People sure have been making a big fuss about Bravely Default. After lots of campaigning for a Western release, it finally arrived, and I think it was worth the wait. Bravely Default is like a visitor from a parallel universe, a beautiful place where Final Fantasy XIII never happened and Final Fantasy continued to be excellent. Bravely Default marries the almost inherently conservative JRPG tropes with some intriguing gameplay and story undermining of genre tropes to launch what may be the most exciting new JRPG franchise in years.
Bravely Default appears, at first, to be tiresomely generic. A cataclysm strikes the farming village of Norende, with the only survivor being the young Tiz Arrior. He flees to the nearby Kingdom of Caldisla to seek the aid of the King, and soon encounters Agnes Oblige, the Vestal of Wind who is tasked with guarding the ‘Wind Crystal’, one of four crystals which support the world and the elements they match. The Crystals have failed, and Agnes is seeking help in re-awakening them, with the assistance of a fairy named, er…Airy. However, the Vestals are being hunted by the Duchy of Eternia, the most militarily and technologically advanced land in the world, who are opposed to ‘Crystalism’ and seek to end humanity’s reliance on the crystals. Tiz and Agnes are joined on their quest to re-awaken the crystals by Ringabel, an amnesiac lecher, and Edea, the daughter of the Eternian Grand Marshal who has defected following the cruelty of her colleagues.
Reading that, you’d be forgiven for expecting a tiring parade of JRPG clichés. Crystals? Check. Amnesia? Check. Destruction of home village? Check. The thing is, Bravely Default is well aware of this and manages to weave a genuinely compelling and interesting narrative with all of these familiar ingredients. Sure, you’re seen all of these ingredients before, but you’ve never seen them put together like this. Not everything is as it seems, and Bravely Default has a lot of fun undermining your expectations. Although I wasn’t necessarily too bothered about our central pair of Tiz and Agnes, the genuinely funny Ringabel and charmingly aggressive Edea make up for it. There’s a great supporting cast of weird and wonderful villains, who vary from entertainingly diabolical, to confusing and weird, to tragic and sympathetic. My one criticism is that it doesn’t feel like Tiz has a huge amount of agency during the story, and feels like a supporting character in his own game.
So, if you’re not a fan of classic JRPG tropes like turn based battling and granular statistics, you won’t enjoy Bravely Default. However, if you like these things, hell, even tolerate them, you’ll like Bravely Default. The main gameplay innovations in Bravely Default are the battle and job systems. Bravely Default treats ‘turns’ as a resource, with ‘defaulting’ saving up turns to be used later, and raising defence for that turn. You can stack up to four turns, to then ‘brave’ and use those turns all at once. You can also borrow turns ahead of time, creating a move deficit meaning that you cannot make any actions until you reach zero again, leaving you defenceless. Bravely Default’s combat therefore has a pretty fascinating risk/reward mechanic, with the conservative tactic of saving up moves vying against the temptation to finish enemies quickly through a volley of attacks. It sounds like a minor addition, but it makes Bravely Default feel completely distinct from anything else on the market.
The other major mechanic is the job system, which is probably closest to that in Final Fantasy Tactics. Jobs are levelled up distinctly from EXP, and with each level offer either an active or passive skill. Active skills are actual moves that can be used in battle, and passive skills are always active buffs which affect the character as long as they are equipped, although there are limited slots. Finding the right combination of active and passive powers offers a huge amount of strategy, and reduces the need for constant grinding. Your level isn’t nearly as important as your job and your equipment, which makes a nice change from empty levelling. Another lovely addition is the interesting flexibility that Bravely Default offers, such as tinkering with encounter rates and battle speed. It’s one of those tiny things that I will find intolerable if it isn’t in every JRPG from now on.
Probably the biggest problem with Bravely Default is the final few hours, which are unbelievably repetitive and dull. They’re justified for some really interesting plot reasons, but it doesn’t change the fact that the final hours were a slog, which I could only get through by doing something else at the same time. It’s a difficult conflict between story and gameplay, and I have to wonder if there was a better way to have managed this. Bravely Default also contains some truly hideous micro-transactions, which whilst depressing are easy enough to do without. It’s horrible to see this kind of thing in a game like this, but, well, it could have been worse.
Bravely Default has some beautiful hand-drawn environments, particularly in the major cities, but they’re few and far between. The majority of dungeons are pretty bland looking, and the character models aren’t too pretty either. When you do enter the beautiful hand-drawn areas, your chibi styled polygonal heroes look ridiculous and out of place, like visitors from another, less pretty game. However, the lacking visuals are more than made up for by the lovely sound. A great soundtrack is a key JRPG ingredient, and Bravely Default probably has the loveliest soundtrack on the 3DS.The voice acting is generally quite good too, particularly for Edea and Ringabel. There’s a fair bit of hamminess and standard JRPG voice acting silliness, but by and large I was impressed more than I was annoyed.
Bravely Default is the first great JRPG for the console, and one of the best in recent memory. It understands what the Final Fantasy series doesn’t, that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, the gamer friendly changes and adjustments are going to be just as welcome in this modern age, without the need to abandon everything good about a genre. It’s not perfect, but if you own a 3DS and haven’t enjoyed a JRPG in a while, Bravely Default is for you.