It’s been a rough decade for the JRPG. A variety of factors have made it more difficult for companies to keep making them at the scale they once did, and a variety of other factors have made it more difficult for the JRPGs that do get made to be localized elsewhere in the world.
Audiences shifted, anime took a hard turn towards the gutter, and it all added up to JRPG popularity waning pretty drastically outside Japan in the last ten years. But if we’re going to be honest for a moment, technical, cultural, and linguistic barriers are not the only reasons for dwindling appreciation. JRPGs are rarely the most player-friendly games around these days.
Running around aimlessly to fight enemies, so that you have the levels necessary to clear the next boss? A lot of people don’t like grinding! Losing a battle and realizing that you lost the last 30+ minutes of your life with it? That could demoralize anyone. Even just being unable to move through an environment without incessant interruption is a turn off to the more exploration-minded player.
And yes, I am aware that many complain that video games have become too player-friendly. Being asked to follow NPCs instead of exploring, scripted action sequences that lack danger, linear level design, and omnipresent objective indicators all sap some amount of agency and accomplishment from many modern games. At the very least, though, I don’t think anyone is accusing the modern JRPG of playing itself. Surely there can be a happy medium between contemporary convenience and tradition?
Bravely Default doesn’t have the answer; it doesn’t strike some perfect balance. Instead, Bravely Default offers access to a perhaps unprecedented variety of settings and allows the player to tweak the game as he or she sees fit. Among the settings that can be toggled are: random encounter rate, objective markers, encounter difficulty, control settings, animation speeds, text speed, autosaving, and combat rewards.
Bravely Default can be, if the player so chooses, the toughest of tough oldschool JRPGs. Encounters can be frequent and fierce, objectives will be referenced only as a general direction that the player needs to travel in, and if the newfangled storytelling isn’t to this old school player’s liking that can all be skipped out of too.
Bravely Default can also be, if the player so chooses, a forgiving and thoroughly progressive RPG experience. Both main and optional objectives are clearly marked out, other players met through SteetPass or over the Internet can be summoned to cast ridiculously powerful late game special attacks at any point, and any time the going gets tough, the encounter rate can simply be zeroed out. And if the player gets jumped unprepared? Not to worry—this RPG has heard of checkpoints! Death sends the player back only to the last doorway or staircase traversed. Heck, the game can be played almost entirely with just your left hand.
I suspect few people will choose to play the game at either extreme, though. I personally have found myself leaning a little bit towards convenience, but I keep the friend summons and time freezing SP attacks out of it. I’ve zeroed the encounter rate when I’m done playing and just want to get out to a save point, and I feel absolutely no shame about doing that. I should be able to quit a game when I’m done playing.
I’ve also left combat animations on maximum speed for an awful lot of my playtime. The animations themselves aren’t anything spectacular (the characters just sort of wave their weapons in the air) and anything to hasten the third identical enemy encounter is very welcome. The complexity of the Brave and Default battle system means that an Atlus-style speed battle physical attack shortcut button isn’t really applicable, but minimizing the time spent waiting between making decisions in the menu and getting to interact with the game again is welcome.
One weird interaction with the animation speed toggle is that certain special attacks boost the entire party in some way for a limited amount of time, but the effect depletes in real-time instead of time measured in turns. So, a player running animations at maximum speed is able to get about twice as much utility out of these effects as one leaving the animations to run as normal. If the player chooses, he or she can even pause the battle and wait for the boost to wear off entirely! Like the rest of the game, this feature comes down to self-policing and the player deciding what kind of game they want Bravely Default to be.
And really, that’s what all of this boils down to. Bravely Default wants to be your kind of JRPG. Rather than take a single guess at what you may enjoy, Silicon Studio instead made a game that has the capacity to satisfy any number of divergent preferences. By making every shortcut and convenience individually selectable, I imagine only a precious few RPG fans will be unable to enjoy Bravely Default.
Look out for more Bravely Default coverage on Siliconera this week and the next, as we explore more aspects of the game.
Food for thought:
1. The one customization feature that at least one other JRPG has had that this one does not is a character by character language swap. It’s not a terrible loss, really, as getting dual audio at all should be celebrated. But I’m still sad that I can’t turn Agnès’ speech into gibberish. I just do not like her.
2. Even if you decide to kick it oldschool through the game and spurn the many modern conveniences, I’ll bet you end up fast-forwarding when you’ve Braved your mage up to cast four consecutive spells of some sort. Those animations just feel like they take forever.
3. Honestly, I’m not even sure I would want to play this game on hard mode or under any other sort of artificially challenging settings. I recognize that there’s an audience for that, but the defaults suit me just fine.