By Andrew Fultz
Game: Bravely Default
Publisher: Square Enix
Console: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: February 7th, 2014
Bravely Default comes from a publisher whose track record with JRPGs is nearly unrivaled. You don’t have to search far for someone whose favorite game of all-time has a title that begins with “Final,” ends with a number, and has “Fantasy” in the middle. Ask for a top five, and you’ll almost certainly hear Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger mentioned. From the SNES to the PS2, few video games compare to the heights that Final Fantasy achieved over the course of seven main series installments and several spinoffs (FF Tactics, anyone?). In fact, Final Fantasy’s string of success is so great it is one of only a few franchises that have enough great entries to allow for a conversation beginning with “Which is your favorite ?”
So it may come as a surprise when I tell you that Bravely Default, published by FF publisher Square Enix, is the best Final Fantasy game in the last decade. Depending on how you felt about 2001’s Final Fantasy X, it could be the best FF in 15 years or more. That’s the height that Bravely Default reaches. At its best, Bravely Default soars above its recent Japanese RPG (JRPG) counterparts.
This success begins with its innovative battle system, which puts a spin on traditional turn-based battles. The titular system allows you to “Brave” and make an extra attack in a turn, or “Default” and save a Battle Point (BP) for another turn. Managing these BP invites several different approaches to battles, especially against the game’s many bosses. Do you risk leaving yourself vulnerable for three turns by going for the jugular and Brave three times, hoping to quickly take out your enemies? Or do you hold off on your attacks and take the more defensive Default route, storing your BP to be unleashed at once? The strategy quickly becomes engrossing as you try and predict what your enemy will do and respond accordingly.
Another addition to the traditional turn-based battle is the inclusion of customizable special moves. Depending on your weapon of choice, you can meet certain criteria through battle to make a character’s special move(s) available. These moves can deal heavy damage, and also provide stat boosts to your party for the duration of the battle theme song that plays after a special move. (As an aside, the entire soundtrack is wonderful.) If you chain different character’s special moves in subsequent turns, you can stack these stat bonuses, making your party a force to be reckoned with. Keeping these stat boosts becomes imperative in boss fights, leading to a few tense moments where you’re tempted to try and speed through another turn before activating the next special move, hoping that you can get as many turns as possible out of the stat bonuses.
Perhaps the key strategy component for Bravely Default’s battle system comes from its dense job system. Offering 20 different job classes, you’ll likely never find yourself without a character aiming to master a given job. Once you get a few under your belt, you’ll be pleasantly overwhelmed with all the combinations of abilities and cross-class combinations you can put together to topple your enemies. The job system is so vast that I found a few different combinations that rendered entire enemy factions completely harmless (more on that in a bit).
But enough about the battle system, what about the story?
Any JRPG worth its sauce tells some kind of compelling story, and Bravely Default accomplishes that, at least to some degree. I personally predicted the twist before I even started the game, but its lack of surprises doesn’t lessen its story’s impact. The overarching story may be predictable, but the game makes its impact with its character arcs. Each of the four party members undergoes change and matures over the 50 or so hours you spend with them. With each arc I found myself proud of the character for reaching a new level of enlightenment and understanding. It’s also certainly worth noting that the story spares us one of JRPGs most overused tropes, the angsty, emo, teenage main character.
Speaking of those tropes, despite the genre’s greatest success stories, most all JRPGs find ways to annoy the player. Random encounters become a nuisance. Repetitive battle animations grow stale. Overpowered bosses necessitate hours of grinding. Bravely Default manages to lessen, if not eradicate, the impact of some of these tropes. Tired of random encounters? BD gives you the option to turn them off. Struggling with a boss and need to level up? You also have the option to double the amount of enemies you encounter on the map. Battles starting to feel sluggish? Turn the battle speed up two or four times as fast and watch the many grinding hours become slightly less grinding hours.
Only slightly less hours though, because you will grind if you want to beat this game. And despite the developer’s best efforts, those battles will start to feel repetitive. At one point, I was completely overmatched on my way to opening one of the final job classes. I had leveled up to the point that I wasn’t getting enough experience to make the battles worthwhile, but I still couldn’t move forward. That is, until I found one of those combinations of job class abilities (mentioned above) that essentially break the game, depending on the type of enemy you face. This one, in particular, rendered all physical attackers (i.e. half of your enemies) completely harmless, and soon, I was on my way through the story with my 19th job class.
Unfortunately, that progress was nearly stopped again, albeit for a different reason. As the story progresses, the entire game starts to grow tiresome.
More than once, I had to force myself onward. I can’t say more without giving away spoilers, but the game doesn’t do itself any favors when it comes to eliminating repetition. For some reason, the story just stops progressing for about the entire third fourth of the game.
Seriously. It just stopped.
Sure, some interesting things happened, but essentially, nothing really happened. I was forced to soldier on and watch as the characters did what even they seemed to think was a bad idea. Repetition after repetition, with only some subtle changes, I continued. Only to really find out that several battles I fought had been rendered to little more than grinding. I can’t say how that worked without spoiling the story, but it basically comes down to an interesting, if not very questionable, design choice.
That design flaw isn’t enough to keep me from highly recommending this game, though. The first half and final sequences make up for the lackluster portion, and the job system and Brave/Default battle mechanics never got old. Even with its lows, Bravely Default accomplishes what Final Fantasy hasn’t accomplished in a decade: a competent, well told story with party members the player cares about, and a battle system that should be copied by other developers. Bravely Default isn’t just one of the best JRPGs of the year, it’s one of the best games of the year.
Should you buy it? Yes.
+ The job system and battle mechanics are top notch, providing a new spin on a tried and true formula
– An otherwise excellent story gets bogged down by too much repetition in the middle.
If this review didn’t convince you, but you have a 3DS, at least download the free demo and see what you think. From start to finish, the demo is about 10 hours and is not a part of the main story, so playing the actual game isn’t spoiled.
Is It Better Than:
Chrono Trigger (SNES, DS)? No, and it’s not really close. Bravely Default does almost everything that Chrono Trigger did, just not as well. Chrono Trigger’s story never overstayed its welcome, and its party members are still remembered fondly. While you could argue that BD wins with its battle system, ultimately, Chrono Trigger wins.
Persona 4 Golden (PS2, Vita)? No. Choose any game with characters that you cared about, and I’ll assure you I cared about P4G’s more. The story is more engrossing, and the dungeons are much more interesting. Bravely Default’s battle system probably wins again, but that doesn’t outweigh all the other intricacies that make Persona 4 special.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (PS3)? Yes. Pretty much everything a traditional Final Fantasy fan hates about where the series is now will be glad to know Bravely Default doesn’t have the majority of those faults. As I said before, it’s the best Final Fantasy game in over a decade.