When a big company starts slipping, it’s generally a good idea to go back to their roots — to figure out what worked in the first place. It seems that’s what Square Enix set out to do with Bravely Default, a good old-fashioned romp through familiar, turn-based JRPG territory. Now they’re working with newer hardware (the Nintendo 3DS), and understand that just repeating past glories alone won’t get them out of a rut. So while Bravely Default might seem to fit a little too comfortably in Square’s wheelhouse, dig beneath the surface and you’ll find that the game is more than just a new coat of paint.

The combat is the strongest part of Bravely Default (the name of the game is derived from the combat system, which is pretty telling), so we’ll start there. Like all great JRPGs of yesteryear, Bravely Default is turn-based, but with a twist. Instead of just the old ‘you attack, I attack’ routine, you can choose to put your characters in a defensive stance known as “Default.” In Default, your character will take less damage from attacks, and store an extra move for the next turn, known as Brave Points, or BP for short. The more BP you store up, the more consecutive moves you can use in the future, known as going “Brave.” If you end up going into the negatives for BP, your character will be unable to move the next turn at all, leaving them wide open. This adds a lot of strategy to what could be called a somewhat stale method of combat. Sometimes it’s smarter to just go on full-out attack mode, and sometimes it’s wiser to wait, or even stagger your attacks across your characters. The phrase ‘risk and reward’ gets thrown around a lot (I am guilty of this myself), but it really rings true here. You default, then you brave. You take a risk, and you are rewarded.

So what makes Bravely Default more than just another run-of-the-mill JRPG other than the fundamentals of the combat? In most games, if a character is introduced as a healer, that’s what he or she will remain until the end of the game. Bravely Default doesn’t like imposing such restrictions. As you defeat bosses, you earn things called ‘asterisks,’ which enables your team to start equipping new jobs. There are twenty-four in total, so you’re going to want to do some experimenting to find your perfect match-ups. You can switch between jobs seamlessly, but the experience doesn’t cross over, meaning you have to train up each job on each character individually. This isn’t as time-consuming as it sounds, I promise. The coolest part is that you can train up abilities with one job, switch to another, and transfer over those abilities. This leads to interesting combinations of healer-type characters using powerful striking or magic attacks. Not tying any character down to one job makes the flow of combat very dynamic. You never feel penalized for choosing the wrong combinations, even with all the myriad possibilities. Pairing this mechanic with the brave/default system, and each battle feels exciting and rewarding.

The customization of the combat doesn’t end there. With each job, there are certain prerequisites that need to be fulfilled before you can activate a special move. Not only can you customize what the special move does—adding blinding afflictions or extra fire damage to your archer special move, for example—you can even personalize what each character says after they perform their special abilities. Switching out the generic text for “GET MAD KID” is a very nice touch. These special attacks can be a little cheap if you know a boss battle is coming, however. You can stack up your special attacks in preparation for the fight, and unleash all your power in the first turn, decimating your opponent before they even have a chance to retaliate. Maybe it’s a smart piece of strategy, but it also can take the challenge away from bosses that are supposed to be daunting forces.

If any facet of the game screams ‘this is the future,’ it’s the online integration. At the beginning of the game, the main character, Tiz, loses his village in a typically apocalyptic event. Throughout the game, he takes it upon himself to rebuild his home. This is done through a mini-game that tasks you with recruiting villagers, assigning them to building efforts, and watching the labor take place over a set period of time (the more difficult the job, the longer it will take). Sounds basic, right?

Except these villagers aren’t just random NPCs. Villagers are acquired via Spotpass, meaning every time you pass another 3DS of someone who has played Bravely Default, their character becomes a part of your village. The more villagers you get, the faster you will rebuild the village. Each building gives you access to more weapons, items, even customization options for your special moves. It’s not mandatory to invest time into any of this but you would be doing a disservice to the game, and yourself, to ignore it.  You can also summon Spotpass characters during battle for extra assistance. Depending on the person you Spotpass, they might even drag in a monster for you to do battle with, which garners excellent rewards. Again, it’s up to the player how much they get out of the online mechanics, much in the same way the Souls series operates. But those games are at their best when you utilize every tool at your disposal and Bravely Default is no different.

You can really tailor the game to your whim. If you just need to get from one place to another and don’t want to be mobbed by annoying hordes of enemies along the way, you can completely turn off random encounters. Anyone that’s played more than five minutes of a JRPG can tell you the struggle of running into unwanted foes, mere seconds from your destination. You can also make the text scroll automatically to avoid cramping your thumb on the A button, or skip every cut-scene completely. These little tweaks take out a bunch of irritations and frustrations that plague so many ‘old-school’ role-playing games. Bravely Default is the JRPG that has played other JRPGs and knows exactly what it hated about them.  Well, for the most part.

There’s a reason I’ve gone this long in the review without touching on the characters or the story. I like to leave the worst for last. The four individual main characters (Tiz, Anges, Edea, and Ringabel) are a mixed bag. Each has his or her own distinct personality and personal goals, some of which are more compelling than others. Agnes’ quest to save the world as one of the last remaining vestals is effective. Ringabel constantly making quips about how much he wants to sleep with every girl he crosses paths with is grating. I did enjoy their little ‘party chat’ banter, as it gave a real sense of partnership over the course of the game. If they had focused more on this aspect of the characters instead of cheap laughs or repetitive character beats, I probably would have been more invested.

The problem isn’t necessarily in their characterization, but in their dialogue. The writing seems to try and avoid cliché whenever it can, but in doing so, many lines come across as awkward or clunky. You understand what the characters are trying to say, but a majority of the time, there are so many better ways it could have been said. Instead of just saying ‘We must hurry,’ Ringabel will ramble on, ‘I cannot overstate how haste is of the utmost importance in this circumstance!’ It’s very unnecessary. The quality of the voice acting doesn’t really matter (though it can be downright brutal here) if the writing feels inauthentic. The intended comedy can also venture into creepy territory, which is hard to ignore when one of the main quests involves a perverted old man dressing up a barely above teenaged girl for a beauty contest. Gross.

The art style is impressive, especially for the 3DS. The implementation of the 3D gives the main cities depth and makes them feel elaborately constructed. Some of the effects during battle are suitably flashy and ‘wow’-worthy. Unfortunately, the same level of detail and care that went into the cities doesn’t carry over to the dungeons. Reused graphical assets makes one dungeon blend into the next, with very little to set them apart outside a swapped color palette. There’s a tiny puzzle thrown in here and there, but they are nothing more than distractions—attempts at making mazes that feel tailored toward young children…which means I only had mild difficulties completing them.

I mentioned earlier that the gameplay is based on risk and reward, and this ethos can be applied to the game at large. When Bravely Default takes risks with the formula (online integration, random encounter system), it yields the best results. When it falls back into bad habits (dull storytelling, repetitive dungeon design), it feels like a grind. When it’s Brave, it’s exciting and fresh. When it’s Default, it’s boring and stale. Have I run this analogy into the ground yet? Perfect. Moving on.

What’s old isn’t necessarily new again, but Bravely Default shows that some things can age gracefully. There are wrinkles that need to be ironed out in future installments if this is going to be another major franchise for Square Enix, but the combat proves that they are onto something great here. Thankfully, Bravely Default is a step in the right direction after the calamity that was some of their recent efforts.  Just try to ignore the story.


Final Score - 7/10

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