Square Enix has always been one of the biggest names in the RPG genre, but it’s been interesting to see how the company has changed its design philosophies with the times. For example, its biggest franchise – Final Fantasy – has long since left behind its humble origins as a turn-based RPG and embraced increasingly more grandiose and experimental ideas on both the storytelling and gameplay fronts. Even so, a large contingent of fans have demanded a return to games that align with those relatively simplistic roots, and it’s this push that led to the creation of the Bravely Default series on the 3DS. What originally began as a Final Fantasy spin-off took on its own identity; one formed around refining and championing the concepts of early '90s JRPGs. Now, Bravely Default II has come along to continue that dream, and in this regard it most certainly succeeds. Bravely Default II is a classic-style JRPG through and through, but one that includes modern conveniences where needed to ensure a smooth and engaging experience.

Much like how new numbered entries in the Final Fantasy series each introduce a fresh world and cast, Bravely Default II tells a standalone story that retains thematic connections to its predecessors. You take control of a hero named Seth, a shipwreck survivor who washes ashore in the land of Excillant and soon joins up with a small party of adventurers who each are pursuing their own personal (though intertwining) goals. The main thrust of the narrative is centered around Gloria, the princess of the fallen kingdom of Musa which once housed the four elemental crystals that govern the balance of nature in Excillant. The fall of her kingdom resulted in the crystals’ disappearance, which has wreaked havoc across the land, so Gloria takes it upon herself to track down the crystals to prevent the apocalypse from happening.

Naturally, things don’t exactly progress in a straight line. As you collect more crystals, new truths and new foes come to light to mix things up, and the story generally gets much more interesting as these additional layers are introduced. It’s a slow start, then, but one which proves itself to be worth it if you stick it out. A lot of what makes this payoff so worthwhile is the well-written party characters and the easy chemistry they share with each other. Details such as Elvis’s deep-seated affinity for taverns and alcohol help to give each character dimension, while the one-on-one interactions between party members reinforce the actual ‘team’ aspect. The key thing here, however, is that not all the character depth is explicitly forced upon the player.

For example, passing various milestones in the story will trigger an option to use the ‘Party Chat’ which plays out an interaction between some party members that bears some tangential relevance to the current predicament while filling out a bit of their personalities. Or, in another case, there are some side quests that are fully-voiced and centre around filling out character backstories or relationships. If you’re more of a ‘gameplay first’ kind of player, you can largely ignore extra content like this and still be able to follow the story easily, but those of you who really gel with these characters have a lot more narrative to dive into if you want.

The story plays out across a series of isolated chapters which each – in their own way – act as sort of self-contained mini-narratives that ultimately pay into the larger quest. It’s not quite on the level of Octopath Traveler’s largely standalone story arcs, but it nonetheless lends itself well to the continued variety. Each sub-story should take five-ish hours to see through, while introducing you to a litany of new characters, dungeons, towns, and enemy types. The pace at which these new elements are introduced helps to keep the experience feeling fresh, while the ever-evolving relationships between your party members help to ensure that it all feels like it fits together.

When you’re not busy pursuing the main objectives, there are plenty of side quests to pick up along the way, although these typically feel a little too much like filler. One early quest, for example, involves you running back and forth three times between the exact same two spots in an overworld dungeon and its nearby town to deliver various goods to an NPC. Not all of them are this bad – one ongoing questline centered around a lovable pig-monster named Truff is consistently great – but it feels like too many of these side quests are simply… there. By this, we mean that they don’t really add much to your overall understanding of the world and they don’t have interesting storylines or objectives; they’re mostly a bunch of fetch quests and kill missions in exchange for a bit of money or an item. It’s disappointing that these side quests don’t add much meaningful content to the world, but then again, they are "side" quests after all, and can mostly be ignored without missing much.

Whatever your current quest may be, the combat acts as the main linchpin of the whole experience and it rarely disappoints. Typical of a turn-based RPG, each character can execute one action per turn and each character’s turn only comes by as soon as an ATB-like gauge beneath their name fills up. So far, so similar, but things are made much more interesting with the inclusion of the “Brave” and “Default” commands which support a great deal of the strategy to be found in combat. If you choose to activate Brave on a character, you can borrow their action from their next turn and spend it immediately, but at the cost of having to wait longer before they can then act again. Conversely, the Default command causes a character to simply defend and forgo their current turn’s action, and this passes the action on so the next turn can use two actions at once with no consequences.

This concept of borrowing and delaying turns leads to some fascinating tactical decisions, as you need to be mindful of when it’s best to go for a big push and when to batten down the hatches to wait for an opening. It can be thrilling to just let ‘er rip and have your damage-dealing characters go all in on the enemy, but if the enemy doesn’t go down, your characters are sitting ducks for whatever may be coming their way for the next few turns. Standard enemy encounters don’t particularly challenge you to get too into the weeds on this front, but the many boss encounters along the way act as some tough skill checks that really test your strategic thinking.

Things are made even more interesting when you factor in enemy weaknesses, which can make or break many battles. Every enemy can be ‘scanned’ – whether by an ability or an item – and this will reveal to you the slate of spells and weapon types that will do extra damage to them. On the other hand, they are also resistant or outright immune to others, which encourages the player to diversify attack types across all four team members to make sure all the bases are covered.

Now, it must be said that this battle system does feel a bit distinct from the previous Bravely Default games, most notably in how the order of turns plays out. In the prior games, all four characters would act one after another and then the enemy would take their turns, but here it’s broken up so each character acts independently. Further, enemies can act in between your characters (or even between one character’s stacked commands), which makes it a lot harder to predict the flow of a battle.

Whether this is a good or a bad thing largely depends upon your taste. On one hand, the slightly more random flow of a typical battle does weaken the much more calculated playstyle of the previous two games. On the other hand, this less predictable gameplay ensures that battles are a little more exciting and surprising, and it forces you to take into account the risk that your four stacked turns on a character might not all fire off before the enemy gets a chance to respond. Simply put, combat is just a little different than it was before, not necessarily better or worse.

Every now and then, you’re sometimes required to grind a little to ensure that you can meet the challenge of the tough boss encounters, and this is where the 'quality of life' features for combat come in handy. Combat can be sped up to four times its normal speed, while an easily accessible ‘repeat’ command can be used to have characters just repeat the actions of the last turn. So, when you’re jumping into battle with the thousandth monster of this session, the distance between the beginning of the battle and you getting the EXP you want is substantially shortened. Things can be expedited even further by using items that allow you to chain battles together to multiply EXP bonuses, and ‘underdog’ bonuses for fighting enemies much stronger than you just add more bonuses on top.

There’s also a neat feature for buffing up characters even when you’re not playing the game. Each town has a shop where you can start and stop ‘explorations’, which act as a sort of background process for acquiring level-up materials. Each expedition can last up to twelve hours and tells a series of brief text-based updates on your party’s travels on the high seas with other players. Items are slowly acquired over the course of an expedition and you can call it back whenever you want to collect the items and boost up your party members a little. It’s rare that the fruits of an expedition massively improve your party, but having that extra cache of items ready to claim every time you wake your Switch proves to be quite useful in the long run.

Getting stronger for an impending boss encounter is one thing, but it seems like these speed-up features are present mostly to encourage the player to experiment plenty with the deep 'Job' system on offer. There are dozens of classes on offer here spanning a variety of combat roles, and you can have two jobs equipped to a character at a time. The main job is the one that accrues Job Experience, which unlocks new active and passive abilities for that job, while the secondary job simply gives that character access to all of the commands for that job. So, if you want your healer to learn a class that lets them cast buffs for the party, you can have them progress that skillset without losing their healing capabilities.

New jobs are acquired at a relatively quick pace by collecting Asterisks from bosses you beat, and it doesn’t take long for you to have a near-dizzying array of potential team compositions at your fingertips. See, each of the passive abilities you unlock from a job can be equipped to that character even if they don’t keep that job equipped. For example, one class has an ability that reduces the cost of spells by 20%, which fits nicely on your team’s black mage if you’re willing to have them go through the brief detour to obtain it. You can only equip a few of these passives to each character, however, so you need to give a lot of thought to what specific role you want each party member to fill on the team. As more jobs are introduced, more ‘broken’ combinations of abilities become viable, which can lead to some immensely satisfying long-term payoffs as you build your characters.

The downside to this is that it puts a lot of pressure on the player to think ahead in how they plan out their team; it’s not so much about just having everyone up to a high enough level, but having them with the right skills and job mixtures. For example, we ran into one issue relatively early with a boss who had a life-steal ability that effectively made them act as a DPS check. Our team at the time was geared towards a more defensive, long-form playstyle, and we had to spend about an hour reshuffling jobs and grinding everyone up to ensure that the team could put out enough damage in a short enough window to beat the boss. Moments like this can be frustrating, but they are fortunately rare, especially as more powerful job types come into play and help to level the playing field even more.

Visually, Bravely Default II borrows the same semi-Chibi art style from its 3DS counterparts, but with an updated HD look that vaguely calls to mind the art style of the recent Link’s Awakening remake. Models in combat appear a bit like cute plastic toys duking it out, which looks adorable, but simple. On the other hand, the massive panoramic views of each town, displayed in a stunning and detailed watercolor art style, consistently impress in their appeal. Taken together, it seems like a somewhat bizarre mixture of two conflicting art styles. The toy-like 3D models and glimmering 3D environments of the overworld and dungeons are perfectly fine, but feel a little too ‘safe’ to leave a meaningful impression. Meanwhile, the painterly vistas of each town prove to be memorable, but too sparse to really be more than a proof of concept.

If you’ve read this far and are wondering what the ‘hook’ of this third entry in the Bravely Default series is, you may be a little disappointed to learn that there isn’t one, and that stands as both the best and worst quality of Bravely Default II. It has great combat design, deep character customization, and a solid story, but it’s missing that extra X-factor to give it its own memorable identity. This is the epitome of a ‘safe’ JRPG. Those of you who appreciated the level of complexity and pacing in early '90s JRPGs will find a ton to love here, while those of you looking for innovation and thrilling new ideas will be left wanting. To be clear, this lack of a differentiating hook doesn’t necessarily affect the overall quality of Bravely Default II, but it does stand to limit its appeal to those who want a strictly nostalgic experience. You’ll have to be the judge of whether that fits you.

Conclusion

As if it was ever in doubt, Square Enix has demonstrated once again that it understands exactly what ingredients are necessary to make a great RPG. The interesting, risk-based combat is supported by a diverse class system and a well-told story, which all combine to make for an experience that can be tough to put down. That said, one can’t help but feel a consistent sense of ‘been there, done that’ with Bravely Default II; Square certainly could’ve pushed the envelope just a little more with this entry. That aside, you really can’t go wrong with Bravely Default II. This is a well-crafted and expertly-made RPG that is easily worth your time and money; we’d highly recommend that fans and newcomers alike look into picking this up.