It’s only been a few days since Nintendo and Square Enix brought Bravely Default to North America, and I’m already getting the sense that explaining the game’s adorably eponymous combat to the general public is proving a bit more difficult than expected. My proof? Well, you don’t have to look much further than Nintendo’s choose-your-own adventure videos on YouTube, likening the game’s combat options to the oafish consumption of an entire pizza. That’s right gamers, moan in satisfied glee as you courageously select “Brave” in combat, just as if you were gulping down scads of your favorite food! Thrust those savory slices down your pie-hole with conviction, because tomorrow’s pizza prospects may not be so cheesy. That’s what Square would like us to believe, anyway, and for all we know it may very well be true.
I’d like to start out by saying that Bravely Default is, without a doubt, an enjoyable game. For better or worse, it scraps years of languishing Final Fantasy experiments (some better than others) in favor of a truly classic experience. As a result, the game is bound to be an absolute knockout for those who grew up playing games of that sort. If Final Fantasy V was your jam, then Bravely Default will no-doubt make you feel warm and fuzzy. This probably applies to many of the other early Final Fantasy entries as well.
The trouble with this is that it falls victim to a very particular sort of crystallization. Take the game’s main innovative maneuver – its take on turn-based combat. In each fight, four characters can choose to either Brave or Default, performing extra actions with the former or charging up in a defensive stance with the latter. If you choose Default, you can unleash a lethal fury at a later time, whereas if you choose Brave, you can attempt to knock off the enemy immediately. Of course, if this fails you’ll be in for a bit of punishment and may even be killed. It’s a balancing act, it adds substantial layers of strategy to standard turn-based skirmishes, and it’s a clever idea. Overall, there’s no beef to be had.
No, my problems with Bravely Default run a bit deeper, or perhaps just off the road and down the dirt path a bit. Because Square Enix has bludgeoned its Final Fantasy adherents with disappointing twists and turns for so long now, a mere flicker of the Final Fantasy of old is the JRPG equivalent of tossing a moldy biscuit to a damaged puppy. Sure, its edible, and maybe even tasty – but its certainly not the best modern RPGs have to offer.
This is all getting a bit general, though, and I’ve certainly done enough armchair psychology for one review. Outside of the one-trick-pony (but still very fun) combat, the area where Bravely Default unquestionably shines brightest is in the execution of its overwhelmingly vast job and class system. As someone who spent hundreds of hours grinding through different classes for just the right skills in Fire Emblem: Awakening, I couldn’t be more thrilled with the way jobs work in Bravely Default.
Essentially, you acquire access to additional classes via story progression and quests throughout the course of the game, and as your collection increases you can start converting your party members at will. When you learn skills or abilities from one class, they can often be kept when you move to another, resulting in an almost catch-em-all quality, where you gradually groom each character to perform just the way you envision. Job abilities range from outside-of-combat activities like imbuing weapons with special elements or conditions, to actual moves in battle, and even quality-of-life conveniences like a Merchant’s ability to gain cash when enemies regenerate HP.
Of course, the stellar job system does a lot to boost the allure of the Brave and Default combat system, which as mentioned is interesting but not all that special on its own. Throwing a wrench like a Swordmaster’s ability to raise his Speed after Defaulting into the mix does a lot to vary gameplay and deepen strategy, and if there’s one thing that’s true about Bravely Default it’s this: the job system is the game’s crown jewel, and it enables the combat to flourish – not the other way around. This is a key point that I hope Square Enix will make note of before it starts brainstorming off-the-wall ideas for its next mainline Final Fantasy.
You may recall me grumbling about issues with the game, and you weren’t hallucinating. The fact of the matter is, JRPG tropes still thoroughly soak Bravely Default. Though tropes aren’t inherently bad by any stretch of the imagination, certain elements that pervade most JRPGs nowadays are, in my opinion, bordering on objectively undesirable.
The game’s overarching plot is a good example. You’ve heard this before – four heroes must cleanse four magical crystals, avoid being killed by an enemy force, and ultimately save the world. Yes, it’s a throwback to older Final Fantasy games, and it even acts as a spiritual successor to The Four Heroes of Light. The trouble with that is this – I simply don’t care. This game could be a prequel to Pulp Fiction, followup to Schindler’s List, and spiritual successor to Half-Life 3, and it still wouldn’t change the fact that the story is woefully contrived, with characters erected from cardboard and adhesive paste.
Yes, JRPGs rarely brandish anything other than a token save-the-world narrative, and Bravely Default isn’t all that different – I get that. But giving the game a pass on its uninspired narrative “because it’s a JRPG” is like giving Grand Theft Auto a pass on brazen sexism “because it’s GTA.” It’s just not okay. If Grand Theft Auto V came out with a dull narrative, it would take serious flak, as would Bravely Default if it suggested using a female as a urinal. This regrettable trend will likely persist as games continue to get away with the established defects of their respective genres, and in this particular case I found the lack of an inspiring narrative especially disappointing. Alongside such a brilliantly implemented job and class system, it’s downright unfortunate.
That pretty much sums up Bravely Default – an admirable effort with some good ideas, one great idea, and a predictably disappointing idea on top. When it comes to graphics I wasn’t all that thrilled either – character models are definitely charming, and the game’s color palette is varied in the best way, but beyond that it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I found the blur effect that permeates towns and other locales to be overdone, and despite its artistic intentions and stunning results with the camera zoomed out, up close it sometimes just made things look ugly.
Furthermore, turning up the 3D slider is nothing to write home about – when the effect is actually put to use, it offers nothing more than a slight depth boost and some eye strain. Given that 3D is to this day my favorite thing about the 3DS, and other games have proven it can be used magnificently, this is a bit of a letdown.
This review may seem negative, but rest assured – Bravely Default is an enjoyable JRPG romp. It makes convenient genre amends like the ability to toggle the frequency of random battles, and truly does feel like an updated version of classic Final Fantasy. Unfortunately, unlike something like A Link Between Worlds — which injected solid storytelling and emotional thrills into timeless old-school gameplay — Bravely Default is content to simply make a classic formula affably presentable.
Or, as Nintendo might phrase it on YouTube – a pizza is still a pizza. If you’re sick of pizza, no amount of tasty toppings are going to change your mind.
This review is based on the 3DS exclusive, which was provided to us.
Bravely Default peppers a classic formula with some new innovations, and if it's in your wheelhouse then you likely already know it. The job system is the best part of the experience, and if you can muster the motivation, this aspect alone could easily soak up dozens of extra play hours spent customizing. Given its cliche story and silly personalities, though, motivation may be a difficult thing to come by.