Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Bravely Default

Post-Launch Review
Bravely Default
Developer: Silicon Studio
Released: October 2012 (original Japanese release) / December 2013 - February 2014 (For the Sequel & EU/NA releases)
Played: 100% complete in 74h:54min


A mysterious disaster opens a chasm that swallows a village, rots the sea, stills the wind, and sends magma and earthquakes out of control. Four heroes affected by the disaster set out to close the chasm by reawakening the four powerful crystals that govern the elemental forces. But is that really the right thing to do?

At Launch

American and European reviews are technically for the second, updated version of the game. See the Post Launch section below.
Bravely Default earned average review scores of 85%. Reviewers loved the convenience features and modernizations to the otherwise highly traditional game, such as the battle system and social features (streetpass). Many critics complained of the reliance on repetition in the latter half of the game.

Post Launch

The original Japanese version was revised as a second release a year later, titled For the Sequel. This second version added difficulty controls, extra save slots, improved gameplay, additional audio settings, revisions to the later chapters, and a time stop mode fuelled either by microtransactions or leaving the game in sleep mode. This version formed the basis of the American and European releases.

This is a game that's really helped by its 3D. In the cities, the scenery all looks hand-drawn (at least the textures do), and without the 3D feature active almost every scene looks very flat, with the characters standing out oddly because they're 3D models. But turning on the 3D adds a ton of depth and makes the landscapes come to life in a way that 2D just can't convey. It looks like people moving through a world instead of people moving on top of a painting.

That hand-drawn style helps bypass the 3DS' technical limitations, too. On the overworld map I immediately noticed how angular and low-resolution the terrain was, but inside a city or looking at a big castle the world is beautiful and intricate. Indoors areas (like dungeons) tend to be more standard 3D models and textures, but a lot of fancy or important areas use that gorgeous hand-drawn style.

Combat is pretty standard JRPG style: turn- and class-based with an elemental weakness system. What makes things interesting is the titular brave/default system: default defends and gives you an extra action point, while brave eats an action point to take an extra turn. Action points are limited to a range of -4 to +4. Basically what this means is that you can use brave to dish out tons of damage (or healing or buffs) at once with the risk of eating a bunch of attacks before you can act again, or you can default to learn enemy attacks and save points for later. There are some moves that cost extra points or steal points from opponents, so good management is vital to your survival. Enemies have these options too, but they use them somewhat sparingly and generally won't brave more than once in a turn.

I also enjoyed the job system. I haven't played a lot of JRPGs so I'm not sure if this has been done before, but Bravely Default has about 20 jobs (what I would usually call classes) that you can swap between at will after acquiring them. Your primary job determines your stat and equip affinities, gives you some combat abilities, and grants you a free support ability, while your secondary job allows access to its combat abilities only. You also have some points to spend on any support abilities from jobs your character has levelled enough to actually have support abilities. So you get a lot of flexibility in how you build your characters and combine jobs and support abilities. I found myself switching jobs a lot - I'd find a favourite, and then unlock a new favourite. Or I'd get a new one that complements an existing job very well, so I'd level that for a bit to discover its abilities.

Bravely Default also makes great use of the 3DS' streetpass feature. Each other player you streetpass can be summoned with the attack or ability they've chosen to share, and they also add to the population of your village and help you rebuild it and gain access to new shops (and therefore items and upgrades). Oh, and speaking of the village, that's a fun feature too. You have to balance building speed against your priorities. Three villagers can build three buildings in three days, but it's up to you whether each works on one building so that all three finish on the same day, or if they concentrate their efforts and build one a day.

The early bits of the story seem fairly cliché - save the world by finding the four MacGuffins. But the farther you press on, the more the game hints that maybe the "bad guys" have a good reason for what they're doing. Even then, it's not a simple reversal - the main antagonist is too proud to explain his reasoning, and while the game does make you doubt your motivation, it doesn't pull a "you've been the real villain all along". It's a little tricky to explain without going into spoiler territory, so I'll just say that before the fourth crystal things start getting a little muddier, and afterwards it starts to go real crazy.

And by "really crazy" I mean repetitive and potentially off-putting. Without getting into spoilers, if you want the true ending, you're going to have to repeat your quest (I think) five times. The hints start to pile up along the way, and there are changes in the optional side quests each time around. I like the concept at play - the reason for the repetition - but it feels like such a slog doing everything over and over and over and over again. Same world, same dungeons, same characters, same bosses. 

The biggest flaw with the story is that almost all the conflict could be avoided if the characters simply talked to each other. The templar tells your party that what you're doing is wrong, but refuses to tell you why for no good reason. The immortals know exactly what the real danger is, but slowly hint at it instead of revealing it outright. You could make the argument that the immortals need the main characters to grow in strength to confront the true threat, and that the villain would simply crush the heroes if they were aware too early. This actually makes a lot of sense, but it's not explained in game - it's just something I came up with on my own.

That said, the ending is pretty great, especially how it ties in your 3DS friends who also have Bravely Default. When Ouroboros starts destroying worlds, the game tells you that the first world belongs to one of your friends, and the next few that escape destruction belong to still more of your friends. Neat.

Also there's a very cool cutscene post-credits that takes advantage of the system's gyroscope, so you have to physically look around to catch everything that's going on. Aside from being nifty, it's also a sequel announcement, so that's pretty cool too.

Recommendation: maybe.

Bravely Default includes a lot of concepts and mechanics that I really like. It's a good looking game, made better by 3D. The huge amount of depth in character building is a lot of fun to tinker with. Streetpass features are fun and very helpful. But all that repetition is mind-numbing, despite the often interesting remixes of the characters and their relationships. Towards the end of the game I just looked up the cheesiest, most overpowered character builds and auto-battled my way through the last ten hours just so I could get the story (and this review) done. There's a lot of great stuff in Bravely Default but to see all of it you'll have to struggle through the exact same quest five times.

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