Anything but the default: A review of Bravely Default

In many ways, Bravely Default, a spin-off of Square Enix’s acclaimed Final Fantasy franchise of role-playing games, brings the series back to its roots. The game’s plot revolves around four young heroes—Tiz, Agnès, Ringabel and Edea—who set out on a journey to awaken four elemental crystals across the land of Luxendarc in an effort to save the world from the degenerative effects of the crystals’ corruption. Throughout the story, the heroes are hunted by the forces of the Duchy of Eternia, who seek to end the age of the Crystal Orthodoxy, a religion that holds the stones in deep reverence.

Beyond the central synopsis of a small band of heroes visiting crystals around the world, the game features random encounters, a traditional, turn-based battle system, and a job system reminiscent of Final Fantasy V, in which characters can learn new skills by winning battles while assigned to a certain class. The variety of jobs available to the player expands as they defeat high-ranking members of the Eternian forces, earning special stones called asterisks, each of which grants them access to a new class.

Bravely Default is not without its innovations, however. The flow of battles is mixed up a bit by the game’s “BP” system, which, by means of the “brave” command, allows a character to potentially make multiple actions during a single turn at the expense of having to sit and wait for a variable number of future turns. This delay can be offset through use of the “default” command, which essentially makes the character defend and accumulate a single BP that can be expended at a later turn. This adds a lot of nuance to gameplay, as effective use of BP can allow you to decimate an entire host of enemies without even giving them a chance to counterattack. A single miscalculation, however, can wipe out your whole party, as they are left helpless while the enemy beats on them for four consecutive turns. Additionally, bosses frequently make use of the BP system in a way that forces you to adopt unique strategies to overcome them instead of mindlessly using the same four moves over and over again with the occasional recovery item thrown in.

The game’s job system is quite nuanced and versatile as well, if not terribly original. A character can use the skill sets of two different jobs at a time, along with a few supportive abilities, which allows for a lot of variance between character builds. While not all builds are bound to be effective, the sheer expansiveness of the system allows for a lot of innovation and strategizing on behalf of the player, a feature which is bound to entice veteran RPG players. Personally, my party went from a band of monks roving around and senselessly punching stuff at the start of the game, to a pirate that used the sword master class’ “free lunch” skill to fuel the former class’ expensive, but powerful attacks, a dark knight who enchanted her blade with “drain” magic to compensate for her class’s HP-consuming attacks, and a pair of healers and buffers to support my damage-dealing characters in battle. The possibilities are virtually endless and seeing each new class’ abilities and working them into the structure of my party made the game incredibly fun to play through.

The heft of Bravely Default’s plot and characters also impressed me. While the protagonists were somewhat static characters for my taste, their diverse personalities and backgrounds made it interesting to watch their interactions play out throughout the course of the game. Agnès is something of a goody-two-shoes, though her unflinching devotion to the awakening of the crystals sometimes causes her to overlook other moral issues that the party faces. By contrast, Ringabel is an amnesiac and a hopeless romantic who thinks about nothing but women. Tiz and Edea are both firmly moralistic characters, but Tiz’s background as a likable, young peasant boy sets him apart from Edea, whose life as the daughter of the grand marshal of the Eternian army has given her a rigid, black and white moral code. The game’s voice acting also added a lot of emotion to some of its more dramatic moments, which was a nice touch.

The Final Fantasy spin-off succeeds from an artistic perspective as well. Its soundtrack, while not something that I would listen to separate from the game, suits its gameplay and the battle theme in particular is fairly memorable. While individual character and enemy models are not anything to write home about, towns and dungeons are carefully modeled in 3D and have an artistic direction that makes them look like lavish paintings at some points. The city of Caldisla, with its winding streets and august castle at its apex, looks particularly impressive with the camera zoomed out.

At the same time, however, Bravely Default is not without its problems. The game features what is essentially a pay-to-win system in the form of a potion shop that takes real currency and more or less allows the player to freeze time and give their characters heaps of free actions. The same effect can be achieved by setting the system to “rest” for extended lengths of time, but the inclusion of a money shop in a single player RPG nonetheless astonished me. Furthermore, without revealing any vital plot details, Bravely Default manages to expand its lifespan after the first few chapters in a way that felt repetitive and artificial to me. Mind you, this is still potentially 20–30 hours into the game and some players might prefer it to simply ending the plot then and there, but it seemed lazy to me on account of how many models, mechanics and pieces of dialogue are reused throughout the segment.

Despite these shortcomings, Bravely Default manages to simultaneously evoke the nostalgia of playing a traditional, turn-based RPG while keeping gameplay fresh and innovative enough to make it interesting in 2014. At times, I found the game extremely hard to put down and the expansive class system gives it quite a bit of replay value to any player interested in trying a new setup for a change of pace. Overall, it is easily one of the best releases that the Nintendo 3DS has seen in quite some time and I would highly recommend it to any gamer looking for a solid role-playing game that they can play on the go.