With the recent launch of Bravely Default II, many fans have now become interested in the original 3DS game released in 2012. It’s a notable RPG, one deserving of attention. Thus, whether or not you are in need of a refresher, or you’re wanting to jump into the handheld JRPG for the first time, here’s a review of one of the most important role playing games of the past decade.
Developed by Silicon Studio, who had previously made 3D Dot Game Heroes, the original Bravely Default was a sincere love letter to the classic Final Fantasy games. In fact, the game began as a sequel to the spin-off Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light, which too paid homage to the legacy of the franchise. Admittedly, classic Final Fantasy may mean a lot of different things to different people—FFVII is now almost a quarter-of-a-century old—but in this case classic is referring to the first, third, and fifth entries specifically in the storied franchise. From their simple stories about rescuing the world from disaster and a hard focus on job (i.e. class) utilization, these three games helped shape the JRPG formula as we know it.
Bravely Default’s story keeps it simple for the most part. Just as in those landmark FF titles, the game begins with the world suddenly plunging into chaos. The realm of Luxendarc is balanced by four powerful crystals, one for each of the elements of fire, water, wind, and earth. One day, a mysterious darkness latches onto the crystals, corrupting them, and in effect brings nature under its wicked rule. It is your task then to lead a group of four adventurers to cure this corruption and bring about peace once again to the land.
While the setup is simplistic, Bravely Default does a great job of bringing that classic form of storytelling to the modern era. The game actively tries to explore deeper themes of combating this faceless evil, and personalize the experience of exploring this fantasy world. For instance, instead of just arriving in a town beset by destruction and then heading off to destroy the foul beast that has caused it, your party invests their time with the residents, witnessing firsthand how the weakening of the crystals is really demoralizing each community. The plot also plays upon your expectations, lulling you into a sense of comfort in the story before weaving into unknown territory. It’s twist like this that make Bravely Default behave in a sense as both a tribute and a parody of early gaming stories at the same time. It’s fantastic.
Bravely Default also does a wonderful job in bringing its four star party members to life and making them feel like a true fellowship. The game opens with Agnes, the Vestal of the Wind Crystal and the one charged with protecting it, bearing witness to the manifestation of the evil darkness, and she just barely manages to escape as it causes the temple housing the crystal to come crashing down. Nearby, a young shepherd named Tiz is startled by an enormous quaking, which causes a chasm to swallow his home village of Norende. Agnes and Tiz meet one another as they each run away from this destruction, and together journey to a nearby town. It is here that they encounter an amnesiac named Ringabel, who carries with him a book that predicts future events. They also come upon Edea, a soldier of the Eternian Empire that defects after witnessing her superiors commit war crimes, and she too joins their cause. This party of four is guided by a fairy companion, named Airy, who often acts as a comic relief when not providing tutorials. Each party member has their own motives for wanting to quell the darkness, and it’s refreshing to see this amount of effort to distinguish them from one another in a game of this style. The writers could have simply made them generic caricatures and left it at that, but I’m thankful that they didn’t.
The majority of the party interactions comes from banter that you can choose to listen to while out exploring. Perhaps when entering a city or after defeating a new enemy, the option to pause the game and listen to a conversation amongst the team is given. These always seem to flow naturally given the situation, and the dialogue is so well written that it adds volumes to the development of each character. Unlike some other games, like the more recent Octopath Traveler, I never felt that these conversations were just shoehorned in, and I actually sought out to uncover as many as these exchanges as possible because they were just that good.
While the title of the game may be confusing to newcomers, it perfectly encapsulates its unique battle system. For the most part, the game relies on the old turn based formula for RPGS in the 16-bit era: characters can attack, use items, or cast spells against the enemies they randomly encounter. The twist here is the genius risk/reward system that is “brave” and “default.” Defaulting allows the character to forfeit their turn to guard against an incoming attack, and store up to 3 boost points for later. By selecting “brave,” players can spend those boost points to attack up to four times in succession. The risk here is that you can actively boost against turns you don’t currently have, using up future turns in order to act immediately. This adds such a deep layer of strategy to most battles. Do you store up moves until you can safely expunge them, or dip into the negatives to wipe out a weaker enemy now?
What’s more is that the enemy will also utilize this system, defaulting until they have a healthy reserve and then piling on damage or status effects once they’re ready. Most of your common battles won’t be too tough, but each boss fight feels as if they are designed specifically to make use of the brave/default system, making these encounters feel fresh and challenging as a result. To claim victory, the player must brave and default wisely, capitalizing on when the enemy has used up all their moves, or saving boosts to mitigate the mounds of damage that has been stacked upon them.
Another major aspect of Bravely Default is the complex job system that borrows heavily from Final Fantasy. For those unacquainted, this structure allows characters to change their profession at anytime between battles, and thus adopting the appropriate stats and abilities of that job. In Bravely Default, all characters begin as a freelancer, but gain access to new professions as progress is made. Many of the traditional RPG classes are represented, such as the knight, the monk, and black and white mages, but there’s also many inventive professions as well: the spell fencer that mixes magic with swordsmanship; the pirate that can easily cripple an enemy’s defenses; and the mighty dark knight, just to name a few. I came to love discovering these new jobs, as many I had never seen in a game like this before, and that was always thrilling.
After equipping a character with a job, the skills of a second job can also be equipped, allowing for added customization in battle. This opens up a wealth of possibilities, where the player must decide if they want their party members to be a specialist in a single area, or have their characters serve multiple roles in battle. It’s this degree of depth that I find often lacking in many of the old-school RPGs, and Bravely Default definitely feels retooled with a modern mindset in this area.
The art design of Bravely Default is all around charming, combining the minimalistic designs of the past with the power of contemporary technology to add more details. The game borrows heavily from the DS remake of Final Fantasy III from 2006, with characters and environments having an almost storybook look to them. It’s an all around perfect design for any game involved in fantasy.
Bravely Default also makes full use of the 3D feature of the hardware. In battle, monsters and allies are positioned in a way for them to really pop in 3D mode, making battles even more immersive. Towns are also designed with this technology in mind, with plenty of buildings, trees, and other objects in the foreground that add depth to these locales when viewing in 3D. While your experience certainly isn’t hampered by playing in the standard mode, switching to 3D once in awhile was actually enjoyable, which isn’t something I often say about games on the system.
I also must gush about how fantastic the music is in this game. Bravely Default’s soundtrack is composed by the Japanese musician Revo, who is the leader of the Final Fantasy tribute band Sound Horizon. You can tell that he has real passion for RPGs, crafting battle songs and overworld themes that could easily be mistaken as work from Final Fantasy’s own Nobuo Uematsu. I also love that each character also has their own signature song that is interwoven into the game when appropriate. If you’re a fan of RPG soundtracks, Bravely Default undoubtedly belongs in your collection.
Many games on the 3DS made great use of the console’s portability by benefiting on StreetPass functionality; Bravely Default is no different. The game does this by tasking the player in rebuilding the village of Norende that was destroyed at the game’s opening. Players can encounter other people who have played the game using StreetPass, and these people become builders in the player’s game. It is then up to the user to command the builders to construct and upgrade buildings that can unlock rewards in the main game, from a stash of common items, to one-of-a-kind weapons. Construction takes real time, and can be made shorter by assigning more builders to the project, taking anywhere from actual hours to entire weeks. It’s a great side mini-game reminiscent of social games of the time such as Farmville, and it helped ensure that I took the game out with me as much as I could. In 2021 however, most everyone leaves their 3DS at home to collect dust, so you will be hard pressed to find many connections at all, making this side task a much less rewarding—and much more boring—affair than it was designed.
Much of the game is phenomenal as you can already tell, but I cannot end this review without going into the clumsy final chapters. I will do my best to avoid any spoilers while I talk about this necessity, so please forgive me for being vague.
About two thirds of the way through the adventure, the party is forced back in time to the very beginning of the game. While this in itself isn’t so bad, it quickly becomes apparent that you have to return to each of the game’s main dungeons and battle through them a second time. In many ways, this is a breeze as common foes remain at the level they were when first encountered, but the boss fights here are really ramped up, with them using all new abilities and strategies to stop you from proceeding. This process, as you can imagine, takes hours to accomplish even though most of the story beats are skipped. Just when you’ve completed all of that, and are ready to confront your final opponent, the game forces you to do this a third and fourth time. It’s maddening how many times you go through the entirety of the game, reliving the same scenarios over-and-over, only uncovering a fraction of new information each time. I literally felt like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, and that isn’t a compliment despite how awesome it would be to be Bill Murray. All of this ends up making some sense for story reasons, but from a pure gameplay perspective, it’s boring and feels like blatant padding of the game’s length. It’s for this ending section alone that I am hesitant to give a full recommendation to the original Bravely Default.
The verdict: 4/5 Stars
Bravely Default excels in most every area, from delightful visuals and sounds, to an entertaining story and exciting combat system. The end game woes however are severely detrimental to the overall experience, and will prevent many a player from powering though and seeing the game to its close. Those that do will be treated with a great finale, but their fondness for the game will likely be soured as a result. This is one of those few titles where I say it is a must play, but if you don’t finish it I won’t hold it against you. Either way, Bravely Default belongs in your collection, especially if you are a fan of older RPGSs.