The only thing surprising about Bravely Default is the lengths it goes to extend gameplay time and avoid presenting new content. Its structure is instantly recognizable, its patterns immediately established, its tropes identifiable, and its plot twists foreseeable. Bravely Default doesn’t do anything that JRPGs haven’t done before. For better or for worse. This might even sound like a blessing of nostalgic comfort: a prayer of warmth and delight you can hold between your hands. But don’t start worshiping the fairy just yet.
Bravely Default is a sloppy soup of artistry, formula, ingenuity, and drudgery. The game wobbles between campy anime shlock and an attempt at a dark and poetic political narrative, but never finds an identity. Some say Bravely Default is more Final Fantasy than the most recent Final Fantasies, but that’s inaccurate. There might be phoenix down, firaga, and white mages, but Bravely Default’s style is muddled when not absent completely. For sheer artistry the gorgeous town design, for instance, is unmatched, like a prismatic bubble in a puddle of mud. As inconstant as Final Fantasy is, it retains a strange sort of intoxicating style, but Bravely Default fails to establish individuality.
The narrative focuses on a party of four saving the world via four elemental crystals. The protagonists are underdeveloped archetypes that I found by turns adorable, irritating, garrulous, and intolerable. Uninteresting on their own, they share a camaraderie (expanded by optional skits) that some will find charming and heartwarming. Unfortunately, the dramatic relationships that constitute a good story are missing, and character struggles are emotionally uninteresting. The toy-like character models can be cute, but they’re inexpressive. The voice acting is almost overwhelmingly subpar as well. The plot these characters take part in is sluggish and filled with moments of “why am I here, again?” for which bad writing is only partly responsible.
The localization shifts between a stilted formal dialect with a medieval flair and modern informal speech at will, although it does infuse the writing with interesting and unusual word choices at times. Poetic phrases and poignant dialogue are uncommon though. The writing is full of overly pregnant pauses, transparent motives, overreactions, underreactions, and general nonsense. There’s almost no genuine human emotion, drama, or conflict; the story is irrelevant to existence.
I have to make a special note about Bravely Default’s absurd obsession with womanizer humor. This is manifest in one of the game’s protagonists, who poisons nearly every conversation with his insistence on finding and seducing beautiful women. Bravely Default uses this convention like a crutch. I’m not criticizing the game for being sexist — there will be someone else to make that judgment — but I am criticizing it for being boring and juvenile.
Poor pacing from beginning to end makes Bravely Default’s story less effective as well, but it also hampers its gameplay systems. The JRPG quest structure needs a complete redesign. Bravely Default’s brazen fetch questing only gets worse as the game progresses. At one point about halfway through, I had to travel back and forth between towns four or five times just to make a tiny advance in the story. This would be more forgivable if towns and dungeons were interesting places to explore, but the joy of JRPG exploration is absent. Towns are gorgeous, but usually occupy just one screen, with menus for shops and inns. Every dungeon is nearly identical, all equally dull.
The last several chapters of Bravely Default embody some of the laziest game design I’ve ever seen. An astounding amount of content is recycled not once, but five times before the credits roll. I had heard about this before playing the game, but the reality is worse than I had imagined. It feels crafty: with all the time you’ve invested in the game by then, you almost feel no choice but to press on despite the tedium. This is the sort of late-game decline that puts an unforgettable blemish on a game. Bravely Default doesn’t really recover.
Bravely Default’s job system encourages and necessitates grinding, but the more time you put into it, the greater your returns. If you’re familiar with job systems as seen in games like FF Tactics and FFV, you know what to expect. There are unique jobs (Vampire, Merchant, Pirate), but many others fill familiar roles. Like the narrative, the job system isn’t immediately satisfying. Useful skills and abilities aren’t always easy to discover and it takes at least ten hours to really get the system started. When great games can come and go in less than half that time, all this time spent waiting for things to get good made me wonder what I was doing with my life. Leveling up a job to access that passive ability that will make your Dark Knight unstoppable is a pleasure, though, and, like most pleasures, it’s addictive. If there’s one thing that will see you through Bravely Default’s tedious quest, it’s the job system.
Bravely Default makes the typical turn-based battle more compelling by giving players the freedom to manipulate how many turns each character takes with the Brave and Default commands. If you take multiple turns at once, you’re unable to act later. This creates an unusual amount of tension for a turn-based JRPG: will the enemy take four turns next time, and I’ll be unable to heal because I just tried to take him out in one fell swoop? This gimmick doesn’t revolutionize the genre, but it does improve a tired convention.
The level of challenge is just about perfect, and if it isn’t, you can fix it. Even on Easy, however, you’ll probably have to grind at some point. The game is built around it. I don’t mind grinding if combat is fun, but the battle system isn’t enjoyable enough to justify battling as a means and an end in itself, so grinding usually just felt like work and not play. Thankfully, there’s more than one way to adjust the challenge. The wealth of metagame options is amazing. At times, I couldn’t imagine the game without them. The ability to control the rate of random encounters is a godsend, especially in a game with this much running around. You can turn them off completely: a rare miracle. You can also increase battle animation speed, turn on auto battle, skip cutscenes, and generally bend the game to your will and whims.
There are also a number of social features, but I’m happy to report that you can also take advantage of them if you’re a middle-of-nowhere hermit. The rebuilding of a town gives you access to powerful equipment and special abilities, but only if you have enough townspeople to be little carpenters and masons (those are StreetPass or NetPass people). I found this an oddly addictive feature, and I checked my sleeping 3DS frequently for updates. You can also summon friends, which I found rather useless, and putting the game in sleep mode allows you to accrue and spend SP to take extra turns at any time.
The game also features substantial side quests that are often more interesting than the main quest. These are meaty bits of story and character development that often include battles, optional dungeons, fully voiced cutscenes, and boss fights that lead to the acquisition of a new job. That’s not to say these side stories are well written, but they’re generally more intriguing than the main story. To beat the game, you’ll probably have to take on at least some of the side quests, but it’s generally a pleasure. That the side quests are optional at times feels downright strange, as they’re arguably the best content in the game.
It’s a shame that Bravely Default’s compelling job system is housed within the mundane and the monotonous. The level design and quest structure, the characters and worldbuilding are too conventional and, frankly, boring. If you love traditional JRPGs, the job system (and a sloth’s patience) is probably enough to see you to the end, but your tolerance for tedium will be tested. I felt a pang or two of old joy during the opening chapters of Bravely Default, but mostly there was the most damning reaction of all: apathy.