Sometime in the last few years, Square Enix seemed to decide that standard RPGs didn’t interest people anymore. Their well-known Final Fantasy series even evolved (or devolved) into an action-RPG hybrid with its latest installment, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Meanwhile, they made a game for the 3DS called Bravely Default: Flying Fairy. It was more or less a spin-off game (specifically, a spiritual successor to Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light), and it got significantly less production and marketing budget than Lightning Returns. But with its old-school gameplay, turn-based combat and straightforward plot, Bravely Default was as close as it could be to a Final Fantasy game from the 1990s.
In the end, Bravely Default outsold Lightning Returns. Which proves two things: first, that there is still a market for turn-based RPGs, and second, that a game company should probably not try to reinvent its main series without any evidence that it is something players want.
In case you were wondering, the title “Bravely Default” refers to the main gameplay gimmick of the game. During combat, character can choose to save their turn for later (by selecting “Default”), or to play up to four turns in a row (the “Brave” option) if they have stored enough Brave Points. It’s a simple but very interesting gameplay element that allows for a much more strategic take on the classic turn-based system: will you save your turns for later, or will you take the risk of using them all at once? Now, admittedly, the title of the game sounds a bit awkward. But while most critics dislike it, I actually applaud it for its uniqueness. In today’s industry, there is something to be said about a game that even takes the risk of having an unusual title.
Now that we have established that the mere existence of Bravely Default is great, here comes the most important question. Is the game itself good?
Oh… That’s a tricky one.
Actually, the answer is yes. But it comes with a few asterisks.
On the surface, Bravely Default reminded me of Dragon Quest IX: old-school gameplay, chibi art style, a team of four, insane length (when trying to do everything), repetitive music… (Yes, the music in Bravely Default is good, but I just wish there were more of it. What I mean is, get used to hearing this and this a lot.)
Where Bravely Default wins is with its characters. The four main characters have distinct personalities and multiple quirks, and there are lots of optional conversations throughout the game to further develop them.
The main character. Agnès is a “Vestal of Wind” and is tasked to go on a journey to awaken four crystals across the world. In term of her role in the story, she is very reminiscent of Yuna from Final Fantasy X.
Sadly, despite being the protagonist, Agnès is most definitely the least likeable character. Her catchphrase, “Unnaceptable!”, perfectly illustrates the problem, namely her constant negativity.
The secondary protagonist. Tiz is a miraculous survivor from the town of Norende, which gets destroyed at the beginning of the game when a giant chasm opens under it.
Compared to most of the other characters, Tiz is quite bland, and there is not much to him in term of personality. There is a reason for that however, which is revealed (somewhat) at the end of the game. Whether it is a good reason or not is up for debate, but Tiz’ true nature (which I won’t spoil here) is an interesting idea nonetheless.
His name comes from “ring a bell”, which is a reference to the fact that he is amnesiac. He’s a major character in an RPG, so of course he is.
Seriously though, despite this silly concept, Ringabel is a fantastic character. His personality is funny and entertaining, and his backstory is actually both very complex and one of the major parts of the plot.
Edea is initially an enemy: she comes from the antagonistic duchy of Eternia and is ordered to capture the Wind Vestal. But when she realizes the horrible acts committed by her army, Edea decides to defect and join Agnès’ group.
She is very passionate, especially when it comes to her ideals. This is actually very relevant because it relates to one of the main themes of the game: the idea of right and wrong. Edea starts as a naive character (understandable as she is only 15 in the original version of the game, 18 in the localized version), who believes she has a clear understanding of good and evil. But the events of the game make her evolve and question her ideals. Which is much more than can be said about Agnès.
Final Fantasy VIII has this great quote from its protagonist, Squall: “There’s no good or bad side. Just two sides holding different views.” This idea is particularly evident in Bravely Default: one interesting and unexpected aspect of the game is that the antagonists themselves are very developed. While it does not seem that way at first (they initially appear as cartoonish bad guys at best), as the game progresses, we learn more and more about the other side and how they might be justified. And while the story feels like a classic RPG, in which it’s perfectly normal for a group of kids or teenagers to fight armies and save the world, it slowly shapes into a deconstruction of those kinds of stories. Bravely Default ends up showing that the main characters are just that, a group of naive teenagers, and that they may actually be wrong in what they try to accomplish.
Not all antagonists are honorable opponents, however. For a game with such a kid-friendly and colorful art style, the story does get surprisingly dark at time. During some of the sidequests, the game deals with subject matters such as corporate greed, child slavery, biological weapons (and their use on both the enemy and prisoners), and even rape. Thankfully, while it does get the player thinking, the game never deals with those issues in a way that is gratuitously shocking or disturbing. And the story has its fair share of lightheartedness as well.
There is so much more than can be said about the game (the job system, the Norende reconstruction, the streetpass features, the real time element of special attacks, the vampire castle sidequest, etc.) But all of those have been praised already in countless other reviews, and I can only avoid the elephant in the room for so long. Incidentally, a lot of the praise the game received early on came from reviews that made it clear the reviewer had not played more than half of the game.
The following will contain spoilers. I apologize for that, but there is simply no way to talk about Bravely Default to any significant degree without mentioning its second half. If you prefer to play the game blind, stop reading now.
For the first four chapters of the game, the plot is very straightforward, even cliché at time. Your team of teenage heroes is on a journey to cleanse four giant crystals from darkness, while the “evil”(?) duchy of Eternia sends its army to stop you for obscure reasons. So far, so good.
But after awakening the fourth crystal, you are sent right at the beginning of the game, as if time has reset (it is later confirmed that you were actually sent to an alternate universe). The characters try to figure out what happened, but at the same time, since the crystals are back to their original state, you need to go back and re-awaken them. Basically, you have to play the entire game another time. And after you do so… you have to do it again. You need to replay all the events of the game five times in total.
I wish I was making this up. I cannot believe how anyone in the development team could have thought it was a good idea. From a storytelling perspective, it does allow to explore quite a few interesting ideas (especially since each new iteration of the world has slight variations), but from a gameplay perspective, it falls short of ruining an otherwise brilliant game. As much as I am all for experimentation, and as much as I see the story as one of the most important parts of any game, the primary focus should still be to make the game enjoyable to the player. And the second half of Bravely Default feels like a chore.
Interestingly enough, it did not even need to be that way. Every time you awake a crystal starting from the fifth one, you have an additional option. You can either awake it normally, by pressing X and stopping when Airy (your fairy companion) tells you to. Or you can keep pressing X and ignore Airy’s warning, which will end up breaking the crystal. This will trigger the hidden ending. Nice idea, isn’t it? You are expected to figure out how to escape from the loop by using your player agency: this is a well-designed connection between story and gameplay. Which would be perfect, except it’s not what you are supposed to do. If you break a crystal, you essentially unlock a quick preview of the ending, which does not explain much and, depending when you access it, might spoil quite a lot of the story (not to mention, the final boss might be too difficult for your level if you do it too early). Instead, to get the true ending, you are supposed to keep playing the game normally until you have awakened the crystals 20 times (four crystals times five). This is really egregious due to the fact that there is really no incentive for the characters to keep redoing the same thing over and over again. Especially considering that the identity of the true antagonist quickly becomes obvious to a point that it feels absurd that the characters would keep ignoring it. By obvious, I mean that if you haven’t figured it out by chapter 6, the game flat-out tells you.
The sad part is that despite all that, the game displays many brilliant ideas that elegantly mix story and gameplay. I wouldn’t dare to spoil them here, but keep your eyes open: simple things that you will take for granted, such as the menu, the full title of the game, the streetpass features or even the camera of your 3DS might be used in a way that will surprise you.
Here is how I would summarize the main problem with Bravely Default: the game is very eager to show the player its brilliant ideas, but isn’t particularly concerned with how much fun said player would gain from said ideas. Nevertheless, if you can get past its repetitiveness and occasional story silliness, Bravely Default is a fascinating experience. Despite all its flaws, it still made me want to spend the 111 hours necessary to finish it completely.
– Number 5