2023-04-06: I Finally Finished Bravely Default

Bravely Default was a game everyone I knew was excited about when it released. I've never been a handheld or mobile gamer; I physically can't deal with holding the screen I need to be looking at. I've never found a position that's comfortable for playing handheld games; so I didn't bother with it. Now in the era of better capture and TV-out options, I'm able to play it on an actual display. Unfortunately some four years ago I tried to play through it just to have a technical failure stop me. I tried again over the past couple weeks.

In my circles, Bravely Default is a game with critical acclaim. Everyone I knew at the time it was new loved it. Some feelings have cooled on it since, but largely it's regarded favorably. Having finished the game myself, sat and reflected on the experience for a day or so, and talked about it, I still don't know if I agree.

Bravely Default is flawed in a deep and intrusive way that renders large parts of the game unfun. It combines extremely repetitive and circuitous dialog, cutscenes, and gameplay with extremely poor signaling of what is important to do and when it is important to do it; making a frustrating experience that slurps up time while giving nothing in return. Then suddenly, likely after a lot of players have checked out, it casts all of that way and becomes awesome. It's perplexing, a little frustrating, and leaves a shadow of what it could have been if it just was "that cool part" for the entire game.

The plot starts with an extremely cookie cutter stage setting: crystals, a damsel in distress, a wanderer, an amnesiac, and a world in peril. It's deliberate in setting a storyline that, at first glance, looks almost like a parody or a retrospective love letter of early Final Fantasy games, painstakingly establishing that it's just another crystal romp in cutscenes that repeat themselves over and over again until it's drilled into the player that this is Final Fantasy V 2.0. The lengths the plot goes to repeat itself to cement key points are, frankly, mind-numbing. You'll hear the same plot point multiple dozen times.

Like an early Final Fantasy game, the characters begin extremely one-dimensional. Tiz is a practical but simple farm boy, Agnes is a helpless sheltered princess (or in actuality, priestess), Edea is a hothead, and Ringabel... Ringabel is unfortunate. As you meet the antagonists that hold the "asterisks" that empower new jobs, they too are presented pretty one-dimensional at first, and this is where the first big problem sets in. I'm going to get exceedingly real about assault and misogyny in the plot for exactly one paragraph:

Bravely Default's storytelling only has three jokes, and it reuses them frequently. For a good chunk of the plot, every scene is slamming the "Haha misogyny is funny" button. I didn't like it. It's not okay. It wouldn't have been okay in the 80s but at least then I could say "Well it's a product of it's time I guess". This was done in 2012, when we very much should have known better. If you watch the scenes and read the optional chats all through Chapters 2 through 4, it becomes quite clear: Ringabel is a pickup artist lech who believes (or at least acts like) women exist for his conquest, Sage Yulyana is a "horny old man" with no sense of consent or autonomy, and Red Mage DeRosa is in no uncertain terms a rapist.

I'm not sure the right way to present a flawed character like this, but it's not how Bravely did it. Ringabel gets mostly-but-not-entirely better as plot events unfold that make him chill out; the others do not. This is one of the first motifs of characterization you encounter in the game, and I entirely do not blame anyone who would be turned off right then and there. For the purpose of talking about the game though, I'm going to leave it at that.

Bravely Default's big keystone feature is a unique battle system where you can borrow turns from the future, or store turns up for future use. You have a stock of BP, of which you gain one per turn, and each action takes one. You can go "Brave" to use up to 4 BP in one turn, or you can "Default" to defend and store your BP for a later turn. This has an interesting double-edged effect of dramatically increasing your strategic options in serious fights, while reducing trash fights to auto-battled quad-hits and hoping you wipe the board before you end up stuck unable to act for three turns. Later jobs give you options that consume BP directly, donate BP to other characters, and the like, so more options open up.

Your build options are similar to Final Fantasy V: you can take a main job and a sub job. Your main job brings with it its skills, associated stats, equipment restrictions, and a passive always-on ability. Your sub job brings only its skills. Then on top of that you get up to five slots for passive abilities you learn by leveling up jobs. These are things that range from base "+10% Physical Attack Power" to wild "You have no offensive power but your heals double in potency" and "Every turn all actors in a battle gain one extra BP". The options for building a team and a strategy are huge.

As far as playtime goes, the first two-thirds of the game are a standard "Find crystal, free crystal" chain of events where you find an elemental temple, fight a boss, then "awaken" the crystal within with a mashing sequence that very heavy-handedly tells you "Stop when the crystal glows or you'll break it and bad things will happen". The constant reminder that you can break a crystal begins weaving itself into small hints that appear that maybe you don't have the full story on the crystals. During this portion of the game, though, the fairy guiding you on the quest will stop you from actually destroying one.

During this portion, you could just go straight to the temple and move on, but each chapter of the game is dotted with optional boss fights that give you Asterisks: the job crystals of the game. It's a very good idea to get them since build flexibility is a main measure of your power. Each continent has four or five asterisk holders, and each one is typically in a dungeon and behind a series of asterisk holder character reveal cutscenes. As noted, each asterisk holder at this point is extremely one dimensional and has some "funny" quirk about them. Some of these quirks are downright uncomfortable, some are charming. I found the Ninja to be my favorite character in the game.

These early asterisk fights are neat and usually represent the big difficulty spikes of the game. You could leave them for later, but fighting them as you get to them will likely be a solid test of your skills and your ability to build around a specific opponent. I enjoyed them. In fact, I seemingly accidentally did one you were very much supposed to leave for later, because I was stubborn and unafraid to embrace cheese builds.

The Asterisk holders are all part of a unified force trying to stop you from awakening the crystals, and this is where Bravely Default's second big storytelling fall-down happens. No one talks. Seriously. You fight over 20 asterisk holders, and they all say some variant of "You must stop what you are doing or the world will be in danger; oh nevermind, you won't listen, we fight now". I was screaming at my screen "For the love of gods talk to each other!" but it never happened in this chain of events. Even when one of the characters is talking to her father, the leader of the militia trying to stop her, they don't actually talk. They trade insults about being too stubborn to listen, then battle.

This is all done to constantly remind you something is not right, but not reveal what, or give you any tools to deal with it. It's infuriating. If a single one of these NPCs actually explained what was going on, none of the rest of the game would have happened. No reasonable person would have continued without stopping to discuss at that point.

When you awaken all four crystals, unsurprisingly, the darkness threatening the world (which is never presented in any tangible way) is not abated. Instead there's a bright flash of light and you wake up ... back in chapter 1. The world resets and your party just says "Well I guess we have to go awaken the crystals again" with absolutely no further thought on the matter or any consideration that they were just hurled weeks back in time into a world that seems to be ever so slightly different than the one they were just in.

What results is a second loop through the game, except this time you have an airship, can do the crystals in any order, and all of the asterisk holders can be re-fought. This happens not once, but four times totaling five loops of awakening the crystals. Each loop things change slightly in the world: asterisk holders might or might not change their dialogue, some NPCs start giving more hints about what is going on with the crystals and the world, but still nothing concrete. This is where the game stumbles again: for the first two re-loops, most of the asterisk holders don't change. Fighting them is pointless. Some do though, and there's no indication of which. It's impossible to tell what is worth fighting to see new stuff and what isn't. They don't give rewards to speak of either.

On the fourth loop, the asterisk holders change. Rather than fighting you one by one, they gather up into unlikely teams and you begin having battles with three of them at once, often flanked with hilarious and madcap cutscenes as the game begins to discard its guise of a serious fairy tale plot and embraces comedic shenanigans. It's here some of my favorite scenes, and fights, occur; but if you got the idea that the asterisk fights were all repeats from loops two and three, you might skip these and miss out. They up this ante again on loop five, batching together into groups of four or five and eventually challenging you to a gauntlet of fighting every asterisk holder at once. It's so cool, and only comes after so many loops of nothing so I imagine a ton of people miss it.

If this sounds like mind-numbing drudgery, well it really is. The crystal bosses don't even seem to change (much?) between loops, so if you skip the asterisk re-fights it would just be doing the same 20 minute ritual four times in a row to blast through the loops. Some of the loops stop you mid-journey and send you to see an NPC who expresses, yet again, you should not be awakening the crystals. That's it. The highlight here was the asterisk holder interplay that only starts in the last two loops.

Starting with the second loop, you can actually break a crystal by continuing to mash after you're told to stop during an awakening scene. Eventually you will break a crystal. Almost everyone will before the plot reaches a terminus otherwise. When you do, the fairy freaks out, turns into a grotesque monster, and attacks you. All the while she mocks you for being so naive as to trust her and not listen to the others telling you to stop awakening the crystals. If anything this felt more being blamed for something one didn't do than an insult toward my naivety. No one was talking or saying anything, and the game was getting more engaging as I continued on; why should I stop that train when it was getting more fun as it continued?

This is the bad end, by the by. Taking the hint and breaking a crystal leaves plot threads hanging and the story half untold. The true end involves going through all five loops, which allows the fairy to hatch her evil plan: binding a number of parallel worlds together to let her siphon their power to awaken a god of destruction that has never been mentioned before until now. Zeromus syndrome much?

In either ending you fight the fairy twice. In the good ending you fight her a third time, then also fight the god of destruction Ouroboros. The Ouroboros fight brings in some really cool 3DS utilizing gimmicks like implying the parallel worlds of your friends are being destroyed to power Ouroboros up, using friend parties as assists in cutscenes, and even a weird gimmick using the 3DS camera. These neat little bumps were mostly overshadowed in my chat by the fact that Ouroboros would not shut up. You phase him (with a long dialogue) no less than six times, and each time you start the next phase as if it were a new battle. It's quite possible to be strong enough here to go into BP debt and one-round each phase, suffering no consequences for doing so.

In short, while you can go straight to the normal end finale any time after the first loop by breaking a crystal, the true end and some of the coolest stuff in the game is gated behind doing the plot loop five times, with very little changing in the first three loops, and nothing at all changing in the main content of the loop (the crystals themselves). Yulyana starts summoning you to slip you even stronger hints that you should break a crystal starting in loop three, and loop five is just a victory lap where you do some post-game tier fights and the asterisk holders all say bold-faced "This is the end, do what you're going to do now"

I really feel like this could have been compressed. Even still, the playtime distribution is heavily lopsided toward loop one because you're walking on foot everywhere and engaging in a bunch of scenes and plot that you can just skip in subsequent loops because you already know, for example, the Merchant of Anchiem is behind the big evil plot there. The scene where you confront him with evidence from the prior world is actually pretty funny. These follow-up loops aren't much, but they feel like too much. The common take I hear now is that Chapter 5 (the second loop) could have been entirely eliminated. I tend to agree.

Somewhere around loop three I discovered a fairly broken build utilizing Dark Knight abilities that cost HP in exchange for excessively powerful hits and chain attacks, and the Spell Fencer's ability to add Drain to any physical attack. With the two together I could do five times the damage cap per Dark Knight per turn, and for free besides. It turns out two Dark Knights blatting out 99,990 damage per turn is enough to defeat almost everything in the game in one or two volleys. The other two slots went to support, eventually gelling in a Performer who could sing to increase BP, and a White Mage/Spiritmaster who could heal and make the entire team immune to magic or ailments on a whim.

Bravely Default's jobs get extremely powerful once leveled up, and make for some amazing synergy and cheese.

This did however take all those really cool fights and trivialize them. I was hoping to hit a fight where this build didn't work, but the closest I came was one fight where a team of four asterisk holders would cancel your buffs then unload a series of powerful elemental attacks. I survived this by taking the ultimate White Mage passive that cases Arise on your entire party of the White Mage dies. The enemy team only got one chance to do this before the mass damage deleted them. From what I hear though, this build is one of the strongest cheese builds in the game; they're not all like that.

I was glad to have it though. By the time I cemented this build, I'd gone through two and a half loops and was thinking they'd all be the same thing over and over again. I wanted a toolbox that'd let me just run the fights over and keep going to see how the story ends. Fortunately that wasn't what happened, but I was still quite happy to just stomp everything, even when changes started appearing. I think that's the biggest shame of Bravely Default: the cool stuff comes after a really slow and kind of awful spin-up, repetitive looping, and an implicit message that nothing will change until the end.

Still though once I got to the cool stuff it was really cool. Amazing build flexibility, and great combat system, some funny little side-plots, and some cool gimmicks saved for the end. I think that's why so many people remember it fondly: the back half is so strong. It does mean people who try it though will wonder what everyone else sees in it.

I came into this fairly determined to not play Bravely Second or Bravely Default 2. I don't know; I'll give Second a try at some point in the distant future. I hear 2 is just not great though.

tags: game_writeup, rpg, bravely