Bravely Default has been making waves in the JRPG community. A throwback to older style Final Fantasy games, Bravely Default is completely swimming in nostalgia. It doesn’t hurt that Silicon Studio developed the game along with Square Enix, and inserted a large amount of Final Fantasy traditions into the game. For years, Final Fantasy fans have been begging for something that could be considered classic Final Fantasy, and, with Bravely Default, Square has answered their calls. Of course, classic Final Fantasy isn’t a really easy term to define, and Bravely Default certainly doesn’t fit in with the majority of the franchise. What Bravely Default does emulate and emulate well is Final Fantasy V. Today I want to look at the similarities between the games, while discussing the merits of Bravely Default itself.
Final Fantasy V was a bit of a throwback at the time it was released. Square didn’t know it yet, but Final Fantasy IV’s approach to putting story and character above gameplay would forever change how developers approached JRPGs. In many ways, Final Fantasy V continued in the older Final Fantasy form, blissfully unaware of the changes to the industry. That’s not to say that it was immune, however. Final Fantasy V certainly put more emphasis on story and character than either Final Fantasy I or III, both of which contained the barest of bones stories with identical, non-existent protagonists. While Bartz, Galuf, Renna, and Faris (or however you want to translate them) are pretty boring and lifeless characters, they actually were characters with backstories and motivations, whereas 4X Onion Knight were nothing more than blank slates.
Similarly, the characters in Bravely Default are bad. They’re simply one note wonders with little to actually make you care about them. Tiz, Agnes, Edea, and Ringabel are mundanely designed and not particularly interesting to listen to. This is why dialogue has been a regular complaint in professional reviews of Bravely Default. These characters simply aren’t good. However, they weren’t specifically meant to be. Following the Final Fantasy V model, the characters aren’t the focus. They aren’t meant to have actual relationships or grow. All they do is exist as plausible people in the world and facilitate the starting of the main plot. It doesn’t matter how little interactions Faris has with everyone other than Lenna, or that Ringabel and Edea’s reaction to every conceivable event is the same. The same could be said of the main plot. While many accuse the story of going to hell at Chapter 5, which it does, the story before then wasn’t at all special. The plot simply is an excuse to do some adventuring and the characters are an excuse for a plot. Of course, in modern games, these things matter and Bravely Default has been judged by that standard. Still, there’s a reason behind it.
Another similarity is their interesting, yet totally wasted villains. Final Fantasy V had ExDeath, a Golbez knockoff who was actually a tree, trying to sink the world into the void. It also had Gilgamesh, a character who has managed to leap across Final Fantasy games, and whose popularity has only grown since his introduction. Both of these characters are far more interesting than the major cast, and neither are explained at all well. In Bravely Default, every new job class is guarded by a boss, and every one of these bosses is oozing with charm. However, you’ll be lucky to see them for ten minutes before they are killed off by your party (occasionally for no good reason at all). It’s such a shame that these characters are so much more interesting and compelling than the main protagonists, and more of a shame that we can’t see more of them.
Up until this point, you’d probably think I didn’t like the game. Not at all true. What both Final Fantasy V and Bravely Default gained by so vividly sacrificing story and character was gameplay. Both games use the Final Fantasy job system with the ability to mix and match abilities between several jobs. Unlike Final Fantasy I and III, an effort was put into the balancing of these jobs, and both games benefit beyond belief due to how open and flexible each playthrough can be. You can choose to make Galuf or Tiz a physical fighter on one playthrough or a mage in the next with tons of subclassing potential for both options. Final Fantasy IV may have ushered in the modern JRPG, but each playthrough is identical. What V and, consequently, Bravely Default managed to do was make each playthrough utterly unique, which is benefitted by the lack of a good story getting in the way.
One of the things that classic games knew well, and Final Fantasy V was no exception, is that good, deep gameplay is benefitted greatly by challenge. Bravely Default accepts this heritage and manages to make many of its encounters challenging to players, forcing them to find more effective ways of approaching a situation. Bosses can destroy the unprepared. An early boss, for example, obliterated my party with thunder and charm attacks. On my second attempt, I was able to exploit his reliance on these contrivances and take him down. That’s the sweet spot for every RPG. Players that are beaten and can return victorious due to strategy and planning will be happy players.
In the end, Bravely Default is an interesting example of gameplay being pitted against story, just like it was in Final Fantasy V. The game would be far better suited to using story and character development alongside gameplay instead of discarding it for the most part. While it’s easy to focus on the generic story and bland characters, behind them is a fantastic game, and an addicting combat system that should scratch the JRPG itch of anyone who plays it. Final Fantasy V is a wonderful game despite its faults, and so is Bravely Default for pretty much the exact same reasons.
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer