Sunday, March 13, 2016

Bravely Default: Filler and Plot Twists



Four weeks ago, I wrote an article about Undertale and Completionism, and in it I briefly mentioned a game called Bravely Default, grumbling about it having filler. Three weeks ago, I finished playing Bravely Default, and decided it was time to voice opinions that had been bubbling over a saga of a hundred hours. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the good in Bravely Default, of its marvelous combat and its magnificent music. One week ago, I discussed the story of Bravely Default, my tone slowly souring in the face of thoughtless clich├ęs and disconnected, diminished side quests. This brings us tumbling towards that land on the precipice of both the foreign and familiar, the present. Ladies and gentlemen, we have, in all senses of the word, reached the endgame.

And with it comes one emphatic warning. This post will not just contain spoilers. No, it will contain MAXIMUM SPOILERS. Should you choose to read on, you will be like a barrel of fish shipped to Kansas in a sunbed. Like a child whose parents buy him every Amiibo, Skylander and trading card on the market. Like a banana with a peel black as the deepest abyss. SPOILED, SPOILED, SPOILED, down to the very core. Everything is on the table, and that table is under a spotlight of a worldwide live television broadcast. If you have any ambition of experiencing the late-game revelations of Bravely Default for yourself, turn back.

Well, uh, maybe not literally. That would make it hard to operate your computer. Just navigate to a different webpage, I guess.

Let it never be said that I am thoughtless with plot details. Here is that warning one final time:

SPOILERS!


With that out of the way, let’s begin with a recap...

The End of the Worlds as we know them


...are they gone? Everyone reading is sure they don’t care about spoilers? Okay. Here is the main twist of Bravely Default, described in a single image:

This is an actual screenshot of the title screen, which blatantly reveals the twist when you get far enough into the game. Have to admit, that’s a neat trick.

Airy, the helpful fairy companion who guides your party through lighting the crystals, is actually the main antagonist. When you light all four crystals you’re taken to an alternate world where the crystals are unlit and the events of your journey haven’t happened yet. So Airy asks you to light them again. Party amnesiac Ringabel is actually one of the antagonists from an alternate universe, which is why he has a journal that can predict the future. As he slowly regains his memory in full he recalls Airy betraying his world’s version of your party. The fairy’s ultimate goal is to light the crystals in as many worlds as possible for her master Ouroboros. Ouroboros is a big dragon-snake-monster-thing who intends to run down this linked chain of crystal-powered worlds, gobbling them up like a line of Pac-man pellets. This will grant him the power to enter the celestial realm and destroy the gods themselves. Airy is this stereotypically sinister snake’s second-in-command.

The first four chapters of the game are the first time you light the crystals and meet all the characters. Chapter 5 onward you have a choice. If you keep pressing buttons on the awakening-the-crystal quick-time event after being told to stop, you’ll overload it and it will break. Airy will reveal her true colors and you’ll destroy her. In this ending, you never meet Ouroboros or get the full story. To get the true ending, you have to keep visiting alternate worlds for four more chapters. Only after lighting a staggering 20 crystals total will Airy reveal her plan on her own, allowing you to defeat both her and Ouroboros for the complete ending.

We also see the ever-popular “villain destroying their failure subordinate”. Airy, when you set out to help a world-eating serpent murder the gods, how did you THINK he’d treat you?

There are so many problems with all this, in both story and gameplay. I’m going to try and break things down as best I can, explaining piece by piece all the issues with this half of the game.

No One Can Just TALK


There are constant hints that something more is going on with the four crystals of the world, and that lighting them might be a bad idea. Of course, this could easily be understood if people just talked to each other, but instead they keep spouting pointlessly vague portents to the bitter end. Often literally, given that most of them die. After the four crystals are lit, you see Ringabel’s doppelganger. The party doesn’t acknowledge this or its implications directly for multiple chapters. Even then, they don’t spend much time discussing it or developing Ringabel’s character. Our four heroes know there’s something wrong, but they do nothing to change their course (unless you take the early, non-canon ending, which I’ll discuss in a moment). Two ancient elders poke you in the right direction, but despite knowing almost everything that’s going to happen they refuse to give you specifics and I see no reason why. In fact, it’s not until midway through the god damn ending fight that one of them shows up and reveals the rest of their plan. For as long as physically possible, no one communicates.

Hey Yulyana, I know sages are supposed to speak in mystic riddles, but you do recall that the entire multiverse is at stake, right?

I understand the real reason why characters can’t just talk out their problems. It would hinder the drama and the twist wouldn’t come at the opportune time. However, when writing a story like this, you still need a reason for the characters not to communicate. They can’t just arbitrarily decide not to give information crucial to the survival of multiple worlds! There are a bunch of ways you could address this:

You could make the NPCs less knowledgeable, have their sources of information be unreliable or present a bunch of conflicting cases of the truth. You could make the people with all the information (such as elders Yulyana and DeRosso) evil or neutral individuals working for their own purposes, so they have a reason to deceive you. Perhaps the elders could explain they were waiting for the right moment to strike at Ouroboros, and informing the heroes of the truth too early might’ve tipped their hand and prevented him from being destroyed for good. Something.

Bravely Default provides no such excuses. Antagonists are perpetually vague and protagonists don’t ask questions. Characters don’t talk because the plot doesn’t want them to, and everyone seems like an idiot because of it.

Deconstructing a Deconstruction


I imagine that some might defend the generic nature of Bravely Default or its horribly repetitive second half on the theory of it being a deconstruction. This does seem like its intention, as there are several lines from Airy talking about how easy you were to fool and what creatures of habit you were and similar. The idea is that the game places you in an incredibly familiar story so that you don’t see the twist coming. And sure, I buy that being the intent. But the execution is horribly botched, primarily for two reasons.

The first is that making a horribly generic story to set up a twist still leaves everything before the twist horribly generic. The story can’t have too much unexpected going on beforehand. So the first 60% of the game has to suffer all the stereotypical lighting the crystals routine and a bunch of uncommunicative NPCs. It sacrifices the quality of writing in these earlier sections for the sake of the twist. This is made worse by the fact that, as established in the last article, the writers often fail to deliver a trope-filled narrative well.

The second reason this doesn’t work is because catching onto the twist is the wrong option. If you pay attention to the increasingly obvious signs and break the crystals early, then you get an inferior ending. Not only is there less content in the game, but the ending is far less satisfying. There are less stages to the boss fight, Ouroboros doesn’t show up, you don’t learn the full extent of the villains plans, you don’t learn the full extent of the elders plans, you don’t get the big climactic end fight with the fantastic music, there are small scenes missing from the credits, and you don’t get the sequel hook. It’s simply a worse option, not the real ending.

Well Airy, I tried calling you out earlier but that left the giant world-eating snake alive, so I didn’t exactly have much choice.

I understand why you might do things this way. You want players to do more work and experience more content to get the true ending. However, it’s at odds with the themes that ending conveys. The game is saying “Don’t follow orders! Think for yourself! Don’t let the generic narrative lull you into a false sense of security, discover the truth!” But then it lets you do nothing to act on this besides one thing. You can’t, for example, ask questions and figure out what’s going on. The only agency you have as a player is to break the crystal, but doing so makes the narrative less satisfying.

Pacing Problems


The first four chapters of the game are relatively well paced. They constantly introduce new locations, characters and sub-problems along the path to lighting the crystals. All the while the mysteries of Ringabel and the misgivings about the crystals are bubbling in the background. Once you wake up in the first alternate world, the story has no idea what to do with itself. You keep lighting the crystals and not much else happens. It’s as though the writer thought “and then the player will go through a bunch of alternate worlds” but didn’t think of anything for them to DO in them. Any single one of chapters 1 through 4 has more going on than chapters 5 through 8 combined.

“So what does this guy have to do with our character arcs?”
“Well, uh, he’s going to murder us. So I guess they’ll STOP if he does that."

If you ignore all the side quests (we’ll get to those), all you do is fly to the crystals and light them. There are no more plot points or roadblocks beyond lighting the crystals. There is no more character development or character interactions in general. The previous antagonists no longer interact with the main story in any way. The previous allies no longer interact with the main story in any way, except for the elders at the very end. The protagonists get slightly more suspicious as time goes on, but that’s it. This is filler, in every sense of the word. The majority of the crystal relighting even has directly recycled dialogue. As in, every time you light a crystal, for multiple alternate worlds, it has the exact same dialogue. That...shouldn’t happen. I don’t even know what else to say to that. I don’t know how you can reach the point where your main plot is recycling entire paragraphs of dialogue and you don’t see a problem!

So the plot is much less compelling in the latter half of chapters. But hey, at least this provides interesting opportunities for side content! About that...

Side Quests


There are a crap ton of side quests in chapters 5 through 8 of Bravely Default, and they all suck. In each alternate world you can revisit at least half of the job antagonists from the first cycle. Since the protagonists are already wise to their schemes they have new dialogue where they cut to the chase quicker, and then you fight the boss again with higher stats than before. Most of these bosses have the exact same dialogue in chapters 5 and 6. Some of them have different dialogue in chapter 7, and chapter 8 switches things up with side quests that pool antagonists together for groups of cooperating baddies to battle.

Over the course of these chapters just a few of the side quests offer a more interesting take on the antagonist or have a funny scene. However, this arguably just makes things worse. Because now you know that some of these side quests are worth seeing, so you feel compelled to try them out despite the fact that they’re 90% tedious slop. I completed every single side quest in Bravely Default, bringing my playtime up to about 100 hours. I would not recommend any one else do this. It saddens me to say it, but it truly is not worth the brief good bits to slog through the rest.

Gameplay


Of course, the gameplay goes down the toilet with the story. Chapters 5 through 8 have a different table of random encounters worldwide than 1 through 4, but there’s little reason to turn them on at all. By the end of chapter 4, I was ridiculously overpowered from all the previous side questing. I’d already mastered a job or two with every character. So the game consists of monotonous wandering through areas you’ve already seen, followed up by bland, repetitive dialogue and fights with bosses you’ve already beaten.

And on rare occasions, they’ll recycle multiple bosses at once! What variety!

You’ve already explored all the dungeons. There are only two new areas in the last 4 chapters (dozens of hours if you actually do the side quests). One of them is the final dungeon. The other is an optional dungeon comprised of recycled floors from previous dungeons stitched together. Are you kidding me? Bravely Default already recycled floors to begin with! For example, the four temples all have the same first floor layout. Then on top of that they make the (completionist) player pass through every dungeon four times over again. Though never preferable, I’m normally pretty forgiving about late dungeons pulling this recycling crap, particularly when they’re bonuses for the post-game. But when they’ve already been doing it for half the game it starts to grate just a teensy bit.

The base combat is still fun to mess around with, but there’s not much challenge or mental engagement in fighting the same bosses over and over. There are still some drops of entertainment to be squeezed from the last chapter where antagonists start teaming up. But it’s diminished from its former glory, and the amount of untapped potential is astonishing. Speaking of...

Lost Potential


Bravely Default presents us with several alternate worlds, all of them slightly different. But the key word here is slightly. You have to squint to see the change in most of them. Sometimes a character’s personality will be a bit different, like an antagonist being nicer to you before fighting you anyway. The later chapters even move characters around, just a little bit. Knowing the development team was willing to make all these changes, I am baffled at how completely they fail to do almost anything interesting with them.

This plot is an invitation to write what is essentially canon fanfiction. We’ve established characters can be moved around the world, and that they don’t even need to keep the same personality. You can do anything you want! This is a near endless font of ideas for interesting encounters. Yet for the most part they just repeat the same bullshit with slight variation. Here is a massive list of things Bravely Default could’ve done instead, all of which require no extra dungeons or art assets:

Have the antagonists swap positions. All you have to do is swap some models and write some new dialogue. You can make it funny, dramatic, or somewhere in between. What if the pop star Praline became ruler of the desert city? What if the greedy business mogul Profiteur was in charge of the war front in Eisenburg? For something more thoughtful or subtle, you could say, switch the Templar and his equally serious rival/subordinate Kamiizumii. The possibilities for this aren’t quite as ridiculously vast, but it’s one of the easiest changes you could make.

Have ANYONE swap positions. In some of the alternate worlds, baddies become so nice they no longer qualify. Why not play more with that? Imagine that you go to sleep at the inn only to find that in this world it’s run by the boisterous monk Barrus, who wants you to pay in punches? Picture a world where mad scientist Victor is in charge of the floating city of Grandship. For a more dramatic take, how about a world where Tiz’s brother Til is batting for the bad guys? On a related note to that...

They even have an in-game model for Til. In the ONLY unique side quest post chapter 4, you see a bunch of happier lives the characters could lead in an alternate world. This is a cool idea! But the execution is mediocre, with the characters not really discussing their choice and instead just saying “Eh, gotta keep questin together.” And then they wipe the NPCs memories so the encounters don’t have long-term consequences. Ugh.

Have anyone change personalities. Though it may require more writing, this variant doesn’t even require you to change where the characters are! The game already kind of slightly does this in some areas, but I’m talking about big changes, and not just limited to antagonists. Perhaps some antagonists are kinder than their cohorts and are secretly undermining them from within. Maybe some formerly friendly faces like the king of Caldisla have twisted into iron-fisted oppressors. Hell, maybe even your party of heroes are villains in this world. Speaking of...

Let us meet our alternate selves. It’s mentioned that there are doppelgangers of the party out somewhere in these worlds. Why don’t we ever meet any? From the character development side, there’s a lot of interesting things you could do with this. From these clones we could see the consequences if the party had gone down a different path. They could go separate ways, turn evil, be in relationships with different people, have different philosophical ideas based on how their lives went in this world, all sorts of things. And by comparing themselves to their doppelgangers our protagonists could learn new things about themselves and develop as people. And that’s just the easy stuff! If you wanted to get crazy you could have one of your alternate selves follow you into another world, to help you, destroy you, or whatever you wish.

On a side note, I was disappointed that even Ringabel didn’t get any of this. Since he was previously a named antagonist, he actually meets some of his alternate selves. They do absolutely nothing with this, and they never even talk to each other directly. Ringabel is one of the most entertaining characters in the game, there are all sorts of comedic shenanigans you could pull by two of them teaming up or butting heads. If you wanted to take it in a more serious direction, you could have Ringabel explore the differences and similarities of him post-amnesia versus his former life.

Change a city. Change the world! In Florem, it’s said that the city was once a peaceful religious haven, only recently transformed into the sleazy metropolis it is today. What if that change never happened? What if the war in Eisenburg had long since ended and the country was united under one faction? On a grander scale, what if the whole world got that treatment? People all across Luxedarc could be devout worshippers of Crystalism, or they could have long since rejected it and be living in a technologically changed society. Some of these are starting to approach creating new assets and backgrounds, but even with sweeping changes like these dialogue overhauls and some NPCs dropped in the right places can go a long way.

You could even change the tone of a city just by changing the dialogue of existing NPCs! Oh wait, you have trouble doing that, don’t you?

All of these dozens of ideas represent just a fraction of what you could do with this story. If you were willing to throw in some extra assets, you could do even more! Some of these plot lines could last an entire chapter if properly explored. Some of them could justify an entire game! And yet these are all things that I thought up just now, while writing this, off the top of my head. This is not an attempt to brag. I think most people are capable of dreaming up such scenarios, the Bravely Default team included. Clearly, they just weren’t interested. I think they thought up a neat twist, said “hey, we can use this to throw in some easy-to-make bonus bosses and filler content”, and their thoughts stopped there. The result is a mess.

I know that, ultimately, there’s not much point to wondering about all the games Bravely Default could have been. But that untapped potential is part of what frustrates me so much, even if that’s more my fault than theirs. Those possibilities suggest that it wasn’t a lack of development time that hurt this game, not a lack of manpower or work ethic. It was a lack of ambition, a lack of passion for storytelling, world-building and character development. True or not, that’s what it feels like. And there’s no other word for that than disappointing.

Conclusion


Bravely Default had a neat idea for a twist that opened up a whole new world (literally) of opportunities. It then did almost nothing worthwhile with the premise, instead using it to justify an avalanche of cheap filler content that killed the pacing and brought down the average quality of the product. Doing so wasn’t even the easiest option. The game could’ve cut dozens of hours from these late-game sequences and done nothing but improve the experience. It’s frustrating to see game design and writing so destructively thoughtless.

And yet, with that said...I liked Bravely Default. For all the generic backstories, the bland setting, the uninteresting NPCs, the disconnected side quests, the mismanaged endings and the monstrous amount of filler? I had fun. The art is still beautiful. The combat is still engaging. Even in the lackluster writing, there’s still a foundation, some basic storytelling that could’ve been more. And don’t get me started on the music lest I vomit another thousand words of praise.

Bravely Default is a game that caused me boredom and frustration, but also excitement and enjoyment. What’s good is extremely good, and what’s bad, well...likewise. Without its fatal flaws, it could’ve been an incredible game. As it stands, it’s a good one. And if you’re a fan of turn-based RPGs, I’d say good enough.


Just...skip the later parts.

4 comments:

  1. This is exactly why i stopped playing after clearing the wind crystal for a second time and just watched a super cut of the story. Thanks for the memories. I'm still planning on getting BSec, but i'm going into it jaded.

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  2. One note about the character's not speaking directly: It's actually pretty well justified in the narrative because Airy is always present.

    If at any point in time Braev Lee or Yulyana were to spills the beans to the party, Airy would get her murder on, so they have no choice but to be vague.

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    Replies
    1. That's a decent point. Although you could argue with all their resources and years of planning they could think of a reason to separate the party from Airy sooner. Plus, even on the occasions when Yulyana does get you away from her, he doesn't say everything outright. But yeah, fear of Airy could go a long way if the game more directly acknowledged/hand waved it. They keep it pretty vague. Anyway, thanks a lot for reading!

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  3. I felt I had less to complain about than you did, although I agree that there's a lot of missed opportunities. I really did like how the characters knew exactly what they were doing throughout chapters 5-8, but the endgame kinda killed it for me. Aside from Airy taunting Anges about being brainwashed or something, which doesn't happen in the true ending, everyone is still miraculously surprised that Airy was evil even though it was stated *by the characters themselves* several times in chapter 6. Tiz even seems to mock the fairy later on by asking how much longer the crystal chasing was going to continue when he knew full well the answer. Yet, the ending doesn't treat it any differently, which absolutely blew and took a lot of the impact away from it.

    There's an argument that the "have the courage to think for yourself, and have the courage to disobey" line is a double subversion- the plot expects you to rebel against the plot and thus the "real" choice is to not break a crystal. Not sure how accurate it is but I'm inclined to agree with that.

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