Many have compared Bravely Default to Final Fantasy III or Final Fantasy V. The job system is there. The character art from Akihiko Yoshida (who also worked on Final Fantasy III’s 3D remake) is there. The turn based combat operates on similar principles.
When I booted up Bravely Default, that’s more or less what I expected to play—a fancy modern Final Fantasy III. That expectation lasted all of twenty seconds. Before introducing any sort of mechanics or gameplay or context, Bravely Default sets itself apart from that simple Final Fantasy III comparison by focusing on the core cast of characters.
See, Bravely Default walks the walk of a throwback JRPG, but it doesn’t talk the talk. No, it talks the talk of the much more contemporary works of Square Enix; the abstract conflict between light and darkness, the extensive voice work of uneven quality, and the cast of characters providing running commentary on events as they take place are all very much in line with what one might expect to find from the company’s genre blending narrative heavy console output.
So, does the more ambitious storytelling mess up the throwback vibe the rest of this game embraces? Through the first couple of hours, I sure thought so. The introduction to the game felt entirely too long and each new party member I met subjected me to an extended gauntlet of dialogue boxes to justify his or her attachment to the party cause. It also didn’t help that I found absolutely nothing to capture my interest in the first two characters to join the party. One struck me as extraordinarily bland, and the other as extraordinarily dumb.
So there I was, in the introductory chapter of the game, thinking that all was lost. The cutscenes were interrupting the flow of the old school JRPGs this game otherwise imitates, the optional party chats (voiceless extra conversations blatantly lifted from the Tales Of franchise) each revealed the participating characters to be more vapid and boring than the last, and why bother with all this storytelling anyway if all I’m doing is journeying to protect the four elemental crystals from darkness? I can handle that without all the exposition, thanks.
And then, Ringabel joined the party. I already knew somewhat what to expect from the character, I knew he was an amnesiac and a flirty ladies’ man. In other words, two common JRPG tropes combined. Three if you count his hair. But just as I was about to abandon hope, I realized something. Spike Spencer was killing it on his lines. Some of these weren’t good lines, even—he was spinning straw into gold! Ringabel’s dialogue quickly became my favorite part of the game, containing all the character and charm I had previously found wanting.
But that was just the start. Ringabel’s “Notebook of D” has some sort of connection to the past and future, strangely foretelling what has not yet happened and revealing mysteries from Ringabel’s otherwise inscrutable past. For obvious reasons I won’t say exactly how, but the mysteries of this notebook become very significant and make the journey to protect the four elemental crystals somewhat…. complicated. And when the final party member joins the quest, the interactions between Ringabel and the newcomer Edea are an absolute treat. Ringabel is not only a good character, but he makes the rest of the game better for his inclusion.
Sometimes, one good character is all you need. As my enthusiasm for Ringabel pushed me forward, the rest of the game fell into place. The plot got rolling, the class system opened up, Norende’s restoration started paying dividends, and even that character focus that had seemed so out of place for the first hour or two started to make sense.
Near the end of the introductory chapter (and I’m being careful not to reference anything from beyond that point) the party faces a knight. One party member takes particular issue with his interpretation of knighthood, and her different standards are a direct result of her background. That was really the moment when the game came together to make sense for me. The fight has to happen because of Edea’s notions of chivalry as established through both cutscene and party chats. The fight has to happen to unlock the knight class for the player to toy with. The fight has to happen because D’s notebook says it has to happen. In this boss fight, the plot and the characterization and the mechanics all work together and it’s just awesome.
There’s more where that came from, but those moments are for players to discover for themselves. And just to think, I might have stopped playing if not for Ringabel. Sometimes, one good character can make all the difference in the world. For me, one did. Ultimately that’s why Bravely Default’s focus on characters pays off.
Look forward to more coverage of Bravely Default on Siliconera over the coming days!
Food for thought:
1. I’m a lot further in the game than I’m talking about just because everyone deserves the opportunity to discover the game him or herself, but even where I am, I still think that Agnès is a bummer. I don’t like the voice work, I don’t like that she’s the character most concerned with the crystals (far and away the least interesting thing happening in this world), and I resent that she brought this game’s tiny moral support character with a high pitched voice along with her.
2. Just like most other features in Bravely Default, all this narrative content is customizable. Party chats need not be initiated, and cutscenes can largely be skipped. Though I would argue that it’s a lesser experience, if you wanted to play this game like that modern Final Fantasy III reimagining I was expecting you can turn off the objective marker in the overworld, skip the story, and crank the encounter rate up to 150%.
3. Oh come on, game. You’re going to have the evil white mage fill three cutscenes with innuendo and not bite on Ringabel “giving someone the D” when he hands his notebook to another character? This is not difficult!!!