Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bravely Second: End Layer Review

It's time to settle a score.

I never got a chance to review the original Bravely Default. Hell, I never even completed the original Bravely Default, which is weird since that game was everything I wanted out of a JRPG. It was a return to form for JRPG's, a handheld game with breathtaking graphics, a fantastic combat system, and it had a great soundtrack. If you've ever played Bravely Default, you'll know exactly why I could not complete the game and why I grew so frustrated with it. The original game is infamously known for having you replay the game four times in order to get the true ending. You completed the game as normal, but then it threw you right back to the beginning and expected you to play through all of the bosses and all of the dungeons several more times just to earn the right to fight the final boss. By my second retread of the same dungeons with the same characters, I had it.

And yet, with the sequel's announcement, I had hope for Bravely Second. I thought that since the twist was so universally despised that Square Enix would learn from their mistakes and not make the game so frustrating to play through. I hoped that the game wouldn't be a chore, and from what I heard of early reviews, I heard it was more of the same. I heard that the story is worse, the pacing was off, and that the original was a far better experience.

I don't know who wrote those reviews, but in my opinion, Bravely Second: End Layer is the JRPG of my dreams and everything I wanted the original Bravely Default to be and more. A lot of great games are going to come out this year, but this is a strong GOTY contender for me, surprisingly enough.

If there's one regret I have when it comes to never talking about Bravely Default, it was that I couldn't sing its praises earlier than now. Make no mistake, the original game, from a technical level, is a fantastic achievement for JRPG's. The gameplay, which carries over into Bravely Second, is a joy with a plethora of depth, customization, and tactics.

In combat, you control a party of four characters that have the option to attack, activate special abilities, or input the special commands "Brave", or "Default" Braving will allow a character to act twice in a turn, so you can combo twice with two attacks, use an attack then magic, or use items to heal your party, then attack. You can even stack up multiple braves at a time, up to three. The catch is that by using a brave, your using your turn for upcoming turns. So if you brave twice, you won't be able to do anything next turn because you braved. If you braved three times, you may be able to attack four times in one turn, but you can't act for three turns, leaving yourself wide open. If you choose to default, you can guard for a turn and gain an extra attack for next turn. So if you default twice, you'll have 2 BP to use then next turn, which will allow you to brave more times with less punishment. It may sound complicated, but after a combat tutorial, you'll get into the swing of things.

The real meat of the game lies in its job system. All four of the main characters can have up to 30 different jobs with different abilities, stats, weapon preferences, and moves. A thief won't act like a priest, and a fencer won't act like a catmancer (yes, CATmancer). Each class has 10 levels and can be mixed and matched to your heart's content. Want to have a party of four patisseurs? Go for it! Want a red mage to team up with three astralogians? That's possible! Even though you can only have one job at a time, the abilities you learn from other jobs can be transferred into general abilities that you character can use whenever. If you learn the ability triple wield, which lets your character use three weapons at once, as a centurian, then you can use that same ability when you become a summoner. The amount of customization and freedom of combat in this game is staggering to the point where I look forward to every new job just to see what new group dynamics I can make!

Hands down, the combat is easily the best part of the game, but several new mechanics are introduced to make it even better. A new ability is added where after each fight, if you killed the enemies in one turn, you can fight another group for 1.5 the experience and job points. If you beat those enemies in one turn, you can keep on doubling up until you can't beat an enemy in a single turn, where you'll just collect all of your exp at once. It essentially removes the idea of grinding for exp because with skill, you can level up and get to the bosses much easier. You can also choose to raise the encounter rate in an area or reduce it, depending on what you're in the mood for. Just finished fighting a boss and need to escape a dungeon? Completely reduce the encounter rate and just waltz on out of there! This is a JRPG where you can play it at your own pace, a feat that more developers should aspire to attain.

I haven't really talked about the story all that much because, frankly, the story is fairly atypical with a few major exceptions. First of all, a majority of the main characters from the first game return! There's just something about seeing the protagonists from the first game come back to fight again or to appear in the campaign that rings just a nice enough touch for me to smile at. Even enemies return again, but you can ally with them if you choose! You encounter them during side quests, but the side quests have interesting moral dilemmas. Early on, you encoutner a group of desert people that are having their water drained because a gem called the Wellspring Gem is running dry. So you have a choice; help a bandit restore the Wellspring Gem to provide water for the people, or help a red mage take the gem and use it to make an unlimited energy supply which will make more water, but will take more time. Either way, you'll get a new job, but you'll have to choose wisely.

This idea of legacy is something that I wish was in more video games. RPGs love to have new games where you play as a completely different cast of characters that may or may not be in the same world, but seeing the original heroes again older and wiser and help new heroes is fantastic. Why don't more RPGs introduce legacy into their franchises? (coughfinalfantasycough)

Also, the game does have another unique twist like the original, but it's done much better and is much more controlled. I won't spoil what happens in this game, but you won't have to play through the game four times and fight the same bosses again to go through the same story beats four times. You will go to the same areas again, but like the inverted castle in Symphony of the Night, it works because the game feels different enough, even though it may still be retreading places I've been before,

The game is pretty sizable as well, clocking in at close to 40 hours to beat on your first play through. That playtime is mostly because of cutscenes that can last for up to 10 minutes each of just watching characters talk to each other with very little action. Don't get me wrong, seeing the villains and side characters interact with one another is fun, but the four protagonists are just so... bland. Yew makes a few too many goofy remarks, Edea is still the same as the first game, Tiz feels like he's on autopilot, and Magnolia, despite having some fun French phrases, leaves such little impact that the most interesting thing about her is her name. If it wasn't for the fun job class wielding enemies, then I would have been bored playing through this game.

And yet the combat and the openness is so refreshing here! I'm usually not a fan of having too many things to do in a game, mainly because it's easy for players to get overwhelmed with so many mechanics and plot elements that I lose interest in it. It's kind of like the phrase "Jack of All Trades, Master of None"; I would rather have a game focus on one thing extremely well than have a game try its hands at a lot of different elements and do an okay job with all of them. Bravely Second: End Layer excels with its great combat and design despite having a ho-hum story.

I'm usually a champion of story in games, but I didn't mind the lack of a compelling narrative here. I feel like JRPG's are usually amazing at telling cohesive and engaging stories, but sometimes it pays to have a game where the combat is put front and center. I'm reminded a lot of Final Fantasy IX with Bravely Second. It feels like a throw back to a style I didn't know I missed. It reintroduces classic elements of the genre in a classical fantasy setting despite not reinventing the wheel. It just polishes the best mechanics of the genre to perfection and serve as a reminder for what all developers should strive for. This is the new watermark for JRPG's.

I wish I could have enjoyed the original Bravely Default more, but all of the flaws that I had with the original are addressed and solved here. The only flaws I can think of are how I've seen this story done a million times, but even then there's enough freshness and freedom for me to overlook it. If you have a 3DS, this is a must own. If you are a JRPG fan, this is a must own. Bravely Second: End Layer has easily become one of my favorite games on the system, and I hope that we get more games like this in the future.


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