Bravely Default is an incredibly polarising game. At its core, the gameplay is deep and rewarding and is a true testament to Square Enix’s mastery over the JRPG genre. Despite being a turn based RPG, the ‘brave’ and ‘default’ systems add fantastic risk/reward to the age-old formula. It makes the battle system feel unique and adds more weight to each character’s actions creating a real sense of push and pull in every battle. In addition to a fantastic battle system, the game makes a number of really smart decisions in often overlooked departments like being able to change encounter rate / battle speed on the fly, intuitive navigation options through a cohesive UI and an addictive town building streetpass game that gives your party all sorts of useful perks. They don’t seem like much but these smart little decisions all really add up. Bravely Default contains all the goods to be a phenomenal game but the experience is tarnished by abysmal pacing, bloating the latter half of what was already a lengthy and fleshed out experience. It has made some of the smartest decisions in recent JRPG history but unfortunately, for all the smart decision that was made, the latter half of the game breaks the experience with unnecessary grind, making this is difficult to recommend for those not tolerant of this dated JRPG staple.
It should be said straight away that Bravely Default is a challenging game and pushes players a lot further than the usual kill mobs, take down boss, progress to next town song and dance. There are two main hooks to the battle system that make it stand out from other titles in the genre; the ‘brave’ and ‘default’ systems which act as a means to gamble or store additional turns throughout battles and a job system, which is expanded on throughout the game and is used to customize your party whenever you see fit (similar to that of Final Fantasy III). To shake up the traditional turn-based formula, if you ‘brave’ a turn, you are able to perform additional actions (up to 4) in one turn, with the drawback then being that you are forced to wait additional turns before you can act again. Alternatively, ‘default’ is your traditional defend command with the added bonus of being able to store up to 4 turns to brave later on with less recovery. As the game progresses the use of this system becomes more and more important and is a fundamental part of the battle system’s depth. Did your healer brave 4 times to resurrect your whole party? You’re down a healer for 4 turns after that, so the onus is then on the rest of your party to survive. The best part of this mechanic is that enemies, particularly bosses, use this system quite extensively. In addition to the usual health and mana balancing act, seeing how many turns both you and the boss have saved up becomes an incredibly important part of the battle. There are other cool little additions to the battle system, like being able to use a character’s turn that a friend has saved and sent via streetpass alongside the usual magic and item affair. These are all introduced at a steady pace and you never feel overwhelmed when learning about these systems. The game helps you grasp all the concepts very well and has you using them all in fights in no time.
The game’s job system is downright addictive and the freedom you have to customize your party is impressively expansive. At the beginning of the game, only a couple of jobs are given to your party and progressing through main and side quests steadily grants you more. Slowly as bosses get tougher, you’re given more and more options and finding the right balance of damage / support / healing becomes a crucial part of developing your party. This game is tough; bosses aren’t going to go down to brainlessly grinding and out-leveling them. You’re going to have to drastically change up your strategy from boss to boss. Some might have ridiculous physical damage that try and pick off your party members one by one while others might sit and charge single attacks that if you’re not prepared for, wipe your entire party in one hit. It makes each fight seem like a mini puzzle and as you grind out your characters, you’re constantly trying to see how you can implement newly acquired jobs onto your team to deal with the next boss. Even jobs that you aren’t using but have levelled up grant influential passive abilities you can equip. These passives range from negating damage of a particular element to granting mastery over weapons to classes that would otherwise be unable to use them (an example of this would be giving a hard hitting class something with more accuracy to further up the damage output). The appearance of each character changes depending on what job they have equipped, which is a really nice touch. Each character has a unique outfit for each of the game’s 24 jobs and it’s another way the game makes the experience your own. Unfortunately, despite handy features like being able to repeat all actions from your last turn and x4 battle speed there is quite a bit of grinding in this game. However, you’re grinding with purpose and while it doesn’t completely take away from the tedium, the freedom you have to experiment with job builds is addictive, which certainly eases things a bit.
The story of Bravely Default follows many of the usual tropes you would expect from a JRPG but expands into so much more and was easily one of the most compelling parts of the journey. You follow Tiz, Agnés, Edea and Ringabel (who of course, has lost his memory) as they try to awaken the four crystals of the world to vanquish an evil threat. It’s a story that’s been told many times before, but their interactions with each other and the many minor characters add a lot to help you get invested. Whether it’s the added satisfaction that comes with defeating a particularly malicious boss or watching a favourite side character fall, there’s a real draw to progress as you become invested in the characters. Complimenting this, the side quests are so much more than off the path ‘kill x mobs’ distractions to fill time before the progressing to the next plot point. These side quests often follow characters substantial to the game’s plot and conflicts that add real weight to your journey. One quest may have you uncovering an enemy mine run by captured children and the next may have you unearthing a corrupt government in a town that you had thought to be saved. There’s a real draw to these quests whether it be the sheer thrill of hunting down another job or being given further back story to both major and minor characters. This is all wrapped up nicely by fantastic voice acting, which have a variety of options. You’re able to toggle between the English and Japanese voices, toggle subtitles and you can re-watch cut-scenes at any point. This all brings together an enjoyable tale that compliments the gameplay nicely and makes the adventure feel truly grand.
Bravely Default’s soundtrack is fantastic and was easily the most memorable part of the game for me. It comes from composer Revo and Japanese band Sound Horizon (known best for the opening themes for the anime adaption of “Attack on Titan”) and while it’s exactly what you’d expect from a fantasy RPG setting, it’s got that polish and charm we’ve come to love from Square Enix soundtracks. From the epic orchestration to accompany you through the game’s expansive overworld to the grungy metal in the game’s tense boss fights, the soundtrack delivers from start to finish.
The town building mini-game is a tremendous use of the streetpass functionality, as it allows you to grow your party even when you’re not playing. It involves using streetpass hits to re-build the town of Norende and it rewards you with a number of in-game perks for doing so. The more villagers you have, the faster buildings get completed which grants you anything from buffs on special moves to armour and weapons. It’s a great little addition that has significant bearing on gameplay throughout the journey and is one of my favourite uses of streetpass to date. Fortunately those without access to local streetpasses aren’t left out in the dark completely. Once a day you’re able to ‘net-invite’ a small number of people, effectively streetpassing over the Internet.
There was massive backlash when news surfaced that the game would include optional in-app purchases but for the most part these are completely avoidable. The system, named ‘bravely second’ allows you to ignore the current turn count and give a character additional turns based on how much SP you have saved up (up to 4 turns, like in normal play). SP can be acquired in one of two ways; either having kept the game in sleep-mode for 8 hours at a time (note: this must be done in-game meaning you can’t get traditional street-passes when doing this) or through an additional purchase of 99 cents per SP. The game also puts an arbitrary damage cap of 9999 for each normal turn and using ‘bravely second’ allows you to circumvent this, though this really wasn’t an issue for me at any point in the game. When the system is used, character’s dialogue break the fourth wall in the most obnoxious way possible, saying things like ‘you can gain SP by putting the system in sleep mode!’ or ‘I heard it’s possible to get SP without waiting!’ It’s a pretty lazy cash grab by Square Enix and the game would be much better off without it, but it’s completely avoidable so it doesn’t detract from the final product too much.
All other complaints I have about the game are negligible to the game’s terrible pacing towards the end of the game, which makes it hard for me to flat out recommend this game to all RPG fans. As you progress through to what you would expect to be the game’s climax, the world is reverted to how it appeared at the beginning of the game, with all areas for you to re-clear almost completely without explanation. This would have been barely passable in the 16-bit era but begrudgingly I was able to find forgiveness for the game because up until that point the journey had been so great. The real kicker here is that the game makes you do this an additional 4 times meaning that you’re effectively clearing the world 5 times with no story or gameplay progression. It makes for an incredibly mundane 15 hours of grinding and almost turned me off playing entirely. It’s a design decision that doesn’t make any sense, the game was lengthy enough without it and all it really did was start to burn me out on the gameplay hooks that I had fallen in love with up to that point. It doesn’t destroy the experience entirely, but if you’re not particularly patient for that level of grind this could be the deal breaker because it’s a significant amount of the player’s time that is just wasted.
Bravely Default has made some of the smartest decisions in recent JRPG history, but the pacing could be the deal breaker if you’re not ready for it’s appalling levels of grind. The gameplay is fantastic and I absolutely believe that there is a future for this franchise, which is saying something for a turn-based RPG in the year 2014. It’s a shame that despite having such well-crafted gameplay, it doesn’t necessarily deliver the best experience and started to burn me out on gameplay mechanics that I had found myself addicted to for much of the game’s journey. This isn’t a game that’s going to win you over if JRPGs aren’t your thing, and if the idea of large amounts of grind puts you off a game then this probably isn’t for you either. If you’re looking for an incredibly deep, well-made and lengthy JRPG and are willing to power through some tedious and out of place passages, you’re absolutely in for one of the best experience’s the genre has had to offer in recent years. Looking back my experience with Bravely Default was overall a positive one, and I’m excited to see what Square Enix has to offer with the franchise in the future.