An old man dies in the prologue to Bravely Default 2. This is not a spoiler because it’s obvious. He’s a strong, loyal, and kind old man who used to be a strong, loyal, and kind young man. This is how the story goes. The player is meant to be sad when he expires, but we all knew he was going to die, didn’t we? The old man passes without irony, dramatic or otherwise — no tragic march towards oblivion while dreaming of a better future. He spoke like he knew it was his time. He passed on the wisdom he had to a special boy he just met because he, too, was once a special boy. I bet he watched an old man die in his day, too.
This is all to say that I don’t know what I should feel when he explodes in a fireball after an awkward fight with a demon-sword wielding villain who instantly overpowers the party. The strange nostalgic warmth of a familiar corpse?
Bravely Default 2 represents something deeply broken in the way we talk about history. In North America, the SquareSoft style of RPG dominated cultural imagination around what JRPGs were and could be. Over time, their idiosyncrasies came to define what a “Classic” JRPG was. This vision became singular and totalizing (at least in the mainstream). It flattens the breadth and depth of a genre which has always been a strange and many-mouthed thing. Bravely Default 2 does not intentionally try to flatten the history of its genre down into this undifferentiated plane, but its particular brand of nostalgia leans into it just the same.
The game suggests that genre is about ticking off boxes. The hero, named Seth by default, is a fish out of water who fits at ease with his companions. Though his class position and sense of justice often put him at odds with other characters in the narrative. There is an ever-competent and just-hearted princess. The spells are called “Fire,” “Fira,” and “Firaga.” There are jobs. There are four main characters. You have to grind (a lot). And all of this in service of… what?
Art and especially genre are the products of material and social conditions. The original SquareSoft RPGs, like Final Fantasy, were the way they were not only because they followed a certain set of design principles, but because they were in conversation with their contemporary works and the technology that made them. There were a handful of in-game jobs because there could only be a handful of jobs. The characters and narrative could only contain so much complexity not only because of ideas around what games should be, but also the realities of budget and technical limitations. Bravely Default 2 doesn’t really reckon with this.
None of it feels right or coherent. Take the aforementioned job system for example. Early SquareSoft RPGs gave you time to become familiar with their various playable classes before introducing new ones. In part that was because players didn’t already have a clear idea of what they were. The slow trickle of early jobs was designed to encourage learning in service of a more complex late game experience. This design decision makes sense. But it isn’t 1987 anymore.
When I started Bravely Default 2 I had a toolkit that the players of 1987 didn’t. I started the game with a familiarity that not only allows for, but demands, added complexity. You can easily compare Bravely Default 2 to Etrian Odyssey, a series which is similarly in conversation with its own history. Etrian Odyssey Nexus, the latest entry in the Atlus franchise, starts you with every class unlocked. If you want to make a party with an Imperial, a Sovereign, a Hero, a Harbinger, and a War Magus, go for it! If you want to use any of the other 14 classes that I cannot take the time to list here, do so! Bravely Default 2 begins you with two of its 23 classes. Three Freelancers and a Black Mage. Your early game battles are about hitting the attack command the right number of times.
Even as you break into the early-to-midgame, Bravely Default‘s obsession with grinding gets in the way of what could be a fun system about combining Main and Sub-Jobs to create powerful character builds. By the latter half of Chapter 1 (about 10 hours in), I managed to get Gloria, Elvis, and Seth to Level 12 in Black Mage, White Mage, and Vanguard (a beefy sort of tank) respectively. Adelle hit levels 12 and 10 in Freelancer and Monk.
This disparity emerges from a passive ability Freelancers get which allows them to earn significantly more job specific experience. So, with 23 jobs total in the game, getting Freelancer to level 12 feels like a requirement instead of an option. It doesn’t help that your Sub-Job doesn’t get experience at all. So each Job has to be leveled individually to be of any use. It’s a nightmare.
This problem is emphasized by the complete lack of mechanical distinction between the four main characters. Each of whom have access to all the same jobs and the abilities. Adelle’s Black Mage is no different from Seth’s, with the exception of some minor stat variation. So the only depth comes from mixing and matching these jobs to build your team. Variety only comes from switching up your character’s jobs, which means sending them back to square one every few hours.
It’s just tiring… It’s grinding for the sake of grinding without any of the tactical depth or challenge of Etrian Odyssey, nor the moment-to-moment charm of a Dragon Quest. Sure, you can let your Switch idle for up to 12 hours and passively gain resources — including XP and “Job Point Orbs” — but that’s a quick fix to a fundamental problem.
All of this is made even more frustrating by the fact that the jobs seem, on the whole, well-designed! The rhythm of the Monk, which uses powerful attacks that eat their own HP before healing and buffing their critical hit chance, feels really good! Add in an ability that restores MP and buffs your Crit Chance again, and the Monk falls into a really satisfying rhythm of racking up powerful attacks at the cost of their health which they’re always replenishing.
The issue is that they don’t have anything interesting to do before that point. The early game jobs — and the early levels of every job — just don’t have the cool combos to take advantage of the game’s titular “Brave” and “Default” system for attacking and defending.
To make art that emerges from a tradition of other cool art, you actually need to understand what made the original work. To understand the history of art, you can’t just list traits associated with a particular era. I can tell you all day long about how Gothic fiction has ghosts and a handful of thematic concerns across the genre; that doesn’t tell you anything about why Edgar Allen Poe was a good writer. I can list a bunch of things that old white people said in a shitty bar in 1774 or whatever, but that doesn’t give you any information about the world they emerged from or that their actions helped shape. This vision of the past is myopic to the point of being actively detrimental to how we understand our own selves.
I want Bravely Default 2 to challenge and play with this idea of its genre, I want it to reimagine the SquareSoft JRPG towards something new. I want it to have ambition. It doesn’t, really. Bravely Default 2 thinks the past it imagines is enough.