Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Bravely Second - Review

Developer: Silicon Studio
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: 3DS

Bravely Default was a breath of fresh air for J-RPGs. When Square Enix were becoming increasingly cautious, and giving the impression that they had no idea what they were doing with the core Final Fantasy series. Silicon Studios showed that you could keep the tried and true old-school formula, and inject it with enough new ideas in a genre that was at risk of becoming of stale.

The original game hinted at a sequel and Bravely Second builds on that progress. Story-wise the game continues shortly after the events of the first game, with Agnes being kidnapped early on by the mysterious, and, to be frank, thinly sketched, Glanz Empire, led by Kaiser Oblivion. To cut a long story short, it's not long until newcomer Yew (heh), joins up with Edea and Tiz, and also Magnolia, a "Ba-al Buster" from the Moon, as the four of them set off on an adventure to rescue the princess.

Bravely Second has a bizarre relationship with its story. On the one hand it's a light-hearted tale that would seem to put only a modicum of focus on its plot, content as it is to focus on its addictive combat system and charming characters. Yet, whilst the story remains light-hearted there's hints of great writing going on here. For starters, the localization is easily one of the best in recent years, carrying all of the game's gags over without anything being lost in translation. This is a script that can be talking about fantasy lingo one moment, before seguing into a Star Wars reference to justify an abstract game mechanic the next.

The game isn't above making fun of itself, and that's what makes it so refreshing. Its (fully voiced) dialogue is fun to listen to, even if the writers occasionally seem to be padding out the run time. By far the most engaging moments are when it threatens to deconstruct the entire J-RPG genre. The original played around with this notion, pointing out the blind obedience that players adopt when it comes to carrying out the same quests over and over again in role-playing games. Bravely Default didn't handle this perfectly, and it led to a much-maligned penultimate chapter that was nothing but mindless repetition, but the ideas behind it were interesting nevertheless.

Likewise, Bravely Second skirts around and prods at the idea of deconstructing J-RPG conventions without ever fully committing. Its finale is bizarre and seems to be making itself up as it goes along, but its most enjoyable moments are when it throws everything to the wind and starts breaking the fourth wall. It's just a shame that to get there you have to suffer through some drawn out dialogue and some rather cheesy anime-style romance...

The game's combat remains essentially the same. Almost every game mechanic has made it through intact. The Brave and Default systems remain unchanged, with players having control over how many turns their characters take in advance. Defaulting offers a defensive stance that "banks" a future turn, whilst Braving allows a character to take multiple actions at once but at the cost of future turns.

By far the most expanded aspect of the combat system is the available jobs. I've heaped praise on the job system already, and there's a good reason why; it's a fantastic game mechanic, and Bravely Second builds upon in the simplest and best way possible: add more jobs.

One of the most interesting aspects comes early on. Rather than dole out the predictable classes at the game's outset, Bravely Second holds them until later on. No Knights, White Mages and Monks this time around, that'll come later. Instead you start off with a handful of new classes that, whilst clearly fitting similar roles, behave in different ways. Take the Charioteer, a strange combat class that's built around wielding three or even four weapons at a time at the cost of defensive power, or the Fencer a sort of inverse of the Pirate class, built around dealing damage and buffing itself with an array of stances.

Playing around with the available jobs is still the most fun thing to do in Bravely Second. It's not so hard of a game that it punishes you for trying something bizarre out, and it's not so easy that combat feels like it could be won with the simplest and blandest character configurations.

This is still a very set-up heavy game, too. Success in combat doesn't necessarily come from in-combat strategy but from how well you've wrung the job systems available combos dry. Silicon Studios seem to have learnt from the previous game and a few of the more broken abilities (cough, Hasten World, cough) have been neutered or outright removed so that some bosses can't be made too easy.

Speaking of difficulty, Bravely Second still has some of the smartest ideas when it comes to handling random battles. Like with the original, battles can be turned off entirely or their frequency increased whenever you want. The difficulty can be turned up and down at a moments notice, and a new addition allows you to save recordings of your commands in battle so that they're carried out automatically. Perfect for when you've found a specific mob of enemies to grind against. It's this ability to pick up any aspect of the game and mould it that makes it so accessible and perfect for portable play.

And it's perhaps the best to play Bravely Second in the small chunks that portable play allows. This is a very slight sequel in many ways because so little has been improved upon or explored further. Over half the dungeons and locations are lifted wholesale from the previous game and even then, most of the bosses you encounter are rehashed at least once by the second half of the game.

It makes for a slightly tiresome, grindy experience as you progress. Since so much of Bravely Second's battle system is front-loaded with job set-ups, actually playing out the battles can be a little bit of a bore. It's rare that bosses will force you into a radically different strategy, and, perhaps even less so than the first game, Braving and Defaulting are useful depending on your particular job configurations, but rarely will an encounter force you to engage with them in any deeper way than "Default before the enemy's big, super-strong attack".

It's Bravely Second's rampant recycling of game assets that make for the most irksome moments. Character models, dungeons and locations have all been seen before and make for a far less exciting adventure than the first game. It perhaps wouldn't be so bad had the developers not then felt the need to bulk up the game with constant back and forth trips to the same places, especially during the game's latter half.

The story too, seems to be written in a way that pads out the game's length as it progresses. Bravely Second's characters are fun to be around, but they insist on having the same drawn out conversations over and over again, whilst the overarching plot becomes slow paced and lacks any real drive or impetus. Had the game doubled down more on its comedy and self-reflexive humour this might have been more palatable, but the game never quite goes far enough in this regard, content to be a cute, light-hearted fantasy adventure, with only a few minor exceptions during the game's climax.

Bravely Second is a fun game, and for fans of the first instalment this is very much more of what you loved. That's also the problem here however, it's so similar that it's almost hard to call the game a true sequel. An expansion pack would perhaps be a better description, as harsh as that sounds.

Given the ending teaser, another game in the series is likely in the works. There's plenty to work with and Bravely Second is by no means a bad game, just one that's both needlessly padded, and lacking in new ideas. The next instalment will need to be a whole lot more daring if it's to recapture the fun of the first game.


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