Bravely Default II does a great job of scratching that classic JRPG itch, while also quietly, cleverly subverting genre tropes and conventions.
When it comes to JRPGs, few things are as familiar and timeless as a story about fated heroes, chosen by destiny and foretold in prophecy to appear right when the world needs them most. From the earliest days of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Heroes of Light and descendents of legendary warriors have been at their centre, and even as the games evolved and their storytelling became more layered, the idea of a “chosen” hero (or heroes) comes up often.
Bravely Default II fis a deliberate, overt callback to those early Final Fantasies, following in the footsteps of Bravely Default and Bravely Second: End Layer before it: four Heroes of Light on a quest to restore the power of the four elemental crystals that maintain balance in the world, a villainous empire and the powers of darkness in their way. But for all its homage to those classics, for all the design cues and story beats it lifts right out of the SNES Final Fantasy era in particular, it’s also a game that quietly subverts those same ideas.
Bravely Default II is a game about four Heroes of Light blessed by the light of the crystals, but it’s not a game about chosen ones or prophecies. It’s a game about saving the world from imperial ambition and evil gods, but it’s not a game about doing so because of fate or obligation. These Heroes of Light aren’t heroes because they have the crystals’ blessings; they have the crystals’ blessings because they’re heroes—in their words, their deeds, their actions.
This is far from the first game to flip the “chosen hero” narrative around, but what sets Bravely Default II apart is how it commits to this idea in all the little details, and how it uses its classic JRPG framing to drive the point home. For all the nostalgia-driven fun that comes from playing a game that so lovingly pays homage to the genre’s golden era, there’s a deeper purpose to those things.
Seth is a sailor who washes up on the shores of an unfamiliar land, with no memory of who is or where he comes from. Gloria is the princess of a fallen kingdom that’s responsible for watching over the crystals, a responsibility that now sits squarely on her shoulders. Elvis is a happy-go-lucky scholar on a world-spanning journey to decipher an ancient book he inherited from his teacher. Adelle is a mercenary with a mysterious past, hired by Elvis to accompany and protect him on his journey (and an absolutely adorable mercenary, at that).
The archetypal Heroes of Light, in other words—but rather than being thrust upon them, that’s something they all have to choose for themselves. They each have their own reasons for doing so, but there’s no prophecy or fate driving them forward; they’re heroes because they choose to do heroic things, and the blessing of the crystals comes after that—and even then, it’s something they have to actively choose to accept.
This is most apparent in Gloria. As the Crystals’ custodian by product of her royalty, she’s set up as Bravely Default II‘s Chosen One, a role she steps up to with determination and a sense of duty. But a sense of duty, in and of itself, doesn’t make a hero. Hers is a story of realising that despite her status and the life she was born into with no say in the matter, actually walking that path is still something she has to choose for herself.
This idea of choosing to be a hero is one that bubbles away quietly for much of Bravely Default II. With the scene set and the party together, the journey to restore the Crystals largely follows the familiar JRPG story beats as you go from town to town, helping out with whatever local crisis you encounter and slowly getting to better know your comrades. Pay close attention to the details, and you’ll see those threads coming together in the background, but it’s mostly a journey through a colourful world full of charming characters.
But as the story ramps up towards its conclusion, this theme becomes much more apparent. It’s not just a story about choosing the path of the hero, but about rejecting the very notion of fate. This is when Bravely Default II pulls out all the stops, twisting its own mechanics and the nostalgic comfort of classic JRPG design to turn one of the genre’s oldest tropes on its head. It never goes quite as far or makes quite as much impact as Bravely Second did when that “End Layer” subtitle finally made sense (if you know, you know), but it’s a similar approach—and one that makes Bravely Default II so much more than “just” a old-timey JRPG.
Which isn’t to say it doesn’t succeed as a nostalgic homage to the days of Final Fantasy V. Between its turn-based battles, chibi characters, world design, job system, story beats, and character archetypes, Bravely Default II delivers that classic JRPG charm in abundance. It doesn’t get caught up in trying to be superficially “retro”; rather, it just channels the mood and the design sense of those classics, creating something new and fresh in a similar mould.
It finds enough room for innovation, not least of all in some nice tweaks to the Brave / Default combat system that defines the series. As always, you have the option to take multiple turns at once, either by taking a defensive stance and banking your turns for future use (“Default”), or by borrowing against future turns and leaving yourself vulnerable until you’ve paid off that debt (“Brave). This time around, though, turns aren’t party-based: instead of choosing your whole team’s actions at once at the beginning of a turn, everyone—friend and foe—gets turns as often as their speed stat allows. This might seem a small change, but it opens up a whole lot of new options in terms of battle strategy, party setup, and how each job is designed in the first place.
For all Bravely Default II‘s classic inspiration, there’s one thing missing: a “proper” overworld map. There’s a unique kind of joy in venturing out from a town or dungeon into a big, less-detailed overworld that connects all these different locations, and then getting ships and airships to help navigate and expand where you can go. It’s not an “open world” thing so much as a product of early JRPG developers doing what they could to instill a sense of scope within stringent technical limitations, and creating something oddly comforting in the process.
Bravely Default II has a similar sort of thing, but it’s broken down into small-ish zones with more topographical detail—think a classic overworld map, but with each island being its own zone that you need to load into. That means no boats, no airships, no flying around the world looking for secret islands full of treasure, none of the excitement of finally seeing the whole world open up to you. Maybe I’m being too pedantic, but to me, a “classic” JRPG needs airships. Them’s the rules.
But that little complaint aside, Bravely Default II does a wonderful job of scratching the classic JRPG itch, while also subverting the genre’s tropes and conventions in fascinating, sometimes surprising ways. It’s a fresh take on the familiar tale of four Heroes of Light, full of charming characters (Adelle!), beautiful locations, and sharp writing, with captivating battle and job systems to go with it. Even if, for me, it doesn’t quite hit the same highs as Bravely Second, it comes damn close—and that’s high praise.
Bravely Default II is developed by Claytechworks and published by Nintendo / Square Enix. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.