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'Bravely Default' demo: in-depth impressions

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‘Bravely Default,’ the upcoming role playing game by Square Enix and Silicon Studio, received a demo on the Nintendo eShop on Jan. 2. Since the full game releases just next month, the release of this sneak peak was well warranted.

A note at the beginning of the demo says that the game is only available in English here, but the full game will also feature French, German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. Whether that refers to just the text, just the audio, or perhaps both is not explicitly stated.

The main menu presents three separate, empty save slots. Selecting one opens a prompt for choosing one of three difficulties: esay, normal, hard. The standard fare. Interestingly, what comes next is a decision to allow or disable autosaving. Disabling it would invoke a very old-school feeling, having to manually save all the time. Forgetting to do so and dying by surprise will result in a major setback in progress, but is likely to trigger waves of nostalgia for players of older RPGs.

Still, there’s nothing to lose by keeping autosave on. In fact, there is only everything to gain.

As advertised on the eShop, the demo includes a side story. The player’s party of four is speaking to a Prime Minister of a very Arabian-inspired city (as the music and background environments would convey). The characters discuss the restoration of a town called Norende, which just so happens to be a town where one of the party members, Tiz, was born and raised in. However, this is all just a StreetPass gimmick – the more people you streetpass, the more workers you gain that will work to restore the town and perform tasks more quickly. Rare weapons, armors, and other conveniences are unlocked through this process, so this gives even the most anti-social of players a reason to participate.

StreetPass enabled for a demo may seem a little overbearing – but those thoughts are erased once control over the party is enabled. If one were to stand idle for a short time, the camera zooms out to immediately show off ‘Bravely Default’s’ beauty. This Ancheim Palace has a gold and red color scheme to it, enhanced by a clock tower theming complete with spinning gears of various sizes and types. Turning on 3D only serves to make the environment seem even more enchanting.

Upon exiting the castle, a prompt shows up explaining how the content from the demo is actually not going to be a part of the full game. These additional scenes can also reward up to seven play bonuses that transfer over to the full game, giving one an early advantage. One such bonus is granted immediately: a set of curative items entailing two each of an antidote, eye drops, and echo herbs.

Levels and skills will not be transferred – they made sure to hammer that note home.

Accepting the first quest prompts the game to give a brief explanation of the job system. Basically, none of the four characters are set in stone into one class, one role. Each of them is flexible and can change their job at any time. However, based on the equipment granted to each character in this demo, the game appears to nudge the player into a basic, functional party setup. Each job has its own unique skills, but each character can also take a skill from another job and add it to their list to expand their versatility even further. A job system like this equates to incredible freedom, but that freedom can also be seen as daunting.

About a third of all classes are unlocked in the demo, judging by a job wheel that is two-thirds empty. Tiz is equipped with a Broadsword, making the Knight a good choice for him. Agnes has a Dagger, and the Ninja and Performer both make good use of that weapon. Ringabel uses a Spear, a specialty of the Valkyrie. Lastly, Edea uses a Nodachi, a type of Katana, which the Swordmaster job excels with. Each respective class and weapon combination results in an S rank proficiency, the highest there is.

Of course, there are no strict guidelines, and each character can swap around jobs, equipments, and skills at a moment’s notice. And that’s not even taking magic into account – trademark Square Enix spell lines made famous from ‘Final Fantasy’ make an appearance here, such as Blizzara and Cura.

Exiting the town finally reveals the overworld, and monster encounters begin. As with most RPGs, the meat of the game revolves around the combat system. ‘Bravely Default’ shakes things up with the Brave and Default systems - I wonder where those names came from? These two actions appear as options in the battle menu. Things are strictly turn based here – no actively timed battle system here to put on the pressure – but ‘Bravely Default’ is unique in how its turn based combat is no simple back-and-forth affair.

The party starts the battle at a neutral 0 Brave Points, or BP, each. A regular, single action uses up 1 BP, putting the character at -1 BP until the next turn when they gain 1 BP and go back to 0, able to act again. The Brave option allows a single character to perform multiple actions in one turn, up to four. However, this will set that character back an amount of BP depending how many times they activated Brave. Activating Brave once, and thus taking two turns, sets them back by 2 BP. Activating it the maximum of three times and gaining four turns sets them back by 4 BP. A single point of BP will be restored after each turn (after both the player and enemy have acted), but until BP returns to 0, that character’s turn is skipped. Basically, Brave allows a character to ‘steal’ future turns for immediate use – an ability that can be devastatingly effective, but at the same time incredibly punishing if used carelessly.

Conversely, Default is the tool for the more patient player. Defaulting skips the character’s turn, but adds 1 BP to their total, as opposed to using Brave which sends the BP total into the negatives. Using Default will also raise a character’s defenses. This system allows a player to plan ahead with some of their characters, storing turns to unleash later on without the waiting penalty incurred by Braving. It’s strategic uses are likely to be plentiful as well – imagine having a magic-based character afflicted by Silence. Use default to protect them and store BP to unleash a furious storm of spells once the Silence effect subsides.

A notable use for Brave is to rush the enemies in random encounters, destroying them immediately using four actions per character and negating the turn penalty, since BP will refresh to the default value of 0 after a battle concludes.

Braving and Defaulting aren’t the only ways to manipulate the BP system. Some abilities, like the Valkyrie’s Crescent Moon, are powerful enough to make them cost 1 BP to use (effectively using 2 turns and going into -2 BP for the single use of one strong skill). Crescent Moon deals a physical attack to all enemies, making it well worth the cost if more than two enemies are present.

The Brave and Default systems and rules don’t just apply to players – enemies obey them as well, reaping the benefits and suffering the consequences alongside the heroes.

The power of ‘Bravely Default’s’ battle system is evident in just the first few basic encounters. Smart applications of Braving and Defaulting are sure to make the game a unique experience even for veteran RPG players. But another interesting mechanic in the game is the ability to customize the game’s difficulty in very specific ways. In addition to enemy strength (correlating to easy, normal, hard), players can also turn off quest markers, exp. gain, money gain, job point gain, and can even alter the frequency rate at which they encounter monsters (from -100% of the default value to +100%). Lowering the rate to -100% ensures that no encounters will ever occur while the setting stays that way – something the game itself warns against, since keeping things this way permanently makes leveling up nigh impossible.

To ease grinding sessions, the game can also be fast forwarded to extreme levels to bypass the animation sequences and maximize the coveted experience-to-time ratio.

As far as difficulty goes, the game would appear to avoid cakewalk status – speaking for normal, of course. Neglecting defensive skills, and neglecting to use Default in particular, leads to enemies unleashing extraordinary amounts of damage onto your characters, often times killing them in one shot. And it’s not just bosses that behave this way – what may appear to be random encounter fodder could in fact be a surprise harbinger of death.

All in all, the demo features five to six hours of gameplay (more or less depending on one’s usage of speed-up features), and with various bonuses carrying into the full version, anyone with even a remote interest in ‘Bravely Default’ should definitely check out the demo. There’s even a bonus boss after the demo officially breaks the fourth wall and “ends,” so for those that don’t want to wait for this 3DS game's full release date of Feb. 7 (North America), better hop to it!

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