Bravely Default is the latest role-playing game from publishing giant, Square Enix, made in collaboration with Silicon Studio, who are best known for their previous title, Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. While it’s true Bravely Default is a spiritual successor to that game, I can confidently state that it not only stands strong as its own independent property, but actually exceeds the more recent iterations of Final Fantasy in almost every aspect. In fact, I’d even say this game may be the greatest example of how a traditional JRPGs can still be relevant in today’s gaming industry.
What is a JRPG exactly? – In a literal sense, it means a role-playing game developed in Japan. However, why do we sub-categorise this particular style of game based on its country of origin, when this is not done with any other genre? The subject of JRPG versus WRPG has been a heated point of debate amoung gamers for decades, and with good reason, given both approaches are based on a similar idea; albeit delivered in entirely different fashions. Both genres utilise the concept of character growth and skill development, but what polarises these sub-genres most often isn’t mechanics but rather the narrative approach. In a WRPG, players often personify the main character as themselves; entering into the world without linear restrictions, with the freedom to make their own decisions, and explore at their own discretion. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is heralded as the modern epitome for this genre, but what of the JRPG?
Traditionally, JRPGs are best known for putting players into the role of a fictional character, and delivering a narrative experience set in a world where you linearly progress to overcome overwhelming odds. Storytelling in games did not always come as naturally as it does today; in part, this was due to the limitations of older platforms. As such, many people were drawn to JRPGs because of the genres ability to explore interactive narratives unlike anything else at the time. However, as technology has progressed, game designers have found many ways to include storytelling in games – in practically every genre too. As a result, what once made this sub-genre unparalleled was all of a sudden common place. This is also where the Japanese games industry suffered an identity crisis, in my opinion – with many JRPG-centric studios, such as Square Enix, altering their approach to try and compete with the ever-growing popularity of Western-developed games. However, more often than not, the result only attributed to further divide role-playing fans.
In Bravely Default, you take on the role of Tiz – an unlikely hero who loses everything he knows when his village is consumed by a calamity known as ‘The Great Chasm.’ Standing at the edge of the precipice, Tiz grieves over the loss of his brother whom he had been unable to save when the chasm opened. However, it is not long until he encounters a young woman named Agnès, a Vestal of the crystal of wind, and her companion, a crypt-fairy known as Airy. Being mostly naive to the outside world, Agnès explains she has traveled out of solitude to uncover what had happened to the village of Norende as the four crystals that maintain the world have gone dark – which has subsequently resulted in the loss of the wind, the rotting of the seas, and many other serious issues. Of course, Tiz insists he should join Agnès on her quest despite her insistence she has to do it alone, but before the two can argue any further, they are attacked by the Eternian Sky Knights; a northern military force who pursue anti-crystalism and want to stop the Vestal at all costs. While the duo fend off the attackers, Agnès, now a fugitive, has little choice but to accept the help of Tiz.
Initially, this is going to sound like a highly conventional JRPG storyline; especially with the use of plot devices such as crystals, airships, and an unlikely hero. However, despite the cliché premise, the game manages to develop some of the most likable characters I’ve played alongside in recent memory. Not just that, the central plot also completely upturns expectations, with a mature exploration of many interesting topics; for example, the morality of religion versus science. The writers also combine these ideas with enough sci-fi twists to adequately compete with even the best JRPG storylines. With that being said, there is also an incredible amount of optional narrative for players to experience as well. Engaging with party chats when they become available will give you further insight into each of the characters personalities, whereas pursuing side quests will provide you with more detailed information about the world, its inhabitants, and ultimately, its secrets. Fortunately, If you get lost or simply miss something, you have the ability re-watch everything through an event viewer, which is also convenient if you need to go back and refresh your memory.
Despite how much I enjoyed the story of Bravely Default, however, there is an underlying sense of inconsistency that results in some moments in the story not making sense. Specifically, for those players to pursue all the narrative sub-quests. I understand that the writers intended for the game to feel complete for those who choose to finish it without digging into all the extra content also. However, the fact remains that significant revelations have no impact on the way the characters interact with each other during the main plot. To those who know better, this causes the lead cast to appear ignorant in their decision making at times and this can get a little frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the choice to make this content optional, but the developers should have ensured at least some consistency with the main plot. At the end of the day, it doesn’t hurt the experience, but it is something I hope they learn from for next time.
For the purpose of comparison, I would like open by discussing Final Fantasy XIII, because, in my opinion, it’s the best example of the identity crisis I mentioned earlier. Despite the fact the series already sold incredibly well with western audiences, the teams over at Square Enix panicked over the changing landscape, and instead looked to games such as Call of Duty for inspiration, instead of understanding that we were drawn to their existing games because they were “different.” That’s not a joke, either. All those linear pathways and long story sequences were allegedly inspired by the popularity of first-person shooters in America. In truth, I believe Square is coming to terms with its position, and as such, they are once again experimenting with traditional ideas, as well as entirely new ways to evolve the mechanics of their games as JRPGs as opposed to action games. However, in saying this, where does this leave Bravely Default?
Basically, it’s about as traditional as a modern JRPG could get. And by that, I mean that the game is moulded around turn-based combat, random encounters, and set within a sprawling over-world – with airships. It’s true that many of these features might appeal to older JRPG players, such as myself, but at the same time, I think it’s fair to say the idea of random encounters could have proved a potential barrier for younger players – those players without a nostalgic appreciation for the mechanic. However, this is where Bravely Default’s design is utterly compelling, because Silicon Studio put an incredible amount of thought into alleviating these long-standing barriers without changing what already works. In fact, after its debut in Japan (which reviewed and sold better than expected), the developers actively sought feedback from the players, for which they subsequently applied more than 100 alterations to the game’s mechanics. I really respected this, and the result of this updated version is arguably one of the best designed games in the genre.
In Bravely Default, Silicon Studio succeeded in providing alternative methods to empower players. For example, in the revised version, you have the ability decrease/increase the encounter rate at any time, or turn them off entirely. In addition, you can also speed up/slow down combat, auto-battle based on the most recent series of attacks, turn on auto-saves, and even adjust the difficulty setting without penalty. It might sound like a collection of cheap tricks, but this level of freedom changes everything, and feels perfectly in place with a genre already filled with menus and lots of player options. It’s a game that can cater to the most enthusiastic players, as well as those who enjoy a bit of turn-based combat but are mostly in it for the story. The game also uses a series of optional side-quests to teach you how to use all of these features, so it never feels overwhelming. It is the perfect balance of control modern JRPGs needed.
While looking to the past can prove beneficial (as seen here), this is not an invitation to forgo the drive for innovation. It is just as important for developers to think of new and exciting ways to engage both traditional and modern RPG players. To be honest, I initially thought Bravely Default was just a wordplay to emphasise Silicon Studio’s traditional approach, but it’s actually in reference to a new battle mechanic. To “Brave” or “Default” means that the player has the ability take up to 4 turns in advance, potentially leaving themselves vulnerable to attack, or block to reduce damage, and save up to 4 turns to use when the time is right. It’s an exciting play of risk versus patience that deepens the battle experience, and a feature that I found consistently challenged the way I typically approach a turn-based system.
Something I didn’t expect was semi-online integration that allows friends to work together via a meta-game to rebuild Tiz’s village. Each task requires a set amount of real-time, and upon completion, new items will become available for purchase. However, what’s interesting is that you can invite friends to your village to decrease the time required for a task, and in doing so, exchange your best attacks once per day that the other player to summon during battle. Don’t worry though, If you don’t have friends playing you can actually invite several random players once per day. Overall, it’s a fantastic concept that is non-invasive and the most creative meta-play I’ve seen since Dark Souls. Although, in saying that, we need to address the controversy of SP points – a system that allows players to stop a battle at any time and attack. Basically, you can pay for these points, and I can’t condone that. Fortunately, however, it’s not exactly pay to win. Players automatically accumulate points while their 3DS is in standby, and points are never required to win.
In saying all this, I still feel Bravely Default is the closest I’ve seen a modern JRPG come to a near-flawless design. There is just one critical aspect of the design that needs to be discussed, though, and that’s the second half of the game. Essentially, in its complete form, the game consists of eight chapters and one final ‘true chapter.’ What’s interesting, though, is players have the ability to complete the game in as little as five chapters, should they wish, and experience an alternative final chapter. This ending is somewhat conclusive, but hardly the entire story. I commend Silicon Studio for implementing a streamlined pathway, but due to a certain unmentionable plot device, there is a significant amount of repetition involved should you wish to experience the true ending. It’s forgivable, especially as the revised version implemented several additions to make these optional chapters more entertaining. However, at the end of the day, the longterm pacing is still somewhat effected, and it will likely prove less enjoyable for completionists.
As a JRPG, I personally found Bravely Default to be one of the most balanced games I’ve played in recent memory, and that is not an exaggeration. There was never that break point where you start to get too comfortable once your physical attacks get strong enough – which is often a problem in many RPGs. In fact, right up until I was level 99, the game still continued to challenge my attack strategies, and would never allow me to get too confident in my approach. The game never felt unfair about this either, which I appreciated. I always knew there was a combination of skills that would give me the advantage, and I enjoyed finding them. If you’ve ever played Final Fantasy IX or Final Fantasy V, you would likely feel right at home with the battle system and character progression in this game. Essentially, the game is built upon many standard RPG tropes, such as levelling up, equipment and items. However, the key component for your character development is the ability to assign jobs, which must also level up separately to your core progression.
To explain further, Bravely Default allows you to equip one primary job, for which you can then develop by earning JP, and thus, learn new abilities. However, this system also allows you to equip a secondary job, which won’t gain experience, but will give you access to another arsenal of abilities you’ve already developed. In addition, players also earn support slots over time that allow you to equip several fixed support abilities that can be taken from any jobs you’ve used in the past. It is this three-tiered combination that makes the game so empowering to play as it feels as if your strategies genuinely impact the gameplay. In total, there are 24 jobs available, which can be acquired by following side-quests to defeat a boss. It’s important to understand, though, that there is no “ultimate job”. Every class has its own weakness and benefits that will directly impact your player stats, as well as your ability to use particular weapons and armour. To surmise, it is an incredibly balanced system, and this is consistent throughout all the core mechanics.
Bravely Default is undeniably a beautiful game, and arguably one of the best looking titles on the Nintendo 3DS. Admittedly, not everyone will be immediately drawn to the “chibi” inspired character design, but it’s easy to look past and even appreciate, even if you don’t like that style. The world is wonderfully crafted, with hand-drawn backgrounds that are simply a real treat to look at. On several occasions, I actually took the time to stop and turn on the 3D and stare at the landscapes as I appreciated the artwork so much. Each location is entirely unique in its design, and in the truest of JRPG fashions, there is wonderfully composed music associated with every place you visit. It should come as no surprise this invoked a deep sense of nostalgia in me, and if I were to hear any song from the soundtrack, I could immediately visualise where I would be in the world. This is a sound design quality I personally appreciate. The 3DS might not be the most powerful system out there, but if I learned anything from 2013, it’s that “power” isn’t everything.
Bravely Default is a paragon for modern and traditional JRPG design. On the surface, the game might appear somewhat conventional in its approach, but Silicon Studio have truly gone above and beyond to exceed expectations. More than anything, I commend the developers for listening to fan feedback as well as implementing ideas that have subsequently altered the landscape of this ageing style of RPG forever. It is a game that wants players to experience it however they want, and, in turn, maintain a level of control over certain fundamentals of the games mechanics. The team at Silicon Studio weren’t only focused on fixing the problems of the past, though. They also looked to innovate with new and exciting ideas; subsequently introducing us to the most unique and non-invasive online integration we’ve seen since Dark Souls. At its core, Bravely Default is a balanced RPG that empowers players with a character progression system that is meaningful, and battle mechanics that are consistently challenging. It’s a shame there are inconsistencies in the side quests as well as repetition for those who want to experience the true ending, but this doesn’t heavily impact everything it does right. More than anything, JRPGs became renown for their ability tell stories, and Bravely Default excels with its fantastic cast of characters and an unconventional tale that’s filled with mature themes and science fiction thrills. Bravely Default is the JRPG the industry needed, and one you won’t forget quickly.