(tl;dr version: in spite of a titular character who'll make you beg for the sweet release of death every time she appears on screen, Bravely Default succeeds in being what Final Fantasy should never have stopped being, to such an extent that no 3DS collection is complete without it.)
Having finally completed the game (minus the nemeses, which are on my to-do-eventually list), I can safely say Bravely Default's surprise success is fully justified, and also may have bought Square Enix some precious time to turn its rapidly fading reputation around. Granted, they made the game in collaboration with Silicon Studio, but it still serves as a powerful reminder that they never forgot how to make a great game - they just chose not to, in the name of trying to appeal to the lucrative Western markets better. Too bad the understanding the Japanese have of said markets is based on inaccurate stereotypes, which explains the repeated failures the Final Fantasy franchise has faced over the last decade.
People have been saying for a while now that they would need another Final Fantasy (as in, the original on NES) to bring them back from the brink of death again, and while their financial situation isn't as precarious as it was then (remember, FF1 was supposed to be their last game before going out of business, so they were in just that bad a shape), they certainly needed to restore people's faith in them. While it will take some time to find out if it did just that, and if it is really is the start of something new for Square (its higher-ups seem to have acknowledged that in pursuing a specific target audience, they lost sight of what really mattered), as far as this single game goes, they would've been hard-pressed to do a better job.
The best part is, this turnaround came pretty close to never being given a chance of happening. Bravely Default's original release, subtitled Flying Fairy, was a Japan-only 2012 release, and an enhanced version, the Engrish-ridden lie "For The Sequel", was released last year, also only in Japan. International players would have to wait a bit longer before getting their hands on said enhanced version, with the subtitle Where the Fairy Flies. Does this story sound familiar? It should, because it's the exact same release pattern as generation 1 of Pokémon. All we're missing is a special version where Lightning somehow usurps the lead role, and the cycle would be complete.
Cynicism aside, Bravely Default's success is far from undeserved, and I'm going to give my two cents as to why here. Be warned that there are SPOILERS, and as such the rest of this rant is going to be hidden behind a jump.
First, a little history lesson. It's common knowledge by now that Final Fantasy 2, 3 and 5 didn't get an international release until much, MUCH later. In the cases of 2 and 3, this was understandable: the games were garbage grindfests. 5, on the other hand, didn't make much sense: it was a really impressive game for the time, bringing back the old job system but adding considerably more depth to it. It was later given international releases on PS1 and GBA, and at that point it was clear that its quality was far above what 2 and 3 did, and the SNES version never getting released outside of Japan was a terrible idea.
One of the great things about Bravely Default is that it aimed (and succeeded) to recreate that old-school Final Fantasy feel, while also giving it a more modern flair. And what better way to do so than by bringing back the old job system, taking its best iteration and adding a whole new layer of complexity onto it? The job system as seen in Bravely Default is very similar to the one in FF5, even featuring its signature customizable ability - or rather, in this case, secondary job pick. This way of doing things ended up giving your characters far greater versatility, and also far more potential options. With over 300 abilities spread over 24 jobs, part of the charm of the game is the sheer amount of toys you can play with. Every job has an interesting flavor, with even the oddball Red Mage being given a special theme that goes beyond the capability to use both black and white magic. All the classics are there, although some have changed names: "bard", "dragoon" and "blue mage" became "performer", "valkyrie" and "vampire".
Of course, with so many abilities to choose from, it's pretty difficult to make a balanced game, and the devs admitted that it wasn't on their list of priorities. Not that it's entirely a bad thing, part of the fun of the game is playing around with stuff, seeing what works and what doesn't, what synergizes well, etc. And when you find something that steamrolls enemies *coughdarkknightcough*, there's just no better feeling. Of course, they didn't use that excuse to make a fundamentally broken game: just about every ability taken alone comes with an opportunity cost that befits it. (Heck, the Pirate job was nerfed from the original Japanese release for some reason I'm not aware of. If anyone knows, please tell me!) It's the synergy between good abilities that makes a select few builds rise above the rest. The Blood Blade, a pretty cool weapon on its own, but nothing absolutely terrifying, is what makes high-end Dark Knight abilities, which are also meh-ish on their own, into absolute gamebreakers. (Why did they nerf Pirates, but not Dark Knights? I shudder to think of how good Pirates were in Flying Fairy.) In my opinion, the sheer depth Bravely Default's customization options display puts FF5 to absolute shame, and is part of what makes this game stand out.
And if that wasn't enough, Bravely Default introduced a system its own title came from, the Brave/Default system, which allows characters and enemies to either use their upcoming terms right away at the cost of being completely helpless afterwards, or accumulate turns while defending to unleash that onslaught later. Once again, the devs did a stellar job of implementing an idea not everyone may have thought of, and that makes players really think about the risks vs. rewards of each option. Even random battles really make you think, as they're designed to be tricky enough that braving right away might still not be enough to pull out an instant win. On the other side, though, it's hard not to feel like opponents are holding back at times. Many bosses, and even some randoms, have everything they need to just brave three times and wipe out your entire party. But they don't. Of course it wouldn't be much of a game if it was that cheap, so I can accept it. It still feels weird, though.
As far as the difficulty goes, I agree with the general consensus that it starts out being really hard because you don't have many options at the start, then it gets gradually easier as you progress. It has the obvious benefit of making you feel as though you really ARE getting more powerful when leveling up and getting new jobs, but at the same time it's only normal in most games to ease you into the game, THEN get gradually harder and harder. The chapter 1 fights against the Jackal and Profiteur in particular are so ridiculous that, unless you want the Thief and Merchant jobs and you want them NOW, it's a better idea to wait until you've awakened the wind crystal. That's what I did for Profiteur, at least - I somehow managed to beat out the Jackal, and without even knowing Khint leaves when either him or the Jackal hit half HP at that.
It's not just the lack of options that makes things difficult early on, either, but also the lack of cash. While you see Profiteur fling coins at you like they're nothing, you're desperately trying to make ends meet. You want to upgrade as much of your gear as possible when reaching a new town, but you don't have enough for everything, leaving you to make some really tough decisions. Then, suddenly, halfway through the game, you've visited every town, so you don't need to spend anything anymore on upgrades (aside from some of the better Norende equips, more on that later), and money comes in faster and faster, with nothing of note to spend it on, and you're left wondering, where was THAT money a few chapters ago?
While I'm on the topic of difficulty, the developers were kind enough to include an array of features meant to make Bravely Default easily accessible for everyone. There are difficulty levels that lower or increase enemy stats, a random encounter slider that goes from none at all to double the usual rate, the Friend Summon feature that allows you to use an attack a friend sent you, the Abilink function that gives one of your characters any ability one of your friends has access to (which, of course, completely breaks everything when you're at the start and they've already finished the game)... I never even used these features once, because while I don't claim to be the best at JRPGs, I don't consider myself to be a total chump either. Using any of these would feel like cheating, so I stayed, far, far away.
Oh, right, I should also come back on the SP drink microtransactions I've mentioned in a previous blog post. After playing the game, I can safely say they're not as effective as a way to make the game easier as these other (free, mind you) features I just mentioned. I beat the game without using Bravely Second once (though it was tempting at various points in the Vampire Castle, since I really wanted to get through it in chapter 4 to not miss out on some lost-forever genomes). It really, REALLY isn't necessary, not even for the break-damage-limit part. 9999 damage in a single hit is already insane damage, and even if you can hit it pretty consistently, the Merchant's Low Leverage does a better job of getting the most out of your high damage output in a more consistent manner.
The Norende rebuilding sidequest is another one of the game's more unique and interesting points. Of course, if you can't go online with your 3DS you're in dire straits because the rewards are really good, but otherwise it's got that kinda RTS feel to it, where you want all your workers to rebuild the village as effectively as possible, because once again, the rewards are worth it. From solid late game equipment to upgrades for your limit br-er, I mean special moves, to items to bolster the Salve-Maker job's arsenal, you're probably going to be using what you can get in Norende a lot.
Which leads me to my next point: story-gameplay segregation. I'm a firm believer that if it makes the game less fun, no matter how incompatible it is with the story, it should be canned. Bravely Default does that better than any other game I've ever played. The main aspect where it comes handy stems from the notion that you're visiting all these different, yet identical worlds over the course of the second half of the game. When I first began chapter 5, I was all "please, game, don't do this" as I had Nam-like flashbacks of Majora's Mask. Thankfully, the game didn't "do this". Inexplicably, Norende was still somehow fully rebuilt, I kept all the maps of all the dungeons, all the chests that were opened stayed open, and so on. Gonad's day off, I guess.
Another example was that during the "The End" chapter, at one point Yulyana grants you access to the Dimension's Hasp post-game dungeon. But what if you want to beat the final bosses before visiting it? Doing so sends you all the way back to the start of chapter 8, which logically means you have to go through all the crystal bosses again, then Airy's first two forms, and THEN you can go see Yulyana. Nope. You don't need to do any of that, the dungeon's still open, even though Yulyana's not supposed to have opened it yet. Fuck yeah.
Now I've done nothing but shower praise onto the game so far, so is there any pot to go with the flowers? As I've hinted at in the very first paragraph, of course there is. The titular character just so happens to fit into the "annoying nagging fairy" archetype the Japanese love so much, one that ended up giving me newfound appreciation for Navi. It's not just her voice, either - I'm fully expecting a fairy to have a high-pitched voice. She's just annoying, simply put. Ringabel calls her a "precocious, fussy crybaby" in his journal, and frankly, there are no better words in the English language that I could use. Furthermore, as the game goes on she pressures you harder and harder into awakening the crystals, which is bound to get on the nerves of anyone who wants to sidequest. (Guess who loves to do that?) In doing so, she ends up dropping any and all pretense of not having her own agenda. Maybe it was meant that way, which I guess could be considered good writing... I guess? Still, she was so freaking annoying, so much so that when she finally shows her hand (all twelve or so of them), you're just glad that she's not going to be hanging around anymore.
And then Ouroboros decides he wants a midday snack.
Simply put, I dare you to name a more satisfying death sequence in any game of your choosing. I double dog dare you. This one's especially awesome since you don't see anything, you just hear Ouroboros chow down like he hasn't eaten in a week, so it's entirely up to the imagination. This is good, since I want to imagine this was particularly messy, but showing that would've made the ESRB rating skyrocket.
So, what about the playable crew? Well, Ringabel's casanova act is hard not to like, especially as he constantly, and I mean CONSTANTLY gets turned down (my personal favorite is the skit where he cons Tiz into persuading Agnès and Edea to become spell fencers). Edea's thing is being prone to emotional outbursts of every kind, though she naturally has her best moments when she's pissed off. I like how she wasn't flanderized into being a perpetually-angry bruiser, especially as she's forced to kill all those she cares about. (Over and over and over, at that.) That would've taken a lot of realism out of her.
Tiz... is more or less Square's answer to Lloyd Irving, I guess. Heck, his relationship with Agnès was pretty reminiscent of the one Lloyd had with Colette in ToS. Unlike Colette though, Agnès didn't need a sequel to have some good moments of her own. Too bad she didn't particularly stand out as a well-written character, though. Her worst moments all have something in common: she sounds incredibly stupid because she's overly attached to Airy, even and especially after she learns from Tiz and Yulyana that she's the Evil One. There were times when I just felt like screaming "WHAT PART OF SHE'S PURE EVIL DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?" I didn't, though, because I like having a roof over my head. If my landlord doesn't hear about my video game-induced frustrations, that's all the better.
As for the cast of villains, I'm torn. On one hand, some of them are among the highlights of the game. You just about cover every personality trait between them: from the dirty to the honorable, from the philandering to the virtuous, from the ditzy to the cunning, from the kind to the greedy, from the calculating to the insane... so magic is BOUND to happen at some point, especially when you take some of these radically different characters and put them together. Which is a slight complaint I have: it barely ever happens until chapter 7. Seeing stuff like the Jackal mock the likes of Khamer and Einheria, having Victoria, Artemia and Kikyo do... whatever the hell you want to call what they were doing in chapter 7... seriously, there's some serious wasted potential.
One very interesting thing that I enjoyed about the game is that, while you traveled through different worlds, you could still feel some of those characters evolving as if they were one and the same. For instance, early on Braev didn't even hesitate to give the order to kill his daughter, something you have a hard time believeing he'd do in the later chapters. Other events, like Mephilia seemingly snapping out of her bloodthirsty insanity, or Kikyo overcoming her overwhelming shyness, are worthwhile conclusions to plot threads that theoretically should be all over the place, since you actually run into five different versions of these characters.
Something else about the story that I want to point out: is it just me, or is the "bad ending" actually the better option? Looking at both endings side by side, the bad ending has the benefits of three worlds avoiding total annihilation, Tiz and DeRosso still living, and the lack of need to fight Airy's final form and Ouroboros at all. All that for a result that is essentially the same, as Airy's 1.1 billion years of hard work vanish into nothingness.
Another thing that I found odd, and it wouldn't surprise me if it's because I was completely missing something, but I'm going to throw it out there nonetheless. I just mentioned Tiz living in the bad ending, which refers to his death at the very end of the good ending. This is the outcome of a plot thread that I felt was tacked on at the last minute, that is, the subplot involving Airy's sister. If I kept count well, prior to the battle against Ouroboros, it was brought up exactly ONCE up until that point, after defeating Mephilia in chapter 2. (Of course she's also the very first thing you see when starting a new game, but at that point you don't have the slightest clue as to what's going on.) I feel like I'm missing something, because from my current point of view that subplot does nothing but kill off Tiz at the very end, which is rather unnecessary. If anyone has an explanation, I'd be glad to hear it.
Hmmm, for a guy who doesn't care much for story in video games, I've been going on a lot about it. I guess I really had some appreciation for it (aside from Airy's existence), huh? Now, what haven't I covered? ...oh yes, the soundtrack! Yet another area where Bravely Default doesn't disappoint. I've already mentioned how much of an earworm That Person's Name Is is, but it's far from the only good piece. There are so many of them, in fact, that I'm not going to give names, because I'm going to forget something for sure. Who needs Nobuo Uematsu?
...yeah, that about does it. I guess I really should stop now, huh? I mean, look at that freaking wall of text! That ought to make up for all the negativity in my post about FF8...