All in a Tiz
When is a Final Fantasy game not a Final Fantasy game? When it’s called Bravely Default, apparently.Square Enix is pulling the wool over nobody’s eyes. Their latest 3DS-only RPG might have been a little late hitting our shores (the original was released back in 2012 in Japan, this souped-up edition in December for the UK and only a few weeks ago in the US), but this is a game that bears the unmistakable hallmarks of their most revered series.
Crystals, airships, emotionally inept lead protagonists and horrific english voice acting all await, as does an overworld map, random battles, ridiculously powerful special moves and the return of a much-heralded job system. There are pixies, chasms of darkness, sub-quests and embattled townships, all of which are delivered with at least a knowing nod and a wink to the genre tropes.
Despite its outward appearance however, Bravely Default doesn’t rest entirely on the laurels of its elder cousin, and there’s enough here to suggest that it can be spun into a more forward-thinking series than Final Fantasy.
Traditional RPG mechanics are mixed with a distinctly modern take on accessibility, blending speedier dungeon crawling with elements of free-to-play mobile city builders, party customisation, social features, variable difficulty levels, selectable encounter rates, and *gasp* even some light monetisation (more on which later).
For those reasons alone, you might find this the most welcoming handheld RPG for quite some time.
Stop me if you've heard this...The story set-up treads familiar, well-worn ground.
You initially play as a young boy named Tiz, suddenly cast into action as his home village of Norende is torn asunder by a huge chasm that opens directly beneath its centre. Dark things are afoot, and whilst reflecting on a nearby hillside, Tiz comes across a young girl names Agnes - a mysteriously dressed “vestal of the wind” being pursued by enemies on an airship. The two of them eventually hot-foot it to the nearest village and begin a slow-burning quest to figure out exactly who caused the devastation, and for what reason the entire land is being strangled of life.
They’re shortly joined by another two other companions: a bashful young girl named Edea, and a womanising amnesia-ridden drifter named Ringabel.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the four party members rarely see eye-to-eye, and it’s their constant bickering that imbues the dialogue with much of its charm as they dash from dungeon to dungeon on the trail of their nemesis. The majority of Bravely Default’s cut-scenes are fully-voiced (with a range of vocal talent should you stay in English language), but a series of optional text-only dialogue sequences crop up between missions to fill in the detail, adding a dash of colour and backstory to each of the protagonists.
It’s well written and well translated by the standards of any RPG, and Bravely Default trundles along with a pleasant and compelling storyline for the most part; although I’d love to say it casts aside the shackles of genre tropes and delivers something truly special however, that’s simply not the case.
At least the clichés are acknowledged. A hefty dose of self-awareness and humour sharpens up the otherwise traditionally melodramatic JRPG formula, while the beautiful watercolour-tinged layers of artwork breathe life into every location - even if you've been to a variant of its caves, deserts and interacted with its townsfolk many times before. Character and enemy designs are handled with just as much gusto, and the parade of bizarre creatures and ridiculous spell effects dazzle amidst the chaos of 3D battle. A huge variety of costumes for each protagonist also ensures the look of your party is freshened up every few hours, as long you’re regularly gaming the job system.
And you really should. Jobs are superbly implemented and at the heart of much of Bravely’s RPG character-building, with a vast swathe of skills and buffs associated with each of the 24+ different professions. Defeating key enemies in the main storyline or side quests gives you the ability to assign their role to any of your party members, while regular battles always reward a small amount of JP that edges their job capabilities upwards through the levels. It's worth powering through them all just to see what lies in store.
Once you've unlocked a healthy proportion of their rewards, the combinations of offensive and defensive options in Bravely Default are ridiculously large, and it’s safe to say that no single party will be the same as any other. Additional ability slots unlock as you progress through the game, affording further opportunity to mix and match combinations of different job roles on a single character. As an example, I started my first build for Agnes heading down the route of a primary support character with healing spells and curing abilities, but no more than 6-7 hours later she was something entirely different, sporting a combination of dark magic abilities, ranged weaponry and party-spanning buffs and heals.
There's no specific right or wrong way to go with your party combinations as such, although later in the game it certainly pays dividends if you assign job roles that match the base stats of each character. Even then, there's plenty of room to experiment.
Battle, block, theatreSo let’s deal with that title. Although not as redundant as Final Fantasy, “Bravely Default” is nevertheless pretty obtuse.
In practice, it’s a term that points towards a revamped battle system. At the beginning of each random encounter your party-of-four is faced with the usual choices: attack, use an item, magic or burn a special move if such a luxury is active, but added to those are two new menu choices: Brave and Default.
Choosing “Default” allows you to bank your character’s turn and defend in the process, while selecting “Brave” allows you to cash in those banked turns to strike multiple times at once - up to a maximum of four per character at any one time. Risk, and reward.
You can even go into debt with “Brave” attacks (to a maximum of -4), but characters in debt can then do nothing for the consecutive turns it takes them to work back to zero. That means if you go all-out for glory and brave four times with every character at the beginning of a fight, you might end up in a situation where you’re sat watching your own party get pummelled for four straight turns if they haven't scored enough damage to wipe out the opposition.
It’s a great system, adding a layer of depth to the tactical side of battles that helps in gaining swift victories against lower-tier enemies, and adds a huge amount of scope when dealing with tricky boss battles or higher-level parties. The complexity is layered on slowly as you discover skills and slot them into your party to try out various combinations of stacked Brave commands, and some of the later battles really challenge you to think about the way each of the job roles can interact, forcing you to come up with ingenious solutions against seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s fun to tinker, even if you end up on a hiding to nothing for a couple of runs.
There's a vast amount of room to experiment with your party builds.
And even if your party lineup isn’t successful, if you miscalculate on any given turn and need a swift top-up to your damage output, there’s also the chance to hit the start button, freeze time and burn three additional attack turns under the guise of ‘Bravely Second’. To activate that ability you need to use what’s known as Sleep Points (SP), which are generated whilst the 3DS is left in sleep mode - at a rate of one per eight hours.
If your micro-transaction alarm bell is ringing about now then it’s probably with good reason, as you can also purchase SP 'potions' direct from Square Enix.
Before you run to the hills however, let me just state that I’m as big a hater of egregious in-game micro-transactions as anybody, but Bravely Default’s implementation is neither intrusive nor necessary for success. The game is balanced and its difficulty completely surmountable without ever needing to hit the purchase button, and the only times I ever ended up using SP was via the stock I’d built up overnight. There are no pop-ups or reminders you can pay, and outside of a single tutorial walking you through SP use, the ability to purchase is never mentioned again.
Systems, systems, systemsThe other reason to leave Bravely Default in sleep mode is slightly wackier. As the village of Norende is demolished at the start of our adventure, it falls to Tiz and his chums to rebuild it as they adventure around the world - which is a task that requires both street passing and sleep mode to succeed. This section is, in essence, an iOS or Android-style city builder.
You’re presented with a series of plots of land to clear on a static 2D map, and clicking on each one assigns a single villager to either clean up the debris, build a shop or level up an existing structure. Each of those tasks is assigned a real-life timer that can be reduced by assigning more villagers to the same area, and on completion, each level gained unlocks new weaponry, crafting items and other trinkets for purchase via the in-game vendors. Building up a huge number of villagers to cut down on your construction time is pretty simple: you just need to Street Pass with as many folk as possible.
If you live out in the country or seldom come into contact with other players there’s no need to fret however, as Bravely Default also provides the option to invite four random strangers to your village via the internet, every day.
But if you have real-life friends playing at the same time, then all the better. Each of your party members can also be linked to another character on a different 3DS, allowing you to share learned job roles and halve the time it'd take you to maximise a range of professions. In keeping with the village strangers there's also an AI replacement for that character ‘Abilink’ functionality, but in practice it feels a little weird to be linking your character to a randomly assigned AI companion. The joy in the Abilink system comes through communicating and co-operating with others, but at least the policy of total access for everybody is carried through to its logical conclusion.
In a somewhat stranger and potentially difficulty-bending addition, each Bravely Default player is also able to upload a signature battle move, which can then be downloaded onto another 3DS as they Street Pass or via the above-mentioned daily internet invites. Each visiting character can then be summoned as a one-shot attack at any point during your own battle, with predictably unbalanced results.
In principle it’s a lovely idea, and in a game with as much diversity in character-building as Bravely Default, the ability to see other versions of the same protagonists is a great touch, and much in line with similar abilities in the recent Pokemon X & Y. As a general rule I’m a huge fan of abstracted multiplayer elements like this, they connect you to others playing the game without ever needing a communication mechanic or any real-time interaction, but after destroying the first two Bravely Default bosses with a single attack from an extremely over-levelled summoned character, I became a little more wary.
Fortunately you've a pretty good idea of the damage output of any given character you summon, and in the latter stages even the high-powered attacks won't save the day. It's only unbalanced if you make it so.
- Beautifully designed
- Excellent enemies
- Brilliant job system
- Well translated
- Occasionally poor voice acting
- Clichés abound
- Later chapters a little repetitious
Bravely Default 3DS ReviewThere are so many facets to Bravely Default’s combat and character-building that it’s difficult to even imagine how Square Enix (and developer Silicon Studio) visualised the vast complexity of what can be done within its many, many systems. Indeed, one quick look around the internet will lead you to hundreds of posts from players proclaiming to have the very best setup of abilities, weaponry, job roles and grinding spots, and at various points in the main storyline I've no doubt that each of their combinations is 100% correct.
Despite its successful blend of old and new, I've also no doubt that a few elements of Bravely Default’s mobile-centric design may well irk a few of the die-hard RPG acolytes looking to Square Enix for their next Final Fantasy fix, but I’d also urge everybody and anybody with a 3DS to at least give the demo a try.
This is a gorgeously rendered and stylish world imbued with a fantastic musical score and a main campaign that's packed with personality and challenge, and it's an RPG of huge scope and customisation, presented in a calm, charming and thoroughly appealing fashion with a visual design that plays beautifully to the strengths of the native 3D.
You might already know the story, but exploring each of Bravely Default’s systems is reward unto itself.
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