At long last, the crystals finally shine again
Early on in Bravely Default, an enigmatic, red-cloaked gentleman makes the following observation about adventuring:
“There’s no point if it stops being fun.”
It’s a simple sentiment, but it’s one we RPG fans should really heed more often. And I say this with authority, having wasted hours of my life on tripe like Beyond the Beyond and several other duds over the years. I’m sure this line was throwaway filler, but when I read it, a smile crossed my face—it felt like a jab at RPG players who stick with the dullest, most pedestrian quests out of a sense of obligation. And though the game might not have been intentionally calling out the folly of Final Fantasy XIII and its ilk, that’s what immediately came to mind. To me, these bloated, self-important modern-day “adventures” have come to define the antithesis of role-playing.
Classic Final Fantasy, on the other hand, was always fun. I’m not talking about Cloud Strife and Squall Leonhart’s brooding adventures on the PS1 (though even they had their redeeming qualities), but the traditional Final Fantasy titles on the NES and Super NES. Those games got me into Japanese RPGs, and the elements that came to define them have been hopelessly lost as Square Enix forcibly moved the series into realms that, quite frankly, the company has repeatedly shown it’s incapable of handling with anything resembling skill and subtlety.
But the intangibles that made those games so enjoyable might not be quite as dead as I thought. Square Enix and developer Silicon Studio (3D Dot Game Heroes) may not have brought classic Final Fantasy back in name, but they’ve certainly brought it back in deed here. Bravely Default focuses on the basics: four valiant youths and four crystals. No J-pop concerts. No dictionary of pretentious-sounding terminology to sift through. The game was originally designed as a follow-up to the 2010 DS throwback Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, so the classic Final Fantasy connections make sense in that context.
In general gameplay and combat portions, Bravely Default takes most of its cues from Final Fantasy III (the Famicom original) and Final Fantasy V, two of my favorites—and the two entries that most observers would generally agree put gameplay at a premium above all else. Though Bravely Default’s collection of characters, plot threads, and localization are generally enjoyable (and, in some cases, they’re absolutely stellar), it’s striking down an imp on the battlefield or exploring a dusty dungeon that takes center stage. The game uses the excellent job system seen in many Final Fantasy entries over the years, and while it doesn’t change much, it doesn’t need to. It’s simply more enjoyable to anticipate combat when you know you can try out a new job if you grow bored, and with 24 total classes, there’s plenty of room for mixing, matching, and experimentation in Bravely Default.
Turn-based battles have gotten a bad rap in recent years. I’ve never really gotten this criticism, but no one can accuse Bravely Default of playing it safe—and it’s here that the game’s bizarre name starts to make more sense. Combat boils down to mastering two commands: Brave and Default. Select Brave, and you have a chance to stack up to four commands in one turn. Choose Default, and the party member will guard against the enemy’s attack, and you’ll have an extra Brave slot to use the next turn. Again, there’s nothing wrong with turn-based combat in my mind, but Bravely Default’s twist on the formula adds an extra element of strategy that’s really appreciated. Not only that, but random battles become much easier to take when you’ve got the option to potentially overwhelm the enemy. The game also allows you to manually adjust the encounter rate and difficulty at any time, so if you’d rather explore a dungeon and loot all its treasure before facing the enemies within, you’re always free to do so.
While the combat and job system are where Bravely Default shines, its light social elements aren’t quite as successful. One sidequest sees you attempting to “rebuild” a village using your 3DS buddies. It’s interesting in theory, but if you don’t have a long list of 3DS friends or don’t live in an area where StreetPass is much of an option, it can be a slog to rebuild the village, since some elements of the village require up to 99 man-hours to rebuild. Simple if you’ve got 50 friends—not so much if you’ve only got three. These elements aren’t necessary to complete the game, but you do unlock some of the most powerful weapons and armor via this sidequest. Still, it’s saying something that the social elements and microtransactions (you can pay for a power-up drink if you’re out of them) didn’t offend me.
For much of the time, in fact, Bravely Default feels too good to be true. It feels too perfect, too seamless a transition from the old-school 8- and 16-bit incarnations of one of the most beloved gaming franchises of all time. Surely there’s gotta be some sort of catch, right?
As it turns out, there is. A dark and terrible one. Yes, Bravely Default pulls a Stephen King: The journey is fantastic and enthralling, but it simply doesn’t know how to end, as a late-game sequence threatens to squander all of the goodwill the game builds up during its first few chapters. I’ve never designed an RPG, but I’ve played just about every prominent and niche franchise over the past 25 years, and I know that no player enjoys being asked to complete the same monotonous task again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again.
I cannot stress enough how frustrating and demoralizing this portion of the game is. Normally, I wouldn’t even mention an element that appears this late in an RPG, but this so profoundly affects the enjoyment of the experience that I wouldn’t be writing a proper review if I left it out. And as I struggled to find the motivation to drag my characters through yet another stop on this seemingly endless carousel of repetition, that red-coated man’s reminder hit me hard: “There’s no point if it stops being fun.” Little did I know that, later on, those words would come to describe some of my feelings on Bravely Default itself.
Should you reach this point, I won’t blame you if you simply walk away—it’s an absurd request of the player. If it hadn’t been my job to keep going, I’d probably have put Bravely Default down for a couple of months and possibly picked it up after some of my frustrations had subsided. At the end of an RPG, developers should be rewarding the player for sticking with the experience, not punishing them with a hostile war of attrition and openly laughing at them through the use of in-game dialogue about how many times they’ve had to repeat the same action.
All that said, there’s a reason I don’t hold a grudge against Bravely Default for pulling this stunt. Imagine, if you will, that you’re on vacation in Venice. Suddenly, a flash flood rushes through, leaving everything but your head submerged. While you might be up to your neck in water, hey, you’re still in Venice. When the water recedes, all is forgiven. Similarly, while a decent number of late-game hours in Bravely Default may be frustrating, you’re still playing one of the most enjoyable Japanese RPGs in recent years, and while the final few hours didn’t excuse the repetition, they did soften the blow and definitely got me excited for the (hopefully localized) sequel. There’s a reason my game clock reads 100 hours—and why, even after admittedly feeling a little used and abused, I’m still eager to return to the world of Luxendarc.
|Developer: Square Enix, Silicon Studo • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 02.07.2014|
Bravely Default is a reminder that classic Final Fantasy themes and gameplay elements are timeless in the right hands. Unfortunately, its later segments are some of the worst examples of unnecessary padding in RPG history. All told, it’s a flawed masterpiece that shows more potential than any other current Square Enix RPG property.
|The Good||Tweaks classic 8- and 16-bit Final Fantasy entries and delivers a thoroughly modern JRPG experience; two of your party members are charming, sassy, and fun.|
|The Bad||One of the worst penultimate segments in JRPG history; two of your party members are wet blankets; lots of grinding.|
|The Ugly||The Ranger job’s wolf mask makes your character look like they’re heading to Anthrocon.|
|Bravely Default is a 3DS exclusive.|