Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Bravely Default - Review

Developer: Silicon Studio
Publisher: Nintendo 
Platform: 3DS

[Another older review that I thought would be good to post up here, especially considering the sequel came out a few months ago]

In the weird world of J-RPGs, spin-offs are usually an bizarre thing. Games like Final Fantasy IX, arguably the most underrated instalment in Final Fantasy's core series, began life as a side- story that harkened back to the older titles. Similarly, the Shin Megami Tensei series struck gold when it released Persona 3, breathing life into a genre of games that is notorious for recycling clich√©s and rehashing the same old stories and tropes. At the same time, for every hit there's plenty of misses, as anyone who sat through Final Fantasy: Dirge of Cerberus will attest to.

In steps Bravely Default, Square Enix's latest attempt at a portable RPG adventure. Originally conceived as a sequel or spiritual successor to Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, Bravely Default has instead been developed into its own self-contained world.

That world is Luxendarc, a traditional fantasy world filled with magic, monsters and the ever present crystals. The task is the usual one, lead a band of jolly adventurers on a quest to restore the four crystals and return order to the world.

After a relatively brief set-up, the game provides you with a party of four characters and then leaves you to do with them whatever you please. This is by far one of Bravely Default's greatest strengths; it understands, especially as a portable title, that getting the player to the meat of the game quickly is important, and then proceeds to allow you total freedom to develop you characters however you want.

Using a job system that has been around since Final Fantasy V, each character can become any class, be it White Mage, Black Mage, all the way to the more oddball types such as Performers and Chemists. Bravely Default rewards player creativity by allowing you to simply experiment and work out interesting synergies by yourself. It's a stark contrast from the tiresome handholding and dull linearity that was prevalent throughout Final Fantasy XIII and shows that Square Enix just might be realizing what made their earlier titles so good in the first place.

The combat itself is also a combination of old and new. The Brave and Default mechanics allow you your character's turns, in the form of BP, in advance, or store them for later and adopt a defensive posture. Typically this will mean Defaulting whenever a boss is preparing for their signature move and then Braving and going all in on the attack the following turn. It does set up some interesting risk versus reward moments, where expending multiple turns immediately might leave you vulnerable if things don't go as planned. It's not the most exciting tweak to the RPG fighting structure, but it does create some additional strategic complications that you have to consider, especially in the game's more difficult fights.

In fact, what Bravely Default does best is getting the balance of nostalgia and new mechanics right. It knows when to use game elements that players are familiar with and when to throw out the weaker parts to make way for some innovation and modern design. Take the random battles; perhaps the aspect of RPGs that has aged the worst, and something that developers have never been able to properly deal with. Rather than abolish them completely, Bravely Default has them but allows you to switch them off entirely, or alter the frequency whenever you feel like it. The game understands that as a player your time might be precious and so acts accordingly.

This, in turn, strengthens the portable quality, meaning you don't have to worry whether or not you'll have enough time to explore another floor of a dungeon during your lunch break or complete a side quest on your commute home from work. It's not that Bravely Default is over-simplified or easier for making these concessions to modern game design, just that it allows the game to fit better around your time and enhance your overall experience.

The story though, remains something of a weak point. For the vast majority of the game, it plays like every other J-RPG has before it: free the crystals, save the world. Your party are a bunch of stock characters for the most part: Tiz is the typical dull straight-man who doesn't put a toe out of line, and Angnes is the usual pure, virginal, princess character whose job it is to save the world with her powers. Ringabel, is a little more interesting as a slightly camp Han Solo type as is Edea, a haughty soldier, and daughter of the one of the antagonists.

By far the biggest problem is that, despite a hefty amount of (fully voiced) dialogue, most of it is uninteresting. On the whole it's exposition heavy and rather disappointing too, considering the solid skills of the voice cast. A plot twist near the game's climax threatens to improve the story but, without going into spoilers, the whole point of the plot twist just provides a bigger excuse for rehashing the unoriginal plot and stereotypical characters. There's definitely potential here, and it does seem like an earnest attempt by the developers to comment on how predictable the genre is as a whole, but it still misses the mark somewhat.

There's also the problem that, for a good portion of the game at least, there's not all that much of a challenge. Its difficulty curve is relatively tame, and, despite a brief spike towards the end, there aren't too many bosses that really test your mettle and can usually be dismantled with similar strategies.

The side content though, does provide you with a little more to sink your teeth into. Following on from a plot point early on in the game, you're tasked with restoring the village of Norende. It isn't just an idle time sink either, rebuilding various shops gives you access to better items and in many cases, unique ones that cannot be accessed from elsewhere. Restoring the village involves tasking the inhabitants to work on rebuilding different areas. By connecting with friends, or with strangers over Wi-Fi, you'll be given additional workers which will cut down on the amount of time required to upgrade shops or unlock new locations. More importantly, doing so also triggers the abundance of optional bosses that invade your game and certainly require a bit more strategy in order to bring down.

Overall, Bravely Default is a breath of fresh air for what has become an incredibly stagnant genre. Some of its elements feel a little tacked on at times, and give the impression of throwing a lot at the wall and seeing what sticks, but it does show that Silicon Studio are committed to experimenting with what the genre can do. With work already progressing on the sequel, this is one series that will hopefully pave the way for some more innovation for J-RPGs and bring about a memorable series in its own right.

This is certainly a promising start.


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