If there’s one thing famed RPG developer Square Enix cannot be accused of, it’s failing to change over time. The early Final Fantasy titles were an exercise in optimistic grandeur, their idyllic landscapes serving as the stage for huge, epic quests filled with wonder and discovery. As of late, however, the company seems to have shed this motif for something broodier; angst-filled characters battle in bleak, futuristic settings, arguably eschewing that wide-eyed sense of exploration to focus on flashy cutscenes and edgy narratives. It surely comes as a relief to some, then, that Bravely Default harkens back to the JRPG genre’s wide-eyed roots, but with enough modern twists to keep the experience fresh.
At first glance, Bravely Default appears every bit the archetypal RPG adventure; four stalwart heroes travel the land to reawaken four magical crystals, honing their abilities by battling any woodland creature or monster foolish enough to cross their path. However, Bravely Default’s simple yet unique tweaks to the standard turn-based formula, gorgeous visual presentation and engaging gameplay flexibility make the title much more than a simple nostalgia cash-in for RPG aficionados.
Battles are entirely turn-based; actions for each character are selected from a menu, a target adversary is chosen, and the melee unfolds once every character has been assigned an action. However, the game’s distinctive twist is the eponymous Bravely Default system, a series of player choices that allows for much greater nuance than the standard JRPG's rigid fare. Each action a character takes costs at least one 'Brave Point', which is automatically awarded at the beginning of each turn. If the number of BP a character possesses is in negative numbers after this point is bestowed, they are unable to act until their BP total reaches nil. A player can choose to ‘Default’, both bolstering their defence for a single turn and costing zero BP, effectively granting them an additional Brave Point once their next turn rolls around. Conversely, a combatant can choose to claim their Brave Points in advance, allowing them to take up to four actions during one turn but immobilising them until their tally reaches zero once again.
If this sounds complex, take heart – the developers masterfully ease the player into this system, allowing them to grasp it at their own pace. Very early portions of the game can be cleared by simply ignoring the Bravely Default system, the player able to succeed simply by using the BP as they are bestowed and taking one turn at a time, à la traditional JRPGs. The game then provides helpful mini-quests to introduce the mechanics of the Bravely Default system, rewarding the player with restorative items or money for using the ‘Brave’ and ‘Default’ commands for the first time. This allows even RPG novices to master the mechanics and before long utilising the system to its fullest comes naturally, introducing a strategic risk/reward element to what could otherwise be tedious battles.
In a nod to Final Fantasy, each character is assigned a ‘job' which determines their current skills and stats, with more unlocked as the story progresses and side quests are completed. These jobs are levelled separately to the characters themselves, encouraging experimentation and combination of several different roles to see what works. In conjunction with the Bravely Default system this flexibility allows for a myriad of different strategies to be implemented - failure rarely feels unfair or a result of insufficient grinding for experience points, but rather an invitation to rethink the current party setup. Several bosses may at first seem unassailable, but a quick review of each character’s role and equipment is normally enough to secure victory.
If the game does prove too challenging at points, however, an option to alter the difficulty mid-game is helpfully included, along with the ability to increase or decrease the random encounter rate when necessary. Battles can also be sped-up during play, alleviating the boredom of battling several of the same enemies in quick succession, which proves to be an extremely useful function during a particularly lengthy play session. It’s this thoughtful design that sets Bravely Default apart from its lineage – the game may be thematically similar to its early Final Fantasy cousins, but is careful to avoid any of the frustrating or tedious trappings associated with those titles.
Visually, Bravely Default is stunning, the subdued watercolour vistas an incentive for players to explore and see as much of this gorgeous world as possible. Traversing one of the towns is akin to walking through a painting, every pre-rendered alleyway and hand-drawn building imbuing a sense of magic and nostalgia. Character models take on a super-deformed style, the cute and simple aesthetic working well for the game’s setting, whilst cutscenes and special attacks are a dazzling display of graphical horsepower. The 3D effect works well, to a point, but cranked up to the maximum it can prove to be rather overpowering – moderation is definitely key here. The music is sufficient if a little unmemorable, with the battle theme being charming enough that it (thankfully) does not begin to grate. The game contains full voice-acting, which is by and large given at least proficiently; some melodramatic deliveries by dutiful protagonist Agnes can be somewhat groan-inducing, but are more than balanced by the excellent self-assured quips of amnesiac lothario Ringabel.
Without going into specific detail, the plot of Bravely Default is entertaining if somewhat cliché, a fitting tribute to RPGs of bygone days, with protagonist hometowns destroyed and other similar tropes in full force. The game flits effortlessly between the dire seriousness of our heroes’ task with the comedy of their dysfunctional party’s dynamics, resulting in a story with an epic scope but a sense of fun to match. The adventure itself lasts somewhere in the vicinity of 40 hours; it’s pleasing to note that Square Enix has elected to consolidate the experience into an entirely entertaining length, rather than pad the game with superfluous time-wasting in an effort to increase the duration of the game. It may not be the longest JRPG available, but when an entire game is as entertaining as Bravely Default is, it proves difficult to complain.
In all honesty, the only genuine gripe that can be aimed towards Bravely Default is regarding its unfortunate implementation of micro-transactions, but even these are fairly unobtrusive. Players can pause a battle at any moment to take extra turns, expending SP rather than BP and potentially changing the flow of the encounter. SP are accrued by leaving the system in sleep mode, with one point gained for every 8 hours the system is in standby. However, for a nominal amount of real world currency players can purchase ‘SP Drinks’, replenishing their total and allowing for more frequent use of this powerful ability. This will no doubt causes alarm bells to ring for many ardent RPG fans who will see this money-making ploy as a type of ‘pay-to-win’ service, and admittedly it is hard to see this strategy as anything other than a cash-grab on Square Enix’s part. Thankfully, the game has not been designed to be so difficult as to outright require using this service, and most players can disregard this system as soon as it is introduced. As leaving the system in sleep mode also allows progress on rebuilding the protagonist’s razed village, in turn providing access to more items and abilities, SP genuinely accumulates without much intervention from the player regardless.
There’s much to be said in praise of Bravely Default, perhaps too much to fit into a single review. What must be relayed, however, is that Bravely Default stands as an absolute triumph of both game design and the reinvigoration of old concepts, claiming its rightful place as a giant in the JRPG genre that will surely be remembered as a classic in years to come. Any 3DS owner with even a fleeting interest in role-playing games and a desire to get lost in an incredible, engaging adventure would be doing themselves a huge favour by picking up Bravely Default without delay.