Like a lot of people, I grew up on the Final Fantasy series. They were the first RPGs I was exposed to and they had a profound effect upon my tastes as a gamer. But, also like a lot of people, I’ve really felt the series to be waning in recent years and have been craving a new Final Fantasy game that could compare to the series’ older entries. Well we’re not going to get that it seems as the Final Fantasy team is simply too enamored with Lightning to go back; but Square-Enix as a whole remembers the good times and has had one of its smaller teams create Bravely Default, a Final Fantasy game in literally everything but name. Published here in North America by Nintendo, this just might be the JRPG to save the genre, save some annoying traits it’s picked up from the world of modern gaming.
When I say this is another Final Fantasy game, I really mean it, just take a look at the plot. A group of four young warriors destined to meet set out on a quest to bring light back to four elemental crystals which basically keep the world from imploding in upon itself. In doing so they must face off with and avoid a large tech savvy empire who is intent upon stopping them for reasons, evil reasons. Also one of the members of your team used to belong to this empire but was actually totally a good person and in joining you has realized how misguided the empire is, which proves your struggle is not a clash of ideals but rather a true battle of Good (read: you) vs. Evil (read: them). The plot is pretty just much Final Fantasy 5 & 6 smashed together with some other elements from the series at large thrown in. This mish-mash of plot elements isn’t necessarily a bad thing though and if you’re a big Final Fantasy fan then it’s a tale that will feel comfortably familiar to you, though not very original. That said I did only manage to get half way through the game as I went after a number of the (surprisingly engaging) side quests so maybe it becomes something entirely different by the end, but I doubt it.
While Bravely Default is certainly treading familiar ground, it is at least doing it well with some decent writing and fairly interesting characters. Your core suite of warriors, Tiz, Agnés, Ringabel, and Edea, all fit into very classic JRPG archetypes but they have enough quirks to keep your attention. Tiz is your standard protagonist and neutral mask, he’s driven yet slightly naive, has suffered a recent disaster that frees him of all ties, and is utterly forgettable; he’s there basically just to give the player a way to put themselves into the story. Agnés is your world saving priestess character, it’s her job to relight these crystals and you’re just along for the ride; that said a sheltered life and her massive responsibilities have made her somewhat uptight and prone to self-sacrifice, watching her open up over time to Tiz, who only wants to help her, feels endearing and natural. Ringabel is the JRPG staple amnesiac who oddly also acts as the game’s prophet thanks to a magic book he possesses that has the future written in it; interestingly enough he’s also the party playboy and as such treats his amnesia with a carefree attitude, it’s an interesting take on both archetypes with the lack of knowledge and lack of worries complementing each other well. Lastly you have Edea, daughter of a general in the aforementioned evil empire, who acts as the party’s moral compass as well as a source of humor by dealing with Ringabel’s constant pitching of woo; she’s very outspoken and brash which acts as nice counterpoint the Agnés more maudlin attitude and she gives most conversations a nice bit of punch.
Gameplay-wise this is pretty much your standard Final Fantasy fare, classic turn based combat paired up with the all too familiar job system which features a number of classes we’ve all come to know and love; there is one big innovation though and that is the Brave/Default system. Basically what the B/D system does is allow you alter the pace of battle by choosing to take up to four actions at once. Braving lets you take an extra action that turn in exchange for not getting to take one the next turn while Defaulting allows you to stock up actions while also acting as the game’s guard command. Smartly choosing when to Brave and when to Default allows you to effectively control the flow of an encounter. It provides a nice bit of strategy and allows you to do things like unleash a barrage of attacks to devastate the enemies of a random encounter or turn around a boss fight by using a number of revives and heals at once to bring your team back to fighting fit mid-combat. It’s a very simple but flexible system and combined with the job system it allows you to set up some really intricate combos that feel good to let loose upon your enemies.
The Brave/Default system isn’t the only innovation Bravely Default brings to the JRPG genre, it also has some F2P and asynchronous multi-player elements though for the most part they feel out-of-place. Starting with the F2P elements, the part that works is the idea of having a town that you slowly build up over time. All you’re doing is assigning villagers to construct various things, with more villagers allocated meaning stuff gets built faster, but the things they’re building award you with new special abilities or items to buy so the mechanic basically just acts as nice visual representation of your progression path. On the less favorable side of the F2P coin though you have this game’s attempt at micro-transactions, which end up being minor and pointless but still feel kind of shady. The way it works is that at any point during combat you can stop time with a “Bravely Second” at the cost of one SP, which will allow you to perform a single action with a single character, even during your enemy’s turn. SP is fairly limited though as you can only have a max of three SP at any time and to earn more you’ll need to put your 3DS in sleep mode for eight hours to earn a single point of it, that is unless you’re willing to crack open your wallet. You see at any point you can tap the small omnipresent “S” button and buy an SP drink for a buck which will bring your SP back up to full. It’s a small price to pay for sure but it feels completely unnecessary and just acts as a tax on the lazy, if it was a mechanic in an actual F2P game then I wouldn’t have a problem with it but in a full retail product it feels a little sleazy. Honestly though I never found the Bravely Second mechanic to be all that useful anyways because if you’re playing strategically and doing all the side quests then you shouldn’t ever be in such dire need of a single extra action, so at the very least you can ignore this mechanic entirely without ruining your experience.
As I said the game also brings in some asynchronous multi-player elements which are generally useful but I don’t think belong in a story heavy RPG such as Bravely Default. The two things you can do with other players are associate them with your party members (which will let you use their abilities) and summon them in battle to do an attack for you. The latter mechanic is actually pretty interesting as you’re also sending attacks out which are then shared via streetpass; running into someone with a powerful character can oftentimes grant you a disposable one time attack powerful enough to fell bosses and sending out your own powerful attacks in return has a nice good Samaritan vibe to it. Here’s the thing though, having all this contact with other players ruins the immersion of the game somewhat. While you obviously know deep down that any game you play is also being played by millions of other people, with a game that’s focused on story you attach yourself to the characters and their adventures start to feel personal and one of a kind. That feeling is lessened though when you’re constantly being reminded in-game of the fact that other people are also playing the game and experiencing that same story, it’s trading a sense of immersion for a sense of community. It’s not such a big deal in a game like Dark Souls because the story is less up front and the other payers are contextualized in the game’s narrative to a point but that’s not the case here in Bravely Default and I think the game feels poorer for it.
Moving onto the presentation, there isn’t really too much to say as overall the game looks and sounds very similar to the DS remakes of FF3 & 4. It has that same character design where everyone has big heads and shorter limbs and the overall visual sensibilities are very much the same, a similar colour palette, similar enemy designs, and similar spell effects. The one thing it does differently is the big drawn environments it uses for towns and other special locations, it’s very painterly and gives the game an appropriate story book feel. I sadly don’t really have much to say about the sound design here except that the voice acting is well done. The characters emote well and their voices all fit their personalities, no horrible squeaky anime girls here, that’s for sure.
Overall I did really enjoy Bravely Default and it was certainly a return to form for Square-Enix when it comes to JRPGs but that said it was maybe a little too focused on nostalgia. It didn’t really do anything mind-blowing when it came to the story and while I certainly liked the innovation of the Brave/Default system, the game’s other attempts at gameplay innovation didn’t quite resonate with me. If you’re looking for a good old-fashioned JRPG then you won’t go wrong picking this one up and my nitpicking aside, it’s a fantastic game that evokes some really classic games in a really good way, as such I’m giving Bravely Default a 4 out of 5 stars.