Developer: Silicon Studios | Publisher: Square Enix | Played On: 3DS | Price: $39.99 | ESRB: Teen [Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol]
From time to time we are graced with a video game so elegantly and flawlessly done that it lays the groundwork for all future games in its genre. When the original Final Fantasy was released on the NES it was like no other RPG before it, shaping how turn-based role playing games would be done for years to come. While as of late the Final Fantasy series has gone in every direction imaginable, it seems only fitting that a game so heavily influenced by the earlier games should come along to remind us just how excellent the traditional JRPG can be. Bravely Default on the Nintendo 3DS brings innovation to the genre and is a celebration of everything that made those early JRPGs beloved by many.
Bravely Default looks, feels, and plays like an older Final Fantasy game, specifically the PS1 Final Fantasy: battles are turn-based; items like Phoenix Downs and Echo Herbs are used frequently; there are more than two dozen jobs to experiment with and master; etc. The story snares you from the very beginning and it’s full of melodramatic moments and humorous characters. This is truly a Final Fantasy sequel in all but name. The tried and true formula works perfectly and will please any JRPG fan. Think of your fondness of any RPG on the PS1 or earlier and you’ll likely appreciate Bravely Default accordingly.
Perhaps the biggest aspect that sets Bravely Default apart from its predecessors and competition is the games unique approach to battles. Because battles are turn-based, you can take as much time as you need to plan out your attacks and not worry about your opponent smacking you around as you frantically assign tasks. But why should you take your next turn after your opponent attacks? What if you could just take four turns in a row and wipe out your enemies before they even get a chance to retaliate?
Bravely Default lets you do just that.
By “defaulting” on your turn you give up any actions taken in that round, but bank that turn to use in the future. Alternatively, you can also choose “brave” and take future turns immediately, passing on taking actions in those rounds when they come up later. The risk/reward system gives each battle a lot of flexibility and brings in tons of new strategies for combat. Taking four turns in a row may seem unfair but enemies can do the same, which makes boss battles incredibly challenging but oh so rewarding.
Adding to the complexity and excitement of battle are the incredible amount of roles to undertake. Genre staples like the healing White Mage and physical powerhouse Knight are here to enjoy, but playing the more unique Merchant (who uses money to fight foes) and Salve Maker (who combines and uses items), for example, are just as exciting. Defeating enemies earns Job Points which are used to determine the job level for each character. By playing a job thoroughly you unlock the full potential of each profession. The Monk may seem weak at level 1, but when he’s dealing thousands of damage with each fist you’re left wondering why you ever doubted his martial abilities. You’re free to change jobs whenever you’d like, and you’ll unlock more jobs as you complete quests. The steady stream of new jobs to try had me adjusting my team countless times, trying to balance physical and defensive prowess among my four party members. Then I’d unlock a new job and everything was thrown off! It was great!
When you’re not changing jobs and beating enemies into a pulp you’ll be doing a lot of reading. Thankfully all of the scripted story segments are fully voiced. The voice actors do a good job bringing each character to life and giving them a personality. The womanizer Ringabel’s advances sound even creepier when delivered with dramatic emphasis and inflection. Every major player in the story and even most of the NPCs are voiced as well, helping to make the decent amount of text to read much more manageable.
On the same page, the musical score is simply beautiful. Fully orchestrated tracks lend themselves perfectly to each and every location you visit. The fast tempo of the lava-filled Temple of Fire is dramatically different than the slower, dignified hymn of the Kingdom of Caldisla.
Bravely Default is a visually stunning game. Each location is so wonderfully detailed, giving each town, dungeon, and landscape an identity all their own. To show off the truly fantastic art style, if you stay idle for a short amount of time the camera pans back to reveal more of your surroundings, giving you a moment to pause and reflect on the exquisite art. Characters in the game don’t look quite as polished however, appearing kind of blocky in comparison. It’s just a small blemish in an otherwise gorgeous handheld game.
If there wasn’t enough going for Bravely Default already, the game takes advantage of the 3DS’ StreetPass functionality in a way that encourages you to carry your system wherever you go. As you StreetPass with other Bravely Default players, they become citizens in a special town you are rebuilding. You can then assign them to work on upgrading the shops in town; the more you assign to one building the faster it will get completed. Upgraded shops grant better items, armors, and weapons to be sold in the actual game. Some of the strongest items in the game are only found this way, which is plenty of an incentive to bring your 3DS along for any occasion. I found this mini-game addicting and incredibly rewarding. I only wish it lasted longer than it did: I finished the town in a matter of days.
A glut of options makes Bravely Default one of the best RPGs out there. You can change the difficulty whenever you’d like, either beefing up your foes or toning it down accordingly. More importantly, you can change the random encounter rate as well. This is incredibly useful! No more defeating the boss in a dungeon only to be beaten by some lowly enemy on your way out, forcing you to restart that arduous boss battle again. Just turn off random encounters until you get to town and rest. The default setting for the game is plenty challenging, but having the freedom to crank up the difficulty or tone it down at will lets you play to your abilities.
On the other hand, you can crank up the rate and grind until you’re ready to move on! It’s a simple addition, but one that will be greatly appreciated from JRPG aficionados. You can also speed up battles themselves, causing battle animations to play at 4x the speed, thus making each fight go by that much faster. In short there are a lot of small levers to tweak the gameplay to the exact pace you want.
If there is anything holding Bravely Default back it’s the grind. Not the grind of battle, because as we mentioned you can eliminate that whenever you wish, but rather the grind of the story. After the first twenty hours the story drags on to feel like busy work until the next big event happens. There are some elongated dialogues that can get boring when you really just want to kill stuff. As this happens with just about any game in this genre it’s nothing unexpected but it’s still a low point for the game.
Equal parts homage to and reinvention of the genre, Bravely Default succeeds in breathing new life into the turn-based RPG. Enthusiasts will love the throwback gameplay, and the unique spin on battles complements both veterans and newcomers. There are plenty of reasons to keep playing and replaying the game, not the least of which being the variety of jobs available to test. Round off the package with a spectacular soundtrack, impressive visuals, and fantastic use of the 3DS’ StreetPass functionality and you’ll be playing this game for weeks to come. What was old is new again, and Bravely Default illuminates a bright future for the genre.