The return of the king.
Originally conceived as a spiritual sequel of sorts to Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light, the strangely titled Bravely Default: Flying Fairy eventually became a standalone game. New 3rd party IPs have it hard when it comes to selling units on a Nintendo console, which makes Square Enix's decision to nix the Final Fantasy title a strange one.
And yet a few weeks following its Japanese release, Bravely Default had already sold over 200,000 copies, encountering stock shortages that forced the team to put up a downloadable version of the game on the 3DS Eshop. If that's not a sign of success, I'm not sure what is.
The development team claimed that their goal was to create a 'royal RPG' of sorts; a classic feeling JRPG for modern day audiences. With an array of social features, a large roster of outside talent, and SE artist Akihiko Yoshida on board, how did Bravely Default turn out?
Follow me after the break and find out.
Bravely Default: Flying Fairy (Nintendo 3DS)
Developer: Silicon Studio, Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Released October 11, 2012
Things are amiss in the world of Luxendarc. The wind has stopped blowing, the ocean has become a sea of death, and the world has fallen into turmoil. Agnes Oblige, the priestess of the wind crystal, sets out on a quest to investigate what seems to be the root of the problem; a giant hole that has opened up in the north and swallowed an entire village. There, she meets a crystal fairy named Airy and a boy named Tiz, the latter of which is the sole survivor of the village. Having lost everything and seeing his little brother fall to his death before his very eyes, Tiz convinces Agnes to let him travel with her. As the wheels of fate spin into motion, Tiz and Agnes meet an amnesiac named Ringabel, and a former imperial soldier named Edea Lee. Unbeknownst to the four strangers, their chance encounter will be the key to saving not only the world, but perhaps reality itself.
Penned by Nataka Hayashi (Steins;Gate) of 5pb, Bravely Default's scenario is as traditional as it gets, at least at first glance. The Square Enix mainstays all seem to be present: four elemental crystals, warriors of light, airships and much more. The further into the game you get however, the more Hayashi's presence becomes apparent. In some ways, Bravely Default is the darkest JRPG I've played in quite some time. Characters are killed in awful, oftentimes merciless ways. The main cast of four initially come off as likable if not generic, but like everything in Bravely Default, they are not what they appear to be. As the layers begin to unravel, every decision, action and line of dialogue falls under the umbrella of doubt and suspicion. Bravely Default plays with your expectations, resulting in what is one of the finest final boss encounters I've experienced this generation. Even the ridiculous sounding name serves a clear purpose within the game's narrative and leads to one of the coolest meta moments I've had in my gaming over the past decade.
Bravely Default's battle system can best be described as an evolution of Final Fantasy 3's turn based combat. With 24 playable jobs, there is a lot of freedom in how you can approach enemy encounters. Characters receive JP (job points) after every battle, leveling whatever job they have equipped at the time. Not all occupations are available in the beginning; going on sidequests and defeating the many optional bosses is the only way way to obtain job asterisks. These quests are important to the story as well as Edea's character development, so I highly recommend completing them all. If you've ever played Final Fantasy III or V, this should be a very familiar system to you.
Where BD starts to get interesting is in the way it handles both passive skills and secondary jobs. While you can only ever level up a single job at a time, you can equip a secondary one, allowing you to utilize all of the skills you've learned under that job. For example, my Agnes was a black mage, but she also had the white mage job equipped so she could use healing spells. The secondary jobs are a bit weaker than if you had them properly equipped, but there's no denying their usefulness. This system makes for some fun character builds and ensures that every player can find their own combat style.
Additionally, by leveling jobs, your characters will learn passive abilities that can be extremely useful. For example, one skill that I kept equipped with through most of the game let my party start every battle with protect already cast. There are a total of five slots that each character can fill with these skills, though some of them can take up to three slots in order to equip. A big part of BD's combat is figuring out how to best manage these sub-skills. The game gives you the chance to cover your job's weaknesses if you're clever enough.
The actual battle system isn't particularly complex, but the new brave/default options do introduce something fresh into the equation. Default essentially functions as a defend option might, but it also stocks your turn. By using the brave command after you've defaulted, your character can then use two turns in a row (the current and the stocked). You can default up to three times, effectively creating an opportunity to attack four times in one turn. Even if you choose not to stock turns, the game still lets you brave up to three times, the caveat being that your character will be completely defenseless for the next three turns. It's a great risk/reward system that can make for some intense encounters, especially because enemies are free to make use of brave and default as well. Common enemies later in the game were especially ruthless, sometimes taking out my entire party before I had a chance to get everybody prepared for the next turn.
One issue I did have with the battle system is that it's rather slow moving. Because you're constantly selecting from a wide variety of options, turns can take a while. Fortunately, if you don't feel like sitting through the attack animations at a normal speed, BD includes the ability to speed up encounters by holding down the right shoulder button. More RPGs could really use a simple feature like this.
Game producer Tomoya Asano has on multiple occasions stated that he wanted Bravely Default to be a single player game that you can play together with other people. One look at the game's wide range of wireless features and it's not hard to see that he and his team mostly succeeded. By connecting to folks on your friends list who also own Bravely Default, you gain the ability to summon them in battle to perform an attack of their choosing. The opposite is true as well; you can record a single attack and upload it to the net, making it available to friends in need.
Bravely Default also uses Street Pass in a way that had me actively carrying my 3DS on me at all times. Tying in to the main story, Tiz is looking to rebuild his hometown of Nolende, following the calamity that struck and swallowed it whole. By Street Passing with folks, the population of Tiz's town goes up. Players can then send these villagers to work at different shops, leveling them in real time. The higher the level of the shops, the more free items you receive. Higher quality items and equipment also go on sale at various merchants depending on the level of your Nolende shops. For example, I had 20 people working on a level 9 blacksmith, which led to my unlocking a strong, expensive sword at the local merchant's shop. It's an addictive use of street pass and I applaud the dev team for the idea, though I'm a bit sad that the level cap for the shops is lower than I would have liked. Ten hours into the game and I had already maxed my town out. Hopefully a future sequel can expand upon this unique system a little bit more.
On the visual end of things, Bravely Default is easily one of if not the most beautiful games on the Nintendo 3DS. Some titles certainly do an amazing job with the tech (Resident Evil: Revelations), but in terms of art design and execution, I think BD trumps everything else for the platform. The first time I entered a town and the camera pulled back to give a better view of the area, my jaw dropped. Towns and story-related locations are represented through pre-rendered backgrounds with 3D elements, and they make great use of the console's 3D screen. Cities are layered like a picture book, which results in often-times stunning vistas. Every time I arrived at a new continent, I couldn't wait to explore the area in search of some cool looking locale.
Character art was handled by the legendary Akihiko Yoshida (Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XIV), and his work here is as excellent as ever. I was particularly impressed by the imaginative villain designs. I can only wish that modern Final Fantasy games looked like this. My sole issue with the visuals is that the dungeon design is often extremely bland; caves and brick interiors are the order of the day here. Fortunately, these portions of the game never overstay their welcome; dungeons are relatively quick affairs, so it never gets too bad.
In a surprising move, Silicon Studio brought in Sound Horizon's Revo to compose Bravely Default's score. The end result is a fresh new sound that works on its own just as well as it does in-game. Plentiful use of horns, string instruments and electric guitar makes for a memorable soundtrack. Each character has their own theme, and the final boss fight does a spectacular job of bringing together the main musical themes of the game. I've listened to each song on the OST dozens of times and I don't see that stopping anytime soon. I do however wish there was more variation in terms of dungeon music, but all things considered, this is a very strong package.
If this game ever gets a proper English language localization, it's going to be one hell of an endeavor; Bravely Default's main story is fully voiced. Every single character has a voice, and Square Enix brought in the big guns. Well known voice actors occupy nearly every single role in the game, making for a proverbial who's who of voice acting. This was actually something of a pleasant surprise for me, as I had heard nothing about the extent of the voice work in-game. I should also note that all the side quests are fully voiced as well. No stone was left unturned here.
Yet as great as Bravely Default is, there is a single questionable design choice that I feel obligated to mention. I can't go into detail on what exactly it is, as the gameplay is tied directly to the core story (and the biggest plot twist in the game), but it leads to recycled content, most of which is necessary in order to obtain the true ending. For what it's worth, I had about three extra hours added onto my file due to this twist, so it wasn't such a big deal for me. I personally felt the pay off was more than worth the minor struggle to get there, but I can see some players feeling a bit frustrated.
Square Enix's Bravely Default is a strange creature. Designed by Silicon Studios with a script by 5pb's Nataka Hayashi and a score by Revo, it's in many ways unlike any other JRPG Square Enix has released in the past decade. It takes significant risks in both its narrative and its gameplay, many of which pay off in spectacular ways. And yet somehow, despite this freshness, there's something about Bravely Default that feels familiar. A lot of studios talk about wanting to bring an old genre to a new generation of gamers, but rarely do those attempts ever end up working. Older generations scoff at these titles while newer generations fail to see what the big deal was in the first place. In that sense, producer Tomoyo Asano and his staff have done something quite wonderful.
Bravely Default: Flying Fairy is one of the best traditional RPGs I've played in years, and probably the best new IP to come out of Square Enix since The World Ends With You. If you have a Japanese 3DS, you should own this game. For those of you that don't have one? Start sending SE your letters demanding BD:FF be released in English. A game as good as this deserves to be experienced.
9 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)
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