Somewhere along the line, Final Fantasy partially lost its way. It strayed too far from the conventions that really made the franchise special, and with every spinoff, the series was further diluted just a bit. At every turn Square Enix attempted to reinvent the wheel for Final Fantasy XIII, but sometimes, it’s best to just expand upon the fundamentals.
That’s what Bravely Default does. It has a few modern conveniences like the ability to eliminate random battles and adjust the difficulty setting on the fly, but it’s still very much an old school JRPG. And I love it for that.
At first, things start of relatively low key. There are four warriors of light (Tiz, Agnes, Edea, and Ringabel), there are crystals to save, and there’s a pretty clear set of villains. You’ll earn your airship relatively quickly, and of course, you’ll have the ability to fight random battles, level up, and use familiar items in battle like Phoenix Downs and Potions. So far so good, right?
From there, Bravely Default ratchets things up a few notches, and really starts to come into its own. The job system is an immediate standout, which is one of the best “job” mechanics in the Final Fantasy series, and JRPGs in general. Not only do you have to “earn” jobs by defeating bosses across the world (some story related, some optional), which gives you a sense of progression, but you can also mix and match a “second job” as well as multiple abilities.
For instance, mid to late game it’s possible to morph a class into something it normally shouldn’t normally be able to do, leaving you with the ability to tinker to your heart’s content. Many hours were spent messing about with the job system, and I found a unique combination that none of my peers seem to use.
For the most part the combat system is pretty straight-forward, consisting of your typical turn based fare, but there’s one major twist that really mixes things up — the “Brave” and “Default” abilities. “Braving” allows you to “pay a turn forward,” and take multiple actions in one turn — so a warrior could strike four times, or a healer could theoretically resurrect someone with their first turn, and heal them on their second. Defaulting allows you to “stock” a turn and defend yourself at the same time, allowing you to Brave at a later date (or subsequently, spend them on special abilities that take turns instead of MP).
When you combine this idea with the relatively open job system, the sky is the limit. There were many, many times where I had to devise completely new strategies on the fly, run them, and hope for the best. It’s a really cool feeling when things work out, and it motivates you to try harder the next time should it fail. The Brave and Default system is such a small idea on paper, but in practice, it’s something I’d like to see in a lot more games.
Then you have the other cool additions, like the ability to completely turn off random battles, or jack them up so you have them every few steps. This is a godsend for fans who hate frequent random battles, and a way to clean up pretty much every area in the game without having to painfully backtrack and deal with trash fights. This way, you can level at your own pace, or refute fights when traveling through low level areas. It’s a win-win.
I should also mention that the game technically has microtransactions, but it’s of no consequence whatsoever. During fights you’ll have the ability to use a special ability to stop time and use one extra move. If you keep your 3DS closed in sleep mode, you’ll regain one point per eight hours, up to a maximum of three. If you want, you can spend some cash to get potions, which earn you more points. It’s an utterly pointless exercise since you can complete the game entirely on your own, and not once did I feel like I needed to stop time to win. So don’t worry — the game wasn’t artificially crafted to make you feel like you need to buy things to win. Instead, you’ll want to dig into that deep bag of tactics.
In terms of story, Default starts things off in a rather generic manner, but once you get attached to the cast, you’re willing to forgive its trespasses. Every character has a backstory (not all of them are created equal), as Tiz is a young farmboy who lost his entire homeland, Agnes is a member of an order that has protected the crystals for centuries, Edea is the daughter of the evil enemy army leader, and Ringabel is your token amnesiac.
Once things hit the ground you’ll start to appreciate the characters more, and the world itself. Once you get to the end of the first arc you’ll start to wonder where they’ll take it from there, and let’s just say a major plotpoint that happens about halfway through the game will divide some fans. Personally, I was okay with it, as a ton of sidequests pop up at that point in time, all of which add to the story and the lore of the game.
While the chibi style characters are bound to be another polarizing aspect of the game, the backdrops themselves are absolutely breathtaking, and look like paintings at times. If you stop moving the camera will zoom out on the backdrop and show each location off, and on a few occasions, I just had to take them in — they’re that good looking, especially in 3D.
The voice acting is pretty solid all around, with the notable exception being a few characters that really are grating in particular. It tempted me to change to Japanese voiceovers for good (which features a superb cast by the way), but I kept trucking, and the strong supporting cast really makes it worthwhile. Every new character is filled to the brim with personality, and the voicework contributes to that.
Strangely, Default also has some social features (the good kind), and they work out rather well. In addition to having the ability to “send” your hero to your friend’s to perform a special attack — and conversely use theirs in return — you’ll also have the chance to rebuild Norende village by way of StreetPassing and other online mechanics. Norende is the town that’s demolished at the start of the game, and it basically kicks off your journey — so it’s somewhat story related, which gives it a cool feel to the rebuilding process.
In order to bring the town back to its former glory, you’ll need to collect “residents,” which can perform work rebuilding the various shops and buildings of the town. Each shop can provide you a service in-game, like dishing out unique weapons or providing special attacks. To get more residents you can queue up the game once per day, or you can StreetPass daily with friends who have the game.
In terms of content, Bravely Default is your typical 30-40 hour JRPG, with tons of stuff to do outside of the main quest. There’s a secret dungeon (with a superboss at the end), tons of optional quests, two secret jobs, and a host of superbosses to defeat by way of Norende village. If you do everything (including the two endings), it’ll take you a massive amount of time, and odds are you’ll have fun throughout the entire experience.
Bravely Default really is something special. It could have just been a typical crystal quest with old school tropes and it would have merely been an “okay” JRPG. But the team worked to provide something more than that, with a ton of its own unique advancements on top of a solid JRPG foundation. It’s for that reason that Bravely Default has joined the ranks of some of my favorite games of the genre, and I’m already looking forward to the sequel.
This review is based on a digital copy of Bravely Default for the 3DS.