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Bravely Default Was The Future of Old-School Final Fantasy But Now I'm Concerned

by Neal Ronaghan - February 8, 2021, 1:37 pm EST
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Turns out removing developers and features from previous games isn’t great.

I remember realizing when playing a demo for Final Fantasy XV that Square Enix wasn’t going to make a Final Fantasy in the style I wanted ever again. I longed for the sublime sprite work of Final Fantasy on Super Nintendo. I wished for the flurry of intriguing and mostly excellent turn-based adventures in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. But as the games industry evolved and moved along, I recognized that the mainline entries in the legacy RPG franchise was soundly going to be some type of action RPG for the foreseeable future. I’ve reached peace with this, and it became easier to accept since despite not liking Final Fantasy XV that much, Final Fantasy VII Remake rocked my face off.

But what helped me accept this reality in the moment was Bravely Default. Announced early on in the life of the 3DS, it was a heavily Final Fantasy-inspired throwback JRPG from Square Enix that featured innovative turn-based battling, a mostly traditional story, and tons of fun job classes. It was set for a Japan-only release, eventually launching in the fall of 2012. Nintendo stepped in to help bring the game to an international audience, with the localized version (based on an updated version of the original release) hitting Europe in late 2013 and America in early 2014. While many lament its recursive narrative, I have fond memories of my time with the original. The battle and job system is fantastic, made even better by how flexible the difficulty and enemy encounter rate are. All the 3DS-exclusive features, like the StreetPass functionality based around reconstructing a village and the way that your system friends can help you in battle, make it a really distinct RPG.

I find a lot of the special sauce for Bravely Default comes from two parts of it: Producer Tomoya Asano and \developer Silicon Studio. Asano’s origins are actually with the Enix side of Square Enix, though most of his notable work is from after Square and Enix merged in 2003. He was a producer on the 3D remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV on DS and even helped with the Valkyrie Profile and Star Ocean remakes (the latter of which is on Switch and is very good!). But what best applies to his bravely defaulting is his final DS game: Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. This spinoff almost feels like a Bravely Default prototype. It has some modernized tweaks to an old-school battle system, features a take on the job system, and even includes some narrative chicanery. I don’t have the fondest memories of it, but I also feel like it’s a game I’d like more now than in 2009 when it first came out. Asano worked on 3D remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV remakes before this, and it feels very much like the narrative style of Final Fantasy IV mixed with the job system of III and an overall presentation that evokes the original Final Fantasy. Bravely Default actually started as a Final Fantasy game, but early on in development, Asano wanted to go in a new direction.

His hands are still all over the games in the Bravely style, including Bravely Second, Octopath Traveler, and the upcoming Bravely Default II. One important part of the formula only really returned for Bravely Second. That’s developer Silicon Studio. Their origins actually tie back into Nintendo in a weird way. They were founded in 2000 by Teruyasu Sekimoto, who was previously part of Silicon Graphics - the company that developed the GPU for the Nintendo 64. The early years of Silicon Studio were focused on making middleware, with their game development side not coming to fruition until the end of the decade. I first became aware of them when they made the under-the-radar PlayStation 3 game 3D Dot Game Heroes, which was a quirky voxel-based game that drew heavy inspiration from 2D Zelda games.

Their best-known game would wind up being their next major one: Bravely Default. They also worked on the follow-up Bravely Second. Aside from their work on those two games, Silicon Studio has mostly just worked on mobile games, most notably Mistwalker’s Terra Battle 2, which horrifically bombed and shut down in less than a year. And then Silicon Studio basically stopped working with Square Enix. I’m not sure if it was because of bad blood or anything, but Asano did publicly apologize for Bravely Second. And like, while I think Second is soundly worse than the original, it’s not that bad. Regardless, Square Enix moved on with another team after Bravely Second, making Octopath Traveler with Acquire. That developer took experience with the Tenchu series and Akiba’s Trip to an old-school-styled RPG. But while Acquire is probably working somewhere on an Octopath sequel, they didn’t cross over to the Bravely series. As a matter of fact, Acquire announced two new Switch games in early 2021: a new Akiba’s Trip and a 3D dungeon crawler called Labyrinth of Zangetsu.

The developers of Bravely Default 2 aren’t newcomers to the series, but they’re newcomers to Western audiences. Claytechworks is relatively young, with only mobile game experience. Their most notable game is likely the Japan-only mobile game Bravely Default: Fairy’s Effect, which shut down after three years in 2020.

This is all a long way to say that I’m a little nervous about Bravely Default II. I want to believe in Claytechworks (just like I want to believe in DokiDoki Groove Works - the mobile developer working on Octopath Traveler’s various mobile prequels and side stores), but let me tell you: the demos for Bravely Default II have been extraordinarily discouraging. The first demo was purposefully difficult, which almost laughs in the face of the original game’s pleasantly approachable difficulty. It also screwed up how turn order was displayed. The “final” demo, which came out in late 2020, is supposedly representative of the final game, but it still has some worrisome issues. First off, you can’t turn off enemy encounters, which was kind of a hallmark of the original two games (and I know enemies appear on screen now, but still). The battle system is also fundamentally changed to deemphasize a lot of the trademark Brave and Default concepts by moving all characters to a Final Fantasy ATB (active time battle) system that seems to further punish going negative in your BP gauge. It just feels off, almost like it was made by a team that didn’t play a part in making the first two entries in the series.

I hope that by the time Bravely Default II comes out, I’m not regretting my current Best Buy pre-order (guys - it comes with a placemat and coasters for some reason! That’s hilarious!) and maybe the discouraging changes don’t ruin the whole experience. Maybe the totality is better and stronger than the first two games. I might not hold my breath, but I’ll try to stay positive as my concerns rise. Here’s to hoping Asano knows best and Bravely Default II continues the trend of making the old-school-styled Final Fantasy games stay alive in the modern era.

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