Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bravely Default - Impressions

Agnès and Airy official art from http://bravelydefault.nintendo.com/

Overview and Mechanics

Bravely Default is a Nintendo 3DS game developed by Square Enix and Silicon Studio and published in Japan by Square Enix and in the US and Europe by Nintendo. The game is an RPG reminiscent of traditional Final Fantasy games, specifically of those Final Fantasy games centered around worlds where powerful crystals exist and are often being corrupted by some form of miasma or darkness (all of which are prevalent in Bravely Default). The developers have even stated that Bravely Default is a "spiritual successor" to Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. You take on the role of four young heroes named Tiz, Agnès, Ringabel, and Edea traveling to rid their own world of crystal plaguing darkness. The artwork is stunning thanks to character designer Akihiko Yoshida, who fans might be familiar with from work on Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics, and the aforementioned Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light.  At the end of the day, judging from what I have played, I think Bravely Default is going to be a much better Final Fantasy than the majority of the actual Final Fantasy games I have played.  It has been a splendid experience so far.

Final Fantasy veterans will recognize some stalwarts of the classic Japanese RPG formula. There are airships and world map traversal segments, there is a lot of dialogue (spoken dialogue as a matter of fact, a rarity for Nintendo handheld games), there is HP and MP, there are jobs and abilities, and of course you will level up throughout the game, improving your capabilities as the foes you face do the same. There are also random encounters, but this includes one major improvement for me from a traditional JRPG perspective. Regardless of difficulty, you can adjust your encounter rate on the fly in the configuration menu. Need to power level some? Increase the random encounter rate to +50% or +100%. Need to get somewhere fast to locate a chest or save? Decrease your encounter rate by the same margin. It is a system I will miss if excluded in future games I play. Additionally you will have at your disposal a compendium full of details on the world and practically everything and everyone in it in the form of a journal that Ringabel is in possession of.  I spend hours reading through all the details, something I do not always do in other games.  The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion gave me a similar experience, where the lore and detailed descriptions of the game world captivated me.

Street Pass/Spot Pass and Friend Codes feature prominently in Bravely Default.  Some interesting mechanics are introduced in the game through these 3DS features.  For starters this allows you to accept villagers into the town of Norende.  Without spoiling anything, all I can say is these villagers assist in building shops that generate items for your crew as well as extremely helpful ability and special move bonuses.  Simply assign the villagers to a specific shop or building task and leave the game running either while you play or in sleep mode.  You'll receive gifts and will be able to purchase the items and gear at save stations throughout the world.  You can also connect with people whose Friend Code you have obtained.  The added bonus to having friends is getting access to their special moves via the "Summon Friend" functionality as well as the "Abilink" feature, which allows you to access higher level abilities for a job that your friend is further along in.  You can find out more about these functions in the game.  Just remember that you can also use a reciprocal send feature to in turn send back a special move of your own.  Simply select send from the "Summon Friend" menu and select a move to send during battle.  Typically providing a buffed special move is the best thing to do, or at least most useful.  If you do not do this you will never repay the favor to anyone!  I see people with level 1 characters all the time being sent because they never update their sent move.  Just be aware if you are early in the game and use a level 99 friend to attack, you will blow through the early match but lose access to that friend until they re-send their move.  I try to save my higher level friends until really in a pinch.

I briefly mentioned save points earlier and want to mention one last thing about them.  For starters the game also has auto-save, which in a JRPG is a huge benefit.  The game will save anytime you enter or leave a town, dungeon, or similar areas as well as whenever you swap floors inside a specific area.  Additionally their are save points in the form of wandering adventurers.  They are another helpful feature in that they grant access to items and equipment from Norende as mentioned above as well as provide hints to what may be coming up.  They will always tell you if a higher level foe or a boss is ahead and prompt you to save before finishing the discussion with them.  Also even though they are adventurers they do not actually move, so if you need to restock or save again, you can revisit the same adventurers wherever you find them.

Additionally there are a few tutorial quests you can complete along the way as well as side quests that complement the main storyline.  The game is far too complex to go through every aspect in this impressions write-up, so I will just touch on a couple of other things that I took notice of.  Technically speaking the 3D effect is impressive throughout the game.  Nintendo has received criticism as of late for games like Pokémon X and Y failing to make any noticeable use of 3D, but Bravely Default is evidence that 3D visuals have a place on the system.  The voice acting is solid, and the writing is tremendous.  I keep thinking as I play that the grammar and speech patterns are refreshing.  Overall the game is engrossing with supporting mechanics that enhance the experience.

Ringabel, Edea, and Tiz official art from http://bravelydefault.nintendo.com/

Story and Theme

On the topic of story I would be remiss if I did not mention something I deeply enjoy thematically in Bravely Default.  A lot of games, more specifically narrative driven games, are beginning to wade into the waters of social messaging nowadays.  Some of those narrative games, even those that receive positive media attention, miss the mark in my opinion (and in some cases end up more off-putting than engaging), but on occasion I find a narrative game that really strikes a chord with me.  Little Inferno is a a good example of one prior to Bravely Default that I enjoyed, with a clear message and engaging, simple delivery.  Bravely Default is systematically more complex than Little Inferno, but resonates with me all the same in a very similar way.

Throughout Bravely Default your team (and just as an FYI I will avoid spoilers, so feel free to read on regardless of where you are at in the game) travels to places and interacts with people who represent very real world problems that we find the global community facing today in reality.  Ancheim, a land of resilient people, is being taken advantage of by tyrannical rulers with hidden agendas.  Florem, a land once known for modesty and reverence, is now a site of excess filled with neon lights and vanity.  A city that never sleeps.  The Matriarch of Florem has a compelling conversation with the heroes at one point in which Edea asks how she could be unaware of the change in her city, and she responds by pointing out that some of the changes were so subtle that she never even realized a problem existed until it was too late.  In general throughout the game there is an on-going fight to restore the world's faith and unity in the face of changes driven by malevolent groups and individuals, individuals who would see their own ambitions ahead of real positive change in the world.  I think on a deeper level there are strong implications that the people of the world have lost their spirituality and sense of purpose, which the group sets out to restore during their journey all while combating the deceitful ones who want to take advantage of the circumstances.  The darkness, corruption, and physical miasma clouds lend themselves well to allegories, something that has spoken volumes to me throughout my play-through.

Collector's Edition Swag

Sampling of the AR card deck with my two favorite characters from left to right Edea and Alternis the Dark Knight

Here are some shots of the Collector's Edition, which I highly recommend for $55.  In my opinion this is a beautiful and worthwhile Collector's Edition.  I have experienced everything from the dreadful, overpriced Batman: Arkham Asylum Collector's Edition with its $100 price tag and cheap, plastic pack-ins to much more fulfilling purchases like the Epic Mickey Collector's Edition with it's wonderful Mickey Mouse statue and the Fallout 3 Collector's Edition complete with Vault Boy bobble-head and throwback tin lunch pail.  The Bravely Default CE ranks among the top of those, specifically because of the beautiful AR card deck included. (Note: I believe the EU version of the Collector's Edition costs a little more and includes a statue, while the US version I purchased does not have the statue.  As a result I cannot make any determinations on the quality of the EU statue unfortunately.)

Collector's Edition unpacked next to a Pikachu 3DS XL for size reference
Music CD and game box
Sample page from the art book featuring the city of Ancheim
Sampling of the AR card deck, from left to right Airy, Agnès, Tiz, Edea, and Ringabel

Wrap Up

I feel like I only breached the surface of what Bravely Default has to offer.  This is a rudimentary introduction to some of the mechanics, themes, and functions of the game, and I highly recommend everyone who owns a 3DS or 2DS system give this game a shot.  The back of the Collector's Edition box says "BASIC READING ABILITY IS NEEDED TO FULLY ENJOY THIS GAME," and I think that is an adequate warning.  The content is extensive, the systems at times are complex, and the interactions and themes are not always trivial.  Having said all of that, I have come away believing that Bravely Default might be one of the best games I have ever played, especially in the JRPG and handheld sub-genres.  This can be a spectacular experience if you have the time for it.

One final note - Bravely Default has a free demo on the Nintendo eShop that takes roughly 4 to 8 hours to complete depending on how thorough you are.  This provides an insight into combat as well as the Norende shop building mechanics through a story separate from the game.  The story of the main game is much more interesting, but I recommend the demo for anyone wanting to try things out.  The demo has a bit of a level grind feeling to it, but that is representative of the area and circumstances, not the main game.  You also receive items by completing demo quests that transfer to the main game.  It is worth trying out.

Until next time.
- Scott

Note: To put things in context, I am just under 26 hours into the game and have completed Chapter 2 of the main story.  Norende has also been completely restored.

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