Sunday, March 22, 2015

Restrospective:Does Bravely Default Bravely Rise Above Default?

Normally, when I finish a game--especially a game that spent over a hundred hours of my life, from beginning to end--I've got something to say about it, even with JRPGs, which, when not doing something noticeably different, tend to cohere to a small set of cliches. Nier has its ruminations on genre and violence. Chrono Trigger is still cool for the way it depicts a struggle against a being who literally doesn't comprehend that the heroes of the story exist, because they exist on an entirely different scale of being. Radiant Historia encourages the player to think in terms of a sequence of events instead of connections in space.

But Square Enix's Bravely Default doesn't have any of those things. Everything I can think of to say about it is interesting largely in the way it came from somewhere else first. Even the fact that it has killed my interest in playing  JRPGs AND the fact that it is a pastiche stitched from other JRPGs are both the major talking points I used for crafting my response to Ni No Kuni.

Part of this I have to admit is my fault; I've played many JRPGs over the years, and that has worn into me certain expectations and familiarities, which if I didn't have, it would have made BD seem a lot fresher. But really, so much of the game seems a rehash of other things I've seen. Repeating large portions to shake up what we take for granted about the plot was Nier's big schtick. Playing with temporality in turn-based combat was Radiant Historia (as was the reality hopping in later). The build-a-town mini-quest has been done from Dark Cloud to Breath of Fire (although I'll give points for adding the 3DS' Street Pass functionality to the mix). Even the plot is jumble of JRPG cliches about restoring the four crystals to save the world, and yes, there's a twist, but again--conventional JRPG story with a last act twist is a cliche at this point too. It would help if the characters were a little more developed, but really, they're just typical stereotypes with a weird fixation on--

Wait, no! I've got it! The unique part of the game is its party chats concerning food!  ...Except Dragon Warrior has had the same party chat function, and it's no more food-oriented than Star Ocean. Carry on, then.

More on the search for anything worth searching for after the break.
Let's talk about the game's story first. (Spoilers follow) The story starts with a rift that opens up in the middle of a continent of Luxendarc (subtle), the game's world. It swallows up Tiz Arrior's home village Norende, and his search for survivors leads him to Agnes and Airy. Agnes is a vestal who's been raised from childhood to care for the sacred crystal of Earth; Airy is her cryst-fairy helper.  They're on a quest to reawaken the crystals, as Bad Things have resulted from their corruption: increases in earthquakes, a putrification of the ocean, general monster rise, and the rift in question. But Agnes is also being chased by the Eternian Sky Knights, who are fighting against the Crystal Orthodoxy, her religion. The two (three counting Airy) team up, and they're soon joined by Edea, the spunky Eternian who turns against her people's excess, and Ringabel, the would-be ladies' man/amnesiac. They travel around the world, defeat the necessary opponents in their way, restore the Crystals, and enter a Pillar of Light---only to have time reset, and none of them able to come up with a better course of action than "well, let's try that again."

This brings us up to chapter five, about half way through the game. And it's not quite true that time has reset--while they've been brought to a point before most of the game's events have happened, events have changed enough to suggest they're in an alternate world. So it's a parade around to re-reawaken the crystals, with all the human bosses you fought the first time around available as optional fights, albeit with stats raised to make them more of a fight. Once that's done, you fly back to the pillar of light, wake up in a new new world, and you... do the whole thing over again. And again. And then one more time for good measure. Now, throughout the game, the human opponent characters have been hinting that they had a good reason for killing the Crystal Orthodoxy, interfering in a civil war, encouraging barbaric animal cruelty in the name of fashion, and developing a more robust health care system (they're on always on point): fifteen hundred years ago, when the battle between the Crystal Orthodoxy and the opposed forces reached a high point, a messenger looking suspiciously like Agnes came down and told them that the crystals would eventually be used for.... something... bad. And the two immortals on respective sides (the Sage Yulyana and the vampire De Rossa) carried this message down through the decades. And it takes about seven chapters for anyone to get around telling this to the four teenagers single-handedly tearing up their armies.

To be fair, around chapter seven (fourth time around the parallel universe merry go round), the team starts to become suspicious of their marching orders of their own accord--not enough to confront Airy, mind, but enough to do a lot of passive aggressive "..........." speeches, another hallmark of the JRPG. Then, when the fifth Pillar of Light has been established, Airy finally reveals what players figured out a while ago: she's been playin' the whole team for a bunch of saps, see (say in 40s gangster voice for full effect) and all this time we thought we were saving the world (well, some world, anyway) we were actually linking parallel worlds together, which makes it easier for her master Ouroboros to channel energy from them by devouring them. There's a final dungeon, a confrontation with Airy in a shiny new form, and several rounds with Ouroboros. First, the dragon monster is largely immortal, but Del Rosso fuses with him to get rid of that problem (which is apparently a thing immortals can do NBD); then he starts devouring new planets to heal himself, which countered in a heart-warming-ish moment where your added friends' worlds' heroes break free, and encourage you to go get him. Ouroboros is defeated, the multiverse is saved, and our heroes go their separate ways: Ringabel uses the poorly defined rules of travel between worlds to rescue his world's Edea (oh, around chapter 6, he regains his memory, and figures out he's alt-world version of the villain characters, but one that had specifically failed to save Edea before being pulled into Airy's alt world). Edea rejoins the reformed Sky Knights; Agnes rejoins the reformed vestal keepers; and Tiz falls down dead because apparently he was animated by a divine presence working against the Ouroboros the whole thing and was never alive at all, why not. The End.

In broad strokes, it's not a terrible plot, and even sensical, from a JRPG standpoint. The first four chapters are rather standard fare, with the enemy Knights becoming almost comically monstrous against our protagonists' good. Admittedly, that's all there so it can be reversed in the later chapters,in the sense that the lead characters realize their actions aren't ambiguously good. But it's a pointless sort of reversal, because it takes so long to happen, and it all could have been adverted if any of the enemy characters, in any of the parallel worlds, had taken five seconds to sit down with the protagonists. It's character misunderstanding delaying plot resolution at its worst, and stretching it out over the entire game is exhausting. There's also a big gap in character development (with some late developments, admittedly, in the chapter seven optional quests); turns out that when your entire cast except your immediate party is reset every chapter, characters don't develop very far. And our main cast wind up rather unresolved as well. There isn't much room for resolution in terms of romantic arcs when one of your four options leaves the rest of the party for his original world, and the other turns out to be a body possessed by a Celestial.

The repetition really wears thin on a gameplay level. Chapters 5 and 6 are particularly tedious, as even the side quests feel like the same thing, only with a few stats increased; chapters 7 and 8 change the combinations of side quests in interesting ways, until you hit the final gauntlet of being challenged to defeat all twenty four one after the other in a rather masochistic final challenge, but that 4th act slog kills a lot of the game's momentum. The real tedious part is that from chapter 5 up to the end of 8, there's no new areas, which both severely reduces a traditional RPG appeal of exploration and seems like a fairly cheap re-use of assets by the developers. 

As I said, while I was playing Bravely Default, I kept thinking about the games it reminded me of. The first time my party went back earlier, I thought, ah, it's pulling a page from Nier. I've talked about this aspect of Nier before, so I won't go into too much detail. Essentially, once you complete Nier, you can play it again a few more times, and each time, it reveals more of the story--the cutscenes change, but every other aspect except the ending remains largely the same. The result is to reveal that your team's actions are morally questionable, and, ultimately, that the player's actions are questionable as well, pursuing monstrous goals in the name of game completion. Bravely Default has the repetition of play, but the reversal of morality never quite happens. Because it's a new world each time, we never get to see the opponents we knew developed deeper so much as variations of them that seem to function independently of our actions. In the last chapter, the optional boss battles--all against members of Eternia--are all nonfatal, and they seem to be cheering us on, but it's hard to come up a reason that fits with the vicious monsters we fought in chapters before that. Likewise, when it was revealed we were journeying alternate realities,  I thought it was a bit like Radiant Historia, where the plot has you travelling back and forth in time around alternate realities as well. The difference is that in RH, the traveling is all in the name of changing history; here, the characters have very little agency other than following what they're told.

So much for plot, then. Let's talk about some of the other stuff. 

One thing I will give Bravely Default credit for is that it uses 3DS interconnectivity for more than just the minimal. You could play the game without these features, but it can also help a lot. The main example is the project to rebuild Norende. Essentially, you start with one villager, and every time your 3DS finds another (or someone with the demo, or the game data or something; I never quite figured out the specifics) your villager population goes up by 1. You can then assign villagers to tasks to open up new areas of the village or upgrade an existing village. For example, if I assign 1 person the item shop, it might go up a level in 30 minutes; if I assign 2, it'll be 15 minutes, 3 10 minutes, or something like that. And the village is always upgrading, as long as Bravely Default is in the cartrdige slot, even if the 3DS itself is in sleep mode. Upgrades are either more items available for purchase from the travelling merchant, or more options available for special moves (more on that part later). It's a nice feature, though worked into the plot a little nonsensically: Tiz tells us how happy he is periodically that the rebuilding is happening, but really, the village is just a way of getting stuff for the player. And I'm not sure how Norende is shipping items across universes. Periodically, the shops give you items, quality based on the upgrades you've done. The other feature is that players, when they add villagers, can also send nemeses, enemies for the player at hand to defeat in bonus battle type things. Again, nice, although by the time I got to Bravely Default, the only nemeses I got were level 99, so a little out of my league. The way I played the game, the village was fully upgraded shortly after chapter 4, so it kind of faded for significance in my mind. (I don't know if that is a typical rate of village completion; I had very few villagers for most of it, but the 3DS also spent a lot of time on sleep mode.)

There's two major elements left to discuss: the Job System and the combat. Let's do Job System first. Remember those twenty-four human bosses I mentioned earlier? Well, while you have to fight some of them, many of them are optional battles. And not only that, but after chapter four, they're optional battles again--in chapters five through eight, you'll have the opportunity to fight each one at least once, with a stat bump each time. The end result reminds me of another JRPG, but an old school one--Shining Force II, way back on the Sega Genesis in 1993 (and yet ANOTHER candidate for the "Things This Game Reminds Me Of" sweepstakes). Shining Force II had dozens of party members, but for the most part, hero character development was set at a nil; the protagonist Bowie (I live in hope that the default name is a David Bowie reference) talked so rarely that I was startled every time he did--oh yes, my protagonist ISN'T a inveterate mute. The result is that the stars of the game's plot aren't the heroes but the villains, especially in the second half, where their in-fighting and bickering drives the plot more frequently than anything the heroes happen to be doing. While Bravely Default isn't THAT bad, it's striking that after the first  four chapters, the most significant relationships the party has is with the villains they're constantly revisiting. Unfortunately, since it's a different batch every chapter, there's not much you can do in the way of development, but Bravely Default makes the wise choice of the player explicitly NOT killing the human bosses after chapter six--they always slink away after the fight--as well as toning down their over the top evil in favor of absurdity: three female characters get together for a Girl Power club, and fight you, because why not? And the singer character is rescued by the thief, in a very unlikely romance. And so forth. This builds to the final chapter, where it's pretty clear they're fighting not out of misunderstanding, but to see if Edea et al. are up for the challenges ahead. It's a shift that's pretty limited, in that the antagonists can't grow because the chapter resets, but it's a nice acknowledgment that even the game knows your attention is in the baddies.

I digressed there. The reason why you want to fight every one of these individuals at least once--even the aforementioned vampire Del Rosso, who is particularly annoying, as you need to beat four difficult dragons first, and blaze through a dungeon--is that each drops one asterisk. There's some plot stuff to justify their existence, but the gist of it is that each one represents a job that you can train yourself in, after beating the character holding the asterisk. Combats yield Job Points in addition to Experience Points, and go towards leveling up your job level; each job has fourteen levels, and when you hit a new level, you get a new active ability (that's abilities you can execute in combat) or a passive one. Passive abilities are equipped, and you can equip one secondary job as well, to have access to the active abilities it provides in combat, though not to the stat bonuses each job has. Passive abilities are assigned a value of one through four, and you can equip up to five, but only as much as the total value equals five. It's kind of a shame this value maxes out at five, as you hit that at the end of chapter four, but given the scope of abilities, in terms of game balance, it's probably best to stop there. 

Abilities range from the rather useless (carry two shields, instead of a weapon) to extremely powerful (cancel all enemy elemental attacks for four turns). The connectivity factors in here as well, as you can add friends with the game to a friend's list (or, if you have no friends with the game, like me, you use the game's default friend bots) and sync four friends up to one character each--you then have access to all the job abilities that friend has, for that character. In practice, it's nice but unnecessary, as the course of playing through the game left me with at least enough Job Points for every character to have leveled up to max in at least ten jobs, which is enough for most purposes (especially since I wound up playing with two Ninjas and two White Mages; diversification was nice, but unnecessary). The job system isn't a Bravely Default original, but that's kind of the point--Square Enix is clearly harkening back to the job systems of earlier Final Fantasy games, which are much beloved among a certain type of fan whose interest is towards min-maxing characters. 

And that leads to the combat itself. This is where my final revelation of the game took place. It becomes especially clear in the chapter seven and eight optional bosses, where certain combinations of the human antagonists become nearly impossible to beat without planning and carefully setting up the right support and secondary abilities. Bravely Default isn't the meaningful repetition of Nier, the time traveling hijinx of Radiant Historia, the grind of Ni No Kuni, or the enemy-based focus of Shining Force II; rather, its real comparison is Resonance of Fate.  Not in the immature maturity of its sexual innuendo (Thank God), but in the fact that the game isn't really about the story. Rather, it's about the mastery of an incredibly complex, even obtuse fighting system. While Bravely Default isn't as obtuse or as complex, what becomes clear in those final chapters is that it's pushing you towards not just a single winning combination, but to really consider the cause and effect of choice. So let's dive in to what it has to offer.

First, there's the combat rate. There's not a lot to say here other than it's entirely at the player's discretion. Over the years, the rate of random combat encounters in JRPGs has met with a number of different approaches. Bravely Default puts it in the hands of the players, as they can set the rate at 100% increase, 50%, 0%, -50%, or -100%, at which point, there will be no random encounters. (And the game warns you that there is, consequently, no experience or job points.) It's a nice measure of control, and suggests the player-based approach to combat that characterizes the game.

The skeleton of the system is typical JRPG turn-based combat. The enemy stands on the left, the player characters stand on the right, you select options from a list, and they all execute a turn's worth of commands. If someone was somehow transported directly from playing the original Final Fantasy in 1987 on an NES directly to this screen, well, it would still be confusing, because time travel, but they'd already have the mental vocabulary they need to make sense of the basic situation. The first complication is the eponymous Brave and Default features (and you'd think that would have been a big clue right there, that the game is combat-oriented--it's named after its combat features). Selecting Default functions kind of like the Defense option in most turn-based RPGs; you don't attack, but attacks directed against you do less damage. The difference here is that you also accumulate a Brave Point. Brave Points can be spent on certain active abilities, but their main purpose is fueling the Brave command. If the player selects the Brave command for a character, then a secondary battle menu appears over top of the first one. And a third, and up to a fourth, if she selects Brave again. All of these commands are executed at once during that combat turn. The catch is that each Brave you use consumes one Brave Point, and while you can bank up to three (more if you have the right Passive ability attached), you can also go into negative. Every single attack consumes one Brave Point, and every end of combat turn adds one. But if you started with zero and Braved twice, that means you're at negative one at the start of the next round, which means you can't do anything that round, or anything until the next round, when your Brave Point sum is up to zero again. You can go up to a total of negative three below, and there are various active and passive abilities that burn up enemy Brave Points or contribute to the party's BP.

In a short fight, Brave means you can end things faster by virtue of attacking four times in the first round (although watch out, if you don't pull it off, and the enemy gets three free rounds against you while your BP total builds back up to zero). In a longer fight, it's harder to tell if it's to your advantage, given that you'll be doing the four turns anyway; spreading them out becomes less of a big deal. The system reminds me of the time-based stuff available in Radiant Historia--there, you can manipulate the action order directly, so that within ten or so moves, you control exactly where your characters' attacks happen--with the proviso that if you chain too many of yours together, the enemy will get a big chain too. Since Brave and Default happen more on the individual character level, they're not as involved. But their use begins to matter more if you, say, you need to heal twice in a round, or want to use a BP-fueled ability. (And again, I'll give the game credit here, as one of the tutorials and in-game chats discuss how a good BP-induced combo is Braving to be able to simultaneously raise a character with a phoenix down item and healing them immediately after; Bravely Default is good at pushing the player towards micro-tactics.) But where it really starts to matter is in the Special Moves.

The Special Moves are... complicated. Basically, every weapon type has its own condition, and once that condition is met, you have access to special moves. If you have a dagger equipped, and you use an item five times (not in a row, not in a single combat, not the same item) then after that fifth item is used, on the next round, you get to access a special move. And there are three levels for each move set; using an item five times will get access to the first level special move, but if I do it fifteen times, I have access to all three levels, including the third and generally most powerful. And there are nine types of weapons in all, each with their own condition: katanas' specials are based on how many times you've defaulted, fists' depends on how many times you've made a critical hit, staffs on how many times you've healed something. The special moves are also highly customizable. Remember when I said special move options can be acquired at Norende? Well, those options, once you've got them, can be set in between fights. Some options are clearly a "insert most powerful option you have here" type--you're not going to select the 10% power boost if you have the 50% one. Others are trickier, as you can set the special to have a certain elemental attribute, a certain status effect, and a certain enemy type weakness. For example, if you know you're going to be fighting a water demon, you'd set the special to demon-slaying and lightning (the damage type water beings are weak to in the game) and let 'er rip. The caveat to this is that the first time you go into a boss fight, you generally don't know what type you're dealing with, and you can't change specials in the midst of a fight, so there's also some resetting going on here. 

The other thing about special moves is that they create a timed period after you use them, until a short song plays out. While this song is playing, a stat boost is in effect. The Level 1 Bow special, for example, Maximum Draw, boosts the team's Crit Rate. The level 3 Bow special, Angelic Pillar, boosts team magic defense. And if you execute another special move before the music signalling the first one fades away, the bonuses stack. And through that, a turn-based game becomes a carefully managed time-based game, where you're racing to fulfill the requirements for some character to use a special again before the current special's bonuses fade away. I wouldn't say it's impossible to win the game without special moves, but when you've got a massive attack bonus going (although the bonuses generally max out at certain level), a lot of bosses go down a lot faster. 

And that's where Brave and Default become crucial options again. A lot of the weapons' special move requirements mean that they're not practical for creating long special chains against a boss. Axes are nice, but their requirement is that their special moves are accessible based on how many kills you've made--that means in a fight against a single boss, you can use that special once, max. A katana, on the other hand, has specials depending how many times you default, and a sword based on how many times you brave. Used in a manner timed well, in combination with a healer, you can keep a special chain going much longer--although this in term limits which jobs you're likely to take into combat, as you're more likely to take the jobs that give proficiency in swords, katanas, and staffs. It does create a significant tension, though: you're racing to address the opponents' moves while trying to create a string of conditions that will net you the next special before the current one cuts out. Do you have your fighter use an item to give your healer more magic points? Or is it more important that they Default for the turn to access a special move and keep the chain going?

And that's not even the end of the combat depth, though that's the most significant part. There's also the ability to send and receive moves. You can choose to store a particular move, and then, when you StreetPass other players, they'll receive it, and have the option to use it in battle. Notably, this includes special abilities, which can perpetuate the chain in a pinch. The stored abilities are each only useable once, but it can be very useful, especially if you're a low level player unleashing a level 99er's devastating attack.  Plus, don't forget the customizability related to jobs; in addition to the main job's abilities, the player selects a secondary job active abilities, and the passive abilities. Given there's about at least six passive abilities associated with each job, that's 144 options to spread among four characters, allowing for a LOT of combinations. Finally, there's the Special Points (because in addition to job points, experience points, brave points, health points and magic points, another point system is what this game really needs). Special Points allow you to press Start at any point in combat, freeze whatever's going on, and do one move of one character that takes precedence over all else. You can have three in all, and they accumulate while the game's in sleep mode; alternatively, this is also where the game sneaks in its in game purchases, as you can pay for them to be renewed as well. It's a rare option, given the difficulty of getting Special Points, but nice to have in a tight spot.

As an example of how this all plays out in actual game, here's the strategy I used on near end boss Ouroboros. First, I prepped my team with the appropriate special moves and jobs that supported them. Having fought and reset, I knew Ouroboros was dragon type with a weakness to Water/Ice, so I set my special abilities appropriately. I had two characters set as ninjas, and two as healers. Ninja class' class ability (each job, while it's equipped, has one passive ability always in effect; it saves up on the passive ability slots to plan ahead here) is to dual wield two weapons at once without penalty, so I equipped them both with one katana and one sword, so that the fighters' role would be to default to max, then brave and attack four times, in a cycle that repeated every few rounds, to maximize the speed at which they'd get access to the sword and katana special abilities. They had sword magic as their secondary active job, so they could cast weapon magic that would give their attacks water attributes, thus doing extra damage; one was doing extra extra damage, by wielding a sword that was strong in damaging dragons. Their passive abilities were a random assortment, except that both had boost sword magic, which makes sword magic more effective, but at the cost of extra Magic Points. 

Both my healers were equipped with staffs, but also with the associated staff Special ability that restored Brave Points and Magic Points as well as health points, which was essential, as I rarely had to waste anyone's turn using an magic point restore potion, when I could have been attacking, healing, or defaulting. One healer was set up with time magic as a secondary ability, so I could cast re-raise, which means that if someone is killed, they automatically come back to life, once. The other was set up with Spiritmaster powers, which include protection from status ailments. The fighters focused on defaulting and braving when default reaches maximum, and using specials when necessary; the healers healed every round, except when their secondary tasks were needed, and used specials whenever they could, as the longer requirements for their powers (heal 10 times, when it's generally only MP-effective to heal once per round) meant that they needed to use a special and start saving for the next one ASAP. In the face of that routine, the specific enemy was almost redundant. 

I think my mood towards the game has mellowed in the shift from discussing plot to discussing combat; that is a good indicator of where its strengths lie, I think. If there's any "message" behind the game (besides don't trust fairies blindly), it's that the unity of friendship triumphs over an overwhelming foe, a concept only slightly less sophisticated than a credo espoused by a Care Bear. But to the game's credit, it pays more than lip service to this notion, as between the move sharing, the job sharing, and the town aid, it really does earn its ending where the worlds of the other player friends you've added pitch in to help (at least, it does if you actually lived in a place where the Bravely Default players were common, and you used these abilities regularly). The fighting system is a much readier feature to hang one's hat on.

I wish I could find something worth talking about the game on a scholarly, research level. I have elsewhere (dissertation in fact) discussed its reliance on an in-game journal for some plot details and the usual compendium of monsters, items, and the like. And it does have some nice design features--I particularly like its version of the tutorial mode, which is the player performing a task it requests to show she can do it, then getting a small reward on completion--it's a very small compensation, but at least it provides an actual motivation for seeing it through. I guess if there is something worth talking about here it's how much Bravely Default *is*, rather than a game attempting a unique message, a game that is very, very aware of the history of genre it draws upon. In some ways, it's an ossification and distillation of what's been done before. It's the perpetuation of a particular brand of game culture, in that sense, and it seems to have been embraced as such among its fanbase.

If you're looking for quality of story, I think BD will leave you wanting more. But if you're in it for the desire to customize your own maxxed out team of turn combat glory, it'll hit just the right spot--if you can put up with slogging through the first half and unlock all the abilities, at least.

Later Days.

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