Continuing my series of retrospectives as part of my ‘Final Fantasy Month’ today I’m discussing Bravely Default on the Nintendo 3DS, another of my favourite entries in this long-running videogame series. Now, you might be looking at the title of this game and thinking “that doesn’t say ‘Final Fantasy’…” and of course you’re right; nevertheless make no mistake this is a Final Fantasy game through and through. Bravely Default is actually a pseudo-sequel to Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light, released in 2009 on the Nintendo DS, and shares pretty much most of its art direction, themes and much of its gameplay mechanics. However, after the mostly-positive but still criticised direction of the DS game, Square-Enix decided to break this sequel away from the core Final Fantasy series and establish its own identity, with some new innovative combat mechanics supporting the old-school JRPG framework.
As in the previous game, Bravely Default has four central protagonists that remain constant throughout the game and the plot concerns four powerful crystals that maintain the balance of power in the world; with an evil plot by a nefarious empire to subvert and control them. Because of the focus on these four main personas, the characterisation in this game is exceptionally strong, much stronger than in many modern entries of Final Fantasy, and by the end of the game you really know them back to front and they’re very enjoyable to play. Tiz is ostensibly the core character, as he begins the whole adventure when he witnesses his hometown swallowed up by the earth and his brother killed. Agnes is the kind and meek wind vestal, protector of the wind crystal, Edea is a spunky and raucous warrior girl from the previously mentioned evil empire, and Ringabel is an amnesiac pervert with a spectacular pompadour. Their dialogue in the game is *fantastic* and is mostly voiced throughout the game; I played with the Japanese audio track, because I’m a weeaboo, and the voice actors were great but I can’t speak for the American dub.
The music in the game is also very good, with a good variety of tracks and some very memorable themes, especially when played with headphones on to get the most out of the 3DS. Graphically, this game is superb, and benefits from a strong art direction carried across from Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light, albeit with some significant changes to the engine. Bravely Default keeps the “chibi” style character models, which are rendered with a lot of good detail both in the overworld and in combat, and makes liberal use of special effects and alpha transparencies for spells. The significant change here though is in the world design, which has shifted away from fully 3D environments and now uses layers of water coloured paintings to create the different locations you visit throughout the game; the 3D characters models walk through them like the original PlayStation Final Fantasy games. This graphical presentation works *perfectly* on the 3DS with the 3D slider cranked up, as the different layers of the cities and towns move and pan about at different depths and it really adds a lot to the presentation and immersion of this fantasy world.
With only four characters, which remain a constant for much of the game, the game reuses the job/class system from the previous game albeit with a lot more roles and abilities available; including classics of Final Fantasy such as summoning but with some interesting new roles thrown in too. Combat is a turn-based affair, with the turn order being determined by a characters speed, although it still seems quite random sometimes and is hard to orchestrate a guaranteed first turn. However, there is a unique mechanic at play in combat, from which Bravely Default get its slightly awkward name. On characters turns they can choose to act normally or they can use the options of ‘Brave’ or ‘Default, choosing the latter causes that character to miss their turn and instead “bank” it for later use, in return they get boosted defence for a round. Once that character has banked a few turns, or if you want to spend future turns in advance, you can select ‘Brave’ to take multiple turns in a row, allowing you to combo lots of abilities together and potentially outright destroy an enemy before they get the chance to respond. There is more nuance and subtlety to this system than I have space to talk about here but suffice to say it makes combat *very* tactical and exciting.
As well as the exploring and fighting, there are lots of side missions and quests that you can find in the overworld and fulfil for certain characters, some of these even lead to extra classes and job roles for your characters and are extremely useful to undertake. Some of these optional quests can be very challenging however, so expect to grind a bit around some of them; still the combat system is actually so much fun and the ability to ‘Brave’ and utterly destroy low-level opponents quickly makes grinding much less of a chore then in previous Final Fantasy games. You get access to an airship pretty early on and there is a fully 3D world map to explore, which is an awesome throwback nowadays. There are also some rudimentary 3DS streetpass and multiplayer features built in too, also these mostly concern the town building mini-game that can be a minor distraction if you want it to be. As mentioned above, Tiz has had his hometown swallowed up by the earth and there is a whole subsection of the game where you have to try and help him rebuild it, which involves directing villagers to explore land and build new shops around town. This is worthwhile doing as it opens up new loot or spells and various other benefits, and is done in “real-time”, meaning that building a new magic shop might take an hour or two in which time you’ll probably just play through some more of the main game and come back when it’s done. If other players streetpass you during this time they will inadvertently send you powerful ‘nemesis’ creatures that you can fight in the village to earn experience and sweet loot.
So far, I’ve actually been nothing but overwhelmingly positive about Bravely Default, and hopefully you can tell that I enjoyed it very much; in fact I would go so far as to say it’ one of my favourite Final Fantasy games in recent years. However, there are some valid criticisms of the game, and truthfully… I actually never finished it! The main crushingly disappointing thing with this otherwise spectacular game is the incredibly poor handling of the latter quarter, in which the developers made the mind-boggling decision to make the player fight the same boss battles over and over again for hours on end in order to reach the true ending. It really is poor game design and smacks of padding, when really the game could have ended hours before and the player would no doubt feel that they have gotten their money’s worth from the experience, especially for a handheld title that has probably been played in smaller bursts than a home console release. Most people I know who have played Bravely Default still sing its praises despite this faux-par at the end, but nevertheless it is something that has always kept me from finishing the game; it just became too much of a chore and time-sink.
This year a sequel called Bravely Second: End Layer was released in Japan, and should be out in the west by the end of the year, which hopefully doesn’t make the same misstep that Bravely Default made in its final hours. Nevertheless, I had a *lot* of fun with the first game in this new off-shoot of Final Fantasy, and think that overall it’s gotten off to a damn good start. The artistic direction and graphics are great, the combat system is deep and many-layered, and the story and characters were extremely well written. I’d wholeheartedly recommend Bravely Default to any Final Fantasy fan with a Nintendo 3DS and who is in the mood for an old-school experience, albeit with some innovative and modern twists. I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel and it’s one of my top anticipated games of 2015.