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When JRPG giant Square Enix brought Bravely Default to the 3DS back in 2013, it took an old-is-new-again approach, bringing the feel of golden age Final Fantasies — four heroes, airships, crystals and castles included — to Nintendo's newest handheld. The result felt like a truly classic adventure with all mod cons, and it struck a chord with fans — so much so that we've been given a chance to return to its world in a direct sequel, Bravely Second: End Layer. As wonderful as Bravely Default was, Bravely Second improves on it in nearly every way, and fans of the original are in for a real treat; this is a masterful game, and an absolute must-play for anyone who's ever fallen in love with an RPG.

Bravely Second opens with a world in transition. After the events of Bravely Default, Agnès Oblige — heroine of the first game — has nearly succeeded in brokering peace between Luxendarc's perennial warring states, the Crystal Orthodoxy and the Duchy of Eternia. At the signing ceremony, however, things go awry; the mysterious, rather ominously-named Kaiser Oblivion smashes in, kidnaps Agnès, and leaves her — along with her young bodyguard Yew Geneolgia — for dead. That's where you — as Yew — come in. Brave to a fault, Yew shakes himself off and sets out on a rescue mission without hesitation, picking up a few allies along the way — including returning heroes Edea Lee and Tiz Arrior from Bravely Default, and mysterious moon-born newcomer Magnolia Arch.

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What follows is a wonderful ride, almost literary in its pacing and scope. As Yew and his friends traverse Luxendarc on their quest for Agnès, they'll meet plenty of friends and foes and share in their struggles, triumphs, and day-to-day lives; there's always a sense of progress, but it never feels like simply going from point A to point B. While his goal is absolute, Yew's itinerary is highly subject to change, and since it's in his nature to help people out along the way, the scenic route becomes the natural way forward.

It's a particularly pleasant journey too, thanks in large part thanks to the characters at its heart. Yew is an immensely likeable protagonist, and Magnolia's lunar quirks are equally enigmatic and endearing. But our favourite aspect was getting to see old friends Edea and Tiz again, and Bravely Second handles its returning cast wonderfully; they still have plenty of new tricks up their sleeves, but they act and grow in ways you'd expect given their past experiences, without betraying their characterization in the first game.

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In addition to the standard JRPG overworld and towns to explore, you'll also see these characters bond and grow through optional Tales-like conversational skits and Tent Events — a new feature for Bravely Second that lets you check in on your party in one-off 3D cutscenes as they regroup and recuperate near save points. Side-conversations are a fairly common features in JRPGs these days, but the skits and optional cutscenes in Bravely Second are so enjoyable because, like the rest of the game, they're refreshingly well written. The lines are also quite well acted, with both Japanese and English audio tracks available, and relevant actors from the first game reprising their roles here.

Relatedly, though Bravely Second tells a self-contained tale, it's worth noting that even the opening cutscene spoils the stuffing out of Bravely Default's final hours. So while Second's story certainly stands on its own, if you ever plan on playing Bravely Default (and we'd recommend it), start there first if you can.

Of course, Bravely Second is more than just excellent storytelling; you'll butt heads with thousands of fiendish foes across Yew's journey, and the game's uniquely engaging battle system is a blast throughout. Its turn-based battles centre around the idea of Brave Points, or BP for short. Performing any action will cost a character 1 BP per turn, but everyone also regains 1 BP at the end of each turn. The fun part lies in the fact that you can save BP for later or spend into the negatives at will; you can 'Brave' (using the 'R' button) to spend BP and take up to four actions per turn, or 'Default' (with the 'L' button) to guard, forfeit your right to act, and earn an extra BP at the end of the turn, up to a maximum of 4 BP.

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At its simplest, this system encourages a wait-and-strike cycle: Default for four turns, Brave four times to take attack four times in a single turn, and then be ready to act or guard again. But when you add in buffs, debuffs, healing, items, and all kinds of abilities over staggered turns for all four characters, it opens up deeply strategic possibilities and gives battles a pleasantly polyrhythmic character — the turn-based equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your stomach with ease.

As in Bravely Default, these intricate routines are possible thanks to the job system, a modern version of the many-hats setup introduced in Final Fantasy III. Though each of your party members start out as jack-of-all-trades Freelancers, they can switch to any unlocked job whenever you like, with up to 30 to choose from by the end, including Pirates, White Mages, Astrologians, Guardians, Ninjas, Bishops, Valkyries, Rangers, Thieves, and many, many more. Each job has its own set of abilities to learn as you level them up — separately from your character's overall level, with Job Points (JP) earned in battle — from attacks and healing spells to all kinds of passive effects. The variety is massive, and they can even be combined across classes; in addition to their main job's abilities, a character can have access to a second job's moveset, along with a customizable bank of passive abilities drawn from all their jobs.

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If you spend a bit of time playing Magnolia as a Freelancer, for instance, then as a white-magic-wielding Bishop, and finally switch her over to a spear-happy Valkyrie, you could retain her curative spell-set from the Bishop job as a backup healing option, while equipping the Freelancer's 'Dungeon Master' skill to avoid damage from traps in dungeons. Best of all, each job comes with its own unique costume for each character, and the designs are fantastically over the top; we'll freely admit we played Tiz as a Merchant for several hours just to see him in a comically oversized top hat.

Combined with the Brave and Default system, these jobs and all their varied abilities make the battle system feel gleefully breakable, but not in a 'cheap' way at all. Rather, it seems tailor-made to inspire players to think up unorthodox strategies for every situation. And we don't just mean the kind of apocryphal 'insta-kill' team combinations you'll find on FAQ sites, either; even 'everyday' strategies like a one-two punch, heal, and buff routine split across four different jobs can feel like a triumph, and coming up with bespoke team strategies is one of the most satisfying experiences we've had in an RPG.

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It certainly helps that Bravely Second introduces no shortage of fun, imaginative new jobs to the mix, adding in novelties like the Patissiers (baleful bakers who poison enemies with cake — literal death by chocolate!), Charioteers (crazed Celtic warlords who can equip three weapons at a time and fling a fourth for fun), Exorcists (unholy magic users who can 'Undo' up to three turns) and Fencers (stance-based swordfighters who attack in the transitions between buff-granting poses) alongside Bravely Default standbys like Black Mages, Monks, and Summoners. These new classes are all a blast to use and explore, but by far our favourite addition is the Catmancer, an item-based job which finally — finally! — allows you to harness the power of cats in battle, as you direct them to perform learned enemy attacks (even better, it lets you talk to the cats around Luxendarc, opening up a whole new channel of gossip).

Along with these new occupations, the way you'll discover jobs has changed in Bravely Second as well. You'll still get new job-unlocking 'asterisks' by defeating various characters as you play through the story, but the structure of side-quests — the optional missions where you'll earn a decent portion of the jobs — has had an important shake-up. Though they're quite varied in terms of how they unfold, narratively and mechanically, each side-mission ultimately culminates in a showdown between two asterisk-wielders, and you'll need to pick a side; whichever character you end up defeating is the one whose job you'll unlock.

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This change actually makes a big difference in how side-missions feel in Bravely Second, and for the better. It adds a real weight to each mini-narrative, making them feel more like stories than simply chances to earn a new job, and we loved getting to see our party grow and react to events as we might in their place. It also ended up shaking us out of our comfort zone, mechanically-speaking, in that we often ended up siding with the asterisk holder whose job we would have liked more. In an early conflict over an oasis between a Thief and a Red Mage, for instance, we felt morally obligated to help the Thief; though we would have preferred access to the Thief's job over the Red Mage's for the speedy, bow-wielding party we were building at the time, we ended up defeating the mage and discovering the power of these BP-regaining magic wielders, which pushed our party into a new, turn-order-manipulating direction we wouldn't have thought to try otherwise. That said, while we loved the gravity the forced-choice lends to your decisions, it's worth noting there aren't any truly 'missable' jobs (breathe easy, completionists), and you'll have a shot at unpicked jobs later on in the game.

That concession is just one part of Bravely Second's carrying on the series' tradition of being the most user-friendly JRPG on the planet. That's not to say it's easy, by any means — even early battles will send you to the save screen if you're not paying attention, and beating bosses always requires creative, multi-turn, multi-job strategies — but rather that Bravely Second goes out of its way to ensure it's never wasting your time.

Like Bravely Default, it lets you speed up battles, change the difficulty at any point, and save almost anywhere. Notably, it also lets you adjust the enemy encounter rate at will, from completely off to Earthbound Beginnings-levels of insta-grind insanity, and Bravely Second makes this even easier by mapping the configuration to a quick press of the 'R' button. It's a fantastic feature, and one we'd love to see in more RPGs; it's especially welcome in a portable adventure, as it makes it easy to focus potentially shorter play sessions on either leveling up new skills or getting across the map unscathed, with the default serving as a happy medium for playing in general.

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And when you're feeling particularly grind-happy, Bravely Second adds in a new feature to help with leveling up called 'Bring it on!' — if you manage to beat an enemy mob in a single turn, you'll have the option of facing a stronger version of the same enemy set again with a 1.5x bonus to experience points, cash, and job points. The only catch is that your BP won't regenerate between rounds, so you'll need to plan ahead to stay alive — you can chain increasing bonuses between as many rounds as you can survive, but wiping out will lose it all. Trying to maximize your returns became a fun metagame in its own right, and we had a great time thinking up and testing strategies to chain together one-turn wins and reap the compounded rewards. It's still 'grinding', but it doesn't feel like it; the 'Bring it on!' system combined with the variable encounter rate gives you a great way to earn all those skills you'll want to try out without it ever feeling like a chore.

That sentiment runs throughout Bravely Second, in fact, and shows up in a significant array of little quality-of-life improvements from the first game. You can now save up to three auto-battle presets, for instance, with full control over every character's actions to launch into whenever you like. Even better, you can save ten preset combinations of job, ability, and equipment settings for all four characters as a group; given how gloriously intricate party setups can be, it's a huge help, and we found ourselves switching party types much more frequently than in Bravely Default, simply because of how much easier it is to do. Smaller but no less welcome tweaks include showing the recommended level range in dungeons on the touchscreen map, and having the full list of unlockable abilities for each job visible in the menu, rather than only the ones you've already earned — both quick changes that help you plan out your play sessions and make the most of each moment in Luxendarc.

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Perhaps our favourite way in which Bravely Second shows it respects your time, however, is in how it's so smartly aware of it sequel status. After becoming all-powerful in the endgame of a weeks-long RPG like Bravely Default, it's easy to forget just how far you've come — until you start a different game from the beginning, and the fast travel, warping, and cool, late-game jobs you've come to rely on are nowhere to be found. Bravely Second rightly keeps the arc of progression, but curves it sharply in your favour with some thoughtful touches for players who might have recently finished the first.

A warp system which you gain access to very early on lets you zap from town to town using telekinetically-inclined pigs, for instance, and you'll be able to sail out into the overworld's ocean (albeit on a tiny, shallow-water-only craft) after just a few hours of play. And while you'll unlock jobs slowly and steadily as in Bravely Default, new jobs are front-loaded, so that you'll gain access to fun classes like Charioteer, and Catmancer well before finding any White Mages, Knights, or Monks. It's a great move, not only because it stops Second's opening hours from feeling like a retread of Bravely Default, but also because it forces you to get to grips with new jobs to fulfil vital roles in your party. Having the Fencer as our first weapons-based offensive job meant we were quite handy with its stance-based strategies by the second chapter, and finding the Wizard and Bishop hours before the traditional White and Black Mages helped key us into the distinctive qualities of those new jobs.

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Bravely Second also builds in plenty to do with your 3DS when you're not actively adventuring. As in Bravely Default, there's a village to rebuild — Magnolia's moon base this time — while your 3DS is in sleep mode, using workers acquired from StreetPass hits or gathered online through the game's menu (a welcome workaround for players in poor StreetPass territory). Letting your workforce toil away while you're off in the real word leads to in-game rewards like items, weapons, and special move components, and it's one of the coolest implementations of the feature we've seen in an RPG. Connectivity doesn't stop in sleep mode either; as in Bravely Default, you can dial-a-friend in battle, using the power of Yew's pendant to beam in players on your 3DS' Friends List for asynchronous assists, and even 'Ablink' with fellow adventurers to use skills from jobs your friends have leveled up before you have. Finally, a hands-off (and oddly compelling) plushie-making minigame called Morscraft serves as an unlikely but very welcome sound test mode, letting you unlock tracks to listen to as you come across them in-game.

All these user-friendly tweaks, connectivity features, and extras do a great job of holding your attention, but what's just as impressive as how Bravely Second grabs it right from the start, thanks in large part to its absolutely stellar presentation. Character and monster models are expressive and full of character, the overworld has a lovely, nostalgic charm, and the stereoscopic 3D is much improved from the first game — there are far fewer 'fuzzy spots' between layers, and it's easy to find a setting where both text and backgrounds are sharp and clear. Our only complaint is that turning up the 3D slider still leads to some serious framerate drops on the overworld map; other than that, Bravely Second looks and runs fantastic.

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As in Bravely Default, the towns are a real highlight — they're gorgeously detailed, depicted in a soft, watercolour style, and filled with colour and life at every turn. The slow-zoom effect that pans the camera out from your character when standing still is still one of the most impressive tricks we've seen on the 3DS, too — combined with the stereoscopic 3D effect, it makes taking in these multilayered metropolises an absolute joy. And while you'll return to plenty of familiar haunts and hamlets in Bravely Second, the new towns are some of the most impressive of the lot, with imaginative architecture, fun layouts to explore, and beautiful little touches — we especially loved spotting Ancheim's windmills turning in the distance from Al-Khampis, a new city to its south.

Though Bravely Second uses the same engine as its predecessor, lots of little graphical improvements make for a much more immersive experience. Cutscenes don't always take the same side-view conversational diorama approach, for instance, and 3D action scenes and frequent set-pieces mix up the narrative presentation throughout. Dungeons are more dynamic now as well, with criss-crossing, overlapping paths and varied camera angles to match; an early excursion takes place in a forest from a side-scrolling perspective, and temples visited in the first game take on new light here, seen from a zoomed-in, lowdown viewpoint as beams of daylight streak through ceiling cracks. In short, even with its familiar places and comfortable rhythm, Bravely Second's presentation never feels predictable, and that goes a long way towards keeping exploring exciting.

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The same can be said for the soundtrack. Though it doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessor's, we love the fact that the music is all new; it would have been easy to drop in the music from the first game and call it a day, but the new score gives Bravely Second a unique aural identity. Town themes return, and hints of memorable motifs from Bravely Default are woven in subtly to great effect, but other than that it's all new: jazzy shop tunes, a lighter, more pensive overworld theme, and a plaintive seafaring shanty fill the spaces between hard-rocking battle music, fist-pumping boss-fight beats, and epically over-the-top special move themes, and it all sounds fantastic.


As a sequel, Bravely Second: End Layer does everything right. It improves on its predecessor in nearly every way, shakes things up enough to still be exciting for players who may have recently poured sixty hours into the first game, and offers a meaningful chance to reconnect with beloved characters. Even better, it's a nearly-perfect JRPG in its own right. Beautiful, well-written, and endlessly engaging in gameplay and story, this is a wonderful example of why people fall in love with the genre. Simply put, Bravely Second is a must-play for JRPG fans, and one of the 3DS' finest games to date.