Bravely Default Postmortem – A Worthy Final Fantasy Successor?
Final Fantasy has somewhat lost its way over the years. As the series constantly tries to reinvent itself to keep up with the times, it’s strayed further and further away from the formula that gave Squaresoft its initial success. A few years ago, they released Bravely Default, a spiritual successor to the classic Final Fantasy games of the NES, SNES and Playstation One.
I have a fair bit to say about the game, but I’ve never found the right format or opportunity to discuss the game’s successes and failures until now. For today’s retro theme, I’ve decided to do a postmortem on the game and see how it stacks up to the older entries in the series to see if it’s worthy of being considered on the same level as those classics.
I should note that I haven’t played Bravely Second yet, so some of the flaws I talk about here might be fixed in the sequel, but I won’t know myself. And, as this is retrospective, and the game’s been out a few years, there will be spoilers ahead so if you haven’t played it yet and intend to, beware of those.
The Art Style
Bravely Default‘s aesthetic captured me instantly. The work of lead character designer and art director Akihido Yoshida can be seen all over the Final Fantasy series, including titles like the Final Fantasy Tactics series, the DS remake of Final Fantasy III and Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. The super-deformed character designs read well and looked incredibly polished, but the real standout of the show was the hand-painted backgrounds.
Taking influence from the pre-rendered backgrounds of the PS1 days, the backgrounds were gorgeous, full of life, artistic and incredibly memorable (Florem and the location you fight Mephilia Venus in stand out as particular favourites of mine). The art is one of the strongest aspects of Bravely Default, and the art team deserves some serious credit for updating the classic jobs and the aesthetic into the 21st century.
Grind and the Battle System
Grinding is one of those aspects of the JRPG genre that fans have grown to tolerate, but we don’t really like it. Bravely Default comes with a host of options for cutting down on that most onerous of aspects. For one, you can speed battles up by as much as four times, which makes random battles go by in under a minute or less. You can also vary the encounter rate to whatever you want, meaning you can double it or turn it off entirely if you just want to rush through the story while it’s capturing your attention. For my money, I liked turning the battles off while rushing between story quests, and then doubling it and blasting through renadom battles to level up when the story’s pacing disappeared entirely (more on that later). The battle system reinforces this as well, allowing you to put out as much as 16 actions in a turn, which will make short work of most random battles.
The battle system itself deserves some praise. Being able to spend BP to take extra actions or guard for a turn and gain extra BP is a great twist, and nails the key aspect of a good battle system: simplicity. It’s just a small twist on the traditional turn-based battles, but it doesn’t throw too many new mechanics at you, so it keeps the retro feel of the old Final Fantasy games while putting its own twist on it.
The Job System
Called ‘asterisks’ here, the bulk of the game’s side quests revolve around battles with characters who hold these jobs. Defeating them lets you access their jobs, and the job system is one of the deepest I’ve ever come across. Characters can equip a main job, and then also equip secondary abilities based on any other jobs they’ve levelled up, allowing you to come up with powerful combinations (Dark Knights with the Spell Fencer’s Drain sword magic to replenish the HP cost of their skills was a very powerful combo, I found).
I always love when RPGs allow a degree of player expression, and while the games which use the job system such as Final Fantasy III and V aren’t amongst the most highly-regarded games in the series, Bravely Default uses the job system to facilitate a very intricate level of player expression not really found elsewhere in the series to allow everyone to find the party setup and job combos that appeal to them.
This is, in my eyes, the single greatest problem with Bravely Default. The story is really interesting in itself, providing a great twist on the standard Final Fantasy archetype of the four elemental crystals, but it just dies at a certain point in the game. This is where those spoilers come in, folks. After activating the four crystals, the party opens up the Holy Pillar and enters it, which will apparently save the world. And then… you end up in the exact same world again, and have to activate the crystals and enter the Holy Pillar again. You need to go through the Holy Pillar five times to reach the ending.
That means you have to activate twenty crystals in total, with little to no new content in between. The boss guarding each crystal is always the exact same, with no changes in strategy, and it adds nothing to it. The story justifies this by saying that it was all Airy’s plan to link together these alternate universes and provide a meal for her master Ouroboros to devour. However, it isn’t enough to save such a tedious waste of time. This twist and the pacing of it nearly ruins the game, and it’s by far the worst aspect of Bravely Default.
No Recognisable Villain
Think of the most well-regarded Final Fantasy games. Let’s say… IV, VI, VII and X here. What do all of them have in common? A damn good villain. For each of these games you’re chasing down one definable antagonist, from Golbez in IV to the mad clown Kefka in VI. Sephiroth from VII might be one of gaming’s most iconic villains, and in X we get treated to two: we’re told about the threat of Sin right from the start, and we later get introduced to the smarmy, easily hated Maester Seymour. Bravely Default doesn’t have that. Some of the side-quest villains are great too, such as the officious, amoral Qada to the vile, loathsome date-rapist Fiore DaRosa which makes it such a shame we have nothing of their calibre to drive our main quest forward.
Sure, the twist that our helpful fairy companion Airy was a villain all along is a neat twist, but it comes too late for us to really feel the impact and give us that motivation. Alternis Dim could count, but he’s too mysterious and conflicted to really work, and spends much of his time off-screen not actually affecting the plot of the game to capture our interest (and the reveal that he’s actually one of our protagonists from an alternate dimension kills his villain status quickly). Bravely Default has no traditional villain to drive the quest forward, instead relying on its side characters to bring us through the game, and only giving us a trite “but thou must!” as our motivation for activating the crystals and saving the world.
Despite its flaws, I truly believe that Bravely Default is a great game. I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing it, and while I don’t think it’s of the same calibre as Final Fantasy IV, VI or X, I think it’s better than a fair few of the entries in the main series. It does capture that retro-JRPG feel perfectly, culling from all the best aspects of the series and standing up as a worthy successor to the Final Fantasy name. In short, yes; Bravely Default is one of the better Final Fantasy games released in recent years, if not even the best. It’s such a shame that some glaring flaws stop it from reaching the series’ peaks of perfection.
What do you think? Do you agree? Let us know in the comments!