Fortune favors the brave.
It's immediately obvious that Bravely Default was made by a crew of people who truly love RPGs. Any jerk can start rattling off clichés and tropes, but it takes real appreciation for something to both make fun of it and create fun out of it.
That's Bravely Default's framework: a stereotypical cast doing and saying overdone things, yet doing so in a way that simultaneously mocks and glorifies the history of RPGs, especially Final Fantasy. Almost every name is a pun, every early plot point is familiar, and characters even seem to criticize their own genre with their hilarious dialogue. For these reasons, BD's early hours might raise brows and roll the eyes beneath them. Like a masterpiece, however, the story shows strength as it continues and, in the latter stages, delivers brilliance. What will probably keep one moving forward is a combination of nostalgia and great gameplay.
I read a press release saying that the game "became a fan favorite [in Japan] for its unique take on the role-playing genre." This is both true and false. There is a lot that's original about Bravely Default, but what players will probably notice first is the overwhelming similarities to Final Fantasy. Item names, spell names, the general plot, and job classes will jump out first, along with an art style that combines Four Heroes of Light with Final Fantasy IX, but similarities don't end there. After just a little bit of time with the job system (see also: Final Fantasy III, V, and Tactics), players realize this is a Final Fantasy game, simply with a different title.
Its roots dig firmly into Japanese RPG soil, yet its systems provide a welcome twist for those tired of the same-old-same-old. Most notably, the Brave and Default system makes combat fresh and interesting all game long. Choosing "Brave" in battle allows the player to spend a character's next turn right now; think of it as a payday loan for a turn-based RPG battle system, where turns are the currency. A character can act up to four times right the hell now, but must subsequently sit out the next four rounds of combat. In the reverse, choosing "Default" grants an effect similar to "Defend" in most RPGs, but gives the added benefit of adding more possible turns to that character's stock. For example, one could potentially have a White Mage strategically Default several times when the battle action is calm, but then, when the boss lays down the pain, Brave with that White Mage and he can act up to eight times in two rounds of combat, curing and buffing the rest of the team. That's just one hypothetical example of the possibilities.
In my playthrough, my old-man ass stayed stuck in tradition for several hours, and I was finding Normal difficulty too tough somewhere in the second dungeon. I wasn't using Brave or Default very much, merely opting for the traditional system where friends and foes take turns punching each other one at a time. After rising above my own stubbornness, I was greeted with one of the most fun battle systems I've encountered in recent memory.
Character customization is handled via the classic Final Fantasy job system, which makes the aforementioned battles all the more exciting. Boss battles will put one's combat skills and team building to the test. Even when I lost battles, I had great fun rethinking my strategy, changing up my team's job/sub-job makeup, rearranging my equipment and so on, then going back for another shot.
It would have been nice to see what job ability will be acquired next—even the name or a hint at what type of ability is coming could help save people some time. Instead, one must resort to online FAQs for such things. Those who decline run the risk of leveling a job and then seeing abilities that don't appeal. That small gripe aside, the system is brilliant and provides dozens upon dozens of hours of addictive fun.
The battle system is also where the game's one and only microtransaction shows up. To get some extra turns without spending Brave Points, players can use a "Bravely Second." The catch is that regenerating this option is done by leaving the game in the 3DS's sleep mode, with eight hours earning one more available Brave Point (maximum of three). Those who want more Bravely Seconds can pay real money for them, though I never did and I was fine. It's mostly unobtrusive, though there are times when using the ability that the characters will shout things like "There's a way to gain SP without waiting!?" or "Buy SP drinks and skip the wait!" That got annoying, but it stopped after a while.
That could be chalked up to personal experience, however, as the battle dialogue may have simply rolled its dice that way for me, or perhaps I noticed it less because I didn't use Bravely Second very much in the latter parts of the game. Either way, it's a microtransaction, which sucks, but if there's ever going to be one in a game, this one is done pretty well. It has minimal impact on the game, is by no stretch even close to being required for success, but offers benefit to those willing to pay some cash for an easier experience. I'll allow it.
From the menu outside of battle, difficulty can be adjusted and the random encounter rate can be turned up, down, or even completely off. Purists who want to ride the road of tradition can do so if they like, while others can take advantage of these quality-of-life upgrades. Finding things too easy? Ramp up that difficulty. Can't beat this boss no matter what you do? Take it down a notch. Want to explore and find treasure now, then do your battling later? Turn encounters off. If you want to grind for some cash without overleveling, you can even turn off EXP and Job Points. Play how you want to play. Given how accessible these options make Bravely Default, it's actually a wonder that such inclusions don't exist in a higher number of RPGs.
Bravely Default's tone begins one way and ends another. For hours (60 for me), it tells a classic tale lifted straight from the first Final Fantasy, dusted off and given a genre-savvy cast. Look out for unfinished reviews that talk about the story being predictable and clichéd, yet not mentioning how the plot does a 180 near the end; this is your indicator that the reviewer didn't finish the game. In the late stages, there's a significant shift in tone, and predictability and convention go right out the window. While the characters grow on the player with their hyper-tropey charms and over-the-top personalities in the early- and mid-game, Square Enix flawlessly pulls off the switch to more serious storytelling.
Said story will be told with a genius script that delivers well-written dialogue being intentionally overacted by a solid voice-acting cast. It will be criticized for its cheese, but if you're experienced enough to realize that the cheese is intentional, you'll be all the richer for it.
The game's final phases may turn off some players. (No spoilers, don't worry.) The party will be asked to repeat several quests and boss battles again and again—not just similar quests, but the exact same ones. There's a beautiful reason for this, but it's not apparent at the time, which could lead to gamer rage, given how long it takes to clear the main story alone.
This is a huge game, packed full of content. The main quest will take most players between 50 and 60 hours, with over a hundred for completionists who want to get the "true" ending as well as find all of the treasures and clear all of the side missions. Subquests often consist of going into a dungeon, finding a boss, and beating him/her, but several are much more varied than that. Even the ones that could be boiled down to that simplistic formula include story bits that offer more immersion into Bravely Default's world and deliver a more detailed look at the enjoyable cast.
Furthermore, going into said dungeons is simply another form of enjoyable gameplay in Bravely Default. While there aren't many that rely on puzzle-solving, the navigation within them is fun enough, and they tend to be aesthetically varied. Some are laden with things like traps, hidden passageways, opportunities to use job skills, and more. And as mentioned, if people don't like that aspect, they can always just turn the encounters off and cruise through almost any dungeon in a couple of minutes.
A favorite distraction in Bravely Default is the rebuilding of a town called Norende. Players reform the town piece by piece with residents gained from the Nintendo 3DS StreetPass system. Any time one passes a player who has Bravely Default data on his/her 3DS, both will get another resident in Norende, meaning tasks can be completed more quickly. Those who live outside of Japan needn't worry, as the game will provide a few residents without requiring a StreetPass. Effectively managing the NPCs' tasks in Norende can grant more items and exclusive equipment in shops, but players who don't care for the system are free to completely ignore it without being noticeably held back.
Bravely Default is an RPG for everyone. Its configuration and customization possibilities make it a great choice to be someone's first RPG or 500th RPG. It has a story that starts out cliché but ends up leaving a lasting impression, gameplay that stays interesting for triple-digit hours, a blend of innovation and tradition, graphics and music that please the eyes and ears, and when it's all over, left me with a feeling well beyond satisfaction.
For maximum experience points, job points, and cash, check out our Bravely Default tips.