Bravely Default is one of those games that works on several different levels for me. At a glance it is the usual JRPG title with turn-based attacks, grinding for experience and a familiar story where strangers come together for the protection of the world. It all sounds very safe, very familiar and that can be a good or a bad thing depending on your preferences.
Undoubtedly there are longtime fans of role-playing games that will immediately cling to these warm, comfortable tropes. One of your party is suffering from amnesia? There is a threat to destroy the world? Run a quest to fetch items that unlocks a door into a castle? I am going out on a limb here to say most of us have seen these familiar plot points in the past - probably several times over.
If this was all Bravely Default had to offer, it would be easy to understand brushing it off. However, there are some intelligently designed mechanics that are inspired and fresh as well. These allow Bravely Default to rise above the crowd of portable JRPG titles on the DS or 3DS. This allows Bravely Default to feel comfortably familiar while giving you a reason to keep playing it and explore some of the original mechanics it brings to the table as well.
Graphics - 9:
The lightly squat character styles might not appeal to everyone, but the faces are surprisingly expressive and the monsters you encounter actually provide a decent amount of variety. The backgrounds are the real standout here, with a beautiful painted look to them that has both beautiful textures but also a sense of depth as you move about the world. The colors are vibrant, the details are lush and inviting and the lighting while static is still beautiful all the same. The 3D effect is really good, but it can be somewhat strong as well. I play almost all of my 3D games with the effect turned up all of the way, but here I only ran it about half strength. It looks amazing, but there is so much depth and movement on the screen that it can be somewhat of a strain.
Sound & Music - 7:
There is a great deal of voice acting here, and some of it is really quite good. Unfortunately it is counterbalanced by some really annoying voices as well. Most of the time the dialog is delivered convincingly, but there are just a handful of moments where it just does not sell me on the story at that particular moment in time.
The game has the usual sound effects for using a spell, drinking a potion or hitting an enemy. There can be long stretches of almost no sound - there is almost nothing ambient outside of the soundtrack itself. The music is an interesting matter as well. Most of the songs are brisk and beautiful. The primary dungeon crawling music is really an excellent piece. The problem I have with the music is that it lacks variety. It gets used over and over again throughout the game, making the otherwise excellent songs grow repetitive during the stretch run.
Gameplay - 9:
As a JRPG goes, this handles about as well as one could hope. Characters move easily enough and the persistent map on the lower screen makes navigation easy. Menus are also easy to navigate, though a case could be made that a bit more touch interface could have been beneficial. There are some clever online integrations and I never struggled to upload or connect so the data could be transferred. The gameplay options are robust, with difficulty modifiers and even encounter rate modifiers. The cherry on top? You can even set the game up so you can play it without buttons - just by using your left hand to manipulate the directional pad and the stick. I am not sure why you would want to do this, but it really does feel like Square Enix thought of just about everything for Bravely Default.
Combat itself is a bit different as well, despite initial appearances. There is a system in place where you can Default - defend and not only reduce damage done to you, but bank up to three brave points. On any given turn, you can typically make a single move. Unless you want to use the Brave command.This is an extra move. You can only brave up to four times. If you have Default points built up, you might break even. If you use Brave more times than you have points for, you go into a negative value - which means your character(s) might not get to make a move this turn, or the next, or the next... until they are back to even.
This is such a clever mechanic that lets you try and pound enemies out all at once if you are quite confident. Tune that with some melee talent and put it on auto battle and this can greatly expedite the grinding process (especially if you turn up the combat speed, which you can dial up or down - or even pause). The downside is if you overestimate your ability to wipe the enemy out when braving, you leave yourself open to up to four rounds of attacks without the ability to heal or mitigate the damage.
An additional system that plays into the game's name is the Bravely Second attack. This move is initiated by pressing the start button - even on the enemy's turn - and lets you give one of your players a move right then and there. If it is one of your special moves, it can then break the damage limit of 9,999 that is usually in place.
Intangibles - 9:
For starters, there is a lot of game here. I did the vast majority of side content and did not beat the game properly (there are 'two endings') until around the seventy hour mark. You can grind up to a max level of 99, and there are a multitude of job classes available that impact your stats, but also the gear you 'work best with' and your available skills. This leveling within the leveling system provides a nice hook to keep you fighting monsters. I went through about three quarters of the game with the encounter rate turned up all of the way.
There is some nice use of friend data and connectivity here as well. While Bravely Default is a decidedly single player game, you can link your characters to friends who have played the game as well. Doing so opens up different job skills. You can also 'send' an attack to the internet whenever you like. Your friends can then use that attack once if they are in a pinch. The next time you update your attack, your friends can use it again. Same with me - I had dozens of attacks I could pull down - either from actual friends or 'found friends' that allow you to slowly repopulate your village.
Ah, the village. Another familiar staple turned into a good gameplay mechanic. One of the characters suffers the loss of his village and family in a great calamity. What you can do later in the game is start to rebuild your village. In doing so, you create shops that will give you items, allow you to purchase powerful gear and also unlocks special ability augmentations. As you add people to your village through the internet, you can assign them jobs to improve a building. At first four people assigned to a potion shop might only take fifteen minutes before you raise from level one to level two. When you are attempting to boost from level ten to eleven? You might be looking at over ninety hours. All of this happens in the background while you play or even when you have the 3DS closed for the night (as long as you have the game running).
Overall - 8.5:
Bravely Default strikes a perfect balance of game mechanics, offering both something familiar but also innovating at the same time. The characters start off feeling somewhat generic, but over time they grow on you as they reveal more depth. Even the villains often show different motivations for their actions. Some are simply evil for the sake of being evil, but it is interesting to see the reasons for some of the more important ones' actions. Bravely Default does an excellent job of showing why these select enemies are doing what they are doing - how in their minds it is justified.
The final quarter of the game is a bit strange in how it is laid out. I will avoid getting into spoiler territory, but will state that it is an interesting paradox because it really helps to hammer the storyline home while at the same time, feeling a little bit needlessly repetitive. Thankfully despite the somewhat grinding heavy nature of the game, there are enough other systems in place to keep a gamer invested throughout the adventure. There are plenty of side quests and optional jobs you can learn along the way that help to add variety to the skills of your characters.
I was excited to hear that the sales for Bravely Default have been strong since its release. This increases the odds we eventually get to see the sequel game - Bravely Second. Which, if you beat Bravely Default, you get to see a very unique trailer for. I will not spoil any of the contents, but it makes good use of the motion tracking in the 3DS as you are interacting with the teaser's events around you, turning your head to follow the action. To date, Bravely Default is arguably the best game I have played on the 3DS.