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It has been a very, very long wait for Bravely Default to finally reach North American shores. Almost a year and a half passed since the original game launched and while Square Enix and Silicon Studio have upgraded the game to its current "For the Sequel" version, it's been a cold and lonely wait. Perhaps pronounced by the dearth of RPGs that adhere to the sensibilities of old, a once proud and prosperous genre now in slumber.
Bravely Default promised an awakening, a return to form, a partnership between a Japanese indie studio and one of the largest and most storied RPG developers in the industry. After picking up scenario writer Naotaka Hayashi, known for his work on Steins;Gate, the recipe was complete. Surprisingly the game went through several iterations, from action RPG to Final Fantasy III style traditional RPG to the modernized take on the classic genre that it is now.
There's no argument that Bravely Default shows respect for it's JRPG predecessors, but despite its origins, despite its influences, a game has to earn its praise on its own
It's easy to immediately fall in love with Bravely Default. Many of my favorite childhood games, many people's favorite childhood games, are JRPGs. Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI and so many more games feature characters and gameplay systems we continue to judge modern games' by. Level 1, in the city of Caldisla, those feelings return like a blanket of warmth. As the game introduces world on the brink of disaster, a world that can only be saved by four young but passionate heroes -- Tiz, Agnes,Ringabel and Edea -- everything feels so right. Bravely Default welcomes fans of JRPGs home.
Each character is iconic and written intelligently and respectfully. Tiz is the only survivor horrific disaster that sank his hometown in a gaping crater, confident and supportive; Agnes is a priestess to one of the four crystals that control the world's elements, fearful but of surprising strength of will; Ringabel is a mysterious man in possession of a journal seeminly written from events in their future, also he believes himself to be quite the ladies man; and Edea, raised to believe the crystals were inherently evil, but willing to cast that aside along with her family to pursue what she truly believes to be right. Each character grows in their own way, becoming heroes that perhaps we'd never have expected them to be, and if Square Enix doesn't bring them back in Bravely Second fans are likely to travel to Japan and burn down their headquarters.
What Bravely Default's narrative truly does well, however, is toy with expectations. One of the reasons JRPGs died in the first place was due to how formulaic, slow, and predictable they became. While Bravely Default doesn't revolutionize how JRPGs tell stories, it does a great job of throwing cliches back in the player's face. Well, unless the player is unfamiliar with those cliches, in which case they'd just be disappointed and bored. For me, however, the story was a breath of fresh air. Like a magician whose trick had been given away, only to perform it once more just to reveal that everything the audience expected was wrong all along.
Intelligent, fun dialogue and characters, plus a clever arc to the story are Bravely Default's strong points. While there are certainly exceptions overall, cliches pushed too hard primarily, my drive to finish the games was in large part due to my attachment to these four fellows, their friends and everything they'd set out to save.
Little Has Changed
The act of completing Bravely Default turned out to be much more of a chore than I imagined. When I say it's a traditional JRPG I mean exactly what I say, in that it has turn-based combat with jobs for each character and equipment too. Silicon Studio and Square Enix add a few features to try and make this old recipe spicy, but for the most part all they do is perpetuate the same tedium that drove the audience away years ago. I'd even call the combat soulless.
Bravely Default's main gameplay feature that's been added is two-fold, or two sides of the same feature in essence. The player can either "Default" and defend for a turn to save an action for later use or they can "Brave" to use up to four multiple actions in a single turn -- even potentially going into negative turns which will cause the character to sit out several rounds. It's certainly unique in concept, but in practice fails to add the needed complexity to carry an RPG's gameplay for the tens of hours it will be played.
First off, both features -- all combat features really -- are introduced in the first chapter or two of Bravely Default. Here I am I'm psyched to be playing a true JRPG for the first time in a while and I get these new features which seem rad, so I put them through their paces trying to figure out what sort of tricks can be pulled. What do I find? There aren't really many tricks. The strategies I employed at early levels worked outstandingly in later levels too. Just "Default" until there are enough turns stored to up to spam skills and then start over again. There are definitely timing tricks for certain enemies and in an emergency it's always nice to use turns that'd otherwise be unavailable, but overall I would simply have preferred my character's strength to be diffused normally as opposed to rationed for certain surges of action.
Ignoring the Brave/Default feature combat in Bravely Default simply serves its purpose and nothing more. The player buys the best equipment they can afford, but no single upgrade necessarily feels particularly empowering. Leveling jobs is useful, but those familiar with Final Fantasy spells and skills will already know what will be available, as well as the natural progression it takes to unlock spells. Each character can equip passive skills from different jobs, there are conditions like Poison and Blind that have to be dealt with quickly, enemies have weaknesses to certain spells or attacks -- it's all there. Bravely Default isn't worse for lack of traditional RPG mechanics. All of it has just been done before and when you're aware of how it works it becomes quite tedious which for me started at level one.
Did I mention level grinding? At least on medium difficulty (which can be changed at any time) there's plenty of level grinding to be had.
What's Changed is Strange
Other unique features that Bravely Default added are mostly tied to the 3DS' social technology. Players can attach each of their party members to one 3DS friend, which will strengthen them subtly. Then there's rebuilding Tiz's hometown, where the player can invest friends they've met via StreetPass or random international visitors into unlocking an assortment of shops. Each shop upgrade takes hours, so the more friends invested at a time the faster it goes. Not exactly a highly interactive feature, plus the rewards unlocked aren't exactly very rewarding considering the time it takes to unlock them.
Best of all, just for the special "For the Sequel" version of Bravely Default, there's an option to buy via microtransactions an ability that will freeze combat for a time to allow you to pummel your enemies freely. These power-ups also store up freely over something like 24-hours, but it's fairly insulting to even consider including something like that in a game meant to be respectful of such a classic genre.
I wish there was more of Bravely Default that stood out for me. The visuals are very nice, though the style is merely an iteration on Square Enix's other recent handheldJRPGs like Final Fantasy: Four Heroes of Light and the Final Fantasy 3DS remakes. It's basically a chibi-esque style that makes all characters' ages indistinguishable. Voice acting in Bravely Default is actually quite high quality, which complements the great localization and writing very nicely. As for other sound work in the game, I can't say it particularly stood out to me -- those swinging sword and spell effects weren't particularly resounding.
If there's a golden rule to JRPGs it's to make as many moments as positive and rewarding as possible. After all, players are going to be spending dozens of hours playing, often doing particularly repetitive tasks. I looked for that in Bravely Default and found very little in return with regards to making every fight, ever level count. Equipment didn't allow for meaningful customization, leveling jobs resulted in skills that often didn't feel much more powerful than what had already been earned, and very rarely any single fight feel challenging for a reason other than the player needed to grind levels a while longer. JRPGs deserve more than an imitation combat system.
Despite the uninspired gameplay, there's magic in Naotaka Hayashi's narrative. The writing, where gameplay couldn't muster it, showed both respect to tradition while also putting a spin on the experience that absolutely was inspired. Tiz, Agnes, Ringabel and Edea are genuine, empathetic characters despite their fantasy origins (and chibi 13-year old appearance), Plus the extended cast of the game is great too. I had a great time watching the plot unfold and become something much more than what I expected. I just wish I enjoyed the journey itself.
Perhaps under certain circumstances Bravely Default will work for certain people, such as those playing on the bus to pass the time. Those who were hoping for a JRPG that wraps around you like a warm blanket, staving off the cold of boredom over a week of winter, they like me may be better off going back to the classics.
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