Friday, 5 September 2014

Whiskey Reviews: Bravely Defaulting On The Mortgage

Platform: 3DS
Release Date: 6 December 2013
Developer: Silicon Studio/Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Where to get it: (or anywhere that sells 3DS games)
Price: £31.99 (Nintendo eshop code)

The humble JRPG has been around for three decades in the form we're most familiar with starting with the original Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in the west) and Final Fantasy back before Square and Enix decided to smoosh their bits together. There's a long and storied history that leads up to Bravely Default; it's a road well trodden, full of pot-holes and with plenty of dead-ends and the odd highwayman or two but it's a road Bravely Default has navigated but how did it fare? Take the jump to find out.

Bravely Default tells the story of the world of Luxendarc (light and dark? Yeah, they practically just sledgehammered that in) which is introduced via one of the main characters, Tiz who loses his younger brother when a gigantic black hole swallows up his village. Rather quickly he's joined by the other three main cast members; Agnes, vestal of wind, kind of a priestess of one of the four crystals of the elements. Ringabel, a mysterious stranger with amnesia and full-time skirt chaser. And Edea, a member of the Sky Knights, an arm of the Eternian army.
The party is assembled within the opening hours and doesn't change for the whole game, apart from a couple of small segments where you're forced to play one or two separated characters. While this sounds like it could get a little boring on such a huge adventure it has the advantage of allowing you to get to know these four disparate characters and understand their actions and the things they say to each other.
Apart from some dialogue, which I'll get to later, the conversations are entertaining whether they're the voice acted kind or not. Interactions between characters are dramatic, informative, funny and most of all - entertaining. That's the key aspect here, the characters are all entertaining and with each being so different from one another there's something for everyone; Tiz is the straight man, Ringabel is the pervert funny guy, Agnes is naive but focused and Edea is confident and forceful but fun.
The characters are presented on screen in a kind of high fidelity version of the Final Fantasy 3 (DS port) art style and it works in that they're emotive and easy on the eye without making the poor 3DS choke on the polygons, which allows that extra power to be pushed into the elaborate outfits each job gets and especially the unique outfits available for each character towards the end of the game.

As with most JRPGs your mileage will vary depending on several factors; how much you skip, whether or not you do side quests, your reading speed, whether you focus on one job or try to mess around with them all, whether or not you explore the world and whether or not the game still holds your interest after three dozen hours.
For me personally, Bravely Default has eaten close to 120 hours of my life in a single play through and I'll be going back to it for seconds. The developers have taken great care to make the annoyances of JRPGs of the past go away or at least make them more bearable.
Grinding is an excellent example of this - normally in a JRPG you'll hit a point in the story where you're not quite strong enough to progress, in the original Final Fantasy this is the first dungeon but after a quick bit of wildlife stabbing you're well on your way to being a badass for the next 20 hours. In Bravely Default the moment comes late into the fourth act with a side quest boss that absolutely tears you apart in just a handful of turns and it's the first time I felt compelled to inflate my stats.
Bravely Default has your back though, with options to adjust the monster rate between 0-200%, items and skills that boost XP or money gained and the ability to fast-forward the battle so that a whole turn plays out in about a half second as opposed to 10 seconds makes the process of training up your party a breeze. To compare it to its nearest cousin, Final Fantasy 3, I got the same amount of grinding done in about an hour and a half that would have taken me 20 hours in FF3.

The job system is vastly improved over previous iterations; each character has the standard stats (HP, MP, P.DEF, M.DEF, etc etc.) that are given a grade (S-F) with each job, same goes for each weapon and armour type too. Each of the 24 jobs also has 14 levels (separate from character level) which also boost your stats and give you a new active or passive (support) ability.
Jobs range from your standard staples like White, Red and Black mages to exotic types like Vampires (learns enemy skills to use in combat), Conjurers (which turns the Summoner job from an attacker into a support class), Sword Masters (excel at counterattacking) and Rangers (which exploit type weaknesses to both do massive damage and charge their special moves).
As you take each character down the various job trees you unlock support abilities that are equipped as passive bonuses to your character. For example you could take a White Mage and give them the ability to not lose spell power when casting on the whole group, an extra 20% mana, or if they've learnt a fighter class too, you could make them proficient with swords or armour instead of their usual gear.
Finally we have the secondary ability slot, which allows each character to equip the battle skill set of another job, for example you can take a Pirate job and equip a second skill set from the Ranger so that the Pirate can exploit type weaknesses to deal even more damage. You could even train that character in the Ninja job for the dual wield support ability so they can dual wield gigantic axes and exploit type weaknesses or you can turn a knight into both the tank and healer, or make an even more powerful Red Mage by taking a White Mage job and equipping the Black Mage spells as a secondary skill set.
It's all very complex and at first you kind of look at the jobs and go "oh yeah, I'll give my knight a sword and shield and he'll be cool" but after a dozen hours you'll be mixing it up and making battle mages, counterattack specialists and mages that specialise in using a bow and augmenting it with element types. It's very liberating and open compared to job systems of the past, which have all been a way to shoehorn in more classes without making more characters or allowing the player any choice at the start of the game.
Given that battle is such a huge part of any JRPG it's nice to see a class system that can keep it interesting even 60 or 100 hours in when you're still discovering new items, abilities and jobs then experimenting with them to make whole new combinations.

Flying in the face of modern conventions in a different way however is the battle system itself; they've opted for the classic style battle system where you designate moves for your whole party and then hit OK and the turn plays out based on each combatants speed stat rather than the modern Active Time Battle system that's so popular.
Like many things this is a double edges sword; the ATB allows for quicker more specific reactions to events and allows a battle to flow more freely but can make planning team combos more challenging to pull off and a simple buff or debuff can result in characters going down unfairly just because your bar fills too slowly or the enemy bar fills too quickly.
Similarly the classical command system has the issue of having to dedicate your whole party to a specific series of actions which can lead to wasted moves, misdirected attacks and all kinds of other nastiness that leads to wasted MP, items and dead characters.
Bravely Default gets around these negatives with the titular Brave and Default moves. Each character has BP in battle, each move costs one or more BP and in the case of magic or certain skills some MP as well. With Brave and Default you can either save BP or spend more than one in a turn. You can even go into debt in BP and fire off four moves per character in a single turn (another aspect that makes grinding way less aggravating because you actually get rewarded for finishing a battle in a single round).
BP and the Brave/Default system can easily be seen as just another resource to juggle and new players may avoid messing with it for several hours out of fear of spending too much and getting stomped while the enemies get free roam for several turns but after a while you start to get a better feel for your party and begin to see where you can end a battle in a couple of rounds and thus where you can Brave the maximum amount of times and let your party completely cut loose and gain a bonus for it.
Finally there's the other unique function, Bravely Second. It's a limited resource that's either bought (with real money) or earned by leaving your 3DS in sleep mode with the game running, in the latter case you earn 1 BS point for every 8 hours of sleep time. While plenty of people have shown outrage to me over being able to buy such a frivolous and temporary resource in a Nintendo game I'd like to point out that I used it once, and only because the game would reward me with a healing item through the tutorial like quest board for doing so. Good planning, a basic understanding of the game systems and a decent supply of MP and healing items will mean you have absolutely no cause to ever use the Bravely Second system unless you want to break the 9999 damage limit for one or two moves.

Another of Bravely Default's systems is the restoration of Norende, the town that's destroyed by the black hole at the start of the story. This is achieved through a menu, accessible at any time outside of battle, where you assign workers to buildings around the town.
It's wonderfully simple but the effort is complicated by needing population for your village; you can achieve this through Nintendo's Street Pass feature or updating game data online via save points. This serves two purposes, getting you friends to call on in battle to execute a powerful special attack and villagers to work on your buildings. You don't need friends or Street Pass to build up the village at a decent page but you may have to focus your villagers on one or two buildings or be prepared to leave your 3DS in sleep mode when it's charging to get buildings done.
You're rewarded for working on the village by being given access to powerful items in the shop available at the save points throughout the world, including the second most powerful set of weapons and armour in the game and items that further take the trouble out of grinding for XP or money as well as special attack components to augment your customisable special abilities.
Not being able to visit Norende in-game is a bit of a let down but it exists in a meaningful enough way that it's something worth sinking a minute or two every half dozen hours into to keep growing.

Bravely Default's world is about more than its map, it's the whole package that brings the world to life.
The world map isn't as convoluted as any Final Fantasy map but it is moderately large and a joy to explore with the presence of an airship early in the game making getting around a lot of fun. Coupled with a clear map that's always displayed on the lower DS screen exploring the world map or a dungeon is always a joy. You're never lost or wondering where the exit is, or asking where you should go next because there's always an icon indicating what's available to do at any given time.
Another remarkable amount of Bravely Default's world design that Final Fantasy could seriously learn from is the save point system; not only can you save at any time on the world map but there is at least one save point in every location and always a save point before a boss encounter. You never lose more than a few minutes at most by hitting the dreaded game over screen.
The flow of the story around the world map shows an understanding of design that Square Enix have been missing from Final Fantasy for well over a decade, the map is simple and uses not convoluted paths or being forced to skirt the coast but actual story reasons or simply overcoming the challenge of going to the next area to pace the exploration instead of frustrating the player with locked off routes or a vehicle so restricted as to be worthless.
It's not just the map itself though; it's the towns and names, locations and a feeling of different cultures easily expressed through both the art and incidental dialogue beside that you experience as part of the focused story and job unlocking side missions. Apart from one loose end from a side quest each area is fleshed out clearly but sparsely though there's never the feeling that the developers were lazy or didn't give an explanation, just that there doesn't need to be one because you can infer so much from being there.

The yarn Bravely Default spins is the classic RPG tale of saving the world and righting small, and not so small, wrongs along the way while venturing further and further into hostile territory meeting allies and new enemies and pursuing the big bad. This is one place where Bravely Default excels particularly because while the general theme of the story is paint by numbers the big bad isn't a defined character but an idealistic debate that's not black and white.
It's hard to go into any more detail than that without raising spoilers, which should be taken as a good sign. Silicon Studio and Square Enix have crafted a story that can suck you in for hours on end and remain interesting despite having none of the choice of a western style RPG you're still free to question your actions as a player and eagerly play on to find out what happens next.
The story however falls down quite a way in with the dreaded filler content. Presented shamelessly as "hey, go play through all the same content again with minor changes" not once but twice. These times are slightly redeemable by being able to complete the side quests again to earn gigantic amounts of job points for little to no effort as the party is strong enough to take out most side quest bosses in one or two rounds by the third time around. You can also skip a large chunk of these filler sections by simply proceeding with the main story and forfeiting the side quest rewards to make them way less tedious but that still doesn't excuse the fact that the developers recycled everything twice with nothing more than a two minute plot hand wave.

Overall Bravely Default is the pinnacle of JRPG excellence, drawing not just on the early days of RPGs but learning from pretty much all the mistakes made over the decades. The characters are lovable, hate able and some of the dialogue and situations are equal parts funny and emotional, sometimes at the same time and that's no mean feat for a handheld game.
Despite all its flaws Bravely Default remains the best JRPG I've ever played, it blows even the lofty Final Fantasy 7 out of the sky and makes many other efforts look like the developers weren't even trying. There's so much I haven't been able to touch on because the review would have gone on far far too long such as weaknesses, ancillary characters, items, various design aspects etc. etc.
In all fairness the best I can say is if you have a 3DS go experience this wonderful game for yourself. If you're not a fan of JRPGs but curious it's better than delving into the far past (there's something I never thought I'd say) and if you're already a fan it's an unmissable experience.
This review took me months to complete, it's a game I've been working on since late March and even now that it's over and done with I just want to go back and go through it all again for all the memorable moments and excellent design. Bravely default may not be perfect but some of those flaws are just inherent to a JRPG and are as much a part of the experience as anything else.

Score: 9 out of 10 elemental crystals unionized in the mid '90s.

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