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Thursday, June 19, 2014

My Review- Bravely Default (3DS)

What began life as a follow-up to the underrated DS game Final Fantasy- The 4 Heroes of Light, a game which myself and four other people (give-or-take) rather enjoyed, soon became the subject of much greater scrutiny than it’s humble origins would suggest. Bravely Default was heralded by some as a better Final Fantasy than recent actual Final Fantasy games, a ‘new-retro’ game that built up significant anticipation during the long wait for it to make it to English-speaking territories. It’s no small wonder, then, that the final result turns out to be a bit of a mixed bag. Bravely Default wants to both be a homage to the golden days of Final Fantasy and the beginning of its own franchise, and struggles under the weight of both. Ultimately, it is still a very good game that will likely tide over those waiting for the next major JRPG release, but significant story and pacing problems keep Bravely Default from greatness.

Hey! Listen!

The tale begins as many RPGs do, with the destruction of a rural village. A young man named Tiz finds himself the sole survivor of the village of Norende, the existence of which is marked only by a tremendous chasm left in the wake of the devastation. While going to investigate, Tiz encounters Agnes, a Crystal Vestel who is pursued by the Duchy of Eternia. Agnes is on a mission to awaken the crystals that govern the world’s elemental forces, an event that the Eternians wish to prevent for reasons unknown. Together with the aid of amnesiac womanizer Ringabel and an Eternian soldier named Edea, Tiz and Agnes embark on a quest to save the world. The plot of Bravely Default actually brings some interesting concepts to the table, such as the opposing ideologies of Crystalism and Anticrystalism, and the subject of parallel worlds eventually becomes a major plot point, but you wouldn’t know it from the game’s sluggish opening hours. Bravely Default is content to stick with the tried-and-true ‘four heroes of light saving the world from darkness with four crystals’ plot that has been a basic RPG premise ever since the very first Final Fantasy, not to mention the game’s own predecessor. Once the story does really get rolling, it is undermined by the game’s own repetitive pacing, which forces the player to retread the same content multiple times during the latter chapters. Fortunately, the core cast of party members is solid, with Edea in particular being a surprisingly nuanced female character, although the same cannot be said for the numerous villain NPCs that seem to exist only so that the player can slay them and receive a new Job class.

The Job system has been a staple of the Final Fantasy series ever since Final Fantasy III, and this system is at the very center of Bravely Default. Some of these Jobs are obtained through the story, but the majority of them are received by undergoing their corresponding sidequest. Like in Final Fantasy V or similar games, party members can mix and match abilities from different Jobs in order to effectively customize their characters, and your enjoyment of Bravely Default will likely be proportional to how much you enjoy this particular kind of gameplay. Combat in Bravely Default is based on a risk-reward mechanic known as… well, Brave and Default. By Braving, characters can take multiple turns in a row, while Default stockpiles a turn for later use while also functioning as a Defend command. This may sound simple, but it actually requires a fair amount of strategy, especially since enemies can use this system against you and some abilities cost additional Brave Points to execute. Being able to go into negative turns often means being able to blast through lesser enemy encounters, but try using those tactics in some of the later boss fights and suddenly not being able to take any actions while the boss wails on you. There is also a minor social feature included, where one can use other players’ abilities in a pinch (Streetpassing other players also brings new villagers to help rebuilt Norende, which has some other benefits to offer), and a time-stopping mechanic that is replenished either by leaving the 3DS in sleep mode, or through a rather pointless microtransaction that we won’t give any more undue attention.
Here there be dragons.

Bravely Default’s biggest strength is the amount of customization it offers to players to help them tailor their own experience. The ability to speed up battle animations with the click of a button, or increase and decrease the random encounter rate as one sees fit, are great features that I wish more RPGs would include, as they cut down on the tedium of level grinding significantly. This is fortunate, because Bravely Default regrettably suffers from severe pacing issues, which are mitigated somewhat by the preceding features making the constant backtracking less of a hassle. The game’s second half is particularly egregious in this regard, since it makes players retread the same dungeons and fight the same bosses no less than five times before finally, begrudgingly, opening the way to the final dungeon and bosses. Not only does this feel like unnecessary padding, but it has little justification from the story, which by this point has barely started to become compelling. Less patient players may not find it in themselves to see this quest through to the end.

One area where I can find little fault is Bravely Default’s presentation. Sure, you have some repeated dialogue snippets and animations during some scenes, but this is still one of the most visually striking 3DS games I’ve played. The gorgeous environments are a joy to explore, and standing idle for a few seconds will cause the camera to pull back and allow you to glimpse entirety of your surroundings. The soundtrack, arranged and performed by Japanese artist Revo, might set a new gold standard for video game soundtracks. Revo’s music perfectly suits the ‘old-school-RPG-with-a-fresh-coat-of-paint’ style of Bravely Default, with a phenomenal rock-opera sound that is unlike anything I have ever heard, yet at the same time pleasantly familiar. Nobuo Uematsu would be proud. The voice acting is regrettably a little hit-or-miss. I eventually got used to the voices of the main cast, but purists may wish to use the included Japanese vocal track, or opt to mute them entirely. 

Gorgeous scenery.

Needless to say, I am rather torn on Bravely Default, in such a way that I haven’t been with a game in a long time. Certainly, this isn’t a disappointment on the level of some other games (insert whichever RPG you feel most disappointed you here), nor does it quite live up to the hype built up by its lengthy localization period. Despite its best intentions, it also isn’t the next best Final Fantasy game many were wishing it would be. What it is, however, is a solid RPG with a great presentation and a truly excellent soundtrack, and a promising start for a new series. If Bravely Second can maintain the strengths of this installment while ironing out a few wrinkles, we may yet find what we were hoping for.

Bravely Default is available for the Nintendo 3DS

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