Although Bravely Default only ranked No.9 in my Top 15 games of 2013, it remains probably the best JRPG released on consoles this year thanks in no small part to its high level of challenge and in-depth mechanics.
Bravely Default’s story is presented simply and in the vein of the early Final Fantasy games it resembles; while the core console Final Fantasy series has moved beyond the traditional turn-based, four-person-party system in many ways (games like Final Fantasy X/X-2 are probably the most similar from the recent generation, but themselves added certain modifications to the system), Bravely Default places itself firmly within the 16-bit era of RPGs much like Xbox 360 hit Lost Odyssey did. It has a straightforward turn-based combat system based around speed stats, multiple hits per weapon and a granularity between attack speed and damage much like Final Fantasy III did on the NES, and a job system with upgradeable character roles and customisable abilities taken straight from Final Fantasy V).
The result is a game heavily based in nostalgia but brought up to date with current gaming trends, for better or worse. The most apparent modernisations, and ultimately the design aspects most likely to divide the audience, are conspicuous examples of unpopular trends in gaming; consumable DLC in the form of “SP” potions, and a timer-based town development sidequest where players must gather Streetpass hits to populate their village. Even aside from the immediate associations with arguably unethical mobile gaming business models, these present obvious issues which are design failings.
To begin with, the village development aspect. Unlocking “Special Moves” and consumable item and equipment shops attached to save points is reliant on completing this quest, a process which becomes exponentially faster with each consecutive day played yet is still reliant on spending several hours between upgrades. Obviously, attaining more Streetpass hits will cause the village to grow faster than relying on the daily expansion that is given for free – yet indeed the presence of a free option for completing this quest is a significant improvement on Square’s past efforts at adding social mechanics to RPGs as seen in Final Fantasy III on the DS (where an entire class was locked behind the DS’s unintuitive and awkward online aspect). The problem is that special moves and item shops in dungeons are not really optional, sidequest content; with Bravely Default‘s surprisingly challenging difficulty curve and need for keen awareness of resource management, a way of purchasing vital MP-restoring items (in a game without such a readily-available crutch of healing as the Tent item usually provides) this functionality should really be more readily accessible from the start.
Secondly, the SP mechanic. On the surface it is an interesting development – related to the usually-overpowered “Quick” spell in some Final Fantasy games it permits a character to take an extra combat turn. Yet the problem is SP can only be regenerated by putting the DS in sleep mode, and only 3 can be stockpiled at once. Most of the time this is not a significant issue – SP is not required much outside of the harder boss fights – but at the same time in a single-player, offline game, time-gating item use is not a good design feature. To bypass this, players can buy SP-restoring items with micro-transactions – which is to me the most objectionable design element. Faster SP regeneration and no cash gate to its use would have made it an interesting feature; as it is, it is hard to use it without feeling a little like the game is not being designed as a single-purchase, premium-priced game.
Yet those problems identified above are the only significant design flaws in Bravely Default; players should be aware of them, and they should inform purchases, but ultimately it is very possible to play the entire game and reasonably experience all the mechanics and content using only the freely provided SP and villagers. Thus onto the positives; Bravely Default is a well-crafted, challenging RPG with granular difficulty settings. The encounter rate, battle rewards and enemy strength can all be set freely at any time, so during sections where backtracking is necessary easy enemy encounters offering trivial rewards can be skipped or made more challenging. This is a level of customisation beyond many similar games and one which allows players to make an already in-depth and challenging game precisely as difficult as they wish. Most refreshingly, though, the game is finely-balanced; random encounters seem difficult on entering a new area but by the end are quite possible, while boss fights require smart use of elemental weaknesses and consumable items (making the addition of shops in dungeons worthwhile, and making consumable attack items a vital resource rather than largely worthless). In this way the job system evokes more Final Fantasy III‘s key strategic decisions (albeit without the unintuitive job level system) than Final Fantasy V‘s easily-breakable source of bizarre and apparently unconsidered interactions. The method of unlocking jobs is particularly neat; players must complete side-quests which provide contextual information about the settings they visit and defeat the holders of the jobs’ “Asterisks” in order to gain the abilities – as a result, there is a progression of new abilities not quite as clearly lampshaded or delineated as job-based predecessors (for example in Final Fantasy V, where each themed crystal dungeon ended predictably with a new set of jobs).
In battles, the system is diverse and challenging; there is a risk-reward element added which also permits quicker cleaning out of common encounters via the “Brave” system. Each round spent defending earns a “Brave Point,” which can be cashed in later for additional successive attacks or spell castings. However, players may also “owe” Brave Points, spending up to four turns in a row and then missing the corresponding number of turns. This is rarely useful against bosses, but against enemies which can be killed in one or two attacks it allows a single-round victory (which in itself provides certain bonuses in the form of extra money and experience). Enemies will also use Brave Points and defend in this fashion, and understanding when this happens and how best to respond is often key to understanding how to win more difficult battles.
Thus while Bravely Default is a game with some questionable design elements that must be raised in this review (mostly for the intrusion of social and pseudo-multiplayer mechanics into a premium-priced, single-player game), it is for the most part a very good RPG. It is suitably complex mechanically to be challenging on a level beyond simply long fights with tough enemies, and tells a solid story reminiscent of the older Final Fantasy games from which it draws design elements.