Sometimes Gameplay Ain’t Enough

I started playing Bravely Default II demo when it dropped early this year. After changing the settings of the voices from English to Japanese, I could finally play it without it grating my ears. Reviews warned me of the high difficulty and the possibility of (gasp) grinding on a demo. First, it’s a JRPG, so grinding is inevitable. Second, the demo in question was worth its price tag – free. It had eight to twelve hours of content. The story is your basic JRPG quest, get the shiny object and proceed to save the world and bag a few waifus on the way. Truth is, I was more interested in why it garnered such a fan base, I could understand the weeb bait, but I turned to see what the gameplay had to offer.

Octopath Traveller was my introduction to the Brave combat system and it worked really well with that game. Unlike Bravely, I saw Octopath as a workable Romancing SaGa. Each story played like bite-sized chapters that colored each character’s world. Some characters worked (Primrose) while some characters deserve to be cancelled (Cyrus). Though the interaction between playable characters came to life during the party chat, the self-contained stories really worked for its storytelling style.

The Demo

Starting out, Bravely Default II demo had a steep learning curve. Level 2 wolves and orcs can party wipe if you’re not careful. Some well-placed grinding and side quests would work at this point to get started. Foreshadowing both active and passive skills on the Job profile is convenient as one can plan for character build and party synergy. Once you’ve leveled up enough and built a balanced party, you can secure your equipment to fight off the main demo boss in order to get the extra job. At this point, it’s your call to continue the limited sandbox or quit the game entirely. About four hours in, I felt that I could squeeze some more mileage from the demo.

The game could be imbalanced but they added a luck-based system where certain skills require some RNG to pull-off. If put into a workable combo, one could create a powerful archmage. I enjoyed the combo system so much I ended up beating both super bosses and having it as one of my anticipated games of the year. After finishing the demo, I feel that Bravely Default II has a fully realized combat system. Thus, it started my search to play Bravely Default that I missed out on the 3DS.

Retroactive Frustration

Finding a copy of Bravely Default and a workable 3DS, my first mistake was to expect the same game as I played on the demo. I forgot that the game was released back in 2013 and the Brave System hasn’t evolved into the much maligned Bravely Second and the misrepresented Octopath Traveller (please do not compare that game to Final Fantasy VI). Expecting the game to have the same fluid synergy as Bravely Default II would be a rookie mistake. At that point, I almost quit the game because while I actually was motivated to grind for Bravely Default II demo, grinding in the first game turned me off.

Out of the characters, I felt that each had elements that worked for themselves but missed the mark on fleshing them out into fully fledged characters. Tiz is more milquetoast than your average silent protagonist but has a relatable protagonist tragedy you can get behind. Edea’s emotional journey is the best part of the story but her personality is too self-righteous, you’ll probably forget she was talking. Ringabel deserves to be in the same prison cell as Cyrus from Octopath Traveller but he’s probably the only one with a personality out of the four, and there’s Agnes who suffers from the same-bland-female-character-written-by-a-man syndrome. I almost skipped the story and just went on with the game.

What I enjoyed was how the game employed the StreetPass functionality of the 3DS. One can recruit friends and invite Net guests to help you rebuild Norende and get extra gear for your adventure. Also binding Friend Summons was fun as you could grow stronger with their skills. However, playing this game post-3DS generation, I had to make do with players who have abandoned their characters and AI bots to give me a partial experience. It was workable and I finally understood why they couldn’t port this game directly to the Nintendo Switch. In a way, it reminded me of the Free-to-Play/Pay-to-Win games on mobile without much of the Pay-to-Win aspect. The whole game is already there to enjoy.

That Window Where It Got Fun

Around halfway through the third chapter, I found a decent grinding spot where I could grind for Job Points and turn up a decent party synergy given the jobs I already have. I could create a Thief-Salve Maker that could maximize the Knife Special. Or later on create a Ninja-Arcanist where the poison rods can almost instantly poison every other enemy, which one can finish with a well-timed Exterminate. Plus that is when Edea’s journey is beginning to hit a turning point, so for once I actually paid attention to the story.

Even during the fourth chapter, I discovered cool combos with several jobs that one wouldn’t think to combine. At this point, grinding became less tedious, but more motivating that I found myself on level 70 without knowing it. In this 30 to 40-hour range, it fully showed me the game’s untapped potential and how Bravely Default II came into fruition. (However, I still wanted the Steal Magic combo that allows me max Magic Damage from Bravely Default II).

Groundhog Day from Hell

Without going into spoiler territory, we enter Chapters 5 and 6 and that’s where the game got just as frustrating as the first two chapters. The game drops its plot twist that’s surrounded with irredeemable plot holes and the game completely lost me. I questioned why we have to go through the basic quest three chapters back and just blindly accept that the antagonists are unbelievably villainous. While this plotline would probably work in the early days of JRPGs where we haven’t been exposed to too many over convoluted twists (I’m looking at you, Nomura!), it felt that it went on far too long by Chapter Six.  While at this point, there’s really no other choice but to power through until you’re done so you could fight the super bosses, there’s hardly anything to motivate you to finish the game. What ruins the game more is the repetitive fighting of the same bosses and fulfilling the same quests to fully make it clear for the player who didn’t understand the story to begin with. I’ve already sat through the Final Fantasy XV long con. At the very least give us some cool stealable equipment or shiny item drops because I was a lot more motivated with Noctis’ quest at the point in the narrative than with this party’s tedious odyssey.

Besides the basic story and the unmotivated quest line, I stopped when I had to restart the damn crystals the nth time. It went past the fooled me twice rule to believe that the characters are that naïve to see past their daftness and about 40 to 50 hours in, none of the characters were likeable enough to get behind. Better JRPGs have been created before this game to pass the time, and I’ve seen everything I needed to see without seeing whatever surprise they had concocted in the end. I really wonder how people could stomach it for far too long.

Rethinking Bravely Default II

Then I returned to Bravely Default II, the demo won me over with an addictive job system and a really fleshed out combo system. With enough side quests to get behind, I feel that it would be worth your time as an avid JRPG fan. Maybe it will engage you for the first 10-20 hours at least if it continues to be as such. However, I feel that it has to step up its story 30 hours in and hopefully take it home around the 40-hour mark so we can get to the endgame content as fast as possible.

With what was presented in the demo, the story didn’t capture me, and it still follows the basic “let’s collect the crystals to save the world” trope from the first game and looking back to the game I’ve abandoned, the payoff might be ground-breaking, but the long con doesn’t really motivate you to continue the journey.

Will I get the game when it comes out? Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know really. At least for now, my belief has been reinforced that gameplay is ultimately just part of the whole and for more discerning gamers, a whole and well rounded experience is what should matter.

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