Square Enix took a gamble with Bravely Default. It was a Final Fantasy game in all but name; a follow-up of sorts to DS spin-off The 4 Heroes of Light, filled with Phoenix Downs, Ethers, White, Black and Red Mages. But at its heart was something new: an unusual battle system that would lend the game its unwieldy title. At the time, the FF name perhaps didn’t carry the same cachet it once did, or perhaps the publisher was concerned about it being tarnished by association if Bravely Default flopped. It didn’t – far from it - and so a sequel was inevitable.
Bravely Second is anything but a gamble. It’s hardly been hurried into existence, but at first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking so. It’s set in the same world as the first, and features many of the same cast of characters. The core of the game, and that battle system, is all but identical. And somehow none of this is much of a problem.
Why? Mostly, it’s down to that battle system. On each turn you can choose to attack, buff or heal as normal; you can spend up to four Brave points (BP) to act several times; or you can Default to adopt a defensive stance and store up BP. It sounds almost comically simple, but in concert with the myriad jobs you can apply to your four party members, it grows dense and rich with tactical possibility, and only gets denser and richer the further you go and the more job asterisks you attain. 18 of the original 24 are back (Spell Fencer, Salve Maker, Arcanist, Spiritmaster, Vampire and Conjurer are the ones that have missed the cut) and there are 12 new ones to obtain. Those extra six make all the difference – not least because the later ones are among the best of the lot.
Before all that, you’ve got plenty of interesting roles to play around with. There’s the Fencer, which sounds less exciting than the Spell Fencer until you learn that you can adopt animal stances to boost attack, defence and speed – even if they’re sadly unaccompanied by BraveStarr-style shouts. It’s at least worth sticking with until you’ve unlocked the support ability Eye of the Wolf (surely Ears?), which allows you to begin the battle in an offensive stance that raises your physical and magical attack. Then there’s the Charioteer, which blesses you with a cavalier attitude towards weaponry: eventually you get the ability to quad-wield, replacing your headgear and chest armour with more axes, spears or swords. Heck, it even allows you to attack by throwing a spare weapon at your opponents.
But while the first game seemed to favour physical attackers, this time spell-casters are equally vital, if not more so. The Astrologian is all buffs and barriers, with an ability (Prescience) that gives priority to status augments and support magic; stick with it long enough and you’ll unlock the invaluable Limit Breaker skill, which allows you to raise the maximum values for stat-boosting effects – and only one character has to have it equipped for the entire party to benefit. Wizards, meanwhile, get the hugely versatile Spellcraft option, which allows you to spend a turn adjusting the properties of a spell. Needle, for example, damages all enemies of the same type, which is more useful when you’re facing four similar opponents, while Hammer allows your spell to inflict physical damage.
Then there are the more tricksy options. The Catmancer can learn abilities from enemies, while the Patissier inflicts ailments via the medium of cake, though both rely upon ingredients that must be harvested during battle or purchased from shops, and I quickly ditched them after getting bored of having to restock. At first, the Exorcist asterisk seems grossly overpowered, its Undo skill allowing you to revert health, Magic Points and BP to a previous turn, though such actions consume BP so you can’t rely upon it every turn. Guardians, meanwhile, allow you to possess allies, disabling them from acting, but adding their stats to boost your own.
Almost 70 hours in I’m still tinkering with builds that can maximise these capabilities. I’m wondering how I can best use a Performer’s BP-boosting songs to allow my Exorcist to act more often, and mulling over the idea of using a Dark Knight’s Minus Strike (which deals damage equivalent to the difference between a character’s max and current HP) when I’ve got double the health from possessing a team-mate. Though for that to work I’ll need protection via a physical or magical barrier, or a Knight’s chivalry, or possibly a Ninja’s evasive techniques coupled with a Swordmaster’s counter-attacking powers... And do I really need to bother when Meteor Rain with Brevity and Good Measure is working so beautifully?
Tl;dr - there’s a lot to think about.
Bravely Second’s battle system benefits from a number of tiny refinements that have a collectively positive effect, and the same applies to much of the rest of the game. The story is fairly conventional save-the-world-from-annihilation stuff, but the characterisation is superior, while the main fulcrum of the plot doesn’t result in the repetition that blighted the second half of the original. It finds a better blend of light and dark, too, and with Ringabel and the creepy old Conjurer absent, thankfully the leering objectification of the female cast is all but absent.
The side-stories have been improved, too, taking the form of ethical dilemmas that invite you to choose between two returning job holders. In one, you’ll decide whether to encourage a family to give up their tumbledown family home to build a trading port; in another, you’ll choose between handing over the rights to an ancient song to a pirate who reveres the original, or a pop star who wants to bring a remixed EDM version to a new audience. You end up fighting the character you side against for their job asterisk, and it says something that I didn’t always simply choose to oppose the one whose job I wanted.
Elsewhere, you have an even wider spread of options to tailor the game to your own needs. As ever, you can adjust the frequency of random encounters at any time, but if you defeat a group in one turn, you can opt to tackle another set of opponents, potentially multiplying your Job Points, cash and XP - albeit at the cost of entering battle with your BP depleted from the previous skirmish. Not only is it a much quicker way to grind, it’s an encouragement to find a team setup that allows you to dispatch enemies with greater efficiency.
Once you’ve found an effective strategy, you can save it as a preset which will be automatically executed when you bump into an enemy in the field. Similarly, you can save favourite combinations of abilities and jobs, allowing you to instantly adjust your party dynamic without needing to equip each character individually. As if that wasn’t enough convenience, you can play the game entirely one-handed, with the left shoulder and d-pad doubling as face buttons.
Bravely Second trusts you to set your own pace, to find the level of challenge that suits your personal tastes. It gives you free rein to experiment, to pick and mix from a marvellously diverse set of abilities until you find something that works for you. And if there are a few seemingly unbalanced builds? Good. That’s your reward for hours of messing around trying to find ways to tip the scales in your favour. Bravely Second might play things safe, but it’s a textbook sequel, keeping everything that worked well in the original and tweaking everything that didn’t. Those seeking a brave new world to explore may feel let down, but anyone happy to pay a return visit to Luxendarc will find that Bravely Second isn’t much of a gamble at all.