The realm of Luxendarc is on the brink of destruction. The oceans have gone stagnant, trapping travelers on land. The winds have dropped to a standstill, and the heat has become unbearable. A volcano in the southwest has erupted, reducing the surrounding countryside a fiery, smoky wasteland. But for Tiz Arrior, the impending apocalypse just became personal. His idyllic hometown of Norende was devoured by a gigantic chasm, and he was the sole survivor. In his throes of sadness and guilt, Tiz wants to salvage what little of his life remains. He’s teamed up with Agnes Oblige, an aloof young maiden with mysterious powers. She thinks restoring four corrupted elemental crystals will fix everything, but she’s too busy being hunted down by the authorities. They’re joined by Ringabel, an amnesiac Casanova wannabe, and Edea Lee, the antagonist’s daughter gone rogue. The fate of the world depends on these four unlikely heroes. They just have to survive long enough to save it.
Sound familiar? A group of heroes traveling around the world in order to prevent an apocalypse is one of the most common plots in the RPG genre. It’s a reliable way to structure an adventure; the player is immersed in a fantasy world, and hopefully the characters develop along the way. It can be brilliant or bland, depending on how it’s written. Wary of making another stale RPG, Square Enix designed Bravely Default as a deconstruction of the cliches expected of such a game. It’s difficult to explain without getting into spoilers, but there’s something off about this world-saving journey. If an entire army is mobilized to stop you, there might be a good reason for it. Though enemies can be cruel and outright homicidal, not everyone against you is automatically evil. Nor are allies saints, for that matter. Before gallivanting off on your quest and killing monsters, maybe you should actually think things through and find better solutions. The wisest character in the story even explains the meaning of the “Bravely Default” phrase: you need to be brave enough to decide and act on your own accord, and not blindly follow someone else.
It’s an interesting take on old school RPG conventions. It could’ve been amazing, had the story not shot itself in the foot around the halfway point. The narrative leaves little room for subtlety; a character directly stating the core theme of the game is just the tip of the iceberg. Much of our heroes’ hardships could’ve been avoided had everyone just stopped and talked things out. The antagonists don’t want anyone touching those magical crystals, but won’t say why. The few people helping you aren’t doing so just out of the goodness of their hearts, so you should listen closer to what they say. The problem is that no one – on either side – is willing to communicate. Edea is the biggest offender; her rampant idealism (hence the pun) prevents her from taking more objective and practical actions. She suffers the consequences of it multiple times. It’d be easier to feel sorry for her, had her character development not been so predictable. Agnes is even worse; her narrow-mindedness makes her seem stubborn and naive. Tiz has no personality beyond survivor guilt and a desire to rebuild his town. Once those problems are resolved, his relevance quickly fades. Ringabel is the only one pragmatic enough to figure things out, but his amnesia lingers for the sake of drama.
Not that it really matters, though. If you pay attention during the side-quests, the game tells you the big twist several hours before it comes up normally. There are lengthy explanations that couldn’t possibly be misinterpreted. If you act on this information, you can cut the game’s length in half and call it a day…but you won’t get the true ending or any of its bonus content. This completely undermines the point of the story; you’re given an opportunity to act independently and end the game on your terms, but you’re only rewarded if you keep blindly following the original plan. If you choose the latter option, most of the objectives and dialogue remain unchanged despite the huge revelations. As a result, the characters look ridiculously stupid and gullible. The adventure becomes less and less interesting with each passing hour; you stop caring about the story and wish it’ll end sooner. Reaching the true ending becomes a tedious, repetitive exercise. If just a couple of chapters were cut, the pacing could’ve been salvaged. When the characters start complaining in-game about how pointless and nonsensical things have gotten, you know something’s wrong.
It’s especially frustrating because, aside from flawed narrative and pacing issues, Bravely Default does everything else so well. Unlike most recent fantasy games, its gameplay is designed as a throwback to the turn-based combat mechanics of old console RPGs. Instead of racking up hits one at a time, you get to choose between the Brave and Default commands. The Brave option lets your character attack and use items up to four times per turn, but leaves you wide open for a counter move. Defaulting lets you guard against attacks, take less damage, and save up Brave Points for more powerful moves on the next turn. If you’ve got a foolproof plan and don’t want the hassle of pressing buttons, you can set the battle on automatic mode and turn up the animation speed. It’s fast-paced, easy to use, and much more strategic than it first appears. Since your opponents use the same system, winning major battles requires extensive multitasking. Spamming attacks only gets you so far. Not only do you have to deal damage, but keep the party covered against status ailments and debuffs, maintain enough magic to perform healing and offensive spells, and defend against everything else as well. Bosses are more akin to puzzles than fights. You have to figure out what abilities and weaknesses they have, and how to get around them. It’s not just about having the strongest equipment stats or leveling up; if you go in unprepared, you will get slaughtered.
You’re given plenty of options, though. Bravely Default boasts 24 character classes, each with unique stats and techniques. As you win battles, you’ll level up in class and acquire new attacks and spells. Most of them are straightforward, like the White Mage’s healing, the Performer’s stat buffs, and the Thief’s speed and stealing. Others, such as the Merchant and Salve-Maker, are more specialized in terms of the party’s funds and item usage. Since each character can have a primary and secondary class at a time, you have to figure out which combinations offer the best balance. The key to mastering the game isn’t about specializing in one class, but in all of them. As you unlock more support abilities, you’ll be able to choose and equip them individually. The Ninja is great by itself, but its Transience and Dual Wield abilities can make you unstoppable when combined with the Red Mage’s Turn Tables technique and the Swordmaster’s Katana Lore. If you’re getting killed multiple times in battle, a pair of Vampire and Dark Knight abilities let you deal tons of damage per KO, and a fifty percent chance on auto-reviving on the next turn. A little experimentation can work wonders. While unlocking all these powers requires tons of level grinding, the tactical options they provide are worth the effort…
Unless you want to do it the easy way. Square Enix must have been aware how painfully tedious all those hours could’ve been, because they designed the multiplayer to help you as much as possible. If you’ve got other Bravely Default players on your 3DS friend list, you can sync them into your game. There’s no competitive battling – that would’ve been amazing – but you can browse each other’s classes. If their characters have higher levels, you can link them to your party and use their techniques. If utilized well, you’ll gain access end-game abilities long before you’d be able to alone. You can send and receive customized attacks as well. If you’re having trouble with a boss, check your friends list; if you summon someone with high damage stats, your fearsome opponent might crumble in a single hit. It’s a cheap tactic, but it’s completely optional. So is the Bravely Second DLC, which lets you freeze time to do more damage. If you don’t want to pay, you have to accumulate points by putting the 3DS in sleep mode. While not necessary, it provides an incentive to use StreetPass. The more players you connect with, the faster you’ll be able to complete the game’s Norende restoration mini-game. It’s bland and simplistic, but finishing it unlocks several powerful weapons, armor, and an endless supply of items. It also lets you tackle the game’s bonus bosses, which are far more challenging than anything you’ll find in the story.
Or more interesting, for that matter. The game’s bestiary has nearly 200 entries, but they’re mostly variations on orcs, bats, zombies, and other generic RPG enemies. The bosses are designed with more creativity and personality. Some, like the swordsmen Khint and Kamiizumi, are soft-spoken and intimidating. Barbarossa is just as boisterous as his pirate costume and oversized axe imply. Praline is ridiculous, though; her peppy music and Japanese pop star-style costume are completely out of place in the grim, war-torn Luxendarc. While such designs are meant to make the bosses more appealing to the player, their presentations are flawed. Rather than interacting with the party for the sake of character development, the majority of their information comes from Ringabel’s journal. There are hundreds of pages that cover every aspect of the game. Since you probably won’t bother reading the records, you’ll miss the depth and motivations driving your antagonists. Instead, you’ll just track them down, enjoy some voiced dialogue, and stop caring once you’ve won. Only a few characters get the attention they deserve. The game tries to distract you from such shortcomings by showing off some absolutely gorgeous settings. Visiting a town is like looking at a piece of art; the first time you see Caldisla, it’ll be hard not to stop staring at moving clouds, the shadows, or the beautiful vistas in the distance. Ancheim isn’t just a bustling merchant haven, but a massive, intricate clock as well. These places feel alive, making you want to save them even more.
It’s sad. Few games manage to be both awesome and terrible, but Bravely Default pulls it off. The turn-based combat mechanics are fun to use and test your strategic and multitasking abilities. The wide variety of unlockable classes and techniques give you plenty of opportunities to build the perfect party. This is one of the few 3DS titles to implement online connectivity in productive and interesting ways. Not only does it let you interact with other gamers, but enriches the single player experience as well. There are great design ideas, and hopefully other developers will take note. Despite all these amazing features, however, the immensely flawed and repetitive nature of adventure can’t be ignored. RPGs need a decent story to succeed; they need to engage the player and keep them interested for the dozens of hours required for completion. It should feel satisfying, not like a chore. While Bravely Default deconstructs some elements of its genre well, it falls apart in its latter half. If a game spells out its own themes and has predictable twists, it’s hard to stay emotionally invested. After a while, you stop caring about the characters and what they’re trying to accomplish. Maybe Luxendarc just needs to be saved from its saviors.
Originally posted here: http://www.gamefaqs.com/3DS/729328-bravely-default/reviews/review-157818
All image source credits go to The Gamer Nerd, Pocket Gamer UK, Senpai Gamer, and the original artists of the works respectively.