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Bravely Default (3DS) artwork

Bravely Default (3DS) review

"Without all the padding, this would be a good game. With it, though, it got to be an ordeal."

Sometime between starting Bravely Default a long time ago and finally finishing it just recently, I noticed something astounding: my love for JRPGs--which began when my parents bought me Dragon Warrior in the early 90s and only blossomed over the more than 20 years that followed--was fading rapidly. I could still play a retro RPG and enjoy myself. Or have a reasonably good time with one of Kemco's mobile genre offerings. But I would play a major release on a modern system and find myself wistfully looking at my backlog, wishing I were playing a different game in a different genre and half-hating myself for sticking with what I'd already started.

Why the fading interest? My guess is it's because as consoles grew more powerful, western RPGs regularly broke new ground. They gave players larger, more interactive worlds with tons to see and do, as well as freedom to use dialogue choices to craft characters in their image. Many even incorporated fast-paced action into their combat, as opposed to button-tapping through menus! Meanwhile, JRPGs have mostly remained the same as always. You have a plucky (or, occasionally, somewhat antisocial) hero on a quest to do what's right, teamed with a band of equally vigorous youngsters who together will learn about the powers of friendship and hope while taking on a leader who is either a diabolical tyrant or a person with noble intentions who acts like a diabolical tyrant in order to turn those intentions into reality. Oh, and don't forget the fearsome, world-destroying entity waiting for you to vanquish the tyrant so it can take center stage in the game's final act. So, so predictable.

Secondly, with the exception of those Kemco games I mentioned (which tend to take a mere 10 to 25 hours to complete), JRPGs have grown increasingly bloated over the years. Instead of lasting 30 or 40 hours, they now are apparently mandated to provide at least 60 (and preferably more) hours of entertainment. So, how does the average designer enable their game to offer double the length of anything they've built previously? For starters, they add improved storytelling and movie-like cutscenes. To go with that, though, they add a plethora of side quests, including super-challenging optional encounters that are meant to be challenged long after the hero is strong enough to take out any opponent the campaign dictates must die. And then there's the padding. Oh man, does the modern JRPG love its padding!

Bravely Default isn't the sole reason for my current ennui toward the JRPG in general. That would be unfair to say, with other contenders like Persona 3 and Dragon Warrior VII having eaten up so much of my time in recent years. But I will say that, though Bravely Default is a well-made game, it is an example of what I don't like about the current state of the genre.

Before I go into detail, I should state up front that it's all but impossible to delve into the roots of my dissatisfaction without spoiling things to some degree. I'll try to be as vague as possible, but anyone who doesn't want to know anything more than the basics of the plot should probably turn back now.

The game kicks things off with a prologue chapter. You are introduced to Tiz, a youth who has fallen on hard times. A chasm opened under his rural village, killing everyone else (including his little brother). One day, Tiz encounters Agnes, a "vestal" whose goal is to visit each of the four elemental temples in order to purify their crystals. Those crystals have been consumed by darkness, which threw the world out of balance. Water is corrupted, the wind isn't blowing and so forth. Tiz has nothing better to live for, so when he notices that Agnes is being pursued by forces of the Eternian Duchy (who seem quite opposed to her holy mission for reasons unknown), he appoints himself her protector and essentially forces himself into her entourage. That retinue previously consisted only of Airy the fairy, a sprite whose purpose is to encourage and assist Agnes in the purification ritual.

The small group quickly expands by two, as the amnesiac Ringabel and the Eternian defector Edea join the ranks. Agnes doesn't particularly want anyone else involved with her cause, but it is hard to ignore the fact that Ringabel possesses a journal that somehow foretells the future, making him a one-man deus ex machina whenever Agnes is unsure of her next objective. As for Edea, she is prominently mentioned as a party member in that journal, so it only makes sense to allow her to take part in the upcoming battles.

And there will be battles! This game is published in Japan by Square-Enix, and is essentially a Final Fantasy game without the actual name attached. In particular, it brings back the job system used in the third and fifth installments of that other series. Each important member of the Eternian forces is the master of a particular job class, and defeating them gives your party members access to the corresponding jobs. Tiz's initial meeting with Agnes places the duo in combat against the Monk and White Mage and, by the time the prologue ends, you will also have gained access to the Black Mage and Knight classes. Throughout each of the next four chapters, you'll not only purify the four temples, but also discover a bevy of additional classes in battles both mandatory and optional.

While these classes start out weak, you eventually gain access to better skills that allow you to use them more proficiently. You'll learn that the Ranger is an utter beast at causing physical damage in battles, but can get destroyed by powerful enemy attacks that would barely scratch a Knight's armor. The Spiritualist's main strength is its ability to negate various kinds of damage for brief periods of time, while a Diva gains skills allowing you to greatly buff your characters' abilities. Even the starting Freelancer class has its uses, boasting an ability that negates the effects of the many damage floors and traps located in dungeons.

As I played through the game's first four chapters, I enjoyed the experience. It was loaded with fun and challenging boss battles, and I liked that. After I cleansed the fourth crystal, a mystic pillar appeared. I ventured toward it, expecting to be led to the game's final conflicts. Except that didn't happen. Instead, I was tossed into multiple "Groundhog Day"-type scenarios, where I had to re-purify the temple crystals, fighting their guardians at every stop. Optionally, I could endure repeated rematches with the Job Masters. This happened multiple times before the game finally took mercy upon me and let me attempt the final encounters, watch the credits roll, emit a sigh of relief and at last remove the game from my 3DS, never to play it again.

The game can be so annoying at times. No matter how many crystals you've purified, Airy will ask you if you need instructions on how to do so, and you'll always have to tap the X button a hundred times or more to perform the ritual. In later "Groundhog Day" loops, the job masters start fighting you in new combinations designed to give the player a stern test. By that point, though, I was so fatigued by the whole ordeal that I was ready to ignore most everything marked as optional so I could simply rush to the end. Sure, after a certain point I could have "botched" a purification ritual intentionally, but that would have meant I could only access one of the end-game bosses and then receive an inferior ending. After already enduring so much, I felt compelled to see the adventure through to its proper end. All because someone thought the game had to last 60 to 80 hours instead of 30 to 40...

And that's what bothers me: I should be complimenting this game instead of complaining about it. Bravely Default isn't just the name of the game; it's also the name of a battle system that is different from anything I had experienced previously. At the onset of any of the many turn-based battles, you have the option to play things normally, or to use either the Brave or Default command. You can Brave up to three times in a turn, which allows you to borrow future turns in order to attack multiple times at once. Or you can Default, which is essentially the tried-and-true "defend" option, except now, you can save a turn to expend later in the battle.

Against regular foes, it's easy to spam Brave to dispatch all enemies in a single turn and avoid taking damage. Against bosses, Brave and Default allow for deep strategy. Attempting to spam Brave to overcome these foes by pure might will backfire, since your characters will be sitting ducks for multiple turns, absorbing massive amounts of damage with no ability to heal. These bosses often use Brave and Default as well, allowing them to negate a good chunk of damage for one turn and then to counter with multiple moves the next one. Some abilities consume Brave Points, so you'll be depriving a character of future turns to even use them. When I was fighting bosses and devising strategies that worked against what they were doing, I had a great time with Bravely Default.

But I wasn't having a similarly great time while going through the same dungeons repeatedly, just to fight the same bosses once again, all while knowing I'd likely be doing the same thing a couple more times down the road because the designers felt compelled to make a long game but weren't into the whole concept of actually creating original content to fill the hours. The more time I spent with the game, the more my enjoyment gradually faded and turned into exasperation. Bravely Default is a good game, and a person more enamored with the current state of JRPGs than I am might disagree with my "more isn't necessarily better" stance. Me, I'd rather play a short and focused game than a long, bloated one. This one seems like a fine example of the former at first, but midway through its campaign it decides to evolve into the latter. And that, to borrow Agnes' oft-used catchphrase, is "unacceptable".


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (October 01, 2017)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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