Saturday, February 27, 2016

Bravely Default: The Good Stuff

As video games continue to grow in popularity every year, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the medium as a whole. The recent surge of indie titles, crowdfunded titles, and re-released classics ensures that people never lack games to play, even purely inside their favorite genres. That’s absolutely fantastic, but it makes it much harder to keep up with every major release, and I was crap at doing that to begin with. So despite the fact that Bravely Default fits my turn-based RPG tastes and was released on 3DS back in 2012, I only got my hands on it a few months ago.

It’s convenient timing, as I’m late to the party just in time to be early for another. The game’s sequel, Bravely Second, is releasing today in Europe and within a couple months in the US. I recently finished the original game, and have a lot to say on it. Like most interesting games to discuss, Bravely Default isn’t all good, bad, or mediocre. Rather, it has some parts I really enjoy and others that really frustrate me. So over the coming weeks I’m going to run a multi-part series on the game. The later posts will focus on the writing, where most of my issues lie. This first one is spoiler free and mostly positive. So let’s examine the large amount of things that worked in Bravely Default, starting with its combat.

The Many Ways to Stab an Orc

Bravely Default was created by Square Enix and generally seen as an intentional throwback to their earlier Final Fantasy titles. It follows that the combat is very classic turn-based RPG. You control a party of four characters who take on the roles of 24 different jobs, such as Knights, Ninjas, Black Mages and so on. These jobs are unlocked slowly over the first 2/3rds of the game or so, and each has their own active abilities, passive abilities and base stats. As you defeat enemies your characters level up and increase their stats, but also level up the job they’re currently equipped with. Each character can use the abilities of a second job they’re don’t have equipped, and can use any combination of passive abilities they have the points for.

The job menu, freshly picked off google images.

Even if Bravely Default didn’t have a unique twist on RPG combat (which it does), this would still be a rock solid system. It’s easy to swap jobs and early job levels breeze by, so you can sample the buffet of brawling schemes at your leisure. Since passives can be used in any combination after you unlock them, there are constant incentives to go back and take a few levels of this or that to benefit new strategies. The jobs are all unique and distinct from one another, and most impressively, they’re all useful. Typically with so many classes you end up with some duds that are underpowered by comparison. Bravely Default’s classes aren’t all made equal, but all of them have at a couple abilities that are extremely desirable and work well with something else. Barring some very late-game optional fights, you can run through the game with any party you please and still come up with worthwhile strategies. It’s great fun to tinker with, and an absolute strength of the game.

The passive abilities menu, because I know you were just BEGGING for more interface images.

An even bigger strength is the game’s unique mechanic, the (questionably named) ability to Brave or Default. Defaulting allows you to save a turn for later, while also reducing damage much like a guard command would. Braving allows you to use multiple turns at once, performing the actions one after another. You can’t store more than 3 extra turns at once or spend more than 4 turns at once. You can go into negative turns, at which point that character has to wait out turns with no action until they hit positives again. Not only can you Default (save) or Brave (spend) turns, but all your enemies can as well. It’s a change that simple in theory, but that’s the genius of it.

A good way of telling whether or not a new mechanic is a shallow gimmick versus a well-implemented change is by checking the complexity of your choices versus its consequences. Is it easy to comprehend the system or difficult? Does it create many options and decisions in combat or few? The more depth you can output from simple inputs, the better. Bravely Default passes this test with flying colors. After mere minutes of playing the game, you get it. Storing and using up multiple turns is simple to understand and the execution is only a button press away. Yet from the moment the game begins to its climactic finish, EVERYTHING in combat ties back into this new system.

When you can use up to 4 actions at once, suddenly buffs and debuffs are incredibly important. Battles can swing one way or another very quickly, keeping things tense all the way through. Normal battles can be over in a blink of an eye but, if you go all in on an offense that fails, spell doom for your party. There are abilities that cost extra turns to use; there are abilities that grant extra turns to others or take them away; there are passive abilities that affect how allies and enemies earn and use turns; and there’s a natural ebb and flow to every conflict that ties into that all important resource. The multi-turn mechanics are everywhere, and yet never feel forced. They fit neatly and naturally into the combat as though they had belonged there in the first place.

The combat in action, on both screens. I forgot the Brave and Default options are even on the menu, because they have much quicker shortcuts on the shoulder buttons.

The combat isn’t completely without flaws. Though some late game fights are engagingly challenging and varied, some of them are annoying hassles that seem designed for a couple very specific strategies. Typically these are the fights with multiple bosses, as groups of strong enemies taking consecutive turns can really screw with you in ways that are hard to manage. But this is a minor quibble compared to my most vehement problem with the combat: speed.

Like most RPGs, the turn order in Bravely Default is determined by the characters speed stat. Unfortunately for some damn reason, the speed stat in Bravely Default has a significant random variance added to it. Even in a regular RPG, I would call this a stupid and pointless idea. I understand random variance can help keep turn-based combat interesting, but turn order seems the absolute worst place to implement it. Turn-based RPGs thrive on strategy and careful planning, and so if you can’t predict when each character is going to move it screws up your agency as a player in a big way. When you buff someone who’s already acted, heal someone who’s already dead, or otherwise have a wrench thrown in your plans due to variable order, it just feels arbitrary. Not exciting or interesting, just like your careful planning meant nothing due to random bullshit.

“So first they roll one of these dice, and then we punch them in the crotch.”
“Um, okay. How does that tie into the rest of the game?”
“That IS the game!”

Bravely Default takes this frustration and multiplies it several times over. Imagine that you’ve been preparing for a half dozen or more turns for the perfect, surgical strike. You’ve built up the proper buffs on your allies, the debuffs on your enemies, and saved all the turns you can. You’re about to unleash the ultimate wave of death and destruction when, suddenly, someone with lower speed rolls a good random number and goes first. If you’re lucky, it’ll just put a slight wrinkle in your plans, like slightly less damage done. If you’re unlucky? A villain burns through multiple turn at the wrong time, everything falls apart, everyone is dead, and you have to replay a whole lotta boss fight. Remember those multi-boss fights I mentioned earlier? In their case, being unlucky on a speed roll becomes all the more likely, and all the more deadly. Fun stuff!

It’s a single sour candy in a bowl of gumdrops and rainbows, but all the more frustrating since it’s so easily fixed and questionably placed. Nonetheless, the combat in Bravely Default is still excellent. And it’s not the only great thing about the gameplay.

A Thousand Tiny Tune-ups

There are a lot of small improvements that add up over the course of Bravely Default. Apart from the usual options in the menu there are less universal ones helping things along. There’s an optional autosave, destination markers to quest objects, and difficulty settings that can be toggled at any time. Difficulty settings are always a bit tricky, because there’s something inherently unsatisfying about asking a game to take it easy on you. But there’s really no downside to leaving in the option, so I’m glad they did. You can toggle dialogue autoplay at any time with the press of a button, which is a feature I appreciated. I like to listen to full voice acted lines, but sometimes things distract me or I want to plow past a slow delivery.

With a quick press of the directional pad at any time, you can set combat to double or quadruple speed. The fine control let me speed up when spamming through the same attacks over and over, yet slow down when I wanted to see a new animation or take careful note of something. The game also lets you trigger auto-combat with, again, a single button. The game doesn’t choose for itself, it simply has your party repeat the actions they took last turn. It carries over in between fights and stays active until you press the button again. When combined with fast-forwarding this feature makes grinding quick and painless. Of course you never need to grind to begin with, but oftentimes you may want to gun for a specific ability or whatnot, and I appreciated how smooth it made the process. You still have to think through your strategy the first time. It just turns you into an automatic monster thresher rather than force you to press buttons like a trained monkey.

Speaking of monster threshing, the game gives bonuses for combat performance. Extra money for killing all enemies in one move, extra experience for killing all in one turn, and extra job points for killing all without taking damage. The rewards increase when you earn them multiple fights in a row, incentivizing strategy against even the meekest of minions. The only downside to this is the speed factor rears its ugly head again. It’s fairly irritating to have a streak of bonuses shattered by a bad speed roll. Enemy ambushes can also break the chain. Gee, someone on the dev team really likes random chance.

“And then, if they roll too low, we punch them in the crotch TWICE!”
“Jim we may have to discuss your employment here at Square.”

The last and most dramatic option Bravely Default gives is the ability to alter random encounter rate. Like most RPGs, Bravely Default has a random chance of dragging you to the fight screen with every step you take. Unlike others, it has a slider in its options to edit how often this occurs. The options are -100%, -50%, 0%, +50%, +100%. You’ll note the first one allows you to completely eliminate random encounters. I can understand why other games are hesitant to allow this option, as it does come with trade-offs.

Regular enemies don’t pose much threat in Bravely Default, as you can turn them off whenever you feel threatened. You never feel like you’re lost at the bottom of a deep cavern, or struggling to assault a fortress, or any sort of desperation or challenge outside of boss fights. If I were making a difficult, dark-toned or roguelike RPG, I would question adding a slider like this. It can kill the atmosphere and make things rather “video game-y”.

At the same time, it can feel great to control the pacing of random encounters. I was never annoyed by too many fights, and grinding was quicker than ever. If I wanted to backtrack through an area (wait for a later article on that one) I could just flip a switch and it would be a breezy stroll instead of an obnoxious hassle. For this particular game, the system works well.

Art and Miscellaneous

I’m no expert on art critique, but the hand-drawn backgrounds in Bravely Default are striking to behold. They’re intricately arranged, boldly colorful and simply look great. The backgrounds are blurrier than the concept art they’re based on, and the 3D models stick out from them a bit, but these are minor imperfections at worst. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so rather than triple the length of this article I’ll just toss you some of those.

The starting town of Caldisla. Though it may be less crisp on a 3DS screen, this is the exact art used in-game.

Here’s an example of the zoomed-in view. I assume some edges look odd because they’re prepped for 3D .

Dungeons go full 3D instead of backdrops, but they still look quite nice. Their layout can be a bit generic, but that’s more level design than visual design.

How about more backdrops? Here’s Florem, City of Flowers.

The Great Chasm.

Eternian Central Command.

Since there’s only so much I have to say about art, now would be a good time to go over some miscellaneous aspects of Bravely Default I don’t have a place for elsewhere:

There’s a side activity for building a village that nets you unique items and optional bosses. It’s a very straightforward “put points into this or that and wait hours” affair. If you leave the game in sleep mode overnight you’ll upgrade everything to max well before the ending. This does mess with the game balance a bit, but this addition is mostly harmless.

Characters can use special attacks once they fulfill certain conditions, like defeating a certain number of enemies or casting a certain number of spells. The special attacks themselves are customizable and helpful, but not hugely impressive. Since it takes a while to build them up and some can’t be achieved more than once in a single fight, I mostly forgot they were there. Again harmless, but could’ve been more interestingly implemented.

It’s possible to call in friends (or bots masquerading as them) from the internet for assistance. It’s perhaps the most pointless feature of all in the game, and I never bothered with it.

By using a special resource called SP, you can activate Bravely Second. This gives a character an extra turn out of order and, here’s the important part, allow them to break the damage limit. Normally a character can’t do more damage than 9,999 in one hit. During Bravely Second, this limit is raised to 99,999. This is a game where you can reach maximum level before the final battle without much difficulty. I was hitting max damage often in the late-game, and this feature would’ve been fairly useful. Unfortunately I ignored it, due to where SP comes from.

If you guessed “from the tears of a unicorn” you’re incorrect, but they may as well be for how irritating they are to acquire.

SP is gained from leaving your game in sleep mode for 8 hours a point, and you can’t horde more than 3 at one time. Think that’s frustrating? Good news! I have another way you can get SP whenever you want: By paying actual money! Yes, the purchasing of SP drinks is actually a form of micro-transaction slipped into the game, which you can imagine people weren’t happy about. Fortunately, the feature is unnecessary and it doesn’t affect the game much. All the same, it’s a shame that a potentially cool feature was sacrificed for the sake of a half-hearted stab swiping people’s pocket change.


And now we reach the part of the post where I unabashedly gush about video game music. I always discuss a game’s soundtrack, but this is an occasion where I really, really want to. Bravely Default has an absolutely fantastic score. I don’t know if it would sit among my favorite soundtracks of all time, but I’ve heard several hundred in my day so the fact it comes close is praise enough. I’m not familiar with the game’s composer Revo and the only credit I recognize on their Wikipedia page is the opening to the popular anime Attack on Titan. Which, to be fair, is an excellent opening song. They just haven’t done much work in games until Bravely Default, and were a very pleasant surprise.

A good place to start is Land of Light and Shadow, Bravely Default’s world map song. It’s split into two segments, each one of the game’s main themes. The first has a grand, soaring sound to it, perfect for setting off on a grand adventure. The second portion starts around 0:46 in the linked video, and coincides with the day/night cycle in the overworld. It continues the flute lead but with a much more subdued melody, accompanied by soft plucking strings.

All of the cities in Bravely Default have great music, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Land of Flowers, Florem’s theme. (I know the video linked says Land of Glaze, but translated titles are often wonky.) The colorful city on the waterfront is well-represented with this upbeat, jaunty tune. I’m a fan of strings in general, so I really dig this combination of acoustic guitar, flowing violins and cello. The guitar has little trill notes in all the right places to give the piece an audible spring in its step.

For a change in tone, take a listen to Silence of the Forest, a tune used in several of the game’s dungeons. There’s a great atmosphere to the first part of the piece. I love the echoing chimes, pizzicato (plucked strings) and slow booming drums in the portion that begins at 0:40, but my favorite part of the piece has to be 1:18. The strings that come in at that part are simply beautiful to behold.

Visitor is the song that plays when the party is faced with an antagonist. It starts with another hint of pleasingly twanging acoustic guitar. The main melody is more of a march than the flowing tones of Florem, however, with steady snare drums and repetitious piano beats. Though the whole tune is great, my favorite part is the miniature piano solo around 1:28 that connects the end of the loop to the next one.

Below the Duchy’s Banner has several similarities to Visitor. They’re both antagonist themes and both have a steady marching beat. But whereas Visitor has a more personal feel to it, this song goes for a big, majestic sound with sharp horn leads accompanied by bells and organ. It’s a memorable melody that only rises in intensity when the steadily climbing strings take the lead at 1:05. I’m less versed on band instruments and am not positive what sort of horn is first heard at 1:20, but that thing sounds fantastic.

It’s about time we got to battle music, starting with That Person’s Name Is. This song plays every fight with a job-based boss. Given the number of jobs this happens very often, but I’m not complaining because the song is outstanding. Bravely Default fight songs differ from the rest of the soundtrack in that they throw in electric guitars with the typical orchestral fare, a sound I’m a huge fan of. The back-and-forth violin and guitar leads sound great, the melody is memorable, and there’s a frantic energy it holds all the way through. Once again I love the transition between loops heard at 2:45, this time in the form of a single beat held silent before popping back into things.

Fighting to the End is the game’s normal boss theme. The first half of the song is fine, but nothing to write home about. The second half makes up for it and then some. There’s this thing Bravely Default music (particularly in battles) does where it plays a portion of music and then follows it up with that same bit over with a fuller sound. Extra instruments accompany the lead, backing ones move at twice the pace, and the whole shebang is grander and more satisfying. This is a fairly common thing to do, especially in video game music, but I have no idea if there’s a term for it. I’ll call them “embellished loops” for convenience. The second half of this song is made of two such loops. The transitory background strings at 1:12 send chills down my spine every time. Meanwhile the whole embellished loop from 1:34 onward is one joyous surge of adrenaline.

Nemesis Ba’al is an unusual piece. It plays for an incredibly strong optional boss added as free DLC after release. The song starts off strong with an immediate face full of shredding guitar. Then it pulls back to a sparser soundscape of creepy child chanting, alternating with operatic wailing. It’s unsettling, but so is the boss and it’s also a catchy tune in its own right. My favorite part of the song is another embellished loop, starting at 1:40. I like the clanky background chimes (snyths?) picking up the pace and absolutely love when the strings coming out in full force.

Now this article is getting pretty lengthy, and I also want to keep it spoiler free. However, I have to give props to Bravely Default’s incredible final boss theme. If you want to hear that lengthy rant, take a look beneath the spoiler tag below.

Spoiler Start

All of the final boss themes in Bravely Default are great. Wicked Fight, despite being the first and least impressive, still has a solid melody and an absolutely rad guitar riff in it. The second, Wicked Flight, would be an admirable end to any game. The whole song has a nice soaring, otherworldly vibe to it, but my favorite portion is the embellished loop that starts around 3:15. It brings back the villain theme from the previous song, but with the tone changed to that of upbeat triumph. Both are superb songs. But in my eyes neither can match the sheer magnificence of the true final boss: Snack of the Snake.

The first half of the song is excellent in its own right. Ascending and descending strings are given a backing of sharp, ominous chants (always popular for RPG finales) and steady electric guitar. This then leads into some sweet dual guitars at 1:08, which take a brief beat to pause at 1:20 to give the moment when it kicks back in that satisfying extra oomph. But the best of the song starts at its later half, specifically 2:55 onward.

It starts off with an excellent embellished loop of the main theme we last heard on the world map. It makes some alterations to the end of the daytime portion I really enjoy and then transitions into the night time portion at 3:18 with a rush of intense, high-speed electric guitar.

The next part starting around 3:35 is a big contrast to the rest of the song with an echoing, slower-paced segment, which grows steadily more hectic over time. It provides some cool texture to the sound of the piece and isn’t bad by any measure, but the best is yet to come.

At 4:40 the song starts pulling out faster, truncated versions of the 4 main character themes. Normally these themes are only heard during special attacks and I don’t think they’re anything that impressive, but I really like their implementation here. The brief snippets smoothly transition into each other and seem to just keep rising in intensity. The notes keep climbing higher and higher, adding instruments one by one, and building up towards the point where finally...

At 5:20 the main theme goes god damn NUTS! Horns are blasting, cymbals clashing, drums kicking like a mile-a-minute metronome with mania. The strings are sliding up and down like demonic yo-yos and when I try to picture someone playing those guitars I just see a man with hands vibrating at high intensity. It’s all comes crashing together in one massive, overwhelming wave of pure intensity and emotion.

I think the ending sequence with the alternate worlds could’ve been better executed. It’s reliance on streetpass was questionable, the writing was basically fluff, and it wasn’t clear how any of it functioned. It’s a fairly generic version of the “everyone comes together with the power of friendship” trope, and it could’ve been better presented given the unique premise. That being said? When the worlds were uniting and 5:20 kicks in, it was impossible not to get friggin’ pumped. It really is an incredible moment of music.

The finale continues with guns blazing as 5:40 brings forth an absolutely ridiculous guitar solo. This transitions back into the start of the loop, but in the version of the song linked there’s an added finish with yet another solo that’s totally rad and wicked as hell. Do people even still use words like wicked and rad? Am I being lame for using them? The correct answer is I don’t care because those solos are the raddest, sickest and wickedest of all things that are and ever will be and if you disagree then you’re entitled to your opinion but get the HELL out of my face!


Guys I think I like this song.

Spoiler End

So that’s Bravely Default in all but its writing, and it paints a pretty beautiful picture. It brings a host of tiny mechanical improvements to the genre, its art is a treat to behold, and the combat mechanics and soundtrack are bloody phenomenal. In the next couple posts I’ll be discussing the writing, and things will take a less positive turn. But I started with this post for a reason, and that’s because I quite like the game. If the story of Bravely Default had been as high quality as its combat or music this could’ve been one of my favorites of all time. As it stands, it is merely a good game, perhaps even a great one. There’s no shame in that, and one way or another Bravely Default is an experience I’ll remember for a long time.

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