Friday, April 18, 2014

Bravely Default

"Bravely Default" is a game I have been eagerly anticipating for about three years now.  It has been a long difficult wait, seeing a fair share of deep suffering, and uncertainty as to whether Square Enix would allow the game to ever reach the United States*.  As the months of waiting turned to years, I became irrationally bitter at other Final Fantasy releases.  My manic mind stared at games like "Theatrythm Final Fantasy" and wished death upon its players and developers, for no reason other than the game's speedy localization.  Clearly turn-based JRPG withdrawal was doing terrible things to me.  But then, in February, the game was finally released.  God was in his heaven, all was right with the world.

Now you would never guess this from the title, but "Bravely Default" is actually the newest Final Fantasy game.  It isn't called "Final Fantasy" because Square Enix prefers to use that brand name to advertise its latest bloated psuedo-turned based, psuedo-real time disaster, like "Lightning Returns".  "Bravely Default" was made to be a side-project built to appease the old turn-based RPG fans:  the people SE considers to be ancient un-cool nerds barely worthy of their business anymore.  The entire game is a throw-back to the mid-90s era of JRPGs, specifically games like "Final Fantasy V".  It has fully turn-based gamplay, no Active Time Battle for this title, a relatively simple plot without huge FMV spectacle, a light-hearted cast who refuse to brood for hours like the so-called "cool" modern Final Fantasy characters are famous for, and it has a cartoony art style.  It's an adventure of four youths defeating evil, saving Crystals, defeating an evil Empire, and even using classic Final Fantasy Jobs and magic.  "Bravely Default" is ten times more of an authentic Final Fantasy experience than we have seen in years.  And of course, for that reason, it cannot be called "Final Fantasy".

But I'm not really here to bemoan the endless stupidity of Square Enix.  I have already covered that depressing subject dozens of times - and will continue to beat that dead horse until the Humane Society files a lawsuit.  Instead I am here to celebrate "Bravely Default", the greatest turn-based RPG to be released since "Dragon Quest IX".  It doesn't matter that Final Fantasy's head is neck-deep up inside its own ass, or that the top brass of Square Enix were honestly shocked that RPG fans still love turn-based classic gameplay,   I don't care what you call your Final Fantasy games, just as long as good old-fashioned games are still getting released - the kind Momma used to make.  We can still have a nice journey with new friends, save the universe, and have yet another great game on our 3DS.

The general gameplay of "Bravely Default" is a classic JRPG, completely with the World Maps, the dungeons, the random encounters, and the towns you have come to expect.  The battle system relies primarily upon the Job System from such games as "Final Fantasy III", "Final Fantasy V", and "Final Fantasy Tactics".  So your four heroic teenagers can transform into healing White Mages, Black Mages that do the opposite of healing, sword-swinging Knights, scallywag thieves, or my personal favorite class, Valkyrie (this game's version of Dragoons**).  As you continue along the game and defeat bosses themed after the Job Classes, you gain those bosses powers like an Mohawk Brave devouring his enemy's heart for his powers.  With the Jobs (and delicious cardiac muscles) come more abilities, more customization options, and more silly outfits to dress your heroes up in.  The pattern is as classic as JRPGs themselves:  go to a town, find it has a problem, go through a dungeon, and murder that problem.  Repeat until the problem grows into a Final Boss, and kill him too.

Oh, traditional World Map, I missed you so much.
The difference with "Bravely Default" is that it does not feel deliberately retro.  This game might have been thought-of by the SE executives as a dusty throw-back for the classic RPG fans, but the actual creators of "Bravely Default" wanted to do much more with it.  The battle system takes the old RPG gameplay and innovates with it, almost as if this style of turn-based gameplay had not been largely forgotten and ignored for over a decade.  It's like the good times never ended.

In "Bravely Default", the Job System has reached its zenith of complexity and customization.  Every Job feels like it has a special purpose within the gameplay.  No two Jobs make each other redundant.  A Knight, a Samurai, and a Pirate might all be Classes built around physical attacking, but their roles in battle are completely unique.  Knights are made to tank and protect other allies, Samurais are made to absorb attacks and return with powerful counters, and Pirates are berserk attackers who specialize in targeting enemy stats.  Every Job is allowed to equip any piece of equipment, so a White Mage could hold a sword, though it may not be the most effective weapon to put in their hands.  Swords don't match white robes, I guess.  Much like "Final Fantasy Tactics", characters can use skillsets from other Jobs when they are not currently using that Job.  You can make a Knight that heals, or a Pirate that uses Time Magic.  Or you can create more complex, strategic combinations such as a Dark Knight, a Job that sacrifices its HP for powerful attacks, using the Spell Fencer's Sword Magic, so that its weapon is powered by magical effects.  Have it use Drain Sword and suddenly you lost the HP cost, as your powerful Dark Knight attacks restore your HP.  One Job has a cake, another one eats it too, simply combine the two and your enemies will die by the truckload to your magnificence.

The most interesting bit though comes from the mixing and matching of abilities upon characters.  So the White Mage learns an ability called Angelic Ward, which has the chance to halve enemy damage.  Put that on a Knight, and your tank is suddenly much more effective.  Or give the Knight the Ninja's ability, Utusumi, which guarantees that he will dodge the next physical attack.  Then when your Knight is jumping in front of an attack for his ally, he will also dodge that attack he took.  (It makes no sense, but who can complain with the results?)  Generally it's in your best interest to have your characters try lots of different jobs, increasing more and more your combat possibilities.  As you progress in the game you will have more slots open to add more abilities, up to five.  So by the end, you can create amazing game breaking combinations that will wreak your foes.  The game is a huge LEGO set, with every Job and ability a piece, you just put them together any which way you want and soon, your little blocks have become a perfect death ray with which to save the world.

"Oh yeah, you are now in love / with my dragon slaying nuts!"
But "Bravely Default" is not merely taking the structure of an old gameplay system and improving it, but it also builds on top of the framework of turn-based RPGs and adds new dimensions.  This is done with the Brave and Default system, a gameplay feature that the developers were so proud of they used it as the name of the entire game.  When a particular character uses Brave, you move future actions to the current turn, allowing them to take up to four actions in a single turn.  So you can attack four times, heal four times, make some kind of support ability four times.  But of course, if you pound Brave over and over again, you leave yourself completely helpless for the next few turns, allowing a boss to demolish you.  Default has the exact opposite effect, saving your current turn for future use, along with being this game's version of the "Guard" action.  When you use Guard, you gain a BP, a Brave Point, which means you can throw out a Brave without the fear of losing a turn.

The Brave and Default abilities dovetail directly into the rest of the game.  All the enemies and bosses have access to Brave and Default, and they use them in their own battle strategies.  Many abilities within the Job System cost several BP, meaning you have to save your turns in order to use them.  The Red Mage Class specializes with abilities that generate BP, so you can use it to gain extra turns.  Use Brave or manipulate the web of abilities and soon enough you could be spamming extra powerful moves like the Valkyrie's High Jump or the Hunter's Multiburst, to deal massive damage.  Or you could use a defensive ability such as the Templar's Rampart, which blocks all damage.  Yes, some abilities are quite OP, but consider all the level grinding you need to do to use them, you will not want to complain.

Altogether Brave, Default, and the Job System makes this a game with an incredibly deep and fascinating structure, which you could study for months to discover the ultimate path to victory.  Which is something you're going to need, because this game is extremely difficult, one of the toughest JRPGs I've ever played***.  This might be partially because the game allows you to turn random encounter on or off, which is a blessing when it comes to defeating dungeons at your own speed, but it meant generally I was underleveled for nearly all of the game.  Even so, I wound up beating the Final Boss at a whopping level 87, and that was after seventy hours of effort defeating every sadistic challenge the game threw at me.

Ringabel is my favorite playable character - it's the pompadour.
The storyline behind "Bravely Default" is again, taking old RPG cliches and taking new twists on them.  The general plot summary is classic Final Fantasy:  four youths, Tiz, Edea, Ringabel, and Agnes, who are charged with saving the world travel the world saving Crystals while fighting against an evil Empire bent on world domination.  But where "Bravely Default" is different is that the story is in fact a very dark take on what would be a typically light-heated adventure.  There's even a magical fairy leading you around, sweetly chirping child-friendly encouragement.  It begins off-beat enough by showing off a huge variety of flunky bosses who seemingly would be nothing more than comic reliefs, but instead turning out to be an incredible collection of sadists, rapists, war criminals, and just plain old wackos.  You do not just clunk them over the head and take them to fantasy jail, you fucking kill them.  Often more than once.  The game takes several shocking turns, to the point this is very nearly as dark as "Final Fantasy Tactics" - the RPG where everybody is a traitor and 99% of the cast is seemingly dead by the conclusion****.

And just like "Final Fantasy Tactics", the characters are little chibi cartoon characters, drawn by Akihiko Yoshida.  Probably so that the happy art style can feel so wonderfully ironic when you discover a volcanic mine worked by helpless child slaves.  Is this King Leopold's Congo now?

Then as the story continues, you finish the traditional RPG story, reach the point where logically it seems that you have completed your journey, having saved the Crystals and thus the world.  Crystals are the ultimate representation of all creation in the mythos of Final Fantasy.  They are the direct avatars of the natural forces, and the origin of all life.  Yet here, saving the Crystals becomes a task that seems more and more suspect as you continue along the way.  The journey seems to keep going well beyond the point of logic, and you become trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of repeating storylines.  Your magical fairy keeps telling you to repeat the same actions -  and you have completely lost sight of what the real effects of your easy adventure will actually be.  This goes on until the point where the easy truths and basic assumptions of RPG logic itself are completely deconstructed.

Oddly though, your main characters remain enthusiastic, happy anime teenagers through all the madness.  Edea continues to berate Ringabel for his womanizing.  Tiz remains this bright-eyed, well-meaning, completely naive hero.  And nearly all of the side-conversations continue to be about how Edea eats too much.  These are characters who have personally killed roughly a twenty people - bad people - but still, there gets to be a point where the easy-going comedy seems somewhat inappropriate.  They should have the 1000 yard stares of a Vietnam veteran, staring unblinkingly through the false foundations of a society he was raised to believe was completely peaceful, yet instead they could probably join a high school anime without missing a beat.  No darkness can touch this bunch, and you almost have to respect that.

The artwork for the towns is absolutely gorgeous. 
All this deconstructing does come at a cost though.  Unfortunately the second half of the game feels like painful padding.  I understand the point of the repetition, how it fits into the thematic subtext of the game, even how the story justifies it.  But gameplay-wise, it grates on the player.  This is generally exactly the mood the developers wanted to give:  an exhaustion of having an in-game authority spin you around in meaningless circles.  But did it have to last so long?  Eventually this opens up into new interesting challenges, such as fighting previous bosses in larger groups with dangerous combinations of powers, but it takes HOURS until you reach that point.  This may be what keeps "Bravely Default" from being one of the greatest RPGs ever made.

There are a few other issues here and there.  "Bravely Default" adds a few modes that feel - for lack of a better word - "trendy".  You can summon playable characters from your 3DS Friends' games, allowing you to use their abilities for a single attack.  Really though, it is hard to tell what those Friends are going to do for you, and you could go the entire game without bothering because there's almost no strategic advantage.  There is a mechanic called "Bravely Second" which allows you to use entirely free moves in-between actual turns with no Brave cost.  It is an extremely useful last resort power, to be fair.  However this is only generated by not playing the game.  You're expected to leave your 3DS on -  or alternatively and disgustingly, purchase the Bravely Second points as a real-money transaction.

Then there's this Town Developing scenario, which unlike the version from "Dragon Quest IV" which was a real sidequest involving traveling the world and finding NPCs to inhabit your town, is just a variety on free-to-play mobile gaming nonsense.  You collect villagers by connecting your 3DS online daily, and you develop the town by again not playing the game.  You put a villager on a structure, they build it automatically, there's no strategy, no challenge, NO GAME.  The Town Developing scenario is also the only way to unlock rare items, and it gives free normal items such as Phoenix Downs, so you will actually want to do that bit, even it is completely vapid and barely counts as a game.  The directors were just following the worst gaming trends thoughtlessly, which is exactly how you expected to play this sidequest.  It also means, depressingly, there are very few actual sidequests:  no minigames, no unique optional bosses, just fluff that contributes nothing.

However, it could be worse.  All of "Bravely Default" could have been thrown away into the ghetto of depressing game development that is mobile gaming.  Instead it is here, maybe not in the full spotlight since it is being released on the 3DS, but still it is a proud, fully-complete return to what made Final Fantasy great on a major gaming device.  This might not be exactly what I dreamed of when I imagined the next installment of the franchise, but it is so close that I cannot really complain.  We have returned to form, we have gone back home, to a safe, proven gameplay mode.  And we took that safe homely environment and brought it into 2014 with an exciting innovative game.  "Bravely Default" is what a 21st century Final Fantasy can be - and what they should be.  Rejoice in that.

And don't play "Lightning Returns", you'll just encourage Square Enix's bad behavior.

* I'm still waiting for the remake of "Dragon Quest VII" on the 3DS to finally cross the Pacific.  There's a malicious rumor online that SE forced Nintendo to choose between localizing "Bravely Default" or "Dragon Quest VII".  The rumor makes no sense to me, since it seems to give SE no particular advantage beyond dickishness.  Please, Goddess, let SE see the error of their ways, let them bring us the glory of "Dragon Quest VII" so that I may enjoy its splendor.

** Big surprise, I know.

*** "Bravely Default"'s difficult is somewhere behind "Final Fantasy III" and "Final Fantasy IV" for the Nintendo DS, which were games that truly hated you and wanted nothing more to drink your blood through the DS screen.  The difficult is also way behind "Resonance of Fate", the hardest JRPG I've ever seen.  That was a meatgrinder, and I have to admit... it defeated me.  I finally had to give up on "Resonance of Fate" once it started writing Satanic messages on the side of my PS3 in the blood my pets.  That's a little much even for me.  It is however, much more difficult than most Final Fantasy games, which are cakewalks - especially "Final Fantasy VIII", which all but surrenders to you on Disc 1 if you bothered to grind Water spells from the enemies on the beach.

**** Ironically one of the very few named characters whom we can be absolutely certain did not die in "Final Fantasy Tactics" is Aerith Gainsborough, the most legendary death in all of JRPG history.  She makes a cameo from "Final Fantasy VII", and walks off screen, entirely fine.  Cloud Strife, who joins the main party, probably was not so lucky.  Yes - that is a game so dark you can actually kill Cloud Strife.  Yet Aerith lives.  Strange.


  1. Glad to see you finally finished this game. By the way, what are your thoughts considering the sequel, Bravely Second?

    1. The ending to Bravely Default was pretty... random (I did not see any of that coming). But more of this kind of game, I really can't complain.

  2. I love this game so much! It doe's almost every single thing right. And my god the graphics for this are BEAUTIFUL! I couldn't wait to get to the next town and would revisit towns just to see the graphics again. The only thing I can say that would make this game perfect is that there was basicly no exploration outside of the dungeons. But I forgive it because the battle system made up for it. This is one of the few RPGs where I constantly switch classes while on the go. Although that renaming Dragoons as Valkyries really struck me as weird. What, they could use Firage and Phoenix Down, but you couldn't get Dragoon?

    And also I didn't know you're a NSP fan! That is honestly surprising to me. You just got a 1+ in my cool book, Blue.

  3. It's rather sad that the two recent Final Fantasy titles that are most like the older series are Bravely Default - a spin-off - and FFXIV - an MMORPG. FFXIV has great gameplay (a bit like FFXII, with no random encounters and free character movement during battle), a job system, the quest against an evil Empire, giant summons to defeat, crystals... And you can ride a giant fat chocobo!

  4. Really, there's little to add. BD is the best Final Fantasy game since IX.

    I don't count XII, not because it isn't breath-takingly beautiful and complex, but because it felt much more like an Ivalice game than a FF game.