EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve said repeatedly I wouldn’t apologize on this blog for extended absences, but I do feel compelled to at least offer an explanation of why I’ve been quiet for the last few days; in short, over the long weekend my wife was sick, and then the baby was feverish, and then, finally, I became afflicted with a horrendous stomach virus that I’m only now finally recovering from.
And then, of course, yesterday I finally felt OK enough to start putting some words together, and I got about 900 words into this post, but then the office internet collapsed and died. Which is just as well; I think I needed to rethink what this post was about anyway.
CONTEXT: I am currently a little over 12 hours into Bravely Default. My party is all around level 30, with job levels between 7-9. (And if you’ve already played it, I just finished the ill-fated visit with the Water Vestal.)
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I am weird when it comes to JRPGs.
Let me back up. I’ll be the first to admit that there are some glaring holes in my gamer resume. I missed out on the early NES systems and the PS1 and PS2, and so there’s quite a lot of classic games that I just never had the opportunity to play. And as today’s topic concerns the JRPG, I should admit right up front that my very first one was 2000’s Skies of Arcadia on the Dreamcast – which is still one of my favorite games of all time – and then I played nothing until, probably, Blue Dragon on the Xbox 360 (which is most assuredly not one of my favorite games of all time).
I am fascinated by JRPGs, even if they do a lot of things that annoy me. If a JRPG is announced for a platform that I own, I’ll feel compelled to seek it out; and once I get my hands on one, I’ll do my best to spend 30-60 hours with it; but I won’t necessarily feel compelled to finish it. Of all the JRPGs I’ve played (and you can maybe count them on your fingers and toes), I think I’ve only ever finished 2 of them: Skies of Arcadia and Lost Odyssey. [EDIT: I just remembered that I also finished the first Final Fantasy XIII, though I only got about halfway through the second one, and didn’t bother with this most recent installment.]
At their best, they are incredibly absorbing, even if their narratives generally follow along the same lines – a rag-tag group of children, one of them possibly an amnesiac, all on a world-saving quest that usually involves finding or activating 3 or 4 magic things. Whatever, it doesn’t matter; the production values are usually top-notch, and after 10 hours or so the turn-based combat system becomes less about survival or urgency and instead becomes a sort of zen puzzle to solve, and then there’s loot and equipment and magic and all sorts of customization rabbit holes to fall into.
But at their worst, they are tedious beyond belief. Because if the combat system isn’t engaging, then each and every random encounter feels like a slow death; and if the story isn’t at least picking up the slack, then one begins to wonder just what the hell they’re doing with their life. Hell, even the great JRPGs can get tedious after a while. I loved the hell out of Lost Odyssey, but by the 70th hour I’d more or less had enough.
In any event, the common element among all JRPGs is that, above all else, they are long. Say what you will about the value propositions of short games like Gone Home or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – if the “hours played:dollars spent” ratio is meaningful to you, JRPGs give you your money’s worth and then some. These days, though, this is a bit problematic for me. The last console JRPG I played was Ni No Kuni on the PS3, but I never had a chance to finish it, even after sinking 20+ hours into it; the game was quite good, it’s just that my son had just been born, and I couldn’t find any time to sit down and play it.
And I suppose, then, that this is partly why I’m enjoying Bravely Default as much as I am. In this modern era, JRPGs feel tailor-made for portable gaming; if I have 20 minutes to kill, I can plow through a dungeon, or mess with some equipment loadouts, or just mindlessly grind away and level up. And Bravely Default goes out of its way to actively encourage this sort of behavior – I mean, the game rewards you for putting it in sleep mode.
Indeed, even though most JRPGs still have this archaic, old-school quality about them, Bravely Default features a ton of modern conventions and features. More to the point, the level of customization that the game lets you have over it is quite staggering, and very much appreciated. You can change the rate of random encounters, you can change the difficulty on the fly, you can change the animation speed during combat (except for special moves and summons…es?), you can change jobs/skills whenever you want – you can even write your own dialogue for your character’s special moves.
(And I’m also happy that my former addictions to time-based stuff like Farmville are paying off in the “repair your village” meta-game, as most of my shops in the village are already at level 10. I’ve got dudes toiling in there at all times, and because I have a good idea as to when my next playing opportunity will be, I’m almost always getting rewards right when I open the game back up.)
As far as JRPGs go, it does a lot of things quite well. While there’s a lot of hubbub about this Brave/Default twist to the combat, it’s actually quite standard as far as turn-based combat goes; the Brave/Default thing basically means you have the additional option of being either really aggressive, or really defensive, depending on the situation. As my party is generally pretty overpowered, I mostly just have Tiz and Edea go Brave 4X and set the two Mages to Default, and I’d say 90% of the battles I’ve had are over in one turn by being so hyper-aggressive.
I’m wondering why I’m so involved with it, is the thing. Because as far as narratives go, so far this seems pretty standard. 4 children from wildly different backgrounds – one of whom is an amnesiac! – come together to save the world in a quest that involves repairing 4 crystals, etc. And my initial concerns about the incredibly over-written, quasi-pretentious dialog have not really changed all that much; I tend to skim through the cutscenes as fast as the button presses will allow, because the writing continues to be absurdly flowery and overwrought, and the voice acting does it no favors. (Though, to be fair, there are a few moments that have been surprisingly funny, most of which involve Ringabel’s lecherous and lewd behavior.)
I suppose I’m engaged with it because it’s the first game I’ve played on the 3DS in a long time that’s really, genuinely fun to play (all apologies to Link to the Past, which is simply not resonating with me). And the graphics are quite stunning, which makes exploring the world and every nook and cranny of the dungeons a real pleasure.
Also? I know this is going to sound weird, but the character Tiz kinda reminds me of my son, a little bit, if my son were older.
One of the cooler aspects of the game is that you can import special moves from friends and people you meet via StreetPass. And it occurs to me that even though I’ve had my 3DS for, what, almost a year now, I don’t have any 3DS friends! So here’s my Friend Code: