Review

Bravely Second: End Layer Review – Finer Fantasy

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When Bravely Default hit the 3DS back in 2013, it was arguably the best Final Fantasy game made since Sakaguchi’s departure, despite losing the Final Fantasy name part way through development (possibly because it put Final Fantasy XIII and its awful sequels to shame). This was also due to Nintendo stepping in to publish the game in the West because Square didn’t think it would sell (seriously!). With innovative turn-based combat, likeable heroes, beautiful scenery, and bloody great airships, Bravely Default proved that there was still a place, and a market, for traditional JRPGs outside of Japan. It was a true classic that pushed the genre forward while respecting its past, striking a chord with fans and critics alike. Considering the popularity of the original, it was a no-brainer for Nintendo to bring its direct sequel, Bravely Second: End Layer to the west. As brilliant as Bravely Default was, Bravely Second improves upon it in truly meaningful ways. In short, if you’re a fan of the original chances are you are going to love Bravely Second.

Set two and a half years after the events of the original, Bravely Second opens with Agnès Oblige, the heroine, brokering peace between Luxendarc’s previously warring states in her new role as the Pope of the Crystal Orthodoxy. However, at the signing ceremony, the mysterious (and somewhat ridiculously-named) Kaiser Oblivion gatecrashes the ceremony, kidnaps Agnès, and leaves her young bodyguard, Yew, for dead. Waking up several days later, Yew shakes off his injuries and embarks on a mission to rescue Agnes from the clutches of the Kaiser, conscripting other heroes of light along the way, including Edea Lee and Tiz Arrior from Bravely Default, and mysterious moon-born newcomer Magnolia Arch.

What follows is a wonderful, somewhat literary tale, with brilliant pacing and epic scope. As Yew and his companions scour Luxendarc on their quest to save Agnès,  the group will find themselves caught up in all kinds of trouble. Like every great RPG, the way forward is never as simple as going from A to B. Since it’s in Yew’s nature to help people out, every town you come to seems to have a new set of problems for the heroes to solve before moving onto the next. Though Yew’s quest is possibly the most straightforward and archetypal in gaming ( save the princess), the way there is anything but.

Like its predecessor, Bravely Second uses familiar tropes in interesting ways. It sets up what appears to be a simple rescue mission before swiftly placing the focus on the journey rather than the destination, one that is made all the more pleasant thanks to its main cast being so damned likeable.  Yew is a driven and relatively sympathetic protagonist who seems to draw trouble to him like flies to honey, while Magnolia’s alien, fish-out-of-water persona is surprisingly endearing.  However, as a fan of the original, the real highlight was being reunited with the cast of the first game. In particular, seeing how Edea, Tiz, and Agnès have changed and grown in the intervening years since we last saw them in Bravely Default was refreshing and not something we often see in JRPG sequels.

Also like its predecessor, Bravely Second’s writing and voice acting is superb, which is particularly prominent during the game’s optional conversational skits (reminiscent of the party chats in the Tales series). These help you to get to know the members of your party a little better and add extra depth to the narrative.

New to Bravely Second are the tent events — these let you check in on your party in one-off, 3D cutscenes as the party regroups and recuperates near save points. Together, these help to keep the narrative grounded and give it a more human aspect amidst the wider narrative, which in turn helps you to warm to the characters further.

Though Bravely Second tells a mostly self-contained tale, it’s worth noting that it has deep ties to Bravely Default, so far that the opening pre-credits cutscene utterly wrecks the ending of Bravely Default via a pretty exhaustive recap. While Second‘s story certainly stands on its own, if you plan on playing Bravely Default I would highly recommend starting there before moving onto Second. You’ll appreciate the sequel a lot more if you do.

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Subscribing to the “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” camp of game mechanics, Bravely Second features the same incredible turn-based combat system as its predecessor. Centered around Brave Points (BP), each action costs a character 1 BP, and they regain 1 BP at the end of each turn (with a BP basically being a turn). What makes the Brave/Default system incredibly cool is that you can basically gamble with your turns. You can ‘Brave’ by pressing the ‘R’ button to spend more BP than you have and take up to four actions in a turn (thereby having to wait for four turns until you can make another move) or ‘Default’ by pressing the ‘L’ button to guard, and earn an extra BP at the end of the turn, up to a maximum of 4 BP. (at which time you can attack four times without having to miss a turn).  Depending on your proclivities, at its simplest this system encourages you to either defend for four turns and then attack four times, or Brave four times, unleash all you’ve got and hope nothing is left standing to retaliate.

This works well while simply grinding, but once you add in buffs and debuffs, healing, items, and the myriad other abilities available to your party, you’ll soon find yourself staggering turns between your four characters.  This opens up all kinds of possible strategies and gives battles a brilliantly open-ended feel with your party being able to react to changing battle conditions at the drop (or in this case change) of a hat.

Speaking of which, Bravely Second, also retains the wonderful job system of the first game, best described as the evolution of Final Fantasy III and V’s ‘hat’ systems. Starting as freelancers, players can unlock 30 different job classes throughout the course of the game. Once acquired, new jobs can then be equipped and leveled up using job points earned at the end of each battle to learn new abilities relevant to each profession.

As before, new jobs are unlocked via completion of a mixture of boss fights and side quests, However, the way jobs are earned via side quests has changed to make them more varied and interesting. Not only narratively – with each feeling like their own mini adventure instead of a small, albeit pleasant, diversion – but each now has a greater sense of weight and you’ll be forced to pick a side in many of the missions which will determine what job you end up unlocking at the end of it.

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In a nice twist, sub-missions now all involve an element of choice that more often than not will gleefully screw with your own moral compass. Though many of the narratives aren’t particularly black and white in terms of who is in the right, there were occasions where I was stuck between doing the “right” thing and picking the side that lets me unlock a new job that I liked the look of.

One particularly troubling situation involved a Thief and a Red Mage that were fighting over an oasis in the early stages of the game. Despite the thief profession being one of my favourites in Bravely Default (thanks to the ability to annihilate enemies with volleys of arrows and up your speed stat to ridiculous levels), I felt obligated to help the other character and ended up gaining the Red Mage power instead.

I found I had a lot of fun siding with whoever I agreed with during these situations, as it made the job system feel a bit less rigid and more engaging and challenging as a result. Since I was no longer merely relying on combos I knew would work well from the first game, it forced me out of my comfort zone and made me take my characters’ development in interesting new directions, using new strategies I probably wouldn’t have bothered with otherwise. That said, it’s worth noting that you can eventually unlock any jobs that you missed later in the game.

Not only has Bravely Second changed how you collect jobs, but some of the new professions are absolutely crazy – in the best possible way.  Among the usual Warriors, Thieves and Mages, you can now also become Charioteers (Celtic warlords that can equip up to three weapons at a time and chuck them foes), Patissiers (pastry chefs that use cakes to poison, paralyze and silence the enemy), and Exorcists (A new Mage class complete with a not-too-subtle Hellsing reference, that rewind time to bring characters back to life and restore their HP) and more besides. Though all of the new classes are a lot of fun to play with, the award for most ridiculous new job goes to Catmancer. Similar to Final Fantasy VII’s enemy skill materia, this class allows characters to teach cats enemy attacks and abilities with the power of “Catmancy,” which they can then unleash on foes in battle, as well as giving you the ability to talk to cats loitering around Luxendarc.

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As before, the job system allows you to equip abilities earned from another profession along with your main job. For example, you could choose to be a white mage with the powers of black mage bolted on to create a nice all round magic user or vice-versa. Or you can mix the Patissier’s flambe ability (which increases in strength the more BP a character has) with the Exorcist’s undo BP (which gives the target back a BP point) to crank the heat up further.

With hundreds of possible combinations, character development is incredibly open-ended and there’s plenty of room for experimentation, though arguably some combinations do work better together than others by complimenting the main job’s strengths or mitigating some of its drawbacks. It’s also worth noting that although you can use the abilities of two jobs at once, only your main job will level up at the end of a fight. Therefore, it’s well worth flicking back between your two chosen classes in order to effectively power them both up equally.

Characters are also able to learn passive abilities that are equipped separately to your active ones. Each passive ability costs a set number of points (up to a maximum of five), and do all kinds of weird and wonderful things, from stat buffs to auto-casting spells like protect and shell on the party before the battle. One tip: if you want to make a good mage character, you ought to learn the Exorcist’s Steady MP recover, which allows your character to regain 30MP at the end of each turn.

Bravely Second continues the series’ quest to be the most easily-accessible and adaptable JRPG ever made by once again allowing you to adjust pretty much every element of its gameplay at the touch of a button. It lets you speed up battles, change the difficulty at any time, and save almost anywhere. You can also adjust the enemy encounter rate at will, from being off completely to ridiculous levels of grinding insanity by pressing the ‘R’ button while you’re on the world map. This allows you to focus on what you want to do in potentially shorter play sessions by speeding up leveling and acquiring more skills, or turning off encounters entirely allowing you to traverse the map unscathed, with the default setting serving as a happy medium that allows for steady progression.

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When you’re in need of a good grind, Bravely Second has a new feature to that makes leveling up even quicker. Aptly named “Bring it on!”, if you successfully kill an enemy mob in a single turn, you’ll be given the option of facing a stronger one with a 1.5x bonus to experience points, cash, and job points, with the bonuses stacking with each successful one-round kill. The only catch is that your BP doesn’t regenerate between rounds, so you need to plan ahead to stay alive. Seeing how far you can push yourself before it backfires is a lot of fun, and I had a great time creating new strategies to chain together one-turn wins for ever increasing rewards. Technically, it’s still “grinding,” but it removes the numerous loading screens and a lot of the…well, grind. Combined with a maxed-out encounter rate, you can earn all the skills and abilities you want without all the ridiculous time sink that usually accompanies such endeavours. It all adds up to make you feel like you’re constantly pushing forward and using your time wisely.

Bravely Second also features numerous meaningful improvements to party management, allowing you to save up to three auto-battle presets with full control over every character’s actions, so you can just unleash your best combos at the push of a button. You can also save ten combinations of job, ability, and equipment settings for every member of your party.  Considering how intricate and nuanced party set-ups can be, it’s a great time-saver, especially since I found myself switching jobs and equipment much more frequently than I did in Bravely Default. Dungeons now also show the recommended level range on the touchscreen map, letting you to do any required leveling beforehand instead of bumbling in and getting your ass repeatedly handed to you. Finally, you have a full list of abilities for each job clearly visible in the menu, rather than only the ones you’ve already unlocked. This helps you to plan your character’s progression better and figure out new strategies and combinations before you’ve earned the necessary abilities.

Bravely Second is well aware of its sequel status, and the fact that it is essentially Bravely Default part two. As such, it does its damnedest to keep the pace brisk (so you can get back to the good stuff as quickly as possible) and streamlines elements so that it never feels like a re-tread. You’ll gain access to the new and weirder jobs like the aforementioned Catmancer and Charioteer before some of the more traditional classes like the White Mage and Warrior from Default pop up, allowing you to play with the new toys and figure out how to use them best before adding them to ones you’re already familiar with.

You also gain access to a quick-travel system that lets you jump from town to town (using telekinetic pigs) and sail out into the overworld’s ocean (or at least the shallow parts of it) after only a few hours in, as well as a few other improvements to help keep that sense of momentum and wonder.

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Like Default, Bravely Second once again continues to work for you even when you’re not actively adventuring. There’s a new village to rebuild – Magnolia’s moon base no less – which allows you to reconstruct her home with the help of workers acquired from StreetPass hits or gathered online through the game’s menu (for players that don’t get many StreetPass hits) while your 3DS is in sleep mode. As before, while you’re stuck at work or school or whatever, your virtual workforce toils away by clearing roads and rebuilding structures that net you in-game rewards on completion, such as items, weapons, and special move components. The more people you hit up on StreetPass, the quicker they finish. It was one of the coolest features of the original (as well as one of the best implementations of Streetpass, period), and I’m happy to see it back in the sequel.  Just like in Bravely Default, you can beam in players from your 3DS’ Friends List to provide some much-needed assistance using the power of Yew’s pendant, and now Ablink fellow adventurers to use skills and jobs your friends have leveled up that you haven’t.

Using the same engine as the previous game, it’s no surprise at all that Bravely Second looks absolutely beautiful. Once again, character and monster models are expressive and full of life, and the overworld is brimming with nostalgic charm. The stereoscopic 3D is also much improved from the first game, making it easier to find a setting where both text and backgrounds are sharp and easy to distinguish. However, as in Default, turning up the 3D slider will result in severe framerate drops on the overworld map (though these are mitigated if playing on a new 3DS). Still, it’s only a minor quibble, and other than this it runs flawlessly.

Just like Bravely Default, the towns are the real highlight. Intricately detailed and depicted in a soft, watercolour style combined with the subtle use of the 3D effect, these multi-layered metropolises look like exquisite diorama from a pop-up book. Though Bravely Second returns players to plenty of familiar haunts from Default, the new towns one-up them with imaginative architecture and beautiful little touches like being able to spy Ancheim’s windmills turning in the distance while in Al-Khampis, a new city south of Harena’s capital.

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The soundtrack is also spellbinding, though it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor. The new score gives Bravely Second a unique aural identity all of its own. Town themes return, subtly weaving in motifs from Bravely Default to great effect, but for the most part, it’s all new. It mixes jazzy shop tunes, a new and lighter overworld theme and seafaring shanties, juxtaposing this with power metal infused battle music, frantic boss-battle themes and excessive special move themes.

Bravely Second: End Layer does exactly what a good sequel should; it improves upon its parent in nearly every way. Changing the formula enough to hook players who have already poured sixty-plus hours into the first game while providing a chance to reconnect with beloved characters and meet some more along the way, exploring more of its beautiful world. What’s more, it’s a near-perfect JRPG in its own right. Captivating, beautiful, well-written, and engaging. A must for all JRPG fans and one of the finest games available on the 3DS, Bravely Second is the kind of game that makes you remember why you fell in love with the genre in the first place.

Bravely Second: End Layer was reviewed using a New 3DS XL with a copy provided by the publisher.

Publisher: Nintendo/Square Enix | Developer: Silicon Studio | Genre: Role Playing Game | Platforms: 3Ds | PEGI/ESRB: 12+/T  | Release Date: February 26, 2016 (EU)/ April 15, 2016 (NA)

 

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