Developer: Silicon Studio/Square-Enix
Release Date: February 7, 2014
ESRB: T for Teen
It feels like every other year I hear about some new game being hyped up to recapture the spirit of â€œclassicâ€ Final Fantasy entries. We have seen games like Lost Odyssey for Xbox 360, and The Last Story for the Wii—both intending to be spiritual successor to Final Fantasy but having very different approaches to the concept. While both were generally positively regarded and had prolific figures like Hironobu Sakiguchi and Nobuo Uematsu behind them, neither game seemed to maintain too much steam beyond a passionate cult-following. Whether it be the official numbered titles that continuously cast aside their dignity or those trying to recapture the spirit under a different name, many "Final Fantasy" games seem to possibly lack or understand that proud sheen that the series once had.
With that in mind, we now finally get to see Bravely Default: Where the Fairy Flies arrive on the 3DS after much delay from its 2012 Japanese launch. Originally intended to be a spiritual successor to the DS“s Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, Bravely Default has since then shifted into a much bigger passion project in order to forge its own identity. In doing so, the game intends to blend the classic mentality of older Final Fantasy entries and have a more modern progressive design. Is Bravely Default the very thing that many RPG fans have been yearning for, or is it a airy-fairy in its pursuit of nostalgia from the past?
In not-so-subtle homage style, the setting prefaces with the description of the four crystals: Water, Earth, Wind, and Fire, which dictate the balance of the world. Each crystal has become corrupted by a powerful darkness, causing the land to erode, seas to rot, skies to stand still, volcanoes to constantly erupt, and thus leading the world to decay and become increasingly less habitual. It is for this reason that a lone holy priestess (or "Vestal" in in-game terms), Agnes, seeks to purify the crystals and help save the world of Luxendarc.
For anyone who has played any of the early numbered Final Fantasy entries, the setup should sound quite familiar. The setting will only increasingly sound familiar for RPG fans as it introduces the rest of the cast: Like Tiz, a lone survivor of a destroyed village, or Edea, an individual with a strong sense of justice, and lastly, the amnesiac Ringabel. If that doesn't seem hit every old-school RPG trope, I don't know what else would. That is, until you mention the gameplay as well. It is very old-school in its structure through the use of turn-based battles, random encounters, and even having an overworld-styled map for traversal. In this sense, Bravely Default goes all the way in its attempt to hit the classic notes from RPGs of yore.
That said, that would simply be a surface-level view of the game—what makes Bravely Default special is actually far more so under the hood. It intentionally plays with nostalgic tropes and subtlety adds progressive elements throughout.
Despite the traditional turn-based combat system, the "Brave" and "Default" mechanics add two very interesting layers to battles. "Brave" is essentially the ability to use future 'turns' in advance for combat and can be stacked up to three times, but if carelessly used the character is left in a cooldown state for as many extra turns used. On the other spectrum is "Default", which serves as passive defensive turn normally, but also gives the player one free action to use the following turn. This leads to a simple, but strategically implemented battle system that makes it sort of surprising we have not seen some variation of this concept in other turn-based RPGs.
There are a lot of smart, but subtle, conveniences throughout. Random encounters—a source of grief due to their archaic design nowadays—are now completely optional. At any point point you can change the encounter rate to 2X the normal rate or even have no battles at all. One can also hasten in-game battle animations up to 4x speed, or pausing/slowing them down entirely at any time to approach battles at your pace.
Borrowing just about the only good aspect from Final Fantasy III or V (yeah, I went there), the title has an absolutely dense job/class system. Ranging from over twenty classes with many interchangeable abilities, the job system lends to a ton of flexibility in a party's composition.
The most unique features of Bravely Default has be with how it utilizes the streetpass and online functionality, such as "ablink", "friend summon", and the rebuilding of Norende aspects. "Friend summon" allows a player to send a skill of their choice (with a custom name and catchphrase) to another person's game, and is received online or from streetpasses. Which, I admit, there is something that is very oddly cool seeing somebody else's character randomly help you during a tough battle to deal damage or heal your party. In extension to this concept is the "ablink" functionality, where a player can borrow job skills/abilities from fellow people on their 3DS friends list, which is honestly more helpful than it should be.
Also, in an effort to rebuild Tiz's hometown, Norende, there is even a Farmville-esque minigame where you get free items at regular intervals, or new and better equipment to purchase at certain shops based on real-time. This strange mini-game process only gets faster as you acquire more streetpasses or connect online daily. While it may sound shady and limiting, it leads to something that is deviously engaging when it comes to checking your 3DS regularly, like most of the streetpass/online features.
Not all of the more unique elements are tied to gameplay, however, and there are even some that creatively utilize the narrative. The character Ringabel is a great example of playing with the tired amnesiac cliche in Japanese-RPGs: He's outgoing, an unapologetic womanizer (granted, really excessively so for the first half), and not actually terribly concerned with having lost his memory and is frequently shrugging it off with humor. But later on—more so than any other character in the main cast—he develops and matures, and he's not even the "main character."
Even seemingly miscellaneous story aspects are handled in an interesting way. Early in, the party obtains a diary, referred to D's Journal, which is used both as an encyclopedia of information and as a narrative device for foreshadowing future narrative events to come. Looking at it, however, is completely optional, despite being used to flesh out certain character backstories or parts of the setting in some surprisingly in-depth ways.
Some of the more intriguing moments of the narrative are actually built into â€œSidequests." They primarily provide context toward getting new and optional character class jobs, but their narrative vignettes are often times a fair amount darker in tone comparison to the main story, and also help wrap up certain narrative loose ends. While some sidequests are handled better than others, they often times serve as the more engaging alternative to the main story that plays it far too familiar and predictable most of the time.
As much as it disappoints me to say—as seemingly aware as Bravely Default appears to be about its tropes—it actually falls under the trapping of its own narrative cliches by relying on them too heavily. Even if I'd argue Ringabel is handled well, the rest of the cast fails to evolve too much beyond their character archetypes, with Tiz and Agnes easily being the biggest examples. This goes almost double for most of the bloated main storytelling that is both predictable and very, very repetitive.
Following the main storytelling, one other aspect is handled really poorly, and this is the absolutely glaring padding in the second half of experience. I don“t just mean the pacing slows down later on—which is almost expected in many RPGs—but you quite literally repeat the same content multiple times (four times, specifically) with minor alterations. Not just familiar content, but exact same bosses, general story scenes, sidequests (while they may cool the first time, not so much multiple times...), and even a tedious button-mashy mini-game. It is vexing and dull not only from a gameplay perspective but also in regards to narrative.
I may be exaggerating the extremity of the story repetition for the average player (although, I'm not for myself, who did every sidequest, and found it to be seriously that bad), but it also helped emphasize some of the game's other flaws in the long-term. For as nice as it is to be able to fast-forward the battle animations, battles are still rather slow overall and most bosses in particular are significant damage sponges to make them last even longer (many of which are repeated because of narrative reasons). Not just that, but the dungeon design is also very uninspired for the entire game without any particularly creative themes or puzzles to accompany them, making the core gameplay rely almost entirely on the gameplay systems surrounding it.
Pushing aside some of the disappointment/complaints the game brings, Bravely Default is quite rich with style both in terms of its audio and visuals. The chibi-ish character designs may not appeal to everyone, but Akihiko Yoshida's art style generally present a charmingly nostalgic visual look and the distinct environments serve to complement. What really steals the show is the music, which is excellent. There is a lot of variety with the musical score with plenty of intense battle themes, catchy character tunes, eclectic town pieces, with some of the final tracks of the soundtrack being an amazing culmination of all of them.
Bravely Default is absolutely on the cusp of greatness, or possibly beyond, but it is hindered mostly by the immensely repetitive slog that is the second half of the game and storytelling that fails to significantly evolve its scope or most of its characters much. It has the core tenants for a very well-crafted RPG experience with its great job system, progressive features, creative use of system functionality, excellent musical score, and is rich with style and charm. In some ways, it may very well be one of the most accurate examples of many Japanese-RPGs nowadays: In some instances it embodies the genre at its best, but it also plays it far too safe.
+ Dense job/class customization and simple, but smart, turn-based combat
+ Very creative use of streetpass functionality and online friends list
+ Certain sidequest story arcs and character journal entries are engaging
+Excellent music and nostalgic art direction
+ Random Encounter Rate Slider
- Main narrative and most characters are excessively â€œhomageâ€/predictable
- Bland overall dungeon design
- Battles are still a bit too slow even after toggling with faster animation speed
- Extremely tedious padding in the later half of the game that gets really repetitive both narratively and gameplay-wise
Overall Score: 7 (out of 10)
Bravely Default is endearing in the many RPG facets it excels in. However, when it falters, it unfortunately diminishes what it means to be the one of the very best RPG experiences on 3DS.