Bravely Default sounds like a foolish debt-management strategy. Surprisingly, the title is quite fitting, though oddly obtuse until you understand the game’s main battle mechanic. Built upon the well-regarded battle system of older Final Fantasy games, Bravely Default adds a turn management strategy to the mix that allow players to breeze through simpler battles and hedge their bets on more challenging ones.
The idea is simple: each character in a battle — your party members and foes alike — each get one “Brave” point per turn. Each action you take in battle costs 1 or more Brave points (most actions are one, a few powerful abilities cost more). If you simply perform one action per turn, you will experience the same turn-based battles you find in most role-playing games. Bravely Default lets you mix things up by saving Brave points by Defaulting. You may store up to three turns in advance. Defaulting characters also take less damage during their skipped turn. Defaulting is a great defensive strategy. For example, healers can stock up a few turns in order to perform multiple actions should the party fall dangerously low on health.
You can also withdraw turns in advance, overdrawing up to three (for a total of four turns at once) in order to unleash a barrage of attacks on weaker enemies and end battles quickly. This is a gambit that often pays off in random battles, but is dangerous in boss fights. When you draw upon your turns in advance, you must forfeit that many until you can act again. If you don’t defeat your foes in that round, you are a sitting duck. There is an incentive to take the risk — ending battles in a single round, escaping unharmed, or defeating multiple enemies with a single move will each add a bonus multiplier to the rewards provided after a battle.
In addition to the new Brave/Default mechanic, Bravely Default also borrows heavily from Final Fantasy V’s job system and Final Fantasy IX’s ability system. Each of your party members gains both experience points and job points at the end of a battle. Experience builds the character’s base statistics, and job points lead to new abilities in whatever role they are currently playing. Each time the character gains a job level, they unlock skills or abilities. Skills are actions that can be used in battle, and abilities are modifiers that allow stat bonuses or helpful traits that cover a wide range of situations. Examples of abilities include a 10% defense boost or a running count how many treasure chests remain unopened in a given dungeon. The game also features Limit Break-like Special Moves that can be used when various conditions are met.
Bravely Default also has a farmville-esque world-building mini game. As you rebuild a destroyed town, new items become available from traders you’ll meet across your journey. You can add villagers to your town via the 3DS StreetPass feature, or via friend codes. The more villagers you collect, the faster you can rebuild and upgrade the town. Because much of this mini game is simply assigning tasks to villagers and then waiting for the assigned tasks to finish, I completed the village in the game’s second chapter.
Building character and job levels is uneven. Progressing from job level one to job level nine will happen relatively quickly, but making it from level nine to ten requires 3,500 points — 1,000 more points than all the previous levels combined. Ostensibly, this gets the player to try new jobs for the characters when they hit “a wall,” because early on in the game it would take several hours of random battles to gain a single level. Excessive grinding is not my idea of a good time. Bravely Default allows you to set the frequency of random battles, but even at its maximum of 200%, progression felt incredibly slow past a certain threshold. Many jobs, like Merchant and Performer, are fairly limited unless you build a party’s entire strategy around one or two skills.
Outside of the mechanics, Bravely Default is a fun but predictable tale featuring likable but bland characters. There are certainly some interesting turns, but for the most part the bits and pieces are standard Final Fantasy fare: fading crystals, a small party against unbelievable odds, and, of course, the villain at the beginning of the game is not your true foe. I imagine some might call that last bit a spoiler, but that particular “surprise” has existed in Final Fantasy games since day one.
The acting is okay, and the actors deserve credit for trying to bring life to relatively lifeless parts. Most of the characters fill simple archetypal roles, even the leads. Bravely Default is not a short game, and its story did not keep me engaged at almost any point. Even the side missions, which should have added flavor to the story, felt contrived. Things do get interesting around the halfway point, but that’s too long to expect a person to wade through mediocrity. It appears that SquareEnix still hasn’t learned one of the big lessons taught by Final Fantasy XIII: a game should be engaging from moment one, not hour twenty. A slow burn still requires some sort of flame.
The score, composed by Sound Horizon member Revo, is charming and stirring. There are several memorable pieces, and you would be doing yourself a disservice to play without headphones. The game's visuals are ornate and vibrant, though the low resolution of the 3DS’s screens make slight details disappear with frustrating regularity. Important things like character expressions can completely vanish. The game’s designs seem imagined for a higher resolution display that the console it wound up on. Bravely Default’s “chibi” character design is sometimes divisive. It’s something I’d refer to as unoffensive, but not engaging. I know a few people who are turned off by them. Additionally, many costume choices for major characters are questionable, and the time mage outfit in particular was very off-putting to me.
Bravely Default is a call back to both the best and worst aspects of the 32-bit era of JRPGs. The return of an overworld map and airships was particularly enticing to me. Nostalgia only gets you so far, however. If you’re looking for a game to build up characters and master lots of skills, this is the one. If you want a fresh adventure, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. Unless you have an abundance of free time to devote to a single game, Bravely Default could leave you wanting.