I used to write about games that I played a lot, but that was in another life and a different presidential administration. We hadn’t yet learned Iron Man was the greatest American hero, that’s how long ago it was. But just for fun, I’m going to write a little bit about Bravely Default for the 3DS.
This past weekend while my wife was out of town I spent a lot of time playing a couple of video games. One of them was Bravely Default. We got a 3DS this past spring when Emily was recovering from surgery; lying in bed and playing Pokemon X seemed like a good use of her time. I bought a couple of other games for the 3DS at the same time; a Zelda (which neither of us have tried) and Bravely Default, which at a glance appeared to be a solid JRPG title.
I tried Pokemon X, but I just barely missed playing Pokemon Red/Blue back when that was a thing, and each successive generation of Pokemon has drifted further from me. It didn’t grab me, while Emily, as is her wont, played it obsessively for a week or two before forgetting about it.
So Bravely Default had been sitting around for a while before I cracked it open to bring to Wisconsin visiting Emily’s family this past Christmas. It turns out the game is not just a solid JRPG in the vein of Final Fantasy V, it’s basically a straight-up homage to early Final Fantasy, V in particular. Once you recruit them all, an hour or less in, your party of four remains constant throughout the game (excepting a handful of gimmicky bits). But while two players’ parties will include the same four characters, the abilities of those characters are plastic. As you play through the game, you unlock more and more jobs – Knight, Monk, White Mage, Black Mage, Thief, Time Mage, Merchant, Spell Fencer, Ranger, Valkyrie, Summoner, Red Mage, Performer, Salve Maker, Swordmaster, Pirate, Arcanist, Spiritmaster, Templar, Dark Knight, Vampire, and Conjurer. I’ve probably forgotten at least one.
Most of those job names are familiar; there have been Black Mages and Red Mages in Final Fantasy since forever, and Dark Knights since half of forever. Most of the job names that were new to me turned out to be familiar jobs in new wrappings: the Spell Fencer is the Sorcerer, the Valkyrie is the Dragoon, the Performer and the Salve Maker are the Bard and the Chemist.
Each of your four characters can assume any job that you’ve unlocked, and select support abilities from a menu of choices based on the jobs that character has mastered. You can make a Knight who steals as well as a Thief, a Red Mage who attacks with a Spell Fencer’s sword magic, a Performer who goes into the Pirate’s beserk rage. You can also build character ability combinations that aren’t awful (those were all pretty awful).
The game’s plot, in which airships and elemental crystals both feature heavily, reflects the Final Fantasy tribute all the more. It’s heavy-handed at times, and it won’t win any prizes for its writing, but it’s enjoyable and does the job. The plot twists at one point in an unexpected direction, although the game doesn’t explore the full ramifications of it.
I was going to be cagey and avoid spoilers, but who cares? Halfway through the game you successfully save all four crystals and enter the glowing pillar of light. Generally you’d have to fight a giant tree monster or something and then, boom, game over. Instead the party is shunted into a nearby parallel universe and back to the beginning of the game; they’re tasked with saving the four elemental crystals all over again, this time with a huge amount of foreknowledge based on their experiences in the past world. This is used well in one place – there’s a murder mystery that your characters short-circuit the second time through because they already know whodunnit – but in a lot of other places the characters move through the same cutscenes they experienced the first time through, without even dialogue changes indicating they remember all of this from the last time. It’s not quite as repetitive as it sounds, since the second time (and, depending on how far you go with it, third through fifth times) around you already have an airship that allows you to fly direct from one boss fight to the next, but more could have been done with it.
The game’s single best feature is probably one that appeals only to me: you can turn random encounters off. I always found it immensely frustrating in Final Fantasy V or Final Fantasy IX or Final Fantasy X-2 or whatevs, when I was trying to get from point A to point B and the game insisted on throwing a whole series of irritating random encounters at me. In Bravely Default you can turn them off! So if I’m trying to explore a dungeon, I can just run through and explore it and find the chests and the boss and so on. It’s like a free Moogle Charm. And when I’m in the mood to grind up job points to unlock high-level abilities, the game lets me turn random encounters up. Basically it’s awesome.
I spent about eighty hours on Bravely Default over the last couple of months. Eventually, after I had leveled up sufficiently, the game became boring. Defeating the final boss turned out to be trivial for my part of level 99 characters with a half-dozen mastered jobs each. There’s a set of challenge encounters I didn’t complete, but the internet tells me there’s no rewards besides a congratulatory message, so I don’t feel I missed much.
To sum up: if you went to the Arkansas School of Mathematics and Sciences from 1995 to 1997 and spent many weekends playing Chrono Trigger on whoever’s SNES was set up in the fourth floor common room? And if you’ve bought Final Fantasy VI something like three times, on various platforms? And if you still chuckle at the non sequitur Boom! You forgot I was a Chemist! Then this is the 3DS Japanese RPG for you.