A farm boy torn from his destroyed village and thrown into a perilous quest. A young girl bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders. A roguish playboy too worried about chasing skirt to fix his amnesia. A daughter of the villainous empire's best warrior.
Bravely Default doesn't miss a single beat nailing down every story cliche from the early days of the JRPG. Four humble protagonists set off on a quest to save the world from total despair, and together, they must topple an evil empire looking to reshape it in its own image.
If these story tropes feel a little too familiar, then there is probably a rich history of JRPGs somewhere in your past. Bravely Default isn't one bit shy about turning to outdated story elements to push its play time to the end of its quest, and it's this confidence that makes it one of the most refreshing JRPGs in years.
All that was old is new again, and all that was once dated now feels like a breath of fresh air. In a wayward genre that has too often turned to melodrama and flashy graphics, Bravely Default takes a defiant stand against the tides of the JRPG medium, reminding us all that the very center of every great fantasy is a beating heart and a never ending thirst for adventure.
Unoriginal, but That's Okay!
Bravely Default certainly won't win any awards for originality with its plot. In fact, beyond its cliches, it steals major plot points straight from its biggest inspiration, Final Fantasy V.
The world is dying. The elements have stopped. The crystals' powers have started fading. A wayward soul stumbles across a girl tasked with restarting the wind, and through several twists of fate and chance meetings, they embark on a quest to save not only the wind but all of humanity.
Clean cut and simple.
Bravely Default doesn't miss a beat channeling the older days of the genre, but again, it's not "what" story is told, it's "how" the developer Silicon Studio tells it. The gaming community has become so jaded by video game storytelling having to pull amazing twists like a cheap Hollywood script or cram subliminal meaning into plots for the ever important "maturity" recognition that sells.
Final Fantasy has even broken the rule it laid down two and a half decades ago with the complex political intrigue of Final Fantasy XII and "however you want to describe it" of Final Fantasy XIII.
Toss aside all the meanings, all the twists, all the pretension that burdens video game writers these days. I never thought I'd live to see the day when a town just populated by women cropped up in a video game, and the playboy character couldn't handle himself with all the excitement.
It's funny. It's simple. It's charming. It works, and that is more of a highlight of the state of video games than of Bravely Default itself.
It doesn't have the most original tale to tell, nor does it tell it in any original way. It's just simply "nice," and the lack of focus on the writing highlights what really makes RPGs so much fun: grand adventure, character customization, exotic settings, terrifying monsters, destructive weapons, flashy magic, imagination.
Or, what? Did you play Skyrim for its intricate plot?
Get A Job!
Where the plot takes a backseat to everything else, it's the character customization which plants itself in Bravely Default's driver seat, and it never once takes its foot off the pedal.
Again, borrowing a page or two from Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy Tactics, The 4 Heroes of Light: Final Fantasy, and a handful of other popular games from the series, Bravely Default focuses on a deep "job" system to flesh out the abilities of its characters.
Our four cut and paste characters extend their blandness beyond their backgrounds and personalities. They begin this quest as blank slates which can be molded and shaped into ultimate warriors however their real world overlord sees fit.
Want to have a bare-knuckle fighter? Pick a monk and go for it. Need some curing? A white mage might be a wiser choice.
Bravely Default unlocks these jobs progressively through side-quests and killing the bosses who happen to be these job owners. Right off the bat, an evil white mage and monk, who could have very well been major villains in the story, are offed in the very first dungeon and poof, the monk and white mage jobs are yours. Thus a pattern begins.
There is a lot of murder in this game for the use of new abilities. Twenty four jobs means twenty four villains our heroes need to be dispatched of in the name of character customization. Most are unsympathetic, some barely register on the grand scheme of the plot, but the fledgling heroes off quite a few named foes to the point of their own hearts darkening within their chests without their knowledge.
Don't get attached to the likeable villains in this game. Chances are they will be dead in less than half an hour.
As for the jobs and skills, don't enter expecting to find the deepest of RPG systems. The demo provided a nice look into how deep and strategic this game could truly be with a little more balance, but even with all the jobs unlocked and skills ready to fire off, I never felt truly proud of my squad as a team.
No clever techniques or game breaking combinations, Bravely Default skims the surface of what other Final Fantasy job systems have offered. Hunters excel in preying on an enemy's weakness, and that's what they do in battle. No more, no less. No clever way to combine them thief, time mage or knight, and there really is no need to work in tandem with other characters. See some plants, spam "plant buster," and the battle is won.
It doesn't help that any new abilities prove useless also. Too many times did I level up a job class and get a "Physical Defense +10%" rather than a unique ability or support skill which could have made my hard work more rewarding
Rather than a team of warriors, Bravely Default feels more like taking four individuals into battle. Character progression is still fun, and I like the builds I managed, but the game is too shallow to really dig into the heart of these job classes and make some seriously deadly combinations.
You Can Do This and This and This and This
What further dilutes the purpose of the job system is the focus on so many other options in battle. Bravely Default is home to not one, but four competing battle mechanics, each vying for your time and energy.
First and foremost are the simple abilities received through jobs. Magic, attacks, the whole like. Nothing new here. This is what more focus should have been put on, but Bravely Default has a lot of other options ready to exploit as well.
The second is the most commonly used in the game, the "Brave/Default" system. By using the "Brave" command in battle, the characters spend a BP which gives them an extra turn, and up to four can be used at a time.
If you are feeling lucky, spamming this technique is the best and easy way to finish off a group of foes without them even seeing what hit them. Four characters laying on the pain is more often than not the best way to finish off a fight. Bravely x4. Attack x4. Get used to it because it will become a repertoire in your tactics book.
Of course, this plan can backfire as spamming BP can render a character useless for three round until his BP recovers. If all four characters are left with no BP, and the enemies have not yet been extinguished, they are defenseless to a barrage of attacks from anything left standing. It's a gamble that often pays off with weaker enemies, but not against boss fights.
Likewise, the "Default" command not only acts as "Defend," but it also stocks up on BP. Each turn, one extra BP will be saved, to a maximum of three, and unleashing the "Bravely x4, Attack x4" strategy will result in no penalty.
The combination of saving BP and timing exactly when to spend it leads to thrilling battles against some of the tougher bosses, but only against these bosses will this balancing act really be needed. For random enemies and spamming "Bravely x4. Attack x4" every time. If this cheap tactic wasn't so effective, both the "Brave/Default" and the job system could shine to their true potential.
How Much is Too Much?
From left field, we also have the special attacks. Each weapon type (swords, wands, spears) have three special attacks which can be triggered through certain required actions. Default ten times. Attack five times. Exploit a weakness twenty times. Use an item five times.
These attacks not only do an absurd amount of damage, but they can also be fully decked out to cause whatever kind of status effects, elements, strength against certain enemy types, buffs, and debuffs desired.
A water boss is blocking the path of our four heroes? No problem, spam the lightning element and "Aquatic Slaying" will put him in his place. Attach paralyze to the attack for good measure if he survives, so he can't fight back. Boost your own attack power to make each subsequent attack hurt even more. Kind of cheap, huh? That's nothing compared to the last battle mechanic.
Bravely Default also allows you to summon a "friend" into battle to help, meaning a fellow player met through the game's social structure. Should one of your friends sport a power of say 653,342, a quick summon is sure to finish any battle. This is a tactic the game actively encourages, too.
There are no shortage of ways to win a fight in Bravely Default, and with each more useful than the last, its battle system never finds a true identity. Even on Hard, spamming the "Brave" command should get through about 90% of the game's battles, and the remaining ten can be handled with "friends" and "special attacks."
Wasn't there a job system somewhere in all this mess?
Thankfully, boss fights are exciting and some even require planning. Go figure! Bravely Default throws more than enough of them into the fray to keep your mind from going too numb. Otherwise, all the preparation and character customization would be meaningless without a challenge here and there to put up a fight.
You've Got a Friend in Japan
The social aspects of the game might linger on the edge of the battle system, but what they bring to the rest of the game makes it better ten fold.
As mentioned before, our poor protagonist loses his village in worst of ways, and he heads a committee to rebuild it. Each friend made through Bravely Default's Streetpass or the Internet adds one to the population of our poor friend's destroyed hometowrn.
The bigger the population, the faster the town is rebuilt. Workers can be assigned to the item shop, the weapon shop, the armor shop, the magic shop. Each level gained at each location opens new equipment for sale at save points, new options for the special attacks, and even unlocking the game's ultimate equipment.
Of course, more time must be dedicated the more and more these buildings advance. 99 hours is what is required to max out a building and unlock an ultimate weapon, but 65 friends can chop that down into a nice hour and a half. Sleep Mode time also counts, meaning my 3DS hasn't properly been shut off in weeks.
If Bravely Default does anything particularly well, it's making it feel like it's being played even when it's you aren't playing it.
Naturally, the more friends you have, the better. Living in Japan, I run into no less than five people a day with their Streetpass on thanks to a train commute to work, and I built up a population allowing me to snag some crazy powerful weapons well before I was intended to have them.
Those not in Japan might need to actively search the Internet for friends. Save points allow for a once-a-day shout out to random users who happen to be playing at the same time, but by and large, stumbling on other owners might be tough living in the States, where the developers obviously have a different view on how American social interaction works.
Your Way, Every Day
Bravely Default also provides plenty of options to help you play at your own pace. Difficulty settings can be adjusted. Random encounters can be increased or decreased, making grinding less or more of a chore. The speed of battle can even be made ultra fast to blast through extended attack animations.
Far and away, the best idea is "one hand mode." Bravely Default does sport a traditional menu based battle system like in older Final Fantasy games, but each important command is also assigned to one button on the Nintendo 3DS.
Activate Bravely with the L button and Default with the R. A and B act traditionally as "accept" and "cancel" button, but so do left and right on the directional pad.
It's a minor improvement on the bulky menus found in other games, but when you find yourself crammed on a crowded Japanese train and need a free limb to defend against someone rubbing against you or to hold a support bar to keep from falling over, this convenient little touch can make all the difference during a miserable commute.
Plus, I can't stand voice acting in my portable RPGs. I read a lost faster than the spoken dialogue, and Square Enix was generous enough to let me enjoy the plot in silence.
Bravely Default is a wonderful little game if you understand where it's coming from.
Throwback are always a tricky proposition. On one hand, Bravely Default perfectly captures the games it's trying to recreate. This is a classic JRPG from head to toe, and the developers were well aware of what they were making.
However, taking one too many cues from older games leaves it behind its contemporaries, and in this case, it comes up short on making a battle system for the modern JRPG gamer. In an effort to appeal to everyone, it scatters itself thin by focusing on too many simple systems, and doesn't especially excel at any one of them.
Shin Megami Tensei IV, Etrian Odyssey IV, and Fire Emblem: Awakening all understand that hacking your way through enemies with just attacks or not thinking about the "team" will get your squad butchered in a second in these games.
Bravely Default does not and falls short of the best in a world where Final Fantasy's ideas are no longer the standard.
Best advice? Bravely Default is a wonderful little game if you understand where it's coming from. For all my bellyaching, I still had a great time playing it, imagining I was sitting in front of a small TV with a PlayStation controller in my hand.
If you've been up to date with the amazing library that the Nintendo 3DS has offered, forget all those other titles and just let Bravely Default absorb you into its carefree presentation, likeable characters, and grand sense of fun.
Don't get lost in the complicated systems or think too much about how to approach battles. Pick the job system apart, enjoy the Brave/Default system, but don't expect a lot of depth. It's a casual RPG at best that can be enjoyed for surface value. Anybody looking to do some digging will find it too shallow to place amongst the best the console has to offer.