Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bravely Default: Old-School JPRG with Modern Affordances

I’m a big fan of JRPGs. I grew up on the Tales series and Final Fantasy, so I admit that I have a pretty big bias towards them, but at the same time who cares? If you like that classic turn-based combat, then Bravely Default on the 3DS seems like it will deliver that in spades, with modern gaming design considerations to bring it into the here and now.

The name “Bravely Default” is a bit odd unto itself. It’s a nod to the big mechanic that makes up the game’s core focus. Basically, every round each character gets an action, a point if you will. Well, now that you think of actions as points, then the next natural thing is to either save them, or spend more than one of them. In most JRPGs, you can defend, but you basically waste your turn. In Bravely Default, you can “Default”, which puts you into a defensive stance for the turn, but you save your action point. Now, if you want to spend more than a single action point in a turn? Then you “Brave”, which allows you to spend up to 4 actions.

Image from Bravely Default is the JRPG we deserve!
Here’s the kicker, though. You can spend action points you don’t have yet! For example, you could, on the first turn, spend 4 actions. You’d end up waiting 3 turns doing nothing as you saved up the points you spent, but you’ve gotten 4 actions on the very first turn! This turns saving or spending actions into a risk/reward mechanic that can be very satisfying. You feel really clever once you start figuring out how to use the system to your advantage. But note the enemies, bosses included, also use the system to their advantage.

So that explains the name, and what the primary mechanic of combat is. But what else is the game about? Well, it’s very much Final Fantasy, except without the brand attached to it. It’s the Final Fantasy we wanted and deserved, right down to Phoenix Downs and Firaga spells. Crystals, airships, 4 warriors, the whole classic shebang. Now, I’ve only played the demo, which really doesn’t get into the story proper, so I can’t actually speak to more than what I’ve heard here. I’m as much in the dark on that aspect as you are.

Screen from Looks pretty good for a handheld game
Fans of Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics will note the job system is back in full force, as well. 24 unique classes, and each character can have the abilities of their current job, as well as one other job they’ve learned. Characters also get a load-out of up to four passive skills that you can mix and match from any jobs you’ve learned, allowing you to do some pretty neat things, almost game breaking in some cases. But that’s half the fun!

Even the menu music is gorgeous.

The artwork in the game is quite nice for the 3DS, at least the stuff that I saw. Gorgeous backdrops in the demo city. But the music, oh man, the music is excellent! The combat themes have strong violins and guitar, and even the menu music is wonderful. I’m definitely going to have to shell out for the OST, because so far I haven’t heard a piece of music in the game that didn’t make me smile. And the interesting thing? Square Enix actually outsourced the soundtrack to Revo, apparently the head of a popular Sound Horizon music team in Japan. Frankly, they scored an awesome deal on that, because Revo is definitely a composer who could rival Nobuo Uematsu.

 This mid-boss music is kicking. High energy, strong melody, diverse set of instruments that don't sound out of place with each other.

The game itself brings to the table a few innovations not just around gameplay, but affordances as well. One of the ones that really sticks out is simple, yet effective: an encounter rate slider. In the settings menu, you can jack it up to +100% encounter rate, or reduce it all the way down to -100% encounter rate. Running through an area you don’t care to fight monsters in because they’re worth nothing? Stuck too far from a save point and afraid you may die? Well, you can just not have any encounters at all. Want to grind some easier battles to get a new job up to speed? Crank it up to +100%. Not only that, but between auto-battle and the ability to throw combat into x4 fast forward, grinding never was easier. Now you don’t have to grind as far as I’m aware, but if you want to, or think you have to, it’s never been more convenient.

Image from Changing the encounter rate whenever you like? Awesome!

There’s also a city building aspect, which plays a lot like those iOS building games where you use the StreetPass functionality to gather villagers from your friends, and put those villagers to work building up your city. Shops sell better items as you devote more building time to it, and a better variety as you get more buildings all around. Thankfully, you don’t need to spam Facebook to do it.

Town building. It's a thing right now. And I love it!
The game also tries to throw microtransactions at you, but allowing you to effectively purchase more turns. “Sleep Points” basically pauses combat to give you an extra turn in combat, but from what I’ve heard it’s largely unnecessary. You also earn those naturally over time when not playing anyhow. We’ll see if much comes out of it, but that’s not something I’m holding my breath on.

Me showing off the encounter slider, and fast forward in combat. Kinda hard to play with one hand holding a phone camera.

So overall, the demo was a tonne of fun, and left me wanting more. So much more, but in a good way. I’m definitely going to pick this game up (thanks Amazon!) and play the crap out of it. So very excited to have a solid, polished JRPG experience. We just don’t get enough of those anymore.

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