A return to form might be one way of phrasing it, albeit hopefully the rule rather than the exception. Square Enix’s 2012 Japanese release might have taken until now to reach American shores, but it feels no less welcomed in its newly-updated three-dimensional splendor, ripe with newness and yet familiarly classic nonetheless.
I’m talking about a game with a bizarre title—Bravely Default: Where the Fairy Flies—which might very likely fly under your radar as just another ho-hum RPG attempt with pedestrian characters and predictable situations. And it starts out precisely that way, with an opening as conventional as they come by JRPG standards, and a story that really refuses to break the ice until the final half of the game.
The characters seem to be generic by definition; you have your bull-headed teenage protagonist, Tiz Arrior, who in this case had his start as a lowly shepherd when his brother—along with the rest of his entire town—was swallowed up by a massive sinkhole without warning (miraculously, he was the only survivor). Accompanying him from the very start are three other equally-familiar roles: an innocent vestal of the crystals, Agnès, who soon learns the cruelty of reality outside of her temple; a defector of the Eternian Forces, Edea, whose father is the leader of the oppressive regime; and finally, an amnesiac swinger named Ringabel whose only source of memory is a fascinating journal filled with cryptic and prophetic writings about his life events to come.
The world map is perfectly familiar to genre fans.
The story gluing these characters together is all the more underwhelming, as the player quickly learns of the existence of four crystals (wind, water, fire, and earth) which are guarded by vestals such as Agnès. Naturally, the adventure consists of travelling the world in search of these crystals (each in its respective elemental temple), as Agnès must rise to the task of awakening them in an era of Crystalist persecution by the so-called Anti-Crystalists. This theme of ideological divide leading to worldwide warfare on the game world’s ancient religion is what underpins the all-too-predictable first half of the game’s narrative.
The rest of the presentational formula is a throwback as well, whether for good or bad. You’ll find colorful, over-the-top, wicked, and humorous antagonists, who mostly are evil simply for the sake of being called such, and whose character depth typically doesn’t stretch beyond the necessary introductory elements. The environments are just as heavily-themed, and while there are certainly a handful of unique ones, they feel like they were conjured directly from the archives of RPG classics.
As usual, you’ll start out on foot, roaming the expansive overworld in search of towns, caves, temples, forests, and other similar attractions, before soon enough stumbling across a ship that can both sail and fly to help with your travels. Other familiar staples unapologetically return, ranging from random turn-based battles to item, weapons/armor, and spell shops in towns, to FFV’s Job Class system. It’s a return to JRPG form, and one which immediately makes sense as the successor to 2010’s Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light.
This stunning desert-locked town is home to some amazing 3D moments.
In other words, more default than brave without a doubt. But the story doesn’t end there—figuratively or literally. Beyond the homogeneous foundation of Bravely Default’s construction lies a considerably more enticing gameplay design that is as intuitive as it is novel. The battles progress by way of a new risk/reward mechanic known as Brave and Default, which provides the player with the power to wager up to four consecutive actions per character even on the first turn of the battle. The way this works is through a tally of BP (or Brave Points), which begins at 0 for each character, increases by 1 with each turn, and decreases by 1 for each action performed—with the exception of defending, which is referred to as Default. If the BP count is negative, the player cannot act until it is once again 0 or higher. But as many as 3 BP can be accumulated at once through the use of consecutive Default actions.
Essentially what this means is that the player is constantly faced with the question of whether to be proactive or reactive, offensive or defensive. Depending on the foe(s), this strategy will necessarily change. For instance, if you encounter an enemy weak enough to be defeated within four actions of each part member with relative certainty, it’s best to go all in with Braves at the start of the match and flurry him with attacks, spells, and whatever else it takes. On the other hand, if a foe is more formidable, it might be better to go across the board with Defaults until reactive healing or curative procedures are required. A grey area of uncertainty comes into play where the threat of adverse status effects or unclear chances of victory exist, and that’s what makes the approach enjoyable. There is the double benefit of being able to mow through weaker foes, too, without their so much as having a chance to act. Finally, executing Brave a particular number of times also unlocks the opportunity for Special attacks which can be customized by the player outside of the battles.
Memories of the 1990s dance in our heads.
Such conveniences as those expedited victories against underpowered monsters are abundant in Bravely Default’s design. Don’t like the frequency of random battles? Turn it down 50 or even 100%, at the expense of gaining what are sure to be valuable levels (and job levels). Hate slow battles? Fast-forward the animations at double or even quadruple the speed by simply using left/right on the D-Pad. Not interested in long-winded character development? Ignore the regular dialogue prompts for Party Chat and stick to the story. Hate not knowing where to go next to advance the story? Be sure to have the map indicators turned on for both primary and side quests and simply follow the icons. Game too hard? Adjust the difficulty on the fly, and do so without fear of being chastised for your inability to cope or grind (the latter of which, fortunately, isn’t usually necessary).
For all of its archaic sedition, Bravely Default is anything but thoughtless. It quite clearly cares about the player’s experience, and though it feigns loyalty to the RPGs of the 90s, it really does feel refined enough to justify its own place in the lineup. The return of the jobs system, for instance, is handled very well, with 24 classes to choose from, and a secondary class possible for each character with numerous selectable supporting abilities. The optional Auto-Save feature is appreciated too.
There’s also a host of new ancillary activities which accompany the main adventure. The rebuilding of Tiz’s home town (Norende) is a bit like a real-world-time strategy game, where you must assign workers to build and upgrade particular structures (i.e., item shops and bridges) in pursuit of helpful items and the opportunity to purchase valuable weapons and armor. The workers helping to rebuild are actually folks you’ve StreetPassed or connected with via the internet, which is a neat twist. These same acquaintances can assist you in battle through the use of the Summon Friends command, and you can “send” attacks back their way as well for their own use. You’ll also unlock new elements with which to customize each character’s Special moves—yet another layer of complexity which fans of the classic RPG will surely enjoy.
Hand-drawn plus three-dimensional equals beautiful.
An aspect that might not be quite as welcomed by some is the addition of microtransactions, though admittedly they are sparse and totally ignorable if you choose. These come by way of SP drinks, which can be used to fast-track your way to victory if you get stuck at a particular battle. SP are actually naturally earned over time while the 3DS is sleeping with Bravely Default intact—eight hours’ time, in fact—but should you find yourself getting impatient and a bit thick in the wallet, Square-Enix wouldn’t mind taking a bit of your money. Each SP you use grants you an additional action for any of your four characters in a battle which does not count toward against your actual BP—basically, a free turn for the chosen character.
Something else we haven’t yet mentioned is the audiovisual presentation. In short, it’s top-notch. Backgrounds are hand-drawn and painted and then extruded into gorgeous and engulfing three-dimensional life, making every visit to a new area an aesthetic treat. A handful of locations are truly beautiful, too, even if the art occasionally devolves to a more prosaic variety. It is a game that will be enjoyed in 3D, at least at the first visit to each major area.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack—composed and performed by Japanese musical group Sound Horizon—is dynamic, energetic, occasionally beautiful, and in a few select instances, mind-blowing. Countless samples can be enjoyed on YouTube and elsewhere (where you’ll find live clips of the group playing the music in concert), but don’t spoil too much of it for yourself, as some of it needs to be heard in context with the game’s events to truly realize its full impact. More so than any other RPG to date, this is probably the closest example of a rock-opera-progressive-orchestral fusion in the vein of classic Uematsu as we’ve seen since Final Fantasy VI and VII. Many songs immediately remind of tunes from those games, and one of them is even comparable to Dancing Mad and One Winged Angel.
With 20-something jobs to choose from, the battles have plenty of depth.
The game’s dialogue is voice-acted and rather heavy (even side-quests are fully voice-acted). This takes the place of formal FMV-style cut scenes—and for the most part, it’s fine. The voice is a bit of a mixed bag, with some performances frequently over-the-top (Agnès) and others simply generic-sounding (Zatz), but it can be skipped if you choose, and you can even opt for the original Japanese dialogue if you’d prefer it.
And finally, back to that story we discussed earlier. While it starts predictably, it derails somewhere around the halfway mark and just really goes nuts. That is, around 40 hours in, as this game is long. Did we mention it’s really long? Later events may feel a bit repetitive, to be fair, but then again, they aren’t absolutely necessary unless you are going for completion. Of course, if you don’t, you’ll never see the true ending—so stick with it. It’s completely unexpected and certifiably insane, but then again, it’s just the final surprise to what would too easily otherwise be mistaken as yet another boring attempt at a conventional JRPG. Looks can be deceiving, it proves, and in this case, that’s a very lucky thing for those of us who still appreciate what Square’s past brought to gaming.