There's been a lot of derision and vitriol spouted toward SquareEnix for quite some time now. I've been there from time to time, wishing they would go back to making the kind of games I enjoyed in my early teens and shouting in frustration when they announce another sequel to Final Fantasy XIII (to be fair, I'm actually really excited about Lightning Returns after playing the demo). Well, this is it, I'm calling out to all the J-RPG fans that cling to the old and revile the new-school, Bravely Default has finally reached our shores after years of pleading and hoping against hope that SquareEnix would see that the old-school styled games like this could do well after the lackluster sales of Final Fantasy: Four Heroes of Light. Surprisingly, it was Nintendo that extended the olive branch on this one, taking up the publishing roles for what could prove to be a foolish endeavor, and I couldn't be happier that they did.
Bravely Default starts like a traditional Final Fantasy title, with a crystal. The world of Luxendarc teeters between the faith in the crystals of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water, and the advancement of Anti-Crystalism, a belief that they are relics of the past that have no relevance in the world today. Caught up in this maelstrom of change are four kids, Angès Oblige, the Vestal of Wind, who seeks to save the crystal of Wind after it mysteriously goes dark. Tiz Arrior, a young man from the sleepy village of Norende, his life upended when a giant chasm opens up beneath his town, leaving him the lone survivor. Edea Lee, daughter of the ruler of the Duchy of Eternia, tasked with capturing the Wind Vestal. Ringabel, a mysterious vagrant and ladies-man who finds himself with a journal containing details of his impending adventure to go along with his amnesia that left him in the town of Caldisla with no shortage of confidence and charm. The plight of their fellow man unites them against the Duchy, making a traitor of Edea, and a fugitive of the rest of the cast. Their goal of reawakening the crystals is fraught with perils in the form of warriors from Eternia and their Council of Six, along with personal dramas. Between Angès's unwavering devotion to her task, Tiz's survivor's guilt, Ringabel's ceaseless flirtations, and Edea's stark 'black and white' view of the world, it'd be easy to break this group apart. The dialogue does a good job of highlighting these personal flaws, and it's interesting to see that this is one of the few games that will actually have its party members call each other out on their shortcomings, even if some of them do come long after they've reached their boiling point.
The combat, by which the game's name is derived is quite possibly the best 'turn-based combat' system in a J-RPG. None of that Active Time Battle stuff we're used to seeing with SquareEnix, this is tried and true turn-based goodness that will put even the best tacticians through their paces. Combat revolves around two options, Brave, and Default, which allow you to stock your actions, or blaze through them in an all-or-nothing charge. Defaulting will make your characters defend for a turn, and add to their stock of moves, which caps at three. Going the Brave route will use up any turns you've stored, with a maximum of four moves possible in a given turn, but if you Brave without having spare turns available, your character will have to wait until they've balanced out, leaving them open to attacks. This incredibly simple system has a surprising amount of depth and strategy. Know that you're going up against a weak crowd? Feel free to burn through the turns you don't have in order to make short work of your enemies and cash in on one of the bonuses awarded at the end of combat that increases your experience, cash, or Job Points earned, of which you'll be needing plenty. Don't know what you're opponent is going to do and you just want to scope him out for a bit? Sit back and Default and store up moves for a massive counter attack.
The depth of combat becomes a nearly unfathomable abyss once you start to combine the jobs that have been liberally littered throughout the game that represent different classes of characters that are common in the Final Fantasy world such as Knights, White Mages, Black Mages, and Monks. There's twenty-four different jobs that can be unlocked over the course of Bravely Default, and each carries a very specific role that can help your party in the perfect moment, or totally jam up your synergy with one misplaced skill set. Each job also comes with a myriad of abilities that can be equipped that offer support abilities like increased hit points, or improved defensive states, or increased damage off counter attacks. Add in the option to add a second job's abilities to your characters and you'll be making parties with some ridiculous combinations like White Mage Ninjas, or Merchants that will sell items to enemies, and then jump on them with the skills of the Valkyrie (or Dragoon if you're feeling old-fashioned). Then to top it all off you've got special moves that are tied to the weapons your characters wield in battle that can be improved by rebuilding Tiz's hometown. There is no shortage of options on the battlefield, which makes for the rare case where I never intentionally ran from a battle because of boredom. The only other game where that was the case for me? A gem, called Shadow Hearts 2.
Bravely Default makes a strong case for being the best looking game in the 3DS library. SquareEnix has never really had a problem with making games with exceptional visuals, though they have suffered in the style department on a few occasions. Here, the art direction and execution are on point, the world of Luxendarc is teeming with beauty, from the European styled vista of Caldisla, to the frosty white mountains of Eternia. The set pieces also look incredibly detailed for hand-drawn work, which fans of games like Final Fantasy 9 might shed a tear over as they stare in awe at the interiors of the Grandship. The characters themselves are surprisingly expressive given their fairly simplistic designs. Though once you start unlocking jobs you start to see the bits of flair and brilliance behind their design choices. And while I don't play with 3D turned on very often, Bravely Default's visuals actually look better with it. Even without the 3D this is still a fine looking game, but just make sure you try it with 3D turned on.
The music is handled by a musician I had never heard of until recently, Revo, and his project band named Linked Horizon. I've got to say, I'm ashamed I've never looked him up until now, because his music is absolutely stellar, and Bravely Default has one of the best RPG soundtracks in recent memory. Where as someone like Shoji Meguro might be geared toward modern music in games like Persona, Revo is closer to a group like Basiscape, producing a classical sound that fits this game perfectly. If you're looking to pick up the limited edition of this game, know that you're getting something special with the soundtrack CD. The boss music in particular shines, and the individual themes that play when using special abilities are a joy to the ears. The voice acting is pretty good most of the time, with the only hiccup being the occasional bits where Agnès's voice actress lays it on a little thick. And in a stunning turn of events for a SquareEnix game, there's the option for different languages, which means fans of Japanese dialog will finally get something they've been wanting for a long time.
In fact, this game is quite fond of giving players options that they've always wanted but never got, or giving them options they didn't even know they needed. You can change the difficulty on the fly, and in a variety of ways. Want to grind a bit and fight more battles? Go ahead and double the random battle encounter rate. Hate random battles and just want to run to an inn to heal? Turn the random encounters off entirely! This one option makes returning to early areas of the game so much less of a chore, no more mowing through groups of weak enemies (though I'm losing out on earning small amounts of Job Points). You can also tweak the difficulty by turning off the experience points earned, or removing the markers that point you in the direction of your next objective. Little things that actually make a world of difference once you have the option to mess with them.
I don't talk about Streetpass much when playing 3DS games because it feels needless and tacked on in most cases. Bravely Default is one of those games that's making me change my stance on the matter. In order to rebuild Tiz's home of Norende, you're going to need villagers, which you'll acquire by Streetpassing with other players of Bravely Default. These villagers in turn will work to rebuild parts of the town, like the weapon or item shops. By committing more villagers to the task, you'll cut down on the necessary time to rebuild, and after a week, I had Norende rebuilt, with tons of gear available to me, along with a bunch of modifiers that go along with the special attacks that my party members could perform. What was once a moderately powerful healing burst when Edea wielded a staff, has now turned into a skill that I could keep in my pocket in a pinch, granting me a great deal more HP, could cure some status effects, restore magic points, and even give me a buff against a specific status effect. And during battle, you can opt to send any action you want to other players by recording it, and then the next time you Streetpass with someone you'll pass on your character to others. So if you want to be that super helpful dude that restores a party, pay attention to your skills. Or you know, just be a jerk that uses the standard potion. If you're not really into Streetpassing, this game's got you covered, allowing you to connect to the internet once a day to collect random villagers, and get a bot-friend who will constantly be updating to keep up with your party, though it can't really replace a proper strategy among friends.
So, Bravely Default, you join a very small company of games that I'd be willing to give this score to. You do everything right in being a classic inspired turn-based J-RPG. You give players options to keep the experience fresh, you provide a wealth of content and side quests that reward players with more jobs than they can possibly handle. You have an absolutely wonderful musical score, and visuals that are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Your combat is of a caliber that very few games can come close to matching, it's fun, it's challenging, and it has a classic feel that many people will hopefully love. So this is it gamers, this is your chance to show other people why the old-school still rules, Bravely Default is everything you could possibly ask for and then some.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
In a past life I worked with Interplay, EA, Harmonix, Konami, and a number of other developers. Now I'm working for a record label, a small arm of casual games in a media company along with Gaming Nexus, and anywhere else that sees fit to employ me.