Bravely Default is, in essence, an old school Final Fantasy game. All that’s missing is the Final Fantasy name and a character named Cid. With enemies named Cait Sith and items named Phoenix Downs, it’s hard not to consider this a spinoff of the beloved JRPG series. This makes sense, though, since it’s the spiritual successor to an official FF spinoff, the 4 Heroes of Light. That DS game managed to be charming in its (admittedly simplistic) story and graphics, and boasted a more streamlined but still fun version of the job system from Final Fantasy V. Now, Bravely Default is here and it’s a step up from the previous effort in some ways and a step back in others.
The game opens with a gorgeous CGI cut scene detailing the four main characters. There’s Agnes Oblige, a vestal (essentially priestess) of the Wind Crystal. While she is praying, the crystal is suddenly swallowed in darkness and most of the acolytes of Crystalism around her are killed in a blast of dark energy. Then there’s Ringabel, an amnesiac ladies’ man who’s searching for one woman that he has fallen in love with after reading through a mysterious tome called D’s journal, which seems to be able to predict the future. Tiz Arrior is introduced after that. He’s a farmboy in the town of Norende, which is suddenly swallowed up in an apocalyptic earthquake, leaving nothing but a massive crater and claiming everyone he knows, including his younger brother. The last character is Edea Lee, a young warrior in training from the nation of Eternia. She has been tasked with finding and capturing the Wind Vestal.
The main story is basically trying to awaken all of the crystals in order to somehow get rid of the Great Chasm that has opened up in the wake of Norende’s destruction. This plot should be familiar to just about anyone who has played one of the first five Final Fantasy games. It’s become cliché at this point, but, against all the odds, the story actually did maintain my interest thanks to the cast. The main characters are surprisingly well written for such a generic story and world, and the supporting cast is also quite strong. Throughout the game, you will have to confront various different people from Eternia’s army. Each one actually has a well thought out back story and they are all related in interesting ways. The story and characters are also further fleshed out thanks to D’s journal. As you progress through the game, all important info you learn about the world, cast and monsters you encounter will be automatically recorded in the journal to be read at your convenience. Plus, there are skits like in the Tales games where the main characters talk to each other. They are usually amusing or funny, which helps to build the main cast.
The aforementioned confrontations with the enemies are also well thought out. The majority of them are side quests, but they are presented as off shoot stories. For instance, in one, you’ll be hunting a ghost ship in a certain area of the sea, keeping an eye out for the telltale fog on the water. In another, you’ll have to “solve” a murder mystery at a dinner party. The side quests go a long way to fleshing out the world.
But, arguably more importantly, the side quests give you new jobs to mess around with. Since this game is more or less a Final Fantasy title, it means you’ll be participating in a lot of turn based battling. Thankfully, the job system manages to break up the monotony that can sometimes set in during games like this. Every class has some kind of use in battle. For instance, classic jobs like the White Mage and Black Mage are used for healing and offensive magic attacks, respectively. There are other class types, though, that manage to keep variety going when opposed to other JRPGs with classes. For instance, the Pirate is a strong melee attacker that can debuff enemies with its abilities. The Salve Maker can use items more effectively and even mix two compounds together to produce some kind of effect. The Swordmaster is based almost entirely off countering, making it tough to use but fun to master. There are twenty four jobs in all, each with its own sets of abilities and uses.
Further adding to the job system is the ability to mix and match skills. Basically, if you so desire, you could have a knight that can use White Magic and is effective at dodging. Or you can have a Ninja that can also use sky diving attacks like a Valkyrie. There are a wealth of strategic possibilities to consider and use, making fights a lot of fun. But there’s another wrinkle in the traditional battle system. In past RPGs, defending in battle is almost entirely pointless. Here, defending is known as Defaulting. With it, you can save up your Battle Points (you can have up to three at a time) and using Brave, you can attack more than once in one turn. Alternatively, you can Brave without storing BP, but you won’t be able to act for however many turns you went into debt for. It’s much less complicated than it sounds; it doesn’t take too long before it starts to feel like second nature. And you will need to learn how to use this system. If you just treat the game as a traditional JRPG and never defend, don’t expect to get very far. Bosses can and will exploit this system to their advantage, so you must learn to use it effectively, especially late in the game where really powerful abilities may take BP instead of the typical magic points. The job and battle systems play off each other very nicely, leading to highly strategic play.
The game also puts up a very stiff challenge. The beginning of the game is understandably easy, but it isn’t very long until the challenge gets kicked up. By the end of the game, you will need to use every strategic trick in your book to overcome the very tough boss encounters. This means both having effective job combinations and knowing how to use the Brave/ Default system. It’s a lot of fun to find really powerful skill and job combinations, especially since many skills play nicely with other jobs. For instance, Ninjas can learn a skill that makes dual wielding weapons a lot better than it would be normally. Apply this to a Spell Fencer and you have an elemental sword fighter that can wreck enemies if given the chance. Plus, getting to the point where you see the satisfying “9999” damage counter flash on screen every time you attack never gets old.
Apart from the battling, the game is quite traditional in the way it plays. You run around from town to town, solving the local issues and ultimately awakening crystals and fighting bosses, all while earning new jobs and the like. Along the way, you fight randomly encountered enemies to gain experience, gold, and job levels. Thankfully, many aspects of the game have been left so they can be customized to the player’s wishes. For instance, you can adjust the random encounter rate so that you don’t run into any enemies at all. Or, if you’re in the mood to grind, you can make it so you can barely take three steps without encountering enemies. On top of that, you can speed up battle animations and put auto battle on with the press of a button, which makes the characters perform whatever last action you made them do again and again. You can even change the difficulty of the game on the fly, so if one boss is giving you particular trouble, you can lower the difficulty then bring it back up afterwards. The developers have managed to make the game as painless as possible while still maintaining the old school gameplay that JRPGs are known for.
There are even some wireless features built into the game. For instance, you can rebuild Norende to obtain various different rewards. It works almost like a free to play browser game. For instance, say a level one shop you want to rebuild takes a half hour to level up. Put a villager on it and it will take that half hour. Put two on it and it will take fifteen minutes. So on and so forth. Eventually, it will take 99 hours to rebuild something. Ideally, though, you will have obtained more villagers by Street Passing other Bravely Default players. It’s a neat idea in theory, although it kind of sucks that people who aren’t in an area populated by players will miss out on a lot of strong (and sometimes important) equipment and items. That being said, I had no problem finding people since I live on a college campus most of the time.
You can also use Abililink, which allows you to use abilities that your friends know, but you may not know. I found this ultimately inconsequential, since I was very anal retentive to always have each character working on a job. But it’s a very neat idea that can bring players together. Finally, you can send out a battle action to support other players. So, say you have a really powerful Arcanist that can instantly kill any sleeping enemies. Send that move out via Street Pass and other players will be able to use the move once in battle. Again, an awesome idea that I personally didn’t find very useful since a lot of people didn’t take advantage of it. But its inclusion doesn’t hurt the game at all.
The production values for the game are uniformly strong to go along with the gameplay. The character models are somewhat simplistic, but the artistic design of the various costumes that go along with the various jobs are awesome. The real strength, though, lies in the way the towns are designed. Each one looks like an illustration straight from a story book. It’s a simply gorgeous effect that looks even better when 3D is on. Dungeons, unfortunately, don’t share the same hand drawn aesthetic. They aren’t bad looking, but do leave something to be desired. Thankfully, the music leaves nothing to be desired. The town themes are all solid on their own, as is the overworld theme. That music changes from “good” to “great” when you enter battle, though. The basic encounter music is already very strong, but the boss battle music is simply incredible. It’s an epic mixture of symphonic orchestra and metal. The final boss theme, in particular, is amazing and used to great effect. The same goes for the Special Move themes that play for each character when they use one. Each character’s theme sounds different, but all of them sound like they could belong in any top notch Final Fantasy game.
Unfortunately, the game has a flaw that holds it back. The story is interesting thanks to the characters and D’s Journal, but after Chapter 4, some major pacing issues rear their ugly head. Basically, for reasons I won’t say, you will be performing many of the same tasks you have already done (re awakening the crystals and fighting bosses again if you choose). Granted, you can do this in any order because you will have an air ship by that point in the game, but the fact that the game recycles its dungeons and bosses is very disappointing. It’s almost like the developers were absolutely enamored with their creation, so they felt it necessary to make the player go through everything multiple times. Granted, battling and building different combinations of jobs and abilities remains fun throughout, but it felt like blatant padding for the most part. It takes a long game (takes about forty hours to get through to chapter five) and makes it even longer (it took me 73 hours to finally beat the game). I’m definitely not averse to extremely long games (Xenoblade took me 76 hours to beat) but I do take issue with padding the game’s length so much. There are also some random difficulty spikes; for instance, in one side quest, you must go around and fight six different dragons in the world. Each one has a move set that is ridiculously broken, and the only real way to get through it is to build your party so you have an equally broken set up. Thankfully, these random spikes are somewhat rare.
The major pacing issues near the end of the game shouldn’t stop you from playing this mostly excellent RPG. The interplay between the battle system and the job system leads to a ton of strategic opportunities and customization options. The production values are mostly top notch and the story is also interesting in spite of its rather generic premise. Plus, thanks to the heavy customization of difficulty and random encounters, you can breeze through the chapters that repeat themselves if you want to (although there is a job in chapter six that can only be gotten in that chapter). Overall, Bravely Default is a thoroughly engaging and fun JRPG that would right into the old school Final fantasy lineup. I’d recommend it to anyone who feels that FF has lost its way in recent years, or anyone that’s looking for yet another quality JRPG to add to their 3DS collection.