In my early gaming days, the SNES and PlayStation iterations of Final Fantasy were the pinnacle of role playing greatness. While Tidus, Yuna, and the rest of the PS2 crew holds a special place in my heart, there was nothing like making not one, but three PSOne motors burn out due to marathons collecting materia, junctioning spells, treasure hunting with chocobos, juggling classes, and watching a sadistic clown take over the world. It was tough watching the transition of the series as it became a shell of its former self, yet there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Even if it doesn't quite share the name, Bravely Default embodies the Final Fantasy series tremendously well, modernizing the traditional turn-based gameplay and managing to feel much more like Final Fantasy than any of the past five or six numbered console releases in the process.
Bravely Default borrows from the pages of the Final Fantasy series' past with a plot that centers around the four crystals, world catastrophes, and a deep and varied cast of characters brimming with personality. With corruption filling the land due to the four elemental crystals succumbing to darkness, Luxendarc is plagued by a series of disasters that ultimately brings together our four heroes - Tiz, a young adult who just witnessed the disappearance of his brother and entire village into a chasm; Agnès, the vestal (or guardian) of the Wind Crystal who is traveling the world in search of a reason for the chaos; Ringabel, a man in possession of a mysterious journal detailing the group's future escapades; and Edea, the daughter of a ruthless leader of a group seemingly set upon ushering chaos into Luxendarc.
While it might seem like standard JRPG fare, many well-scripted and surprise twists await those who see the game through to its true ending, which itself involves multiple realities and saving the crystals from their fate no less than four times. Having to save the crystals four times to watch the true ending unfold feels a bit redundant, but the pay-off is worthwhile, and a large number of side quests and numerous opportunities for character development through a party chat system help to keep the adventure interesting.
Bravely Default features all the classic mechanics of its spiritual brethren, complete with overworld, random encounters, shops to buy items, equipment, and spells from, and many different towns and dungeons to explore. Numerous options also allow you to tailor the gameplay to your own tastes; the difficulty can be changed at any point, battles can be sped up and, perhaps most importantly, the amount of random encounters you’ll face can be adjusted, making it much easier to grind out a couple of levels if need be by raising encounters to double the rate, or travel around much faster when lost or back-tracking by eliminating them altogether. While grinding is generally unnecessary unless you’re playing on hard mode or you’re skipping a majority of the sub-quests (which I don’t recommend, since the rewards are better jobs), being able to customize how many random encounters the party fights is a great addition, and one that could become a staple of the genre in the years to come.
Also receiving the modernization treatment is the combat system. Rather than simply dishing out commands turn after turn, your party also has the option to Default, or defend, as well as use the Brave command, which will allow you to act up to four times per turn. Defaulting also raises how many times you can act per turn (Battle Points), with each action using at least one Battle Point, and other more powerful attacks or abilities using two or even three BP. Combat becomes much more strategic as you have complete control over how many times party members can act each turn.
Many of the game's boss battles require you to Default in order to build up some BP, while also defending against otherwise insta-kill attacks. If you rely too heavily on the Brave command, you’ll be forced to wait to act until your BP has gotten out of the negative and back to zero, with only one BP recovering at the end of each turn. While it makes boss battles more strategic and more challenging, it also allows you to blow through random encounters, as you’ll most likely be able to allow each party member to pump up their commands to the max and clean up in battle on the first turn without having to worry about not being able to act.
You can also have any character leap into battle at any time by using the Bravely Second command, which allows you to make up to four commands using SP (SP is gained by leaving the system in sleep or bought using real money). There always comes a point where random encounters start to feel boring and tedious, and boss fights a bit easy in many JRPGs, but Bravely Default avoids becoming dull because of the Brave and Default commands. Even using Bravely Second is satisfying and can be the crucial factor in a huge battle. And unlike many other games that feature micro-transactions, it’s never shoved down your throat and SP can easily be gained by simply leaving the 3DS in sleep mode.
Bravely Default features a job system, much like the series it draws inspiration from, but as with the rest of the game this feature has been modernized and is now highly customizable. Many of the stereotypical jobs are featured (Knights, Black, White, Time and Red Mages, Ninjas, and Summoners), while some jobs have been rebranded (the Dragoon is now a Valkyrie and the Bard is a Performer), and others still are brand new (the Pirate and Vampire are two of the most interesting additions).
Each job has 14 abilities that can be both active and passive, with a new ability granted at each job level. Some abilities simply allow for the use of higher level magic, while others let you deal direct damage, such as the Pirate’s Torrent that sends out a tidal wave which causes massive damage. More passive abilities give boosts to HP or MP, or allow a party member to convert their status ailment to BP. Rather than being limited to just one set of abilities, you’ll be able to choose a sub-job as well, giving you access to that job’s active abilities. Finding the right combination of jobs is key, as bolstering your jobs with effective sub-classes will give you an edge in battle against the game’s bosses, and is especially useful during the more challenging sub-quests that will give you access to better jobs.
The weapons system also boasts some unique elements. Each of the nine different weapons has three different special abilities. Specials are gained by performing certain actions when a given weapon is equipped (so getting the sword’s specials will require you to use the Brave command a set amount of times, for example, while the staff’s specials are obtained by healing characters enough times). Specials not only damage enemies a great deal or heal the party, they also grant other buffs, like percentage increases to physical and magical attacks, defense, speed, or accuracy. If performed in the same turn as other party members, the buffs will be even more beneficial and will last longer. Each special can also be customized four different ways, depending on the type of attack, with different options for damaging or healing specials. They’re a nice addition to the already glowing combat system, providing fresh and powerful ways to help you throughout the game.
Although there is no multiplayer, Bravely Default has some online capabilities that enhance the game. Right after the opening scene has finished playing and you gain control of Tiz, you’ll be able to start rebuilding his village of Norende. You’ll need villagers to rebuild each section of the village, with more villagers (3-5) granted each day by talking to the traveling merchant, as well as being added through StreetPass. The village is rebuilt by allocating villagers to the 11 different shops that can be built and upgraded. Each upgrade takes a certain amount of time to finish when using one villager, but you can add more people to the construction project in order to speed up the process.
The different shops built in the village give you different items at set intervals, like Hi-Potions or damage-dealing items, as well as open up their merchandise to the traveling merchant who can be found in every town and dungeon in Luxendarc, including more powerful weapons, armor, and items for specific classes. While it seems like it can take a while to rebuild the village in full, Norende undergoes construction all through the night as long as your 3DS is in sleep mode, allowing you to finish off those higher level upgrades that can take many hours to complete while you tuck yourself into bed. It’s a superb mini-game that is fantastically woven into the story and provides good rewards. Though you by no means have to rebuild Norende, it proves very beneficial to do so, as it will allow you to buy some of the most powerful weapons in the game and will grant you access to some new character aesthetics.
Any of your friends that also have Bravely Default (and that you’ve entered friend codes for, whether in real life or by scouring the Bravely Default subreddit), will be able to battle a Nemesis you've sent over, and vice versa. This takes the form of different unique enemies that provide some very hefty challenges. Battles can be initiated at any time, but be warned - if you fail to kill the monster, then it’s just like any other game over and you’ll have to start from your last save point. Though they have no connection with the story, they’re definitely the hardest enemies you’ll come across in the entire game, and will prove a great way of testing your skills.
Before performing any action, you can select the Send command, which will allow you to record in sorts the ability you use in battle, and then send it for your friends to call upon using the Summon Friend command. On top of summoning friends, you can also link a friend to each character through Abilink. By linking a friend to a character, their job levels will reflect all the current levels of the friend that is attached to the character. This can be very useful if you’re not one for grinding out jobs. Summoning powerful friends who deal devastating damage and linking them to your characters will undoubtedly make the game easier, but it’s all optional and never forced upon you.
Bravely Default holds a similar look to Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light, with familiar looking art highlighted by a softer, nostalgic style that has some Super Nintendo undertones. The hand-drawn artwork brought me right back to the mid 90s. The 3D effect is actually really fun to use - it makes the game pop out, almost like a storybook, showcasing the wonderfully detailed world and unique costumes each character’s job has. The orchestrated soundtrack never fails to please either, with some memorable overworld tunes and some great beats fuelling the game's combat. While voice acting is generally very well done, there are some occasions where characters sound a bit muffled, but it doesn't detract too much from the overall experience.
What I like most about Bravely Default is its ability to make me feel like my younger self with its throwback style. It’s an old school RPG with a modern twist, filled with customization options and an intuitive battle system that never gets dull. Though the story may fall victim to some typical RPG tropes, these are fairly easy to overlook due to the general quality of the rest of the game. If you’re diligent enough to get the true ending, which will take considerably more time than the 40-60 hour normal ending, and see the scene unlocked that makes reference to Bravely Default’s sequel, it’s pretty clear that a new JRPG series has been born, and that’s nothing but sweet music to my ears.
This review is based on a retail copy of Bravely Default for the 3DS