Quick and dirty: Bravely Default is a JRPG on Nintendo’s 3DS platform. It was developed by Silicon Studios and published by Square Enix. It presents a classic JRPG feel in an era where JRPGs have trended towards long cinematic cut scenes, and away from the turn based games they used to be. In short, it’s Final Fantasy for players that like what Final Fantasy was 20 years ago, and not what Final Fantasy is today.
I don’t just say that because of the classic jobs (White Mage? Black Mage? Thief? Knight?… The gangs all here), or because of the classically underage heroes (apparently Japan expects A LOT out of 16 year olds). I say this because Bravely Default follows the tried and true “We must find all the Sacred Crystals to save the world” arc that so many of the early games did. I mean, you’re literally called the Heroes of Light. No one who knows their JRPGs is going to mistake this for anything other than classic Final Fantasy.
So how does the game actually hold up though? It feel a bit like “Final Fantasy: Four Heroes of Light” on the DS, but is the more grown up of the two games. Where Four Heroes of Light would take control out of the player’s hands (choosing who you’d attack, or who you’d heal), Bravely Default is a real, honest to god JRPG, without any of that toned down stuff. So let’s start with the positives:
The game has a great job system. Starting with the Freelancer, players will acquire the ability to assume a slew of new roles. From the aforementioned classics like White and Black Mages, to more obscure additions like Spell Fencers and Merchants. Some of the classes are merely thematic variants of more common Final Fantasy roles, such as the Valkyrie (subbing in for the Dragoon) or Vampire (rather than Blue Mage). These roles, referred to as “Asterisks”, are acquired both through the standard story line as well as by a bevy of Side Quests.
The presences of these Side Quests, as well as a standard world map, are some of the features that classify Bravely Default as a game that lends itself towards older JRPGs rather than newer ones. For a large portion of the game, grinding, though not technically required, may feel needed at times. Something that is also in line with this “Classic JRPG” mindset.
However, there are a number of countermeasures for this. Bravely Default is aware that it isn’t on the SNES and that it wasn’t made in 1994. There is an Easy and Hard more (in addition to “normal”), an option to control the speed of battle animations, and an “auto-battle” feature, where your team will repeatedly perform the last commands you gave them. All of these features set up a scenario where grinding is either unneeded because the difficulty of the game has been significantly reduced, or where grinding is relatively painless by letting battles fly by at 4x speed and your fighters automatically used their strongest attacks without requiring input. So while this is a classic JRPG, don’t let that scare you off if you’re a new player and have heard horror stories about 80 hour grind-fests. That doesn’t exist here.
Now, the main reason for grinding would be the game’s Asterisk (or Job) system. Each Asterisk will grant you a bevy of active and support abilities. The game does a good job of making these abilities interesting, and above anything, encourages synergy between classes. Abilities that seem slightly out of place on one role will reveal themselves to be excellent when utilized with specific other roles. Ability that makes spells cost 0 MP? Attach that to the Summoner Asterisk? All of the sudden you’re spamming free summoned monsters like it ain’t no thang!
There are enough Asterisks to keep the system fresh for the majority of the game, and that’s where Bravely Default really shines. Combat is just fantastic. The Brave and Default systems are an interesting twist on classic JRPG turn based combat. To summarize how they work, every fighter (enemies and allies alike) will get 1 action point every turn. Called BP for some reason I forget, players will use 1 BP to take… 1 action.
Simple right? Well, if you “Default” on a turn, you take less damage by guarding, but you also bank a BP. You can bank up to 4 BP at once, and then by using the “Brave” feature, you can use multiple BP in a turn to take multiple actions. You can even go negative on the BP meter, down to -3, and be in the hole for the next few rounds, unable to act. This BP management makes the fights much more interesting, as keeping everyone up often relies on more than just your stats and your spells, but also on having enough BP to drag everyone back from the brink of death (or finish off a weakened boss just in time).
Now it’s not all sunshine and roses. There’s a very singular part in the game where I was sure I wasn’t seeing what I thought I was seeing. You’ll know what it is when you get there, I promise. As I’m trying to remain spoiler free, I won’t say exactly what it is, but the game is A+ material through the first several chapters, takes a dip in the middle, but then manages to bring it back up in the end. There are certain plot devices that were… a bold choice, and one that was really interesting, they just could have been executed a bit better.
Honestly, that dip in the middle? It didn’t even need to be there. The game is done in chapters and the middle few chapters could have been removed and the game would have just been better for it. I suppose they felt like they needed to pad the play time, but that’s not really a good reason to add meaningless content to a game. Not that the content was entirely meaningless. I get that the POINT was that it was… being dragged out… still though, I think the game suffered for it.
The game’s only other major flaw is “Norende”. The main character Tiz suffers the loss of his home town (literally in the intro cut scene, so no spoilers there) and you spend the majority of the game rebuilding it. How do you do this? With street passes obviously. When you pass other 3DS owners, their “villagers” will move to your town, and can be put to work renovating buildings.
These buildings give the players access to new special attacks, new items, and most importantly, new weapons and armor. My only problem with this though is that not only does it take a LONG time to do this if you don’t have a lot of street passes ( I have 120 so I blazed through that process) but the weapons and armor that you get from these shops are insanely good. Like, “best armor and weapons in the game good”.
While not entirely true (I think there is one katana that is better than the Norende shop one that you get in an optional dungeon at the end of the game) it is in the majority of cases. Some weapons are left out in the cold though. Staves? Norende doesn’t sell any above level 10, costing 1,000 gil. Aforementioned katana, or heavy armor? 100,000 gil each and the best stuff anywhere. This makes Sword Masters (aka Samurai) a little bit more appealing than other classes because you can buy extremely powerful weapons for them, extremely early.
I’m also not going to come at you and pretend that this game is balanced. Just like many of the JRPGs we all love, this game can be broken, and broken hard. There are methods for setting up auto-battle systems where literally any enemies in the game (including bosses) are unable to harm you at all. While that might take away from the experience, there are many more role combinations that are interesting and engaging, and you’re probably not going to figure out the broken ones unless you’re reading a guide or have a good head for RPGs in general. At which point this game will challenge you, but breaking it is probably part of beating it anyway.
I’d give this game a 9.5 based on its combat systems. The narrative lull in the middle kicks it down to a 7… Synergy between Asterisks would bring it back up to an 8… the inconsistency in Norende items bring it down to a 7.5… but the existence of hidden content, including side quests, an optional dungeon and “false ending” just reek of all the best parts in JRPGs of years past. I’ve got to settle on an 8.5 for this. Solid experience. I put in 90 hours, but I mastered all Asterisks on every character, got my characters to level 99, found all the hidden summons… the works. If you’re just looking for a cool story, throw it on easy mode and be done in under 20 I’m guessing. Worth your time, and the post game trailer already hints a sequel, so if you dig the narrative, you know there’s more to come.