I’ve been looking at older JRPGs lately (in immediate contradiction of my swearing them off recently, I do that) and Bravely Default came back on my radar. It’s a fun game, and one that’s clearly made with a lot of love. But interspersed here and there are some of the most bizarre and just plain weird choices I’ve ever seen in a JRPG, and so that’s what I wanna write about today.
Everyone knows what the game is by now. It was released so long ago. Quick recap anyway, because that’s how we do: Bravely Default is a love letter to Final Fantasy, specifically FF5 in my opinion. Four youths come together on a journey to save the world, you can switch around between job classes (called, weirdly, “asterisks” here) that give you different abilities, and as you level these jobs up, you can carry over abilities to other jobs to create the perfect ultimate party and ability combinations. The game is characterized by a HEAVY grind and steep difficulty, some truly stellar art, pretty okay voice acting, it’s basically like an old-school Final Fantasy stepped out of time in the 2000s. Even a lot of the jobs are the same. This is all good stuff.
The major innovation here is the brave/default system. You can choose to “brave” to take extra actions during your turn, up to 3. In return for this power, you then can’t take actions for that many turns afterward. If you like, you can stock actions ahead of time using “default”, which is also your defend action. That’s a pretty cool system, and gives you a big risk/reward thing to think about, during boss battles when you’re not grinding anyway.
The game seems to know that it’s grindy as all hell. It gives you options to tweak the encounter rate as well as a fast-forwarding feature so you can just blow through battle after battle insanely fast, and an auto action selector so you don’t even have to mash attack. I think the idea, the intended mode of play, is just doing circles with the analog stick on the world map with the battle speed turned up to maximum and actions set to auto. For hours and hours and hours. BD is actually far grindier than any FF in recent memory, and there’s really no point to the game being like that. Most of my interaction with the game on my first playthrough years ago, I wasn’t even looking at the screen. So that’s Weirdness 1. You’ve got a JRPG with a big grind that says, “hey it’s okay, we know grind sucks, go ahead and skip through it super fast, you don’t have to actually play me.” But… that’s how you’re supposed to play it. And the inclusion of that grind was a deliberate choice that also undercuts itself immediately, like it lacks confidence. Strange.
Weirdness 2 is Bravely Second. Specifically, the monetization of Bravely Second. At any time during battle, even on your opponents’ turn, you can press Start to enter BS Mode (heh) and stop time to take additional actions. Okay, neat. You accrue points called “SP” to use BS by leaving your DS in sleep mode while playing BD, with 8 hours equalling one SP point. Hm, okay. The reason they want you to do this is Norende, which I’ll get to in a second. Here’s the kicker, though: you can literally pay real money to get “SP Drinks” that give you points usable for Bravely Second actions. Fuckin weird. What sort of player is actually paying money for this? Individual actions aren’t really so powerful that it’s worth it, there’s never a situation where you NEED to take 9-12 actions in a row or something. Why was this included? It’s a truly strange choice to make.
Weirdness 3 is Norende. The town one of your main four kids comes from gets destroyed like the second the game starts, and there’s a mechanic that gets introduced early on where you’re going to rebuild it. Okay. You never directly interact with the town itself. You can’t physically go there at all, and on the world map, it remains a literal hole in the ground. However, there’s this phantom Norende that you can go to in a menu, with “buildings” and stuff you can level up by paying ponygils and then waiting a long time IRL for the upgrade to finish. Upgrading your town a lot gives you access to some hella overpowered items, and you can get this stuff really early. From the second you unlock the Norende Farmville feature, there’s nothing stopping you from ceasing all progress in the main story and just leveling up all the things and getting all the items. Which in turn completely destroys the progression and balance of the game for no reason. Even if you try to deliberately go slow with this, you’ll end up getting stuff you shouldn’t have yet, because again, the game is super super grindy and progress will be slow. This feature is also how you unlock the game’s hardest fights, however, the optional super-bosses are all gated behind it. So you’ll want to do it anyway. I don’t know.
Weirdness 4 is the online features. The game lets you like, FF8-junction your DS friends list to your characters, so you can take advantage of the skills and stat bonuses of a friend who’s further through the game than you are. It also lets you summon your friends’ characters into your world as a big strong (or pathetically weak, depending on where they are in the game) attack. They put a crazy amount of time and effort into making sure you could customize every little detail about these attacks, even letting you assign one-liners that your character will say when it’s summoned by someone else, what attack they’ll use, the music that will play, etc. And these summons are completely game-breaking. Late-game players are exponentially stronger than those earlier on, like any JRPG, and they’ll often one-shot midgame bosses. Not only are the attacks themselves usually overpowered (depending on how much your friends are grinding), but the act of summoning gives you a special buff that lasts as long as the music from the summon plays, to further incentivize using them.
The first four weirdnesses all have something in common: they’re designed to break the game, but to do so with mechanics that come from outside the usual constraints of a single player RPG. There’s something to be said for the boldness of that approach, I think, a game that’s willing to say, “Go ahead and fuck us up, fam. Do your worst.” Like, almost pitting the game against the player in a fourth-wall sort of way.
The final weirdness is the story of Bravely Default, and here I don’t have a lot more to say. It’s not great. Its not-greatness is done deliberately in places, to call back to (and in some places, respond to) classic JRPG tropes of crystals and evil empires, but then it dives off the deep end into its own special kind of not-greatness that, while I can give it props for commitment to its ideas, I have to then take back all those props and more for being incredibly tedious and stupid. If you’ve played the game, you know I’m referring to the final “time loop” chapters of the true ending, which feel like they constitute over half the game. It just drags on way way too long, and is so repetitive as to be completely mind-numbing. It’s as if they’re trying to wear you out and exhaust you on the whole concept of alternate universes, to make differences between timelines meaningless through there being so many of them and them being so minor. To erase the very concept of a “character” or a “personality”, to numb you to the idea of “destiny” and “choice”. The protagonists also come across as incredibly stupid during these chapters. I mean, it’s not their fault that they can’t remember things between universes, but like… come on. In that way, it’s an interesting example of putting the player in the shoes of the protagonists directly through the design of the game. The act of actually playing these final chapters, however, is exhausting and awful. Whether it’s by design or not, that doesn’t really make it more fun.
The best ending, in my opinion, is the “bad” ending where you choose to keep charging up a crystal until you break it. This forces the villain’s hand, revealing their true sinister nature and leading to an entirely different final stretch, after which the title screen also changes in a way that I found really cool. It’s actually so cool that I’m not even going to spoil it! The deception of the story, the way it lulls you into a false sense of security with its tired tropes, only to take off in a different direction, is something so rarely seen in JRPG storytelling that it deserves a mention here even if the final result ended up being a bit of a misstep.
So yeah, I guess that’s all I wanted to say. Fuckin weird game. It’s worth a look though, I think.