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'Bravely Default' review: An old-school JRPG with modern sensibilities

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Bravely Default

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Originally released in Japan in October 2012 and finally arriving in North America now about a year and a half later, Bravely Default comes just in time to help rejuvenate the sub-genre of old-school Japanese RPGs, which many feel has been slowly dying in the West as of late. Whether you agree with this particular assessment or not, there’s no denying Bravely Default’s old-school pedigree: it was developed by the same Square Enix team that brought us the similarly retro 2010 DS title Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, and serves as that game’s spiritual successor.

This fact becomes apparent right from the game’s onset as you are introduced to a world called Luxendarc, where balance is kept by four mythical, shimmering crystals, each one representing one of the four elements that make up all of creation: fire, water, earth, and wind. Of course, you arrive in Luxendarc just in time to watch as one of these crystals loses its light and the world literally starts falling apart.

If Bravely Default’s obvious inspiration isn’t immediately apparent to you upon viewing this familiar plot setup, it will be the moment you use your first Phoenix Down to revive a fallen party member… or the first time you cast a Blizzara spell… or the first time you change your characters’ job classes… or maybe even the first time you receive an item called “Zeus’s Wrath” that “deals moderate lightning damage to all enemies.”

Yep: Bravely Default is an old-school Final Fantasy title in everything but name.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! The gaming world – especially the modern gaming world – could use more old-school JRPGs, and Bravely Default fully, thoroughly, and unapologetically wears that mantle with pride. If you’re not a fan of JRPGs, Bravely Default will be the last title to change your mind about that, but players in the mood for a long, meaty JRPG they can lose themselves in will be delighted with this game.

Bravely Default’s four youthful main characters -- farm boy Tiz Arrior, wind vestal Agnés Oblige, amnesiac rogue Ringabel, and plucky warrior princess Edea Lee – are introduced very early on in the story, allowing the adventure to get underway quickly and earnestly. Don’t let their cute, somewhat super-deformed appearances fool you, though: Bravely Default’s world is a bleak one, where the story is kicked off with the unceremonious deaths of everyone in Tiz’s village, including his family and friends – and the body count only grows from there. I don’t want to spoil anything that happens beyond the intro, but some political intrigue is thrown into the mix later on and a happy ending very often feels just out of reach for our young heroes. The weight of the proceedings in Bravely Default is always palpable, and the villains are unrelentingly and deliciously evil. Thankfully, an excellent localization keeps you invested in the goings-on and the genuinely entertaining, endearing, and often humorous interactions between Tiz and his friends help bring some much-needed levity to the proceedings. The banter between ladykiller Ringabel and headstrong Edea is particularly enjoyable in this regard. Overall, Bravely Default’s story is a strong one and its lead characters are likable. The plot does unfortunately suffer from some pacing issues in the middle of an already long game, which could test the patience of less devoted players and makes it feel as though the game could benefit from being a bit shorter.

Thanks to factors like random encounters, level grinding, and sparsely-placed save points, Japanese RPGs often get a bad rap for being one of the most inconvenient, unfriendly kinds of games to actually play, a criticism that is not entirely undeserved at times. Thankfully, old-school though it may be, Bravely Default goes to great lengths to mitigate or even completely eliminate these factors according to your own preferences. Extra-tough boss got you down, but you don’t feel like grinding? Kick the difficulty down a notch in the configuration menu and shift the odds in your favor. Caught deep in a dungeon full of tough, high-level enemies with death just around the corner and no save point in sight? Set the random encounter rate to zero, safely high-tail it out of there, and save! JRPG purists may call the inclusion of such options “game-breaking” or “the easy way out,” but as someone with precious little free gaming time to himself, I call them “convenient” and "absolutely appreciated." Bravely Default is thoroughly old-school and its default difficulty certainly reflects that, but these modern accoutrements mean that all JRPG fans can enjoy the game on their own merits, regardless of how much time they may or may not have to dedicate to it. Of course, you can also ratchet up the random encounter rate if you specifically want to grind or increase the already-considerable difficulty level for a super-hardcore challenge if you so desire. Bravely Default is all about player choice.

As stated before, underneath this layer of modern conveniences beats the heart of a deeply traditional JRPG, with the core gameplay and battle system based on the beloved job system first introduced in Final Fantasy V and later used and refined in games like the Final Fantasy Tactics series and The 4 Heroes of Light. This system lets you assign each of your characters a specific job that confers upon them unique battle commands and support abilities related to that job; for example, the Black Mage job starts a character on the path to becoming a magical powerhouse and enables them to cast elemental attack spells like Fire and Blizzard, while the Knight job beefs up a character’s HP and Defense stats, enabling them to use abilities that focus on protecting their more frail allies, like the aforementioned Black Mage. These are just the most basic examples; there are more specialized, exotic jobs too, such as the Performer, who sings songs that beef up the party’s stats, and the Salve-Maker, who can alter or enhance the effects of items in very specific ways.

The longer characters spend in one job, the more job levels they will gain in that role through battle, allowing them to learn that job’s more advanced, powerful abilities. The catch is that you can change your characters’ jobs at any time, and characters are able to use both the commands of the job they currently hold as well as another job’s learned set of battle commands, allowing for countless ways to customize your party to your liking. For example, you could train Tiz as a White Mage for awhile, gaining enough job levels for him to learn the “White Magic Lv. 3” ability, then switch him to the Thief job and set White Magic as his secondary job command, effectively turning him into a speedy character who can ably heal his fellow party members in a pinch. The possibilities are virtually endless, and with a total of 23 jobs that slowly becomes available to you as you defeat certain bosses throughout the game (some of them optional), the amount of character customization in Bravely Default is vast. Add to that the fact that the various types of weapons, armor, and accessories Tiz and company can equip vary in effectiveness by job, and you begin to see what a deeply strategic and open-ended affair setting up your ideal party can be.

But the strategy doesn’t stop there. Bravely Default gets its strange name from each character’s ability to either “Default” or “Brave” in battle, and both commands add another thick layer of strategy to fights. Defaulting allows a character to “bank” that battle turn – called a Brave Point -- for use later on while defending, minimizing any damage taken that turn. Braving enables a character to use the Brave Points they have banked at any time, allowing them to take several actions in one round of combat. You can bank up to three extra Brave Points for each of your characters and use some or all of them when you wish, and you can even take an advance on Brave Points you haven’t saved up yet – but doing so will leave Tiz and friends sitting ducks until their Brave Points are out of the negative. Enemies have their own Brave Points and will Default and Brave to create their own advantages as well, and there are several powerful abilities that cost Brave Points to use as well as other abilities that can affect both your and your enemies’ Brave Point values, so honestly, the level of strategy inherent in Bravely Default's gameplay really cannot be understated… and make no mistake, this game expects you to learn it well and create your own advantages. Regular enemies hit hard and fast even on the default difficulty setting, to say nothing of the bosses, who can and will wipe you out if you go in expecting to be able to just mash the “Attack” command and win – and while the easy difficulty certainly makes things far more manageable, it’s still not a “mash A to win” setting.

There’s so much going on and so many options available in Bravely Default from a gameplay standpoint that I couldn’t possibly cover it all in detail in this review! There’s the “Bravely Second” mechanic, which lets you use points accumulated while your 3DS is asleep to stop time and use a battle turn whenever you want. (These points can also be bought with real money in a microtransaction-style attempt at a cash grab that I’m not too fond of.) Bravely Default also makes enormous use of the 3DS’s popular StreetPass feature, allowing you to recruit real-life passersby into your game to help rebuild Tiz’s destroyed village, which eventually grants you access to shops with high-level equipment. Also, if you StreetPass someone you have registered in your 3DS's friends list, you can “summon” them for a turn in battle and use whatever move they sent to you (and you can send your own moves to your friends in turn). This game really does have a staggering amount of depth, and that is one of its greatest strengths.

Bravely Default also succeeds from an audiovisual standpoint. The music, composed by Japanese musician Revo, is an utter delight and calls to mind the fantastic 16-bit JRPG soundtracks of yesteryear, with booming, strong melodies composed in a style somewhere between traditional orchestra and progressive rock that just works, thoroughly immersing you in the world of Luxendarc and appreciably enhancing the gameplay experience. The English voice acting is more of a mixed bag; it’s mostly quite hammy and overblown, but not necessarily bad if you don’t mind that sort of delivery. Most players, though, will likely opt for the generally superior/more genuine Japanese voice track, which Square Enix should be lauded for including in the game’s Western release. Visually, Bravely Default may not be the most technically impressive game on the 3DS, but it succeeds on the strength of its art style, which sees the world of Luxendarc brought to life in lavish detail. Towns almost look like hand-painted dioramas at times, and though the colors tend be slightly pallid and washed-out, this actually works in the game’s favor by helping to sell Bravely Default’s overall old-school, high fantasy feel. Unfortunately, textures are often noticeably blurry/low-res and the game’s use of stereoscopic 3D isn’t particularly inspired, which left me with the feeling that more could have been done in this regard. Simply put, other than the extremely impressive opening animation, you won’t really be missing much if you choose to play with the 3D slider all the way down. But as a big fan of the 3DS’s stereoscopic 3D, I would have liked to see Square Enix put in a little more effort here, especially considering all the time and attention that was so clearly put into the rest of the visual presentation (some muddy textures aside).

With a deeply strategic battle system, virtually endless party customization, gameplay options galore, enormous StreetPass integration, an engaging story, likable characters, and a mostly excellent audiovisual presentation, Bravely Default succeeds on all fronts as a quality JRPG. While its thoroughly old-school feel and presentation mean that it probably won’t win over anyone who dislikes the genre, Square Enix should be commended for adding some modern accoutrements to the gameplay that make the game accessible no matter how much time you have to devote to it. The story’s pacing does falter somewhat in the middle part of the game and it does feel like a bit more could have been done with the game’s graphics despite the fantastic art style, but these are ultimately minor issues in the face of what is otherwise a compelling JRPG experience.

The standard edition of Bravely Default will be available on Friday, February 7th for the 3DS handheld both digitally and at retail for $40. This review is based on a digital copy of the game provided by Square Enix.

Positives:
- Old-school JRPG gameplay enhanced with modern conveniences, such as the ability to adjust the random encounter rate and overall difficulty of the game according to player choice
- The tried-and-true job system and unique Brave/Default battle mechanics add up to virtually endless character customization and a battle system that is thick with strategy yet easy to understand
- Likable, relatable characters and a generally engaging story
- Superb English localization really sells the characters' personalities and makes their many interactions enjoyable to watch
- Excellent, memorable soundtrack by Japanese musician revo, composed in a style that combines traditional orchestral themes with progressive rock
- Both the English and Japanese voice tracks are included
- Lavishly-detailed visuals and diorama-like environments with a washed-out, hand-painted look that really sells the game's fantasy setting
- Enormous and enjoyable StreetPass integration, among the most in a single 3DS title yet along with Pokémon X/Y

Negatives:

- The story slows down and tends to drag in the middle of an already-long game
- The English voice track is fairly hammy/overblown, which isn't necessarily bad but it's not for everyone
- Textures are fairly often low-res and blurry
- The game's use of stereoscopic 3D could be better, aside from the fantastic opening animation

Game On, powered by Examiner, is a select group of reliable and credible writers, giving you the latest gaming news, reviews, interviews and previews. Follow the team on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

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