Bravely Default has been somewhat of a rebirth for Square Enix, who have struggled to recapture the magic that made them one of the most consistent and beloved developers of the 90s and early 00s. That their finger is completely off the pulse is evidenced by Square Enix head Yosuke Masuda's surprise
that Japanese RPGs have fans around the world.
Square Enix griping aside, Bravely Default is a great return to form, and it's time we talk about one of the more controversial parts of the game (I'd say the statute of limitations on spoilers is up, it's been 3 months). The narrative after chapter 5.
In reviews and comment sections everywhere people lamented "if the second half had been as strong as the first, this game would've been perfect/way better/more enjoyable." Which I get, though I found it fascinating, if only because it was a huge risk to have the player repeat the same scenario again and again. Is it any surprise that the writer for this game is Naotaka Hayashi, the writer of acclaimed visual novel/anime Steins;Gate
which is the finest use of a parallel world/time leap mechanic I have come across (sorry Bioshock Infinite).
So here's why the game is the way it is, I think:
Stories with looping worlds/parallel worlds are more common in Japan because of a focus on different story production elements and the way media companies there market their franchises to the fan base.
In Japan, production companies focus mainly on creating characters, the setting and a strong worldview before narrative becomes a consideration. They want us to like Tiz and Agnes, the physical places of Luxendarc and the Hero saves world by activating crystals concept. The strongest and most important of these elements is well thought out, likeable characters. If we like the characters, we will follow their adventure regardless, so even though we go through chapters 5-8 doing almost the same thing, it shouldn't matter because we are invested in the characters.
One of the most famous (infamous?) examples of this is the anime The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, where the characters are stuck in a time loop during their summer vacation, repeating the same events time and again, including a visit to a swimming pool, a bug-catching excursion, attending a summer festival and enjoying sundaes in a restaurant. We, the viewer, are forced to sit through eight episodes of the exact same thing, save for differences in clothing, camera angles and minor dialogue changes. The DVDs sold like gangbusters in Japan because, presumably, fans were invested in the characters. On this side of the Pacific, outrage reached fever pitch over the 'Endless Eight' fiasco.
The other reason why a looping world mechanic would be utilized is to build a brand through multiple narratives on multiple platforms. The Japanese media mix is a scatter shot usually featuring a game, anime, manga, drama CDs and toys and you buying any piece of that as the goal. The logic being you buy one thing, you become invested, you want to learn more about the characters and the world, so you buy another piece of the puzzle, until you know everything about the Bravely Default world. Even Revo’s amazing soundtrack has been performed live with the addition of lyrics to many of the songs giving more insight to character motivations and deeper description of the world of Luxendarc. Something you would not know if you don’t buy that particular CD/DVD. These different media are enhanced by the looping world mechanic, which makes each one of these pieces of consumable media canon to the Bravely Default world.
As an example in Bravely Default, of the tens of thousands of Luxendarcs that Airy links for Ouroboros, in one of them, something completely different could be happening to Tiz, Agnes, Ringabel and Edea. You would only be able to learn about that side story by reading the manga (that, by the way, does not exist), and with that new story, your view of the Bravely Default world grows. They also want fans to feel as though they can actively contribute, writing a piece of doujinshi
to sell at Comic Market
featuring the characters in made up situations in another of the looping worlds is allowed and in many cases encouraged, as unofficial PR. Anything a fan produces, Square Enix would recognize as part of the Bravely Default world.
It gives Square Enix the opportunity to revisit the world and characters we already know and love, and put them into a completely canon, though different, story for an anime or manga series, should they so choose. It gives them leeway to use the same characters in any bizarre way they choose, because they can always claim this story takes place in a different Luxendarc from the ones we saw in the game, so long as the characters remain mostly consistent there shouldn’t be a problem. The previously mentioned Steins;Gate now has several manga series running simultaneously, as well as new PC and console games being released that feature new plot threads all based on “what if the MC had chosen this parallel world instead?” Essentially, this is what Irrational Games could do with Bioshock Infinite if they wanted to milk Booker DeWitt’s story.
Now, all this means nothing if the game doesn't pull it off.
How does Bravely Default fare? Not bad.
I found myself looking for the variations between worlds, interested to see what had changed, though I was a little disappointed there wasn't that much difference to speak of, though there was some. What really worked, was the feeling that it would never end, the quest was hopeless, we were never going to close the Grand Chasm. By chapter 7, I had to take a break for about a week, I was burnt out. I felt like I was in the same purgatory the characters were in, it worked, though it is counter-intuitive to make a gamer want to quit. What didn't work was the characters blindly following Airy time and again to the same fate. Because the characters retain their memories (not a given in a looping world scenario), after a loop or two, they should have tried something drastically different, and while Agnes can smash a crystal at any time, that isn't pushed in the narrative. The characters should have come up with other solutions to the problem, I found it frustrating that they had the same conversations with people despite their knowledge they were stuck in a loop.
In the end though, Bravely Default is a step in the right direction for Square Enix, and now that Masuda knows there are fans out there, hopefully we'll see more of this and less Lightning. Please less Lightning.
So, while the game has been out for a while, what did you think of Bravely Default’s repeating narrative? Did it work? Or did you find it tedious? read