Game Review: Bravely Default

Here’s a game that came out really late last year in Europe and Australia but only just hit the United States last month. It’s a pretty damn long one and I only recently finished it.

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Platform:
3DS
Developer: Silicon Studio/Square Enix

Rating: M
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Terrible name, lovely game.

Pretty bad name, lovely game.

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The new default.

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From now on, whenever a game developer attempts to craft a JRPG in the mould of classic 1980s and ’90s Final Fantasy titles, they need not look at the classics themselves. Rather, they now owe it to themselves to look at the 3DS exclusive Bravely Default. Not only does this Square Enix-published homage succeed in recapturing the magic of the epic turn-based fantasy tales of old, but it drags their spirit firmly into the current generation. It is a delectable treat for nostalgic FF fans, boasting an addictive set of job mechanics without forgetting about the importance of memorable characters and a grand story. It isn’t perfect – not by a long shot – but it is a wonderful game.

THE SET-UP

Bravely Default (full name Bravely Default: Where the Fairy Flies) tells a story that couldn’t have screamed “old-school Final Fantasy tribute” any louder if it tried, at least on the surface (and I really should stress that last part). “Awaken the crystals”, it tells you. Random battle encounters are a big feature. There are also Mage Mashers and Masamunes and airships and “-aga”s and melodramatic lines of dialogue. It will take you a long time to finish. It’s a turn-based Japanese Role Playing Game designed for people missing the glorious days of old, when hearing that description meant quality rather than bemused eye-rolling. If all this sounds good to you, read on.

Four heroes, four crystals, and a ton of fun.

Four heroes, four crystals and a ton of fun.

WHAT YOU DO

Like any JRPG, Bravely Default lives and dies by its battle system, which on the surface looks exactly like that of the pre-Active Time Battle Final Fantasy titles – that is to say you and your enemy take turns to attack based on some sort of Speed statistic. There’s a pretty significant twist this time, however, as battle turns become a tangible resource in the form of “BP”. Each BP you have stored up is an extra “turn” that you are able to squeeze into one traditional round of actions. Using the “Default” action in battle will buff your defense for that turn while you essentially do nothing, saving your turn up for future use, while using the “Brave” command will use up to four turns in one hit, allowing for some crafty combination strategies. The addition of an entirely new resource puts a refreshing spin on the standard JRPG fare, as not only do boss battles and normal mook encounters feel like entirely different beasts but several of the game’s jobs take on extra creative realisation with their unique ability to manipulate BP.

Balancing risk and reward is key.

Balancing risk and reward is key in battle.

That’s right, jobs. You know them from the likes of Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics, and they are back in a big way. 24 jobs are available for you to unlock throughout the course of Bravely Default, each with a different set of stat modifiers (that refreshingly don’t bleed into your actual leveling) as well as a unique set of learnable skills that can make a huge difference in battle and are transferable to other classes. The Ninja job, for example, learns the ability to wield two weapons unimpeded, which you can combine with the Ranger’s ability to drive up accuracy and the pure speed of the Thief to ensure you hit enemies a ridiculous number of times per physical attack. The White Mage is your standard healer that can also augment other types of magic, the Spell Fencer adds elements to attacks and the Merchant can buy off just about any enemy in the game. This is the most creative use of the job system I’ve seen since it was first invented all those years ago.

Jobs are back baby!

The classic Red Mage class takes on new BP-infused life in Bravely Default.

When you aren’t fighting enemies or tinkering with your job setups, the game will have you travelling from place to place by land, air or sea, negotiating very basic dungeon layouts to reach story plot points. Mostly these different sections are paced rather well, moving along at a decent enough pace, but occasionally the amount of backtracking you are forced to do between locations can get quite grating indeed. A lengthy section in the game’s middle third and especially a baffling bit of repetitive game design much later on are the most glaring examples of this. A lesser game might have been utterly ruined by such moments, but all the commendable parts that add up to make Bravely Default more than account for such pitfalls. Speaking of which…

WHAT YOU SEE

As a 3DS game, Bravely Default isn’t exactly able to compete with some of the prettiest JRPGs available on the PS Vita or home consoles. However, it makes a real impression on a visual design level. The game’s art style is gorgeous, at times even breathtaking. Every new city that your band of heroes reach is a sumptuous visual banquet, mostly because each static background has been hand-painted in watercolour and then divided into logical 3D chunks. Laying off the buttons for a few seconds while in a city will pull the camera perspective out so you can bask in the gorgeousness of it all. Caves and dungeons, while lacking the grandeur of major landmarks, are also made up of hand-crafted pieces that are very cleverly enhanced with the 3D effect. As a result the game feels right at home on Nintendo’s handheld.

Heavy themes abound.

Hand-painted backgrounds steal the show repeatedly.

When the style and mechanics of your game are engineered to draw comparisons with the early job-based Final Fantasy titles, a sweeping and/or complex story isn’t exactly a requirement, nor an expectation from the kinds of fans you will probably draw in. Yet primary developer Silicon Studio has gone ahead and surprised us all anyway with a narrative far deeper and more rewarding than those attached to most turn-based RPGs outside of the Persona series. If you are willing to immerse yourself in the world of Bravely Default through completing its sidequests (each of which will motivate you anyway through the promise of a new job) and reading the game’s lore, you will discover a story that gets deeper with every deceptive new layer you peel off. A pro-tip: You receive a mysterious journal early in the game – read through it. The entries within are an ingeniously integrated spin on the text dumps of many modern RPGs.

Incredibly, I actually enjoyed reading in this game.

Incredibly, I actually enjoyed reading in this game.

The story that Bravely Default tells is hardly light fare, which might come as a surprise to some given its super-deformed character art style and the console on which it makes its home. There’s an alarming body count here that would give Final Fantasy Tactics a run for its money, as well as plenty of heavy themes. Politics, religion, familial relationships and consumerism are among the topics the narrative dwells on in turn, all the while presenting its characters as occupying different shades of grey on the moral scale. Most of the villains of Bravely Default are unusually complex for a standard JRPG, with motivations that feel scarily relatable. It’s a meaty offering presenting plenty of food for thought. This is a JRPG, of course, so you can expect plenty of over-the-top craziness as well as some liberal passing around of the idiot ball as the plot demands, but overall Bravely Default has a rewarding story.

WHAT YOU HEAR

The vast majority of the dialogue in Bravely Default is fully voiced, a rather impressive feat for a lengthy 3DS game. There is a hell of a lot of text to wade through in story segments and side missions alike, so the general quality of most of the voice acting is more than a little welcome. I say most, because some of the supporting characters sound pretty ordinary if I’m being honest, but these are never around for too long. The principle cast VA is delivered with verve and the kind of bona fide commitment that is just believable enough to sell the script’s more melodramatic turns (Erin Fitzgerald, also known as Chie from Persona 4 Golden, deserves special mention here for her absolutely all-in portrayal of heroine Agnes). The performances also make you really care about the merry band of four at the adventure’s centre, especially the larger than life rage-a-holic/food addict Edea and the hilariously cocky (and seedy) Ringabel.

Major cast voice acting is top-notch.

Major cast voice acting is top-notch.

Then there’s the music, which is quite simply outstanding. While you won’t find quite the same audio variety here as you will in, say, Pokemon X & Y, the tracks that score your adventures in Bravely Default are snazzy. The standard battle theme would fit right in among the many memorable FF battle themes of old, the job boss battle theme is a speedy guitar-and-string-shredding highlight and just about every major city matches its visual polish with suitable audio splendour. Especially the Florem theme. What’s more, each character has his or her own personality-reflective music that plays when a special move is used, and every single one of these has obviously had some real thought put into it. Kotaku has a good article showcasing all four. I intend to get my hands on this game’s soundtrack, composed primarily by Revo of the crazy symphonic Japanese band Sound Horizon, as soon as I can.

WILL YOU GO BACK?

Like most JRPGs of its kind, Bravely Default is a long game. It took me precisely 71 hours to get through to the True Ending (the game has two different finales and I recommend you do them in the order they appear, unlike I did, for maximum effect). That time did include a whole heap of optional sidequests and several grinding sessions, though, so a much shorter completion time is definitely possible. I’ve heard estimates as low as 30 hours, but the average is probably closer to the 50 mark.

These sidequests are plenty rewarding, however. Acquiring many of the game’s jobs, through mystical items called “asterisks”, is achieved by chasing down optional objective markers on the world map. These lead to a host of sub-storylines that vary in intensity but add layers of depth to the overall narrative. I would even argue that these job-related sidequests are borderline essential to enjoying the story to its fullest. The game does present many more sidequests later on in proceedings, most of which offer no further reward than a steeper challenge and some exclusive cutscenes. I did around half of these and found them to be pretty entertaining, but they certainly won’t appeal to everyone.

Grinding is incredibly streamlined and convenient.

Grinding is incredibly streamlined and convenient.

Intelligently choosing which jobs to max out and when minimises the need to grind for levels in Bravely Default, but the game just makes grinding so much easier than it is in most similar titles that I had hit max level long before the final boss. Not only are you able to set battles to follow an automatic pattern of actions that you decide yourself, but you can also set the battle animations to up to 4x normal speed. Brilliantly, you are also able to set the intensity of random encounters on the map at any time, so if you want to dedicate time to grinding you can move a slider in the options menu up to 200% and go for broke. Or, if you really don’t feel like fighting anything and just want to push through some story stuff, you can turn encounters off altogether! What’s more, you can toggle text to auto-advance at any time and most cutscenes are entirely skippable. Finally, some smart context-sensitive allocation of the 3DS’ L button and D-pad means you can play the entirety of Bravely Default with one hand if you so desire. Silicon Studio just seems to get the essence of the portable RPG and have made everything so refreshingly convenient that grinding never feels like a chore.

Rebuilding an entire town is one of the coolest StreetPass features I've yet seen.

Rebuilding an entire town is one of the coolest StreetPass features I’ve yet seen.

One final thing that adds to the longevity of Bravely Default is its StreetPass functionality. I’ve seen some very cool uses of the 3DS-exclusive feature across other games and Bravely Default is right up there with the best of them. The game allows you to rebuild the hometown of one of the game’s protagonists in exchange for better and better rewards, a pursuit that runs concurrently alongside normal gameplay in real time. To rebuild town monuments you must allocate individual “villagers” to each task. The more villagers you allocate, the less real-life hours will need to pass before the task is completed. Every time you get a StreetPass hit from someone, another villager is added to your town, sometimes accompanied by a “Nemesis”, which is effectively an optional super-boss for you to fight. At the same time, players you StreetPass can be summoned in battle to perform one-time moves they themselves have set, and if you choose to “abilink” one of your characters with a tagged player, his or her already-obtained job levels will be transposed onto that character, minimising grinding even further.

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THE VERDICT

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Good:
Addictive and convenient mechanics, fantastic music, excellent use of 3DS features, rich multi-layered story
Bad:
Loooong stretches of dull backtracking
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4.5 VsI N C R E D I B L E

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