Bravely Default takes place in the realm of Luxendarc, a fantasy world very typical of the JRPG genre The peace in the land is governed by four crystals, each watched over by a Vestal. For hundreds of years, the belief in Crystalism has been an accepted norm for most of the population. When the game starts, however, many forces are beginning to rebel against these ideas. Key among these forces is the Duchy of Eternia, lead by the shadowy Council of Six. Eternia seeks to eliminate all of the Vestals and forever seal away the crystals from the world, fearing that their power is too great.
At around the same time, the crystals begin to mysteriously fail. This shift in energy causes a terrible chasm to open up under the village of Norende, killing all of its residents save one: a young man named Tiz. Tiz soon meets the Vestal of Wind, Agnés, and asks to help her in her quest to save the crystals, believing that helping her will also mend the chasm that destroyed his village. The pair quickly encounter Ringabel, an amnesiac Casanova, and a defector from the Eternian forces named Edea. Together, the party travels the world and seeks to reenergize the crystals and save the world.
This is a story filled with plot elements and characters that any fan of JRPGs will recognize immediately. While I originally thought this would be a bad thing, I ended up being surprised at the skill that the writers handled this story. It may be a very predictable story, but it manages to be charming and intriguing at the same time. Key plot moments come about at just the right rate, each of the areas is unique and diverse, and even the annoying characters (Ringabel) come to be interesting and fully fleshed-out by the end. I was never shocked by anything that happened, but it was such a pleasing ride that I didn’t mind in the slightest.
Sadly, everything falls apart in an utterly atrocious fashion as the game nears its end. After saving the four crystals, you are forced to do so again. At first, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing: events change enough to make things interesting again, and the world scales up to a higher level to compensate for your increased skills. Then you’re forced to activate the four crystals again. And again. AND AGAIN. Five times you are asked to visit the four crystals, a task that quickly becomes tedious and unbearable.There is a plot-based reason why you are asked to do this, but it just feels like lazy padding.
Looking back at the game, I can easily see how they could have cut three of the crystal trips with barely any effect to the game’s plot. To make matters even worse, the characters seem to lose their ability to think smartly at this point of the game. You learn some key information on your second trip to the crystals, information that you will likely expect your characters to act on at some point. They never do, instead sitting on these revelations until the end of the game. What’s even crazier is that when those end events begin to happen, they act utterly shocked–even though they should have been expecting what was to come. This part of the game is repetitive game design and its worst and was almost enough to make me want to stop playing entirely.
It’s unfortunate because the rest of the game is quite intelligently designed. In terms of gameplay, Bravely Default is most similar to JRPGs from the NES/SNES era. You walk (or fly airships) from town to dungeon, fighting random encounters as you explore. There are plenty of people to talk to and items to buy in each of the various towns. When you engage in combat, you’ll find that the combat system is pretty typical for the genre: you can attack, use skills and items, and eventually use special weapon-based attacks that charge up as you fight.
There is one significant difference from your typical JRPG combat: the Brave and Default systems for which the game is named. Every character, both friendly and enemy, has a counter called BP. Every turn, this counter increments by one. If a character Defaults (which is just a way to say defend), that character doesn’t spend their BP and instead builds up an extra BP. This gauge can build all the way up to +3. The interesting part is that by using Brave, a character can act up to four turns at a time. If that character has extra BP, they can take those turns freely; if they don’t, however, they go into deficit and must sit out turns until reaching 0 again.
These systems come together to make a fun, exciting, and well-paced combat system. I thought the Brave/Default system strange and useless at first but quickly realized its potential. It’s a system that gives a great deal of tactical possibilities that aren’t doable in other games. For example, you can Default on all your characters to build up a bunch of BP and attack all at once with little risk. Or, in what is probably my favorite way to use the system, you can spend all of every character’s BP and wipe out the enemy before they get to react. I actually never grew tired of the combat, something that rarely happens for me in JRPGs. Battles move quickly and fluidly (especially thanks to the ability to greatly speed up combat) and pose plenty of options for a variety of strategies.
Aiding in this potential for strategy is the Job system. There are 24 different jobs to unlock for your characters, ranging from the defensive Templar to the counter-heavy Swordmaster. Each of them is earned from a special encounter with a master of the job, most of them optional sidequests. You can switch your characters to these jobs at any point outside of battle, with each of them leveling independently and unlocking various passive and active abilities for use. It’s a pretty standard execution of the idea, but it adds a great deal of tactical potential. I found several different great job combinations that trivialized various boss encounters or let me grind all of my jobs to max level in just three short hours. It’s a fantastic system for those who like to tinker with their party compositions and create the best strategies for any situation.
There are a couple more things to note about the gameplay in Bravely Default. First, there is a strange form of microtransaction in the game. During combat, you have a special currency that lets you immediately take action on any character, no matter whose turn it currently is or what their BP count is. This currency runs out quickly (capping at 3) and can be refilled in one of two ways: leaving your 3DS in Sleep Mode for eight hours per spent point or paying $1.99 for 3 more points. You can safely make it through the game without using this feature once, but it can help in a sticky situation. I would advise using Sleep Mode to recharge these points if you want more, instead of wasting a few bucks on something unnecessary.
The other thing I wanted to mention is what is easily my favorite feature in a JRPG in the last decade: at any point, you can turn the encounter rate down to zero or up to double. Stuck in a dungeon at low health with no way out? Just turn down the encounter rate and walk back to town safely. Need to grind up some more levels? Bump up the rate and find a battle every two steps. I can’t count how many times I used this feature, usually to grind up at a new part of the game before then turning off the random encounters for the rest of the area to walk through in peace. It lets you scale the game to the encounter level you want instead of being frustrated with too many or too few encounters. I can’t rave enough about this feature. and I praise the developers for including it. If scaling encounter rates don’t appear in future RPGs, I will be sorely disappointed.
Graphically, Bravely Default may not appeal to some. The childish proportions of the characters are adorable to me, but they may seem too kiddy to some. I was often surprised by how much emotion and character the developers were able to pack into these tiny models. More than once, I laughed out loud at a particularly funny reaction from one of the characters. I also have to give kudos for the varied designs for the various job costumes. Each is instantly recognizable and completely different from the others.
The music in Bravely Default is quite excellent. The battle theme stays interesting even after 40+ hours, and I absolutely loved one of the main dungeon themes from the first time I heard it. My one complaint is that the music tends to repeat a bit too much, appearing in multiple dungeons, but it’s hard to be too mad when the quality of the tracks is taken into account. I also wanted to note that the voice acting is quite good. A few of the major characters can be a bit annoying (Agnés suffers from breathy anime character voice), but the cast on the whole is very strong. If you don’t like the English voice cast, there is also the option to play the entire game in Japanese instead.
I didn’t think I would like Bravely Default as much as I ended up liking it. It seemed to be just another JRPG, but once I started playing it, I noticed the craft and skill with which the game was made. I think it’s clear that Bravely Default was made by a developer who both really knows the genre and really cared about making a good game. Everything from the combat system to the story stays interesting for dozens of hours. Unfortunately, all of this goodwill gets stripped away by the severe downturn in quality after the halfway point. Being forced to replay the game’s main dungeons four additional times is just ridiculous, even if the story tries (and fails) to justify it. It hurts what is otherwise a fantastic game and makes it harder to recommend, even with the strengths of the rest of the game. If you intend to play Bravely Default, just be aware that you may come to dislike it by the end.