Bravely Second: End Layer is available on Nintendo 3DS.
The 3DS is in its sunset years now, regardless of how Nintendo is trying to spin its upcoming lineup (…I say, having purchased the system’s port of Luigi’s Mansion not a day ago as of writing this sentence). One of the main benefits of this is that we can start properly talking about the 3DS in hindsight, having a functionally-complete view of its seven-year life cycle.
And it’s hard to contest that its library is bursting with choice picks. In particular, this thing was an absolute powerhouse for handheld JRPGs, from personal darling Pokémon to Atlus’ dungeon-crawling outings with Etrian Odyssey and Persona Q to mega-popular standbys like Dragon Quest and Shin Megami Tensei and delightful one-offs like Fantasy Life, Crimson Shroud, and the quirky little Miitopia. And that list explodes to at least double the length if you factor in the system’s native backward compatibility.
I’m going on and on here so as to underscore the weight of it when I say that the Bravely series just might constitute my very favorite RPGs available on the system.
There’s a lot to be said for their strong sense of direction, both aesthetically and mechanically. Both games play to the system’s strengths to make their art and sound stand out as a vivid painting of the story’s setting, settling on a style well-balanced between a cutesy rounded look and the nostalgic, painterly imagery seen elsewhere in the Final Fantasy series, specifically in fellow spinoff Final Fantasy Tactics.
Sidebar: Bravely Default and Bravely Second are absolutely spinoffs of the Final Fantasy series, whether they’re branded as such or not. They even re-use iconic class/job imagery, the ol’ four-crystal-questeroo, and they even directly lift names like Bahamut, Steiner, and the Onion Knight. All it needs is Moogles and a Cid.
In being a tenuous spin-off, Square’s developers apparently felt more comfortable experimenting with the user experience in these games, and it’s paid off in such a resounding way that I desperately wish that they would fold certain elements back into their mainline titles.
The demo is a great example that I’ve talked about at length already, and one that seems to be reflected in Final Fantasy XV’s self-contained “Episode Duscae” demo. Score!
Another is its in-game configuration menu, specifically the two features tucked away at the back and unlocked last: a gauge to control the rate of random encounters (something often obscured enough to neuter its usefulness in other role-playing games), and an option to switch difficulties at any time outside of battle (increasingly common, but not ubiquitous). The former gets even more useful when compounded by the granular control that you have over the party’s “auto-battle” tactics, making the grinding entirely trivial (and generally unnecessary unless you really want to unlock every possible skill in the game). The game is only as hard as you allow it to be, which seems perfectly fitting for a single-player endeavor.
And the game is seemingly unafraid to utterly bury you in options for possible party builds and accompanying tactics, something that seems rarely true of headline blockbuster releases, be it for a want to double down on core mechanics or some fear of overwhelming and alienating certain types of players. With thirty different classes, each with unique passive skills and abilities that can be utilized by the others as sub-classes, for each of the party’s four characters, there’s an effectively-bottomless well of possibilities here.
But it never really feels like too much at any point in Bravely Second, owed to its fantastic pacing.
Generally, when a game has a lot of features and mechanics that might change the flow of play, the campaign will find ways to work them in as quickly as possible. And rightly so; if there’s a tool for sneaking through ceiling ducts, those ceiling ducts not only dead weight, but an actively distracting feature of the environment for every moment of the game until they’re actually usable. Contrarily, the sooner that the game’s full range of features are on the table, the sooner that the game can present the full possible breadth of challenges, incorporate inspired combinations of different mechanics, or even allow for cheeky alternate solutions. More tools, more quickly, makes for more potential kinds of play.
And that’s all fine and dandy, except for the fact that – aside from some very select and mostly-optional cases – the enemies in Bravely Second are tool-agnostic from the get-go, which circumvents that feature curve almost entirely. So long as you aren’t doing something totally tone-deaf like sending in a team without any magic-users, almost every boss is designed for its “solution” to be broad enough that any competent party configuration has some serviceable strategy to subdue them, and while the lower-level enemies have their own unique characteristics and gotchas, nothing prevents them from being bowled over by any party combination in the game. In this way, the same range of design opportunities potentially exist near the end of act one as you might see on approach to the finale.
(This strength can also be said word-for-word about Final Fantasy V, and it’s a huge part of why the annual Four Job Fiesta is so successful. Yet another great inheritance from its parent series.)
This in turn means that Bravely Second can take its sweet time in drip-feeding new jobs (the local lingo for character classes) to flesh out its core draw – and it does, all the way from about an hour into the story up until one that’s only available once you’re at the doorstep of the game’s very final dungeon. With a long-tailed stream of options constantly coming in, you’re encouraged to never stop tinkering with your party, and so you’re perpetually in that “discovery” phase of play that’s oh-so-satisfying for oh-so-many of us.
In most single-player games in particular, it’s fairly easy to figure out a winning tactic fairly early on and stick with it, occasionally to the ignorance of the fun toys that get doled later down the line. Figure out the right four-hit attack combo in a Warriors title, for example, and chances are that it’ll carry you through the rest of the game. The first few suit upgrades you can get in Insomniac’s recent Spider-Man are widely considered to be the most useful of the whole lot. And even for old and time-tested board games, some of the most reliable opening plays are also among the most fundamentally-grounded and therefore the first that a layer will likely learn.
This isn’t a bad thing by any means – most games have a core flow to them that feels very satisfying from end to end, so naturally players will key in on something that’s satisfying on a basic level. But while Bravely’s combat is still derived from the same four party roles that have been around almost as long as RPGs themselves (attacker, tank, healer, support), it’s constantly working in slightly new ways to approach these roles. You’re rarely undergoing a total shift in your party build by trying out a new job –the Fencer and Hawkeye classes are different takes on the same niche, for example – but new ones are coming so regularly with such unique one-off skills that it feels like you’re missing out by not making an effort to fold in the newcomers and find a new winning combination.
As noted, these new jobs come in the brisk pace of about one an hour for most of the game, depending on how quickly you play. And the new and unfamiliar jobs are really the only ones you’ll encounter on the critical path, which pushes you to rethink your approach to the usual Warrior-Thief-WhiteMage-BlackMage composition and try off-the-wall options like the Charioteer (who can triple-wield weapons like some sorta samurai-pirate) or a new personal favorite, the Catmancer (much like those “blue mage” types who absorb enemy skills, but fueled by tasty fish and with their own set of tricky abilities).
If you want to use any of the jobs seen in the previous entry – which are predominantly more well-trodden class builds that you’re probably familiar with already – you’ll have to go off to do sidequests. And even then, Bravely Second is setting you up for interesting trade-offs in your party by making you choose between one of two possible jobs at the quest’s end, leaving the other behind – at least for the moment.
(It’s worth noting that when replaying these job-giving sidequests, they by and large let you skip the busy work and jump right to the critical point, which is a huge boon when half a dozen of them open up at once late in the game.)
There are just so many different building blocks that the game dumps on your lap, all varied enough to merit exploration, but none so alien or introduced so rapidly as to put you off of at least trying them. It’s more like a constant feed of new and intriguing approaches the same content – even up to the final boss, which throws in a new twist on the mechanics at the eleventh hour. But even that is still approachable with just about any party you bring in to face it, letting the player handle a last-minute mix-up with a playstyle that they’ve surely been restructuring, honing, and experimenting with from the opening chapter all the way up to the last moment.
I don’t think I’ve seen a game this measured in how it drip-feeds new mechanics to the player in quite some time – nor one built around tempering its slow scope creep so well. It’s not something that would work for every game, I’d imagine, but for a little gem of a JRPG like this, it’s a snug fit that always feels in-step with the player’s wants.