There's an old saying: if it looks like a Final Fantasy, feels like a Final Fantasy, and sounds like a Final Fantasy, it's probably Bravely Default.
Yes, Square Enix's latest sojourn in the well-trod world of medieval fantasy and magical crystals will feel familiar to anyone who has played old Final Fantasy games and other classics. Bravely Default, which is out today in North America, is a lot like Final Fantasy V, and Final Fantasy IX, with a dash of Final Fantasy Tactics. This is a game about four heroes saving the world, and you won't go a minute without being bludgeoned by references to Square's bigger series -- and if you don't get the hint from the Phoenix Downs and Firagas, two significant characters are actually named Edea and Steiner.
This Final Fantasy-ish feel -- coupled with that series' undeniable decline -- has led many pundits to herald Bravely Default as the game Final Fantasy should be. But, really, it's found its own groove, jamming alongside its spiritual predecessor, where it can serve more as complement than replacement. Both series have their place in the world of Big JRPG.
And besides, to look at Bravely Default just as an "old-school Final Fantasy" would be missing the point: this is a game that pushes the genre's boundaries in some interesting ways, embracing traditions while simultaneously messing around with features we'd never see in those classic Japanese role-playing games. Some of the ideas are undercooked, like a town-rebuilding feature that's more diversion than depth, while others are brilliant, like a random encounter slider that lets you turn off non-boss battles almost entirely. Bravely Default might feel like a classic game, but at its core, this is an RPG unafraid to experiment.
In many ways, this game is worth savouring. If Bravely Default is RPG comfort food, it's the type of comfort food you see on one of those Food Network shows where the chef has to add her own spin to make some weird-yet-delicious concoction like deep-fried mac-n-cheese or cornbread with bacon syrup. Unusual, yet familiar -- that's Bravely Default.
It's a shame the last few bites have such a bad taste.
The classic RPG, for all of its merits and flaws, has a certain sort of rhythm. Play a Dragon Quest or one of those older Final Fantasys and you'll find yourself following the same routine: enter new town; get mission; stock up; fight through dungeon; beat boss; repeat. Within that structure are the beats of combat, which also have their own rhythm: regular attacks for fodder enemies; buffs and special moves for bosses; heal as necessary. Many of these older games were special not because they broke out of this pattern, but because they distinguished themselves through interesting worlds, clever stories, or killer soundtracks.
Bravely Default changes up this rhythm in some fascinating ways. Take combat, for example. Like many older RPGs, Bravely Default uses a turn-based combat system -- your characters line up on one side of a small battlefield, walloping enemies round by round with physical attacks and spells. But instead of just attacking or healing, you've got a crafty alternative here: turn manipulation.
During any round, each of your characters can pick from two pace-shifting options: Brave and Default. Picking Default makes that character defend, storing up her turn to use during a future round. Brave allows that character to use all those extra turns, or borrow up to 3 future turns to use them all at once, at risk of causing some sort of subprime turn mortgage crisis.
This is all reflected with a number called Brave Points (BP). Each character starts a battle with 0 BP. Most attacks and abilities cost one point each, and every character gains one point after every round. If your characters get into negative BP, they're rendered helpless until they climb back to 0. So a character can start off combat with four quick attacks, risking defeat if she doesn't win because she'll lose her defenses for the next three turns, or she can stay conservative and keep building up turns for the future.
It's a clever, unique system that makes turn-based combat more fun than it usually is. You can breeze through random battles by spamming Brave and unleashing as many attacks as possible, knowing that future turns won't matter if you win in the first round. For harder battles, you can use a more conservative strategy, saving and spending turns based on each boss's attack pattern. (Adding more fun to the party: Bosses and other enemies can use the Brave/Default system too.)
But wait -- there's more! Your party of four can also acquire and shift between up to 24 different jobs, ranging from traditional (black mage, monk) to unusual (pirate, vampire). By cosplaying as each of these classes, your characters can use their abilities to do damage, heal, and boost stats. Some abilities eventually prove essential against the tougher bosses, and overcoming tough challenges in Bravely Default, like a football game, often amounts to having both the right preparation and the right strategy.
Sometimes it also requires a little level-grinding, particularly if you play like I did, turning off all random encounters as often as possible. Yes, you can turn off random encounters. You can also fast forward through combat... and turn on auto-battle to let your characters repeat the same actions over and over… and skip scenes... and automate dialogue... and turn on airship auto-pilot... and switch difficulty at any time.
Little conveniences are sprinkled everywhere throughout the game; for example, once you've gotten an airship, you can summon it from anywhere -- no need to remember where you last parked.
In many ways, Bravely Default is designed to be as user-friendly as possible -- at least until you get to the miserable last few chapters. (More on that in a bit.)
Like many RPGs, Bravely Default is a story about political conflict, and corrupt religion, and four heroes who have to save everything. Two of those heroes are fascinating -- the foppish Ringabel, best described as a cross between FFXII's Balthier and a sleazy pick-up artist; and spunky Edea, who is smart and courageous and badass in just about every way. The other two -- a shepherd named Tiz and a plot device named Agnes -- are bland and unremarkable, even annoying at times.
Throughout the game there are a number of optional Tales-like skits that both supplement the story and add some lighthearted moments to the journey.
Most of them are fun to watch.
Most of them are about food.
Many of them are just about how awesome Edea is.
Your enjoyment of these skits will hinge on how much the characters resonate with you. The banter totally worked for me, but if you can't bring yourself to care about Bravely Default's adorable noseless heroes, you also might not care to sit through all these party chats.
Surely you can find someone to like, though -- even the most shallow of Bravely Default's non-player characters is entertaining in some way, from the malevolent poison-maker to the enigmatic vampire lord. Guided by a peppy fairy, a perverted sage, and a host of other interesting characters, your band of heroes romps around the world, saving crystals and listening to villains say melodramatic things like "All but the vestal will end here as dew upon my blade."
The faux-medieval dialogue can get little clunky, yeah, but there's one old Final Fantasy tradition here that's very welcome: Bravely Default doesn't take itself too seriously. Characters constantly poke fun at one another, in and out of those optional skits, and there are lots of memorable moments and scenes.
Unfortunately, when the game does take itself seriously, its mechanics get in the way, because your characters are constantly wearing their job outfits, even during cut-scenes. This inevitably leads to Tiz and Agnes having an intimate moment while wearing a ninja mask and a clown suit:
The ranger outfit, which comes with a fox mask, is one of my particular favourites -- because nothing says Serious Moment like a fox mask.
On a darker note, we need to talk about the most infuriating part of Bravely Default: the endgame.
Warning: the following section contains light spoilers not for the plot, but for the structure of Bravely Default. Skip if you don't want to know anything about the game's latter chapters.
For some 25 hours, the pacing in Bravely Default is excellent. No scene is too long, and the plot chugs along smoothly, with just enough mystery to keep you invested.
Then, when you get to Chapter 5, everything goes to hell.
"Tedious" is too kind a word for what happens to your party over the next few chapters. In order to get the game's true ending, you'll have to repeat a series of four dungeons -- and four boss battles -- five times each. Mitigating this repetition are the user-friendly features -- pro tip: switch to easy difficulty; turn off random encounters; set battle speed to max -- but it's still an unpleasant experience. I got through the boss gauntlet in a few hours, mostly by doing something else while I played, and I have no plans to ever go near it again.
(If you don't mind getting a fake ending, you can skip over a chunk of this -- but you still have to go through those dungeons and boss battles 2-3x each.)
Granted, one could argue that at this point in the story, the characters are going through a gruelling experience, and that this allows you the player to empathise with that. But a game can be gruelling without being boring, and during its final hours, Bravely Default fails at that.
Spoilers end here.
Endgame pacing issues aside, Bravely Default is very good at a lot of things. It's good at staggering new items and classes so you feel like you're progressing surely and rapidly as you play. It's good at throwing you into satisfying boss battles, with villains who have actual personalities and combat strategies to match. It's also excellent at dreaming up a stylish world with a handful of charming sidequests and even some little plot snippets that you won't notice unless you talk to all the townspeople multiple times. Like all the best video games, Bravely Default rewards your curiosity in a satisfying way.
And, yeah, if you play RPGs for stunning production values, this will be your jam. The dungeons are a little stale, but the towns rank among the best visual spectacles I've ever seen in a video game -- stay still for a few seconds while standing in a town and the camera will zoom out, revealing some stunning, creative, fascinating locales. One city, nestled in a groove on the side of a volcano, resembles a giant set of armour, forged out of magma and hard steel:
(Shame the 3DS doesn't take screenshots -- my iPhone camera doesn't do justice to this art.)
All four of Bravely Default's main cities are nothing short of stunning -- artist Akihiko Yoshida is at his peak here. And the music! God, Revo's music. Just try not to fall in love with the ridiculous boss theme the second it starts. It's like Dragonforce on speed. And Edea's track -- my god. That sax.
Some of the game's other features are better in concept than execution, and I get the feeling the developers are just establishing foundations that will inevitably evolve and improve in future Bravely games. (Producer Tomoya Asano has already said he wants this to be a massive franchise, with a new Bravely every year.)
Take Norende. Norende is a little city that you can manage over the course of Bravely Default by recruiting villagers via 3DS friends and strangers you pass on the subway or meet online, then using those villagers to construct and enhance buildings. When I first heard about this feature, I thought it'd be a deep mini-game influenced by management games like SimCity or Civilisation, but there are no interesting decisions involved here -- you just put villagers to work and wait for them to finish. I expected to be able to build and craft and strategize, but really, all you can build is a bunch of shops. It's like a Facebook game -- granted, you don't have to pay or spam your friends, but you'll find yourself doing things just for the sake of doing them, not because you enjoy the action.
By the way, you might have heard that there are microtransactions in Bravely Default, but don't freak out -- they're totally irrelevant. You can spend extra money to buy SP Drinks -- items that let you recharge your SP, which let you slow down time and get extra attacks in battle -- but you don't need them at all. You can beat the game without giving Square Enix an extra cent.
People will inevitably refer to Bravely Default as a "classic" RPG -- I sure have -- but really, this game is more than that. It's the next evolution of a classic RPG, with just enough spice to taste a little bit different than the old Final Fantasys and Dragon Quests and Lunars of the world. Bravely Default is a flawed game, and it's forever marred by its infuriating endgame, but I'm glad it exists -- and I'm excited to see what will come next.