Retro Revamped # 1: Bravely Default (3DS)

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Retro Revamped is a series of review articles written about new games that attempt to embody the founding principles of their respective genres, whilst still yielding an experience that feels nuanced and fresh. What constitutes a game that “feels” retro is completely my subjective opinion, and may not have been the intention of the developers.

Introduction

Bravely Default is a spiritual successor to the DS game, Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light, which sought to carry on the legacy created by the original Final Fantasy on the NES. Unlike The Four Heroes of Light, however, Bravely Default, chooses to innovate rather than rely purely on nostalgia and fan-service. This game retains the turn-based elements of antiquity, while enhancing it with an innovative battle system that uses risk-reward as a central tenet.

This game is responsible for reviving my interest in JRPGs, following a 5-year hiatus related to burn out. I grew up in the golden age of RPGs, during the SNES and PSX days and have played hundreds of games in the genre, including some obscure titles. As time went on I had less and less time to spend enveloped in 60-90 hour JRPGs and had to settle for other genres with less daunting playtimes that provide more short-term rewards. Despite lack of time Bravely Default hooked me so fast I was quickly trading valuable sleep for just a “few more minutes,” that quickly turned in to hours.

Review

Visuals 8.5/10

The visuals in Bravely Default, in my opinion, are simply above average. Upon starting a new game, the player is treated to a visually stunning, albeit completely unnecessary, AR video. This is followed by a beautiful cutscene that is expertly directed and designed to set the stage for the game’s events and act as a bridge to the main narrative. As the player gains control of the main character, Tiz, the lush, handrawn backdrops become immediately apparent. The art style of these backgrounds in the towns are absolutely perfect.

Other aspects of visual presentation, however, are not nearly as impressive. Though likely a purposeful choice, the sprites are a little underwhelming, despite still feeling appropriate for what this game is trying to achieve aesthetically. The sprites’ large heads are a bonus, however, providing a medium for emotional expression that really makes the characters a bit more relatable; though I have definitely seen this executed better in other games. The battle animations are simple, but are unanimously charming and engaging. They are only slightly more detailed then the sprites outside of battle, but serve their purpose well.

Some of the dungeon interiors are also occasionally drab, but the gameplay is so masterfully crafted and the battle system so riveting, that this can definitely be overlooked. The level design of the dungeons are also generally a strength and aid in making the experience something to remember.

The 3-D effect in the game works well, but I still found myself playing mostly in 2D mode on my New 3DS XL; though to be honest I do this with most games.

I am not really a stickler for graphics, so I really don’t need a triple-A budget, 4K PC title to enjoy a game, it simply needs to be visually interesting, which Bravely Default certainly is.


Sound 10/10

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The music in this game, composed by Revo, is some of the best in Square Enix’s more recent library of games. In Revo’s first outing as a video game composer, he really hits it out of the park. The soundtrack adds a sense of adventure, emotion and tension to the game’s key moments. Even the menu themes, some of which experiment with a music box-esque sound, are expertly composed leaving no room for mediocrity anywhere on the OST.

The battle themes are catchy and have a rock vibe that both motivate and increase the sympathomimetic effects of being engulfed in conflict. These exceptional tunes are further enhanced by individually crafted compositions for each of the four party member’s special attacks. The music in this game is on par with the Final Fantasy series best and will likely be treasured when this game is viewed with nostalgia-tinted glasses down the line.

The game is also fully voiced, with only a few minor NPC interactions being text-only. This is a gift considering the game is text-heavy. The English voice acting is a bit goofy, but it fits the game’s light-hearted tone. The player has the option to switch to the Japanese voice track as well, which seems to have superior voice directing and acting; I still chose to stick with the English dub as it was more than tolerable and I only speak English.

Overall, the sound and music in the game are virtually perfect thanks to the classic OST and availibility of multiple voice tracks.

Gameplay 9/10

To start, the battle system in Bravely Default is a flawless adaptation of classic turn-based systems of old, but with two interesting additions: Braving and Defaulting. The “Brave” option allows a character to take up to four turns simultaneously at the cost of future turns, leaving them defenseless afterwards. The “Default” option allows a character to skip their turn and defend in order to bank an extra turn for later use. This system revolves around Battle Points, or “BP,” which indicate how many turns that are available or owed. In most cases, the maximum BP is 3 and the minimum is -4. Due to this system this is one of the few RPGs I have ever played in which defending is actually a viable stratagem. This is particularly useful for White Mages and other healers, who no longer have to spam healing attacks or be useless in rounds that party members are already fully-healed. On top of that there are also multiple classes, such as the Valkyrie, who use BP instead of Magic Points (MP) to unleash devastating attacks at the expense of future turns. This minute addition yields a level of complexity that should not be understated; every boss battle feels like strategy and timing is required, not simply using strong attacks and healing repeatedly. This system also makes the tedium of random battles way more tolerable. Starting a battle by Braving the max amount and unleashing all attacks should end most random battles, but use caution with stronger enemies, if they are not cleared in that initial sweep, they will annihilate the party.

Another interesting mechanic, Bravely Second, allows the player to stop time and take an action without consuming any BP. The action will instead consume Sleep Points (SP), which are earned by keeping the 3DS in sleep mode with the game on or by purchasing via microtransaction. This is an interesting mechanic and can save your ass in a tight spot, but luckily it isn’t necessary at all. The Bravely Second feature is not overpowered, considering the cap is 3 SP, and the microtransaction isn’t at all necessary thank goodness. Usually microtransactions piss me off, creating unfair advantages to players who are wealthier or willing to pay, but in this case I am not too heavily irked since its a single player game and a non-essential feature. I Bravely Seconded twice during my entire playthrough on hard mode; and that was early in the game when I had no idea how to manage my BP in boss fights. In both of those situations my SP consumption was based on console sleep time, so it was absolutely free. Overall I am indifferent about this feature and can adamantly claim that it neither helps nor hinders the battle system, in my opinion.

To add to an already impressively designed battle system, each character can perform a special based on their equipped weapon.  Each special is activated by performing a specific action in combat a certain number of times. For example, in the case of party members equipped with daggers, using items 10 times activates the dagger level 1 special. The specials deal extra damage and provide innate buffs that can be complimented with further stat increases by means of adding “parts” to the attack before battle. These parts can also add elemental effects and negative status changes to the enemy, as well as healing capabilities to the party. Specials can even be chained to keep the effects going for the duration of a character-specific song.

All of these features of Bravely Default‘s battle system are amplified by the underlying Job System in the game. Being a major fan of the underappreciated gem of the series, Final Fantasy V, I love that Bravely Default uses a variant of the Job System popularized by FF3 and 5. The game includes the classic mages and warriors everyone has come to know and love, with a few unique jobs like Merchant, Spiritmaster, Pirate and Performer which provide a little extra flavor not present in other games. Jobs can be switched at any time from the menu and support skills or attacks learned from other classes can be kept; this allows unparalleled customization of each character. Jobs level up with Job Points (JP), which are gained with experience and money at the end of each battle. The amount of JP, EXP, and money gained can be increased by high-performance in battle. For example, finishing battle untouched by the enemy results in the “Unscathed Ace” bonus, which confers the aforementioned extra JP, EXP, and money. This rewards the player for performing optimally by speeding up the Job and level grinding process a bit. The Job grind is also alleviated by a process called Abilink. This allows players to share Job levels with friends. If one friend has a Job level 9 Ninja and the other’s Ninja is only level 1, Abililink allows the level 1 friend to access the level 9 skills. This is true for all jobs and is of mutual benefit to both players. For players like myself, who do not know anyone else that plays Bravely Default, the game provides four AI friends to be used for this purpose; they are not as useful as real people, but they occasionally save the day with a much needed ability.

Multiplayer is not limited to the Abililink feature; friends, online strangers and Streetpass characters can also be summoned during battle. This can really be clutch during early boss fights in hard mode, when the limited availability of Jobs prevent the player from utilizing some of the game’s more ingenious strategies.  Aid can also be reciprocated by sending attacks to friends and to Streetpass by clicking the “Send” option during battle and selecting any action.

The most useful of the multiplayer features is the rebuilding of Norende, Tiz’s hometown. Norende is destroyed in the opening cinematic and is available to rebuild soon thereafter. Streetpass, friends, and online strangers can be used to inhabit the town and rebuild more quickly. Each additional individual applied to a specific building or shop will cut down the build time significantly, sometimes by as much as 50%. This allows the player to purchase the best equipment, items and special moves a bit earlier in the game if they are vigilant in rebuilding the fallen town. This feature is expertly balanced by the hefty price tag of some of these items, to prevent breaking the game.  Overall, the multiplayer aspects and online connectivity of the game allow for an enhanced experience and act as a buffer for the pervasive and oft maligned grinding characteristic of the genre.

Speaking of grinding, Bravely Default’s encounter rate and difficulty can be changed at any time from the in-game menu. This allows more casual fans to enjoy the game without dealing with the minutiae that JRPGs are infamous for. I started on Hard and never  changed the difficulty. I think that with the exception of the first quarter of the game, which thoroughly kicked my ass, Hard mode was the perfect selection for someone who is well-versed in the genre. I never found the difficulty to be unfair and the option to change to lower or higher difficulties allows any player to enjoy the game.

Something I did change often was encounter rate; grinding takes infinitely less time than usual when the encounter rate is set to 2 times its normal value. It can also be dropped to no encounters which is so damn tempting, but it was difficult to justify in Hard mode where EXP and JP are crucial. I did however do this a few times while exploring the world map or when I had little real world time to play the game. At one point I was a bit over-leveled and had about a half-hour to play through a dungeon before I had to stop playing; I dropped the encounter rate to zero and blasted through the dungeon and the boss in the allotted time and thoroughly enjoyed myself. This of course necessitated an hour of grinding at a later time to compensate, but it was absolutely worth it.

The best feature that increases the fluidity of the gameplay, in my opinion is the ability to speed up the battles. I never turned this feature off once. The battle animations are not so mind blowing that I have to sit there and fawn over each frame of motion. The maximum speed animations are still visually pleasing and save precious time that can be spent playing the game more. I love this feature, especially considering I am no longer 11 years old and can’t play a game for 8 hours in a day. I want every brief play session to feel rewarding, I want to finish with a sense of accomplishment; Bravely Default’s slew of options allows a customizable experience permitting a balance of accessibility and challenge that is a true rarity among video games.

 

The story in Bravely Default is entertaining to say the least. It certainly isn’t groundbreaking, revolving around four heroes who are tasked with saving the world by reviving four elemental crystals to their former glory, but the tale is certainly compelling enough to ensure the player feels urged to continue. In this seemingly cookie-cutter narrative, Bravely Default manages to explore surprisingly mature themes, including child labor and bio-chemical warfare, as well as the moral gray-area involved in all global conflicts. The game does not treat the death of enemy characters lightly; the actions of many of these foes seems almost justifiable at times. The game really pushes for a major plot twist, perhaps a little too hard considering I saw it coming from a mile away, but despite that it is still solid and truly a treat.

Some issues I had with the game were its linear nature and the glaring lull in the narrative around the midway point. There are certainly a number of side quests that are rewarding and a new game plus mode that greatly enhances replayability and gives access to the true ending, but these are not enough to hide the game’s conspicuous linearity. There are even portions of the game where it is possible to access certain dungeons before they necessary to the plot, but instead of just letting the player get destroyed, coming up with some interesting plot device or barricade barring the player entry, the game blatantly states “We have no reason to be here.” This just seems lazy, the developers could have covered the linearity up a bit more creatively or just let players learn the hard way and get decimated by high level monsters. Another gripe I have with the game, without giving any spoilers, is the screeching halt the game comes to in the middle that requires the player to return to old dungeons. This change of pace is jarring and a clear drop in quality relative to the remainder of the game. Thankfully this problem is overshadowed by the spectacular end game, that is impressive in both storytelling and gameplay mechanics.

Overall,  The linearity and pacing issues in Bravely Default are eclipsed by the game’s exceptional battle system and otherwise stellar presentation and gameplay; The game should not be ignored due to these minor issues. Bravely Default is the best “Final Fantasy” game released since the Playstation era and an exemplary JRPG on the Nintendo 3DS.


 

What do you think about Bravely Default? Did the overall gameplay outweigh the mid-game lull? Comment Below.

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