Shelved It #12 – Bravely Default II

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Also Available On: Windows

I hate when games waste the player’s time. JRPGs are notorious for it, but there’s ways to make the grind typical of the genre rewarding – either through good side content or fun combat. Bravely Default 2 never got to that point and was so actively trying to make the game not fun that I gave up at about the 8 hour mark. Even for a series known for grinding, this one was pretty egregious.

The core of BD2‘s combat is around saving and using turns in the future to defend through incoming damage then pop a bunch of attacks or heals at one time when things open up for you. In general, this works pretty great. During general trash fights, you find the weaknesses for the various enemies then do what you can to try and hammer through it in one turn. It’s a fun way to give some strategy to trash fights beyond just running in and hammering attack to win. Where this falls apart is in the way they structured boss fights.

One of the core defensive measures that the AI have is counters. For example, they may counter physical attacks giving them a chance to counterattack if you hit them with a weapon. The boss fights take this to a level that felt actively punishing. For example, the boss that had me shelving this game did the following:

  • Weakness to ground-based attacks, which are physical on the Vanguard class, but with a counter on physical attacks that deals AOE damage
  • Single-target physical counter on singing abilities, despite the fact that I had literally just earned the Bard class so from a natural player standpoint would therefore be exploring its use in my party
  • Counter on healing, despite the fact that the previous two counters
  • AOE silence, which becomes super obnoxious when the counters have you tending towards just using magic

The strategy that ended up being the most practical was to just use stacked poison magic and get the boss to die to DOT damage. It’s slow and boring and your party is for the most part idle and tossing items, but you aren’t taking a ton of unnecessary damage.

It’s this kind of setup that just feels unnecessarily punishing to the player. The game spends the entire time encouraging exploration and use of weaknesses to kill enemies quick and effectively, then spends its time on bosses countering the weaknesses so you have to find some random bullshit mechanic to actually take out the boss. Your other choice when you hit these bosses if you simply have the wrong party setup is to instead backup and grind new classes to find the right combination. It’s a bit of a typical problem of wide-ranging class-focused JRPGs, but the design choices of BD2 exacerbate this. It’s especially negative when they are directly countering the things you just earned so you’re forever discouraged from really trying new toys. The entire process feels like it’s wasting your time leading up to these fights, because you could very well have just been focusing on the wrong thing without knowing that you’re screwing yourself over.

It feels like it should be a small thing to just get through the boss fights and move on, but it’s one of those things that will endlessly frustrate me in games like this. I want my JRPG boss fights to be challenging me to the limit of my abilities, but I want that to be because the fight is legitimately hard with however I choose to play. I don’t want to play guess the mechanic and then have to grind to come around to the fight. Once I hit that point where I’m annoyed by the big moments, I’m out. There’s plenty of other games for me to play that will respect the time I put in to them in a better fashion.

The original Bravely games had similarly punishing grind issues, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Those had both a ton of grinding, as well as unnecessarily long plots where they liked to tell you to redo the entire game half way through. What they generally didn’t have were such punishing mechanics attached to the core boss fights. Sure their bosses were hard, but stragies around exploiting the fight’s weakness mechanics weren’t generally just hard countered, and hard countered for multiple things. Bravely Default II just goes so overboard with the counters that the bosses stopped being fun, and extremely quickly. It left my in a place where I just didn’t want to continue playing the game. It’s one thing in a JRPG if the trash is on the boring side, but once the centerpiece fights become something that I don’t want to do, it’s time to shelve a game – even moreso when I’m only 8 hours in.

Game Ramblings #147 – Tales of Arise

More Info from Bandai Namco

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, Windows

The Tales of series has always been one where the combat has always trumped any other problem I’ve had with the individual titles, and this one really isn’t that different. The stories of the various titles have always been fine to good but generally fall into pretty typical anime cliches, and this one isn’t really different. The presentation aspects have always been a bit behind the AAA curve and as much as this one is a huge step forward for the series, it’s still distinctly AA. Where this one again greatly succeeds is that combat is a lot of fun – and for probably the first time in the series for me, I’ve found a defensive style to actually be extremely fun while still being practical to play.

Games like Berseria started really pushing the game away from the mana-heavy skill usage of prior Tales games, and this one definitely kept that going. Where it kind of differentiates from that title is that basic attacks are split into their own chain separate from Artes. Functionally though, it’s very similar to Berseria. You attack, you try to break the enemy’s defense, and if you can break them you get a big attack and go AOE ham on the field. From an attack perspective, it still has a great flow in terms of chaining attacks with your team to keep the enemy in a hit chain and increase the chance of stunning them. In general I was able to quickly fall into a nice rhythm to where I could get in my attacks while keeping an eye out for the enemy’s incoming volley, then get out of the way as it came through.

Where this game really separates itself from the past is that it finally feels like 3D navigation is here to stay. General in-combat movement is more typical of recent action RPGs, with left stick being independent movement and right stick being the camera. It’s a small change, but it makes the game flow less like the generally fixed in/out movement of even 3D Tales games. This one also felt like it really had the biggest mindset towards defensive maneuverability in the series to me. Past titles had side stepping and that sort of thing, but the feel of it is much more natural to me. A heavy focus on dodging became part of my default toolset, rather than being an oh shit button that I used on big fights. Avoiding incoming damage and not relying on healing was a big difference for me, and it really encouraged active participation in the fights, rather than simply being a button spam with little damage mitigation.

Healing in general also went through some big changes here. Where Berseria encouraged character swapping to let characters heal out-of-combat, this one is kind of a more typical experience. You’ve got characters that are fairly traditional healer mage types. However, healing is tied to a single resource pool for the entire party. Having two healers has choice benefits, but it doesn’t have resource benefits. What it ended up doing was allowing me to bring in a dual-healer approach on bosses while using a more damage-focused party for regular combat, without really being able to cheese the game with a double mana pool for healing.

It’s an interesting change that had some ramifications on overall item and resource balance. Your typical orange+ potions that refilled MP in past games are now tied to that new resource, and given the stack limits (still 15 like past Tales titles…), double healers can burn through the resources incredibly fast. This ties all back into the damage mitigation, where reducing the need for your healers to actually use the resource becomes incredibly important.

Unfortunately, some of the negative parts of combat have been carried over as well. Put simply, the AI are incredibly stupid. They will not reliably dodge incoming attacks, even if there’s a giant obvious laser line tell going right at them. The healers will not first get away from the enemies to start the healing, even if it’s clear that they are in danger range. They do not have good target prioritization, and the tools to manage AI decision making don’t really do a good job of exposing this functionality to the player. It ends up in a situation where combat works great against single targets, then falls into chaos as more targets enter the fray. Luckily, bosses are largely party vs 1 affairs, so it’s generally not a big issue.

Some of the power curve decisions are also interesting, but I’m not sure I particularly liked them. There’s typical weapon/armor/accessory slotting, but there’s also now skill points tied into title trees. As you earn titles for doing things (ex: finishing specific character-focused side quests, doing specific activities, etc) you’ll earn the series typical titles. However, they’re now tied to four additional skills that can be purchased with SP. Earning all skills for a title will then unlock a larger passive stat boost that sums to the character.

Compared to the mastery stats on gear that Berseria used, this felt oddly boring to me. It’s an effective system, but it didn’t really encourage me to do anything. I kind of found the most useful next stat, then bought the skills for it as I could. The titles are kind of naturally gained by just playing the game normally, and you really don’t have to go that out of the way to get them all. The mastery stats in Berseria, despite being similar in practice, felt a lot more influenced by player completion than this. In that system I was still effectively building SP to get a skill but I was only getting one per piece of gear, so I was spending more time focused on making sure that I had backup gear ready when I left towns, and spent more time trying to make sure I wasn’t missing any chests that might have more gear. It’s a subtle change, but the title skills just got rid of a small stress factor that I feel really let the system down in Arise.

Overall though, this was a fantastically fun game to play. I could sit here and nitpick the story and make notes about how it was pretty cliche, but frankly I don’t play these games expecting a great story. I jump into them because I want JRPG math combined with an action-focused combat system and I got a heavy dose of that. 50 hours later, I was still enjoying jumping into battles, and if that’s the only thing I have to say coming out of a game, that’s a pretty good indication that they did it right.

Game Ramblings #139 – Blue Dragon

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Xbox 360

Blue Dragon is an interesting one. It was Mistwalker’s big debut game, bringing all the hype of having a bunch of high level ex-Square folks on it. It was coming to a weird platform for the genre, but with a bunch of marketing behind it courtesy of Microsoft. It was also a distinctly classic JRPG, going with a straight turn-based approach at a time when Final Fantasy XII was moving the genre in a different direction. At the time of release I had gotten through a decent chunk of it, but kind of fell away and I wanted to re-up my memory of it in order to jump into the DS sequels. Given its age, it still plays remarkably well, though it’s not without its problems.

Being quite honest, both it aging well AND it having problems comes down to its combat. This is a classic job-class system paired with a classic turn-based combat system, so there’s not much of a barrier to entry here. Your job determines your skills, your turn order determines the strategy in terms of what you kill first, etc. Where this really works well is in the small wrinkles they brought to each system.

On the job class side, you have a typical JRPG character level AND a job rank. This had been seen before, but it was implemented well here. The rank determines what skills are available to you, for example later job ranks of the black mage class allow you to use level 1, 2, 3, etc black magic spells. However, the nice wrinkle here is that you can equip skills you’ve earned while playing a different class.

Where this worked well for me was in mix and matching my melee and ranged characters. On the melee front, I focused on a specific class for each, but also made sure they had trained to at least level 11 in monk and swordsmen. This granted them the capability to do charged attacks as well as absorb HP on melee attacks. For my two ranged, I again had a focus on white/black mage, but I also let them play some time in the opposing class, as well as mixing in some early levels of other classes to give a bit of variety in terms of my skill layout. This variety allowed me to do a really fine-tuned class structure for how I wanted to approach combat, rather than being restricted to one specific thing at a time. This definitely felt better than a lot of earlier approaches to job systems where I often felt locked into specific roles because of their importance to the overall combat structure.

The turn order system within combat was also something I ended up enjoying a lot, especially as I tuned my party setup a bit. At its basic level, turn order seems static. However, as you start gaining charge attacks – both the melee charge I was doing through the monk class, as well as magic attacks – you start gaining a lot of ability to mess with the turn order. The tl;dr here is that the longer you charge an attack, the stronger the attack is, but at the cost of the attack firing later in the turn order as well as it having a longer recovery. However, the charges each have a red zone where you gain reduced cost and increased recovery if you nail the timing just right.

Being able to hit those timed zones, as well as the ability to manipulate where in the turn order you’re attacking becomes incredibly powerful, as well as a nice thing to break up the typical monotony of turn-based JRPGs. If you’re in a large trash fight, you can mess with the turn order a bit to try and line up a bunch of damage to take out targets before they can go. Against bosses, you can decide to reduce your charge a bit or defend with the mages to make sure that you have a white mage lined up immediately. This kind of variety is really key to me about why this game has aged so well. Every fight can be its own little mini strategy session to maximize how well you come out of it. You can go through trash fights with goals of reducing damage you take, rather than just going through the motions of killing things for XP. On boss fights, you add layers of strategy that act as little mini sessions between boss turns to try and keep your party safe enough to get by. It all just works really well.

What didn’t really work well is the same sin that way too many JRPGs suffer from – the end boss run is a slog. So many JRPGs fall into a trap where they have pretty decent power curves that keep users at a relatively stable difficulty level throughout the game, then at the end of the game you get thrown in a multi-phase marathon of bosses that kind of forces you to either have the perfect party or be overpowered, and this game isn’t an exception.

The specific problem I had with the end boss in this one is that it suddenly shifted into a setup where the boss was running significant MP drain. It’s not that I dislike the mechanic, but it hadn’t really shown up much to this point so I wasn’t overly prepared to counter it. The MP heal items are next to useless at the level of MP in play at this point in the game, so the real answer is to use the black mage extraction spells. This worked great on my black mage, but didn’t work so well on my white/support mage who I hadn’t trained up to this point. A white mage without the ability to heal is kind of bad news. Ultimately I was able to get pretty far in the fight, but ran out of mana and hit the point where I wasn’t able to keep healing enough while also balancing MP extraction/MP items and wiped. In general this has a pretty easy answer – go back and grind a bit to get the class levels necessary to have the extraction. However, at that point I’d also be gaining standard levels, and more than likely instead of grinding the job class up, I’d be grinding my entire party up enough to likely overpower the boss fight just in general. This also came after over an hour of OTHER boss fights and cutscenes that I frankly didn’t have problems with and didn’t want to roll through again.

This kind of rapid escalation at the end of the game has always felt cheap to me. It feels like it’s there just to squeeze out a few more hours of game time. Ultimately it’s just a punishment and massive interruption to the player at a point where they should be hitting the peak of the story. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth putting a game back on the shelf when it ends this way instead of remembering what had been good for the countless hours beforehand. More often than not, JRPGs I flag as my favorites of all time end with smooth difficulty and appropriate challenge instead of rapid escalation and a time extending ass kicking. It’s kind of funny playing this one now though, because one of the final bosses in Mistwalker’s latest title Fantasian had similar problems, where it was extremely difficult the first time I played it, but trivialized by equipping posion nullification equipment. Unfortunately Blue Dragon landed on the wrong side for me where it was ultimately a flip of the dice that my party was just built in a different direction that didn’t work out for the last fight.

Ultimately though, this was a fun game to play through and it got me to my goal of remembering the story well enough to move forward with the sequels. A lot of JRPGs generally haven’t aged that well (I’m looking at you PS1 Final Fantasy games), so finding one that still has far more good than bad to it is always a nice surprise. It’s also nice that this one has aged far better than my last 360 look back, so not all hope is lost for digging into my backlog a bit. This one is still floating around the Microsoft store on backwards compatibility for both the Xbox One and Xbox Series* so if JRPGs are your thing, go ahead and take a peak at what’s there.