Note: This article contains spoilers for the whole of Bravely Default. Not that the sequel doesn’t spoil the same plot twists within its first five minutes, but, ya know, just so you’re aware.
Alright, remember Final Fantasy 6? Remember all the groundbreaking, amazing compositions by Nobuo Uematsu? Songs that were not only musically wonderful but also never failed to properly set the mood for a location or scene? Yeah… I pretty much played Final Fantasy 6 (Final Fantasy 3 then) on mute. Same for Breath of Fire 2. Same for The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Same for a lot of games.
You may be asking why I would do such a thing. Do I hate music? Can’t stand chiptunes? Maybe some sort of ear issue involving an infection from Bizarro World? No, no, and no. For Final Fantasy 6 in particular, I love the music, and even, when forced to go on a camping trip the year after FF6’s release, I recorded half the songs right off the TV via an ancient tape recorder. So why do I remember playing that game the most on mute? Simple: I was doing something else.
This will likely come as a shock to no one, but my original “gaming room” was the basement of my parents’ home. I wasn’t allowed to have a TV in my bedroom (for much the same reason I wasn’t allowed to have a Gameboy), but my parents didn’t want to have to watch Super Mario Bros. all day, either, so my hobby was segregated to the basement. “My basement” was also likely exactly what you’re picturing: old, beat furniture (but kept because you never know when we might need a spare couch [?]), a closet filled with old clothing that would be released to Goodwill thirty years later, and, most importantly, a pair of ancient televisions. Both TVs were castoffs, chunks of electronics that were initially kept incase these newfangled sets failed in their first month, and, in time, they were pretty much forgotten in the bowels of the house. They weren’t the best televisions, neither large nor possessing a fidelity that could confirm if Mega Man was supposed to be blue (green is fine). People talk about playing retro games with modern high-definition, but if I play Wizards and Warriors on a television that allows me to actually see what’s going on, I don’t feel like I’m actually playing Wizards and Warriors.
Regardless, two televisions made me soon realize that I could be using both televisions at the same time. So, one TV was set up at one end of the room with a complete cable hookup, and the other managed the gaming systems (A SNES and NES [and later, N64 and Playstation] all running through one ganged RF switch chain). The basement was big (technically a room plus what was once a garage), so it wasn’t like both televisions were on top of each other, so I happily played a number of video games while some random sitcom was airing at my back. If I really liked the show, I’d mute the game, but crank up the program. If nothing was on, it was fine background noise.
JRPGs were ideal for this setup, because, while their stories were exciting and astounding to a young Goggle Bob, what would eventually become “cutscenes” were short and generally separated by hours of traipsing through monster-packed dungeons. I want to say the sheer spectacle of Final Fantasy 7 broke me of my ADD habits, but grinding my way to better materia (mostly through bird breeding) set me right back to “what else is on?” And, yes, my first playthrough of Ocarina of Time was set to my discovery of Ben Folds (give or take Five) primarily because I couldn’t be more bored schlepping across that overworld trying to find skulltulas.
Some of my greatest memories of gaming are of me barely paying attention to gaming.
This ADD habit has continued into adulthood, but in some unusual ways. There is no doubt video games have become more immersive over the years, and, while I may once have been able to enjoy Prince of Persia on a dingy screen while watching something else, modern editions beg to be blown up to six foot displays and marveled at at all times. But then you have something like, say, Hyrule Warriors, a game that puts the grind in grinding, and contains more content than anyone could ever reasonably complete. You want me to beat this area with Princess Ruto? She’s level 8, and the recommended level is 80. Well, I think that means I’m going to play this game while binge watching Jessica Jones. Then I’m accomplishing two things! I’m an adult!
Now, obviously, this is a huge reason I enjoy the WiiU. Being able to get that “widescreen experience” for the lavish visuals is great, but then when I want to reexplore old areas for red coins or whatever, I can shrink it down to the gamepad and play while watching what I will. And while the WiiU’s “tablet” is a new innovation, portable systems have offered this luxury for years. Heck, if you consider cell phones to be “portable gaming systems”, then my ADD doesn’t sound all that bad. Unless you want to tell me people are sitting down to exclusively play Candy Crush…
But there is a conflict with this system. I want games to have stories. I want games to be interesting. If I’m playing a game for forty hours, I want there to have been a point, a reason I was fighting against the bad guy. It doesn’t have to be that way for every game, but anything with vaguely RPG trappings practically requires a plot that matters. It doesn’t have to be War and Peace, but I’d like something a little more complicated than Mario and Peach.
When a story dominates the plot, I have to pay attention to it. I can’t watch Orange is the New Black and work through Saint’s Row at the same time, because then I might confuse one Piper for a Rowdy Roddy one. Their plotlines are very different!
So, what I want is a portable game that has a plot, but has enjoyable mechanics, and, after the plot is well and established, backs the hell off so I can enjoy those mechanics while doing something else.
I am, of course, talking about Pokémon.
Pokémon has its own plot and story, and it’s worth paying it some attention, but after its completion, it gets out of dodge, and that’s that. Now all you have is a world you understand, villains that are on the run, and 720 pokémon to play with. I think that’s a good recipe to have some fun while maybe watching some trashy anime.
But that does occasionally feel… empty. I’m building up the best pokémon team, like no one ever has, but what am I doing it for? I’ll have these Level 100 Gardevoirs to… what… beat up children online? Like, it’s cool to beat other players, but there’s no real goal to work toward, no future for my poor Pokémon. I’m already the champion of the league, at what point do I just become a bully?
Bravely Default tried to allay my fears of “not making a difference”… and created its own problems.
First, let me get something out of the way: the first “world” of Bravely Default could have been an entire game, and it is a complete plot. There’s an evil empire led by Braev Lee (ugh), and it’s out to conquer the world and stomp all over a kindly ancient religion based on elemental crystals. Four Warriors of Light (consisting of Edea Lee and three other characters of no importance) must venture across the planet to secure the crystals, drive out the invading hordes, and maybe wind up with an airship along the way. In the end, Braev and his empire are crippled, and the world is saved! Hooray!
Yes, it’s at least five Final Fantasies rolled into one plot, with a few modern flourishes. It’s good stuff.
And then the game keeps going. Aaaaand keeps going. And going.
See, the central conceit of the game post-global war is that there are multiple Bravely Default dimensions, and you’ve got to keep saving their crystals over and over again. Yes, all the evil generals were defeated on Earth #1, but now you’re on Earth #2, and they’re all back, and cruising for a bruising. Repeat for, what, six worlds? It’s the same world, the same dungeons, and the same bosses. It gets old.
And I loved it.
As far as gameplay goes, Bravely Default features a fairly robust job system that allows for a lot of interesting combinations within your four man band. It’s not 720 pokémon, but there’s a lot to see and experiment with, and figuring out how a Vampire can work well with a Pirate is a game onto itself. And Bravely Default could have easily gone the Pokémon route and provided a super dungeon or two for post-game experimentation. But, no, it, essentially, reset the game over and over again and dared the player to face increasingly difficult (though generally optional) challenges. Sure, you can beat the White Mage boss, but can you beat the White Mage and a Knight and a Monk all at once? The final world even challenges the player to beat every single human boss in the game in one giant boss rush. It’s insane!
And what’s more, it “matters”.
A number of people disparage Bravely Default for looping the same stupid world and the same stupid characters over and over again, and that is a perfectly valid complaint. Repetition always seems like a cheat, and I’d be more than a little annoyed if I bought a seven novel series that turned out to be the same book seven times, just with slight dialogue changes. Actually, I think I watched that anime… No matter, what’s important is that the repetition Bravely Default required to see the “true ending” bothered a number of people, and I can’t blame ‘em.
But I can’t get mad at Bravely Default, either. Bravely Default was practically built for my ADD ways. After completing the first world, the plot is important (we’re saving the dang universe!), but it’s not omnipresent (I don’t need a backstory for this dude, I already met him last world). The game is a JRPG, and thus requires you to engage the plot as well as the battle system, but the plot faucet has been reduced to a trickle, and the battle system has become a waterfall. The end result? I can enjoy a portable JRPG and a TV show with impunity! And, again, the beauty of it is that my stupid lizard brain still thinks I’m accomplishing something more than randomly leveling pocket monsters, because I’m fighting toward the “true” ending. Yay!
Thank you, Bravely Default. I know you’re maligned for your choices, but, for this random dude with a burning need to do two things at all times, you make the perfect little game.
FGC #122 Bravely Default
- System: Exclusively Nintendo 3DS… which precludes any GIFs. Damn.
- Number of players: One, but you can share your super attacks with other players. … And then watch their worlds explode. It’s an exchange.
- Build-a-town: I want to say the “rebuild your hometown” quest/minigame was the first time I ever consistently put my 3DS to sleep. I’m a “turn everything off” kind of guy (think of the poor batteries!), but I couldn’t resist the siren’s song of possibly better items for leaving the 3DS to chill overnight. Is it weird that I remember putting the most mental “effort” into the part of the game that literally does not require my participation?
- Also Useful: The Western release and Eastern rerelease of Bravely Default features difficulty sliders that allow you to modify the monster encounter rate and how quickly EXP is accrued. This is the best thing to ever happen to a JRPG. Also: autosaves.
- Favorite job: Red Mage has actually useful abilities and looks swanky as hell, so it’s the clear winner. Beyond that, I’m a natural bruiser when it comes to JRPGs (I just want to hit things hard and be done with it!), so Pirate gets second place. Ninja is third. I feel like I’ve thought about this a lot.
- Asterisk Powers: Bravely Default has Mega Man X Syndrome, where the plot asks you to take the Asterisk Generals seriously… but you just know they only exist so you can kill ‘em and rob their corpses. Heroism!
- Favorite Asterisk General: Praline à la Mode, the holder of the performer (dancer) asterisk. Granted, she’s competing against noted rapists, war-profiteers, and genocidal poisoners, but Praline gets my vote mainly because the idea of weaponizing idol fans into an unbeatable army is pretty alright. She’s also one of the few generals to acknowledge that maybe one should run from the murderous heroes that are wearing your allies’ clothes. Special mention goes to Holly Whyte, simply because a sadistic white mage is always a good time.
- Did you know? Bravely Default might not officially have the Final Fantasy title, but its characters have gone on to guest in other Final Fantasy branded games. The previously mentioned Praline snuck into a Japanese Final Fantasy cell phone game (basically the sequel to “our” Final Fantasy Dimensions) and Rise of Mana, another Japaense cell phone game. What? The Mana series is Final Fantasy, it started with Final Fantasy Adventure. Yeah, that’s the ticket…
- Would I play again: I want to say yes… but the odds of me wanting to revisit town-building again is low. And all my lil’ dudes are level 100 in everything now, so there isn’t much to do past beat up that dude with the fox. So… good hustle?
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Harleys Humongous Adventure for the SNES! Wow, this one is gonna be huge! Please look forward to it!