Review: Bravely Second: End Layer

Bravely Default in 2013 — or 2014 for the Yanks— was another one of those wonderful and exuberant examples of a game wherein even the most minor and/or meager of moments, in combination, come together to form something profoundly remarkable on reflection. It’s no surprise that RPG’s have tended to fill my particular memory banks more so than most genres in recent times. Much like how Fire Emblem: Awakening appeared — arguably reinvigorating, as much saving, the franchise — almost out of nowhere, Bravely Default was an unashamed love-letter to past 16-bit titles, yet still came off fresh enough to feel future-proof and brimming with personality. What’s more, as if custom-tailored to even the most apathetic but despondent of individuals…i.e. me…these types of games generated in us a feeling of escape. Of being able to switch off from the World for a few hours at a given time and bask in the adventure unfolding and the characters presented to us — in all their gloriously blissful/naive/charming/comedic detail.

Two years later and Bravely Second: End Layer finds us transported back into the World of Luxendarc where peace — the warring factions having put their differences aside and on the verge of making their truce permanent — has been but a temporary halt. Plunged as we are, literally straight into a new adventure, Bravely Second reunites us with old faces while introducing new ones along the way — a fitting signal Square Enix’s intentions are to approach the sequel with as much the care and consideration so clearly portrayed on initial presentation. Whether it be the hand-drawn storybook-like vista of towns and locales, or the way interiors and even cutscenes play out as if performed on a stage, like its predecessor, Bravely Second hits all the right nostalgic notes with its art direction without feeling stiff or coming across as disjointedly misplaced. Even the more isometrically-viewed interiors and dungeon layouts scattered throughout only flesh out Second’s warming aesthetic of which mixes the traditional with the fantastical. Of steampunk-esque machinery and rather less scientific leanings on magic and sorcery.

Yet Bravely Second goes beyond simply borrowing from these established bases and/or looking like a piece of acted out entertainment, in capturing that whimsical and canny sense of joy RPG’s aspire to generate and only occasionally pull off. The fact Second’s story — which seldom shies away from the go-to formula of bold heroes, cunning villains and a grand unfolding tale — and narrative comes off as self-aware, knowing in of itself from where and whom it borrows from, only reinforces the series’ position as a clever balance between high-stake adventure and satirical comedy. Whether it be the character dialogue (lead-protagonist Yew Geneolgia’s back-and-forth between bold leader and hapless novice is sufficient enough to enjoy) or even the occasional breaking of the forth wall, like Default before it, Bravely Second is gallantly sound in its timing. The characters too are presented, if not in some complex or emotionally-tangled stance, with a pleasant array and enough interaction to make conversations feel lively and engaging. Though there are some questionably lengthy stretches of dialogue — some characters, good and bad, even appearing to force through some degree of a catchphrase or humour, to lesser success — the narrative progresses with just enough a gracious pace, players will rarely find themselves dumbfounded by what’s happening on screen. Or rather, both screens.

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But it’s the gameplay where Bravely Second, as much its predecessor, rightly shines and while on the surface little has changed, the series’ now-staple Brave/Default mechanics seldom get tiresome or dull. For anyone not clued up on the system present, Bravely Second‘s combat primarily revolves around its two-state choice of stances: Brave or Default. At the start of every battle, both player-characters and enemies/monsters are equipped with Battle Points (BP) which dictates the amount of actions both sides can take during their turn. Players can decide to enter either Brave or Default state with both options incurring potential critical repercussions — good and bad — on the battle as a whole. Default puts players in a defensive stance but allows them to bank points to add on to later turns. Brave, on the otherhand, acts like a temporary loan of sorts in which players can rack several actions to a given turn by borrowing from successive rounds. This ultimately affects your total BP count and having it fall under 0 incurs a pass on your turn. A new feature making its debut is the titular “Second” mode which freezes enemies in place and allows players a free run of actions for a limited time. Said limits eventually builds up again overtime once drained based on real-time play and in order to use it again, players can either wait for the required time to pass or bypass the wait by physically purchase access to the “Second” ability again.

While all this may sound relatively simple in concept, Bravely Second follows in Default‘s shoes in that it opens up so many possibilities in how combined weapon traits, skills, conditions etc. can potentially play out in-game. Much like similarly playful takes on turn-based gameplay like Child of Light‘s time-based decision-making (itself a possible leaning to Final Fantasy‘s “Active Time Battle” system), it’s the type of emergent gameplay that rewards experimentation but never fails to remind players of the potential risks afoot. Needless to say, there’s little tension or excitement lost mid-battle and coupled with Second‘s refined “Jobs” structure — taking the form of “asterisks”, acquired after beating bosses and/or completing optional side-quests —  this opens up a wider array of customisation to one’s strategy and tactics. Thus, jobs are another of the series’ key yet charming and cleverly-managed premises.

Bravely Second Screenshot

The ability to switch a character’s abilities on the fly means there’s even more room to experiment and try out new possibilities. The fact Job classes have their own points bar alongside regular XP — thus, characters with little-to-no experience of one particular asterisk will be required to build themselves up from the first level again — means earlier enemy encounters become relevant again in due course and while this may at times devolve into additional grinding, it means the overall game and its varying locales can be revisited and relevant to the player’s overarching experience. Further to this, given each Job class has its own perks and weapon stats — not to mention they can be tagged alongside already-equipped states and be used in conjunction with other abilities — it gives players further room to get past the vast array of enemy types found throughout, each with their own unique offensive properties and strengths/weaknesses.

Of course, players can choose to avoid most (though not all) enemy engagement by way of fine-tuning the encounter probability in open play from a 100% increase in random encounters, all the way down to a 100% reduction. Doing so — as the game makes sure to call out — significantly reduces the opportunity to level up and it’s this ingenious way in which custom-tailoring the experience is put firmly in the player’s hands, is why it — like so many other customisable options — stands out so well. Do you go through the necessary moments of enemy encounters, helpful items at the ready, in order to get stronger? Or do you decide to cut all that out, but run the risk of coming to one of the game’s many bosses under-levelled and under-classed to progress? It’s a fine balance the player needs to make and ask themselves, but it’s what makes Bravely Second a fascinating experience to conquer as much get immersed in.

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Other seemingly-insignificant design choices such as instant access to the game’s many menus by a simple tap of the D-Pad or the well-designed interfaces, despite their complexity, only add to the growing praise on the way Silicon Studio have managed to successfully jam-pack a portable game with so much to look and see and read, without densifying the actual process as a result. There are no mathematical probabilities or superficially “deep” inclusions for such things like status effects. Weapon X is stronger in Case Y but not in Scenario Z…and so on. Silicon & Square Enix’s recognition for ease-of-use is never lost and it’s a welcome return to find this notable practice in the sequel, both in and out of the main quest. But there are no greater “so simple…and yet…” moments in Bravely Second, than the notable “Chompcraft” mini-game of sorts that players can take up at any time, upon unlock, for the simple pleasure of unwinding. Not since fishing in Ocarina of Time have I found a few minutes stretch into a full half-hour as players watch the four main protagonists work together to make cute-looking wool-stuffed toys.

Such moments are often so daft and so meaningless in the wider scope of things, yet it’s surprisingly addictive and just-as-surprisingly deep given its array of upgradeable perks and cleverly strategic pull to continue playing. The ability to upgrade the game’s so-called Lunar Base will also tug at the heartstrings of those ‘help build until full completion’ types out there who are as much about seeing everything done to completion, as they are getting the inevitable rewards by way of new skill unlocks and unique abilities. Again, Bravely Second compels in ways that feel initially insignificant and/or easily ignored, but all it does is exemplify Bravely‘s returning core philosophy on combining personal charm upfront with engaging gameplay close behind.

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Closing Comments:

To make a fittingly Nintendo-affiliated comparison, Bravely Second: End Layer is to the 3DS what Bayonetta 2 was to the Wii U: a sequel with its own respectable amount of anticipation that, while offering little by way of drastic change, delivers more than enough fresh and returning moments to remind us all (new and veteran players alike) why such a release struck an immeasurable chord in the first place. Bravely Second is without question another memorable, worthwhile and undeniably essential play for anyone striving to get their latest RPG fix. And what better way to do it with a game (and a series) that takes from the glory days of the SNES and gels it wonderfully with a continually-enticing and fully-rewarding battle system that rarely gets old or falls victim to stagnation. But with the return of its elegantly-drawn art-style, its humble aesthetic and joyfully self-aware attitude, Bravely Second marks itself a perfect follow-up to one of handheld gaming’s most beloved debuts — the sequel now standing proudly as another rightly-billed “essential” in the 3DS library.