Nope, still not a 2014 target game, but it was definitely most of my August gaming. Whoops, it's December now, isn't it? Oh well. Here's a review of the current hours leader in my 3DS by a longshot, Bravely Default.
Bravely Default: Flying Fairy is a 2012 Japanese RPG that got a port with a few new extras, Bravely Default: For the Sequel, in 2013. In early 2014, English-speaking territories FINALLY received the For the Sequel version of the game as simply Bravely Default. I'm calling it BD for the rest of the review. Or I might not. It isn't a very long name.
When I got a 3DS Bravely Default was one of the first four games I immediately picked up, taking advantage of some Best Buy deals. I knew it was a game I wanted to play: a big Square-Enix hit with turn-based combat, a fun job system, a lengthy story, and a colorful retro RPG aesthetic. The music is killer, too; I've been listening to the soundtrack since before I got to play the game, but more on that later.
Story and Characters
Stop me if you've heard this before: the Wind Crystal is threatened and may shatter. A young woman connected to the Wind Crystal departs to investigate and runs into a young man with no connection to the struggle at hand. They meet a strong-willed young woman and a man with amnesia, and soon the four are on a quest to save the world's crystals. Yup, that can be Bravely Default OR Final Fantasy V. I'm forcing the comparison a little bit, but there ya go. Bravely Default tries (and mostly succeeds) at an oldschool RPG exposition.
But before we get that classic opening scenario, Bravely Default opens with an intensely dramatic scene. Using the 3DS's 3D abilities surprisingly well, we see a scene where a young woman implores the viewer not to trust someone while a great commotion happens behind her. Hell of a dramatic scene. You won't find out what she means for another sixty-plus hours. Happy trails!
So allow me to un-simplify that a little bit. Out of nowhere, the town of Norende is annihilated by a giant chasm opening in the ground. A young man named Tiz appears to be the only survivor of Norende. Tiz appeals to the king of the nearby nation of Caldisla for help, and the king gives his condolences and support, allowing Tiz to run the reconstruction of Norende (more on this later).
However, Tiz's problems increase when he meets Agnes, a young priestess from the Wind Temple across the sea. Agnes is on a journey to see the world (accompanied by a cryst-fairy named Airy) and assess the condition of the world's Crystals, as the Wind Crystal is showing some signs of suffering. Determined to assist her, Tiz guides Agnes to Caldisla, and soon is protecting her from elite soldiers from the nation of Eternia. They meet the mysterious amnesiac Ringabel, who insists on joining them in their quest because he possesses a diary containing descriptions of their future travels. The trio soon encounters Edea, who's part of the team of Eternian soldiers, but disagrees with her nation's bullying tactics and teams up with Agnes and company instead. And there's your party.
Tiz, Agnes, Ringabel, and Edea travel the world to restore power to the four Crystals, with each region suffering from a particular evil perpetrated by Eternia. For the first half of the game, your team moves from continent to continent righting wrongs, saving Crystals, and thwarting the Eternian military. The special agents of Eternia wield special powers called "Asterisks" and defeating Asterisk-holders grants your party new jobs for Bravely Default's job system (again, more on that later).
Now, I'm going to avoid spoilers. But Bravely Default's halfway point (the start of chapter 5) marks a major change in the story, but I'll decline from saying exactly what it is. However, it does mean you need to revisit many different dungeons and defeat several bosses over again from throughout the first four chapters. It's annoying. There's a story-based justification for it, but the forced repetition bothered many players and it's totally understandable. This is mitigated by Bravely Default's adjustable difficulty and encounter rate (...I hate to say this, but more on that later) and a lot of the game content in chapter 5 is optional, but it still kinda sucks.
If there's something to be said for Bravely Default's story and characters, it's that it feels like a classic Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest storyline, but kinda weird and dark. There's a ton of unexpected tragedy, right from the second scene of the game through to the final boss battle. We're talking child murder, here. Most of the characters are silly and over-the-top (especially the asterisk bosses, who are generally the most interesting characters in the game), but there's all kinds of unsettling actions taking place during the game. I didn't dislike it, but it seemed a little... out of place at times. Sometimes, it feels like Bravely Default's characters, setting, and plot aren't gelling perfectly with its cutesy visuals and RPG traditionalism. It's neat, but weird.
Oh, and chapters 6 and 7 have repeating areas in a similar manner to chapter 5. Yeah, it's difficult to explain without going into story spoilers, but for awhile Bravely Default has the player very perplexed and frustrated with all of this repeating bullshit. I got annoyed too, but the game does such interesting things with the repetition concept (avoiding spoilers...) that I felt it was eventually earned. Sure, it wasn't earned until the very end of chapter 7 going into chapter 8 (BD's final chapter), but it's a pretty cool payoff once you see the big picture. Still, I feel compelled to mention this because it's a major complaint that Bravely Default elicits. I liked the story, but there are serious issues here about recycling assets and environments. whatever. Let's talk about the rest of the game.
Playing the Game
Bravely Default is not a direct rejection of where modern RPGs are headed (big open worlds, huge checklists of sub-quests, loot collection as carrots-on-sticks, etc.), but it feels like an alternative aimed directly at lovers of old Final Fantasy games. Combat is turn-based, and there's a robust Job system. Nearly every job is in Final Fantasy III or Final Fantasy V, and those that aren't are just new interpretations of old Final Fantasy jobs (i.e. they have a Vampire class in lieu of Blue Mage).
This job system is out of control. There are 24 jobs in total, with most of them found in optional boss fights. Each job is leveled up to 14 tiers, with each tier yielding a customizable skill, spellcasting level, or passive bonus. You can combine magic spells, skillsets, and passives into your characters for a patently absurd level of customization. If you like leveling up classes and tinkering with builds in games like Disgaea, Final Fantasy V, or Final Fantasy Tactics, then this job system is a delight. My favorite combinations were typically two or three characters using a combination of Knight, Swordmaster, Ninja, or Pirate backed up by a Spiritmaster and a Performer.
I won't get much deeper into the class system, but I will say that just about all 24 classes are interesting twists on traditional Japanese RPG roles, and I eventually exploited some grinding tactics to get all four characters max out all 24 jobs. Yeah. I went a little overboard. But the insane level of customization (a main skillset, an alternate skillset, and up to six customizable passives for each character) has a ton of fascinating final builds available for players. I ended up exploiting some super-leveling mechanics and maxed out all of my levels and jobs for all four characters in a late-game zone.
And speaking of exploitation (BOOM SEGUE), Bravely Default doesn't resist players breaking its difficulty curve. It embraces it. You can manually set difficulty, experience drops, and random encounter rates on sliders in the options menu. It's totally allowed (even recommended) to blaze through dungeons with random encounter rates turned off, find all the treasure, then challenge the boss fresh. If your characters are too weak, find a good leveling spot, turn the encounter rate all the way up, and camp there for a long as you want! And if you want to play Bravely Default like a regular-ass Final Fantasy games with encounters and difficulty set to standard rates, that's fine too!
Bravely Default's dungeons are slightly generic, with plenty of "where's the stairs" and "find the switch" going on. A large number of them are optional, but they're a little frustrating if you choose not to turn off random encounters when you get sick of them (and why wouldn't you?). The environments are varied enough that I won't disparage them, but the dungeons themselves... yeah I hope you like top-down corridors. A few neat puzzles, but their layouts wouldn't be out of place in a Dragon Quest game.
And now combat! Bravely Default has some of the neatest turn-based combat this side of Shin Megami Tensei. Characters fight like a classic Final Fantasy game (you on the right, enemies on the left) and fight in singular rounds with turn order determined by speed, like a Dragon Quest title. In addition to regular shit like HP, MP, status effects, buffs, and what have you, Bravely Default has something called Brave Points (not the same as Dissidia or FF Tactics). Characters gain BP by defending (or Defaulting) or from a variety of job skills, and performing any action other than Defaulting uses one BP. You gain one BP at the start of each turn under normal circumstances. Red Mages and Performers are particularly good at generating BP in battle.
And that's not all! You can spend BP to take up to four turns at once in battle. That lets you go into negative numbers (up to -4), and if you're in the hole you skip turns until you're back up to zero. Since you gain bonuses to EXP, gold, and JP for beating foes on the first turn, it's totally doable to have all four characters Brave so each one takes four turns right away! But if it doesn't work out and you're at negative BP, then the enemies will have four free turns to work with. Also, you take extra damage if you're at negative BP. I probably don't need to say this, but messing with BP to take additional turns has all kinds of crazy strategy implications. It's pretty awesome once you get the hang of it.
So you have your regular stuff like HP/MP stats and equipment, plus 20-plus jobs and BP manipulation. BUT WAIT! THERE'S MORE! You can also "Bravely Second" by spending SP, a stat gained by putting your 3DS in Sleep mode or by paying real money (really). Using your Second abilities allow you to take free turns without BP penalty or summon characters from your friends' Bravely Default saves! What the fuck!?
And yeah, diving into your Friends list has other benefits. You can use your friends' save files to use job skills that your characters haven't learned yet in addition to summoning them in battle using Bravely Second. You'll see friends' characters mentioned during story segments as well, but it makes sense, I promise. I didn't use Bravely Second much, but I definitely skill-linked to my friends' Bravely Default characters. It's awesome. Bravely Default has some very smart online tricks for a single-player game.
One of those online tricks is rebuilding Norende, the town that was destroyed right at the start of the game. Earning StreetPasses on your DS (or doing a once-daily Wi-Fi connect) adds townspeople to Norende, which allows its reconstruction to go by more quickly. Rebuilding Norende unlocks shops that provide equipment found nowhere else in the game. Pretty cool reward for doing a bit of StreetPassing.
Visuals and Audio
Visually, Bravely Default resembles a few of Square-Enix's recent chibi-styled RPGs, namely the DS and PSP versions of Final Fantasy III and the DS RPG Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. Bravely Default borrows many concepts from 4 Heroes of Light, and the recurring merchant / adventurer seen in many of Bravely Default's dungeons is originally from 4HoL. I'm not aware of all the details, but I assume that Bravely Default shares key staff with those games.
And honestly, the look of Bravely Default *seems* under-detailed with that art style, but within the confines of those character designs everything looks gorgeous. Great environments, lots of color, and huge Asterisk Holders that are (weirdly) more detailed and varied than the rest of Bravely Default's cast. I won't go on too long - this game has an art style that's probably a turn-off to some, but I think it looks great and there is a lot of pretty stuff here.
The audio is insane. Revo, a Japanese composer / rock star / leader of the band Sound Horizon, blew me away with this soundtrack. Everything fits this traditional JRPG world, but there's a lot of drama and energy in each song. I will have certain battle tracks and character themes on rotation when I go running for many years to come. Especially "Wicked Child," which isn't played until the very last dungeon, but was worth the wait. Probably. Not sure in retrospect. Whatever, Bravely Default has great fucking music.
Bravely Default has really good voice acting for a large number of its characters. The asterisk holders are all fully voiced, in addition to several other NPCs. The main characters, all of whom are teenagers, are a little chirpy, but nothing deal-breaking. I didn't recognize many of the voiceover artists, but everyone did a solid job.
The Final Word
I'm 100% sure that I'm leaving stuff out, because I have a lot to say about Bravely Default. This took me over a month to write, mostly because I didn't know where to begin. Bravely Default is an RPG that's extremely traditional in its basic framework, but modern and weird with its new ideas and storytelling twists. I adore Bravely Default, and I eagerly anticipate its sequel. Bravely Second (yes, the sequel shares its name with a gameplay feature) can't come soon enough.
Games Beaten: 2014 Edition
1. Ys Seven
2. Rayman Origins
3. Assassin's Creed II
4. Dust: An Elysian Tail
5. The Walking Dead (season one)
6. Frog Fractions
7. Mortal Kombat (2011)
8. Digital Devil Saga
9. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
10. Persona 3: Portable (FeMC)
12. Sonny 2
13. Dragon Age: Origins
14. Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening
15. Retro Game Challenge
16. Batman: Arkham City
17. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
18. Bravely Default
19. Persona 2: Innocent Sin
20. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
21. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Right now I really should be playing XenoBlade Chronicles, but I keep getting distracted by Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth and Dragon Age: Inquisition. Also had a Halloween stint playing Castlevania setting me back. Not a great look, with no blog posts in October at all, but I'm having fun so whatever. Want to try and have XenoBlade behind me before year's end. Probably not gonna happen, but the heart wants what the heart wants. In the meantime, I'll be writing up my Persona 2 review and finishing some more December-January blog posts. Exciting! (not really)