There are few times in my life anymore when I am following the Japanese life of a video game. Between the rise of Western developers, and the lack of “big” titles that don’t make it to these shores anymore, following a game as it makes its way through the Land of the Rising Sun seems a bit silly. Plus, it is often the case now Japanese titles come out day and date with the Western versions, at least here in the United States. I think Europe still gets shafted to some degree, and I think games don’t even come out anymore in Australia. But in any case, if a game is worth playing, it often comes out here in the United States. However, that seemed to almost not be the case for Bravely Default, it was believed that it would remain a game staying on Eastern shores, Square Enix not wanting to translate it and publish it outside Japan. The case for this choice was obvious; JRPG’s were not as big in America as the SNES/PS1 days, and the western gamers tended to gravitate to titles with more action in it. Bravely Default is a game firmly rooted in a style of RPG that isn’t so commonly played anymore, at least out here. However, it seems the demand for the game was high, and Nintendo agreed to take over publishing duties for territories outside Japan. With this system in place, North America finally got Bravely Default in February of 2014, and it was worth the wait.
Seeming like a Final Fantasy in all but name, Bravely Default takes its place with Lost Odyssey as a Final Fantasy-type games that get “it” better than any Final Fantasy that has come out since the tenth installment. Where Lost Odyssey is very much in the realm of FFX, Bravely Default takes heavy inspiration from the job-class heavy natures of Final Fantasy III and V. While those much older titles are extremely light on story, Bravely Default tries to spin a tale that has more meat to it, and succeeds in some areas, while falling flat on its face in others. Chapters 1-4 offer the very basic Final Fantasy crystal-centric tale, that is driven a lot more by the myriad of personalities before you.
While the plot is there to keep you moving forward, the real reward comes from the characters, and their interactions. This idea holds true for both your four heroes, as well as the multitudes of enemy characters thrown your way. To a large degree, I have come to really appreciate games that give you a static set of characters, small in size. Bravely Default front-loads you quickly with getting all four heroes, and those are the people who will be your party, from start to finish. The relationships between them evolve, and feel properly fleshed out. By the time the story takes its deeper and more drastic turns, you feel the bonds these companions have made are real, and that the trust they hold in each other is forged in the fires of constant danger. For the majority of the story, you have very little outside support, and while the game is lighthearted, it is constantly reminding you that in the end, your heroes only have each other to rely on. This sort of writing, when done properly like in Bravely Default can pay dividends, especially in the face of weaker writing and plot development elsewhere.
Speaking of weaker writing, Bravely Default is probably too long-winded in its story telling. Much like the second-disc experience of Squaresoft’s Xenogears, Bravely Default takes a drastic turn after Chapter 4. Everything goes from simple, light-story RPG to the sort of world-spanning stuff that often takes itself way too seriously, often to its detriment. There are twists that are not needed, turns that don’t justify themselves, and the ever-present Japanese obsession with the ‘true’ enemy behind the enemy, pulling strings. While not implemented as badly as in something like Final Fantasy VIII, it’s still not great. In fact, this method of story telling never really works well, outside of maybe the good seasons of 24. As a result of all this extra stuff however, the game is, it’s overly long. It took me about 80 hours to beat when really it could have justified itself quite well at the 50-60 hour mark. Also, that was a solid 80 hours, while taking advantage of some of the great, genre-changing elements Bravely Default has.
Bravely Default as an actual game is a study in how old-style systems can be married to modern quality of life concepts. The resulting game is one of the best Japanese RPG’s to be put out in quite a while. The battle system is turn-based, with speed stats determining who acts first in battle. However, the turns need not consist of only one action, thanks to the Brave/Default system. By Braving, one can essentially mortgage future turns in order to act more than once, which leads to a typically devastating round of combat. Defaulting replaces the typical defend command, where you reduce incoming damage, but you also build up a meter that allows you to later Brave without losing future turns.
So for the patient, damage gets negated, and eventually the turn comes where all hell gets unleashed on enemies. It’s a hard to explain, but extremely fun risk/reward system that allows you to really feel the stark differences in the Final Fantasy V-style job classes. Like the old Final Fantasy, you can mix and match certain jobs together as well for some powerful combinations, many of which encourage experimentation.
However, past the battle system and job classes, Bravely Default really shines thanks to how it handles quality of life. Bravely Default is not a tough game if you’re willing to put in the time, but not everyone is. So for those people, you have the difficulty options. You can set the game to easy at any time, or hard for that matter if you’re a masochist. On top of that, this title allows you to screw around with the random encounter rate. If you want to grind out levels/money, double the encounter rate and get into battles every 2nd step. Don’t want to waste MP and items in a dungeon before a boss? Turn off random encounters entirely. For the most part, it’s really one of the biggest game-changers I have ever seen in a RPG and it should really be copied more often.
However, not everything is coming up aces in that department. The overworld map of the game features a day/night system that is annoying at best. The enemies that come out at night are often very inferior in both XP and money gain, almost forcing you to go to an inn to force the day to start again. Also, as stated previously you can turn random encounters off. While 99% of the time this is great, sometimes it is kind of a bummer as it takes away any tension a dungeon may have. Optional dungeon? Don’t need to fight, final dungeon? Can skip through unscathed. Also really let’s be honest, if you have the chance to get to a boss with no resources wasted, you’re going to take it. I did. I was at max level with all the jobs mastered, so why am I going to fight?
But despite the flaws listed, I did indeed max out my level, and got the little master star next to every job class. It’s a great game, and is one of the best reminders of why the RPG’s of yesteryear were and are so good. The strengths more than outweigh the weaknesses and hopefully with the polish that can be brought to the sequel Bravely Second, we have a new, special series on our hands.
Final Score: 4/5