ended up sticking with the default main/sub jobs that the characters started with.
The first thing that hits you when playing the demo is just how…complex the mechanics are. The game gives you an incredible amount of customization options for your characters (main jobs, sub-jobs, abilities, weapon proficiencies) as well as a number of possible actions to take in battle (physical attacks, offensive/defensive magic, items, and of course the Brave/Default ability to either store up actions or borrow against future ones to let you act multiple times in a turn), and while I normally enjoy this sort of creative freedom, it honestly felt a little off-putting here, even though it really isn’t much different then what you might find in, say, Octopath Traveler. (The sheer number of ‘memories,’ i.e. tutorial documents that explain all the various mechanics, should have been an early warning sign.) Unlike OT, you don’t get Brave points automatically – you’ve got to deliberately pause and store them up to future-proof your strategy, and for a ham-handed ‘see ball, hit ball’ tactician like myself, this was harder than I thought. (And then there’s the frustrating way your battle entrance impacts the battle: If you’re lucky and run into an enemy from behind, you’ll sometimes get an initiative boost, but this felt inconsistent at best, and if the enemy saw you and had any momentum when it caught you, it would gain initiative even when you were running directly at them.) There’s a real chess-match feel to the combat, especially when the enemies not only have access to the same Brave/Default mechanic you do (reminiscent of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle), but also have the HP reserves to burn a few turns while you’re constantly trying to keep your party upright. I also wasn’t a fan of the ‘weight’ mechanic: Instead of being able to load up with the latest and greatest gear, you had a carrying capacity that would crush your stats if you exceed it, so you had to be super careful when choosing your character loadout, which added more annoyance to the game rather than strategy. Having so many options can be a bit overwhelming when you only get a few hours to experiment with them, so I’m hoping that getting more time with the game will make everything fit better and seem more intuitive.
Another thing you’ll notice is that the game’s pace is slow, even from an RPG perspective. These sorts of games are rarely known for their action, but the frequent cut scenes and use of voice acting makes it feel like you’re standing around more often than you’re in motion. As someone who loves getting swept up in a story, I didn’t have a problem with this, but for gamers looking for a bit more action, I imagine all these static moments would get old quickly. While the early demo was criticized for its difficulty, the moments of action here felt a bit more inconsistent. Random encounters were not that hard to brute-force your way through, but boss battles turned into twenty-minute-long affairs in which enemies would max out their Brave capacity and unload several consecutive attacks, decimating your party and forcing your healers to play proactive defense for the entire match. (If your health bar wasn’t full, you weren’t safe, and even when it was full you were only a nasty triple combo away from a team wipe.) I managed to beat Orpheus in on shot, but the Anihal battle took me three attempts and one irritated Google search to get through (pro tip: poison her early and hang on tight). These sorts of long, drawn-out near-misses are the kinds of things that will turn off anyone who isn’t totally committed, so I was very surprised to see such clumsy difficulty balancing.
Visually, the game has some nice 3D environments for you to explore (and even gives you full camera control in the overworld), and the character models have a clean, stylized look that you might expect from an RPG. Running around the world could be a bit slippery if you had always-run enabled (gotta make the most of your five hours!), but there were enough cues and markers to keep you oriented…with one annoying exception: There was no indicator for whether you could pass through a door or not. Instead, you just had to walk into the wall and hope that you went through it and could see the building interior. You got used to it, but it felt a bit jarring when seeming everything else around you offered a helpful hint that it could be interacted with. In terms of the music, it was…there, I guess? The battle theme was suitably energized, but everything else pulled a Chris Young and quickly went in one ear and out the other.
On the whole, Bravely Default II seems like an okay game, but when compared to a game like Octopath Traveler, what it gained in story cohesiveness it lost in battle mechanics, enough so that I think I would rank OT as the better game for now. Then again, I really didn’t appreciate OT until I got to play the full game either, so BD2 may grow on me as I get more time with it. To me, it’s the sort of game that seasoned RPG players will appreciate, but newer players might want to avoid in favor of something more straightforward (on that note, it’s long past time to bring Super Mario RPG to the Switch Online app). For now, I’ll be moving on to the Project Triangle Strategy demo, and I’m curious to see how that game compares to this one.