Please note that this review discusses major plot points. In order to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, plot points will be referred to in vague terms, and all characters will be renamed Charles.
Bravely Default is one of the finest JRPGs released in recent memory. With a single game, Square-Enix cut through all the bloat that’s weighed the Final Fantasy franchise down in mediocrity for the better part of a decade. The job system is deep, the combat is sublime, the characters are engaging and the story has the feel of a classic, old-school adventure to just get out there and save the goddamn world. It is, without hyperbole, a masterpiece.
Then the second half of the game begins.
The back half of Bravely Default is a Sisyphian endurance test, if Sisyphus occasionally had to stop and grind for levels. Square-Enix boldly decided to recreate the characters’ suspicions that they’re caught in a repetitive, endless loop by making the player feel the exact same horrid emotions. Each of the game’s four major bosses must be fought five times each, because if there’s one thing that gamers hate it’s experiencing new content. To be fair, Square-Enix does its best to avoid repetition by giving the bosses radical new traits for each fight, such as “more health” or “slightly different attack pattern.”
But you’re not simply defeating the same bosses that you’ve already proven yourself capable of besting several times over—you’re also listening to repetitive dialogue so lazy that characters are shocked by basic concepts that they’ve had previously explained to them on multiple occasions. During this stage of the game, it is helpful to imagine that your heroes have been stricken with the obscure status condition of short term memory failure.
Some conversations do move the plot forward, in the sense that the snail crawling through your garden is moving closer to a vacation in the Galapagos. Charles begins to suspect that Charles has not been entirely honest about their quest or the extent of Charles’ knowledge. And Charles begins to recover his memory, to the point where he first suspects that Charles is not working towards their best intentions, and then fully recalls that Charles does indeed have an ulterior motive.
Faced with this profound, life-changing knowledge, Charles heroically does nothing and allows Charles to continue with his plan unabated. Perhaps Charles, like the gamer, has simply been numbed into a state of catatonic half-life by the sheer repetitiveness of his assigned mission. To challenge Charles would be to challenge the only life he has ever known, for Charles’ memory of a time when he acted differently must be as hazy as the gamer’s memory of when Bravely Default was more fun than staring at an unusually dull wall for hours on end.
By this point in the game you will have likely developed several battle tactics that appear to break the combat system, such as the ability to apply a sword master’s lifetime of nuanced training in the subtle art of the katana to the art of a pirate hitting things in the head with a large ax over and over again until said thing is deceased. The bosses you have already proven your mastery of will fall like flies before you, if to swat flies you had to spend five minutes travelling to one’s location and 10 minutes swatting it over and over again without any fear of failure before it finally perishes.
The revelation that the seemingly inconsequential Charles is actually Charles, a servant of Charles, therefore comes as a blessed relief rather than a shock, both because it signals the endgame and the faintest glimmer of hope for a new experience, and because any gamer that could best a tomato on an intelligence test will have predicted the heavily foreshadowed yet agonisingly drawn out plot “twist” that Charles inexplicably failed to act on his foreknowledge of, perhaps feeling that he would simply follow Charles, a mysterious character who refused to explain who or what they were, got angry whenever anyone asked reasonable questions or expressed even a modicum of doubt about their clearly flawed plan, and see how that played out.
You defeat Charles using the same cheap and dull yet staggeringly effective strategy that got you this far, only for Charles to take a second form and wipe the floor with your party faster than Superman on cleaning day, because even after you are roused from your stupor and recognise the fact that Bravely Default has enacted a true plot twist by becoming a real video game again, your use of what you distantly recall is referred to as “strategy” is useless in the face of the fact that Charles produces really big numbers.
You are then reminded of the fact that JRPGs are essentially consensual hallucinations intended to disguise the fact that you are making your numbers become larger numbers until they are larger than the numbers produced by the computer, and that your entire video game role-playing history has essentially been one large Skinner box gussied up in pretty paint and an amusing story like some cheap whore.
You’ll put this revelation aside, because you’re already upset that one game has wasted time you could have spent becoming a more well-rounded person or being with your loved ones and don’t wish to confront the fact that your entire beloved pastime may be an elaborate lie designed to make you complacent, in an eerie parallel of Charles’ elaborate lie that makes your party complacent in a grand scheme to destroy time as we know it, because your so-called heroes are incapable of critical thought or even idly wondering why the supposed villains they were defeating earlier kept warning them that they were going to doom the world, which is a further parallel to how your parents once told you that you should go do something productive with your life instead of destroying it by playing so many video games. You will instead focus on grinding to make your party stronger, because you’re not going to let a game you no longer enjoy beat you, because you don’t understand the concept of a sunk cost.
Unfortunately, the game has now locked you into a set narrative path that prevents you from visiting areas that made grinding a relatively painless affair. To compensate for this problem, the game allows you access to the bowels of your airship, an early dungeon you had to clear of monsters so you could take to the skies, yet somehow still remains heavily populated by rambling hordes of monsters because there’s apparently nothing amiss about allowing creatures whose sole purpose in life is destruction to wander through the mechanically sensitive areas of a vessel so large and complex that no one actually knows how it works yet is happy to fly around in it.
So your enter the engine room and begin slaying hundreds upon hundreds of monsters in exchange for piffling amounts of experience, all the while accompanied by Charles who, in this alternate timeline you have established, has yet to reveal himself as a master manipulator and sees nothing odd about the fact that you’re postponing the rapturous experience of gazing upon a world you believe you’ve just made whole so you can deal with an engine room monster problem you’ve ignored as inconsequential for an extended length of time, an errand that is, in what must be an utter coincidence, making you stronger and more capable of defeating Charles.
After what feels like eons thanks to your general frustration with the fact that you’ve spent half of the game’s 40 hours wallowing in abject tedium, you will gain access to a skill that allows you to obliterate weak monsters as soon as the battle begins, essentially eliminating the entire concept of Bravely Default being a game and replacing it with the experience of being responsible for making numbers increase by spinning in circles until a fight with a foregone conclusion begins, a responsibility that could be assigned to a small child, or a carefully arranged bobbing bird toy.
Eventually you will also raise enough money to buy an accessory that increases the rate at which you gain experience. This, combined with the ability that transforms Bravely Default from a video game into a spreadsheet with a nice soundtrack, is essentially an admission by the developers that you can set your character’s strength to whatever you’d like, and the only difference between their system and hacking the game is that they will make you sink time into the endeavour in a transparent attempt to maintain the flimsy mutual claim that you are indeed still playing a video game.
Once you’ve defeated enough of your ship’s infinite supply of inexplicably wealthy engine monsters to ensure that your party produces sufficiently large numbers and does not receive sufficiently large numbers in return, you will have the capability to defeat the evil and duplicitous yet exceedingly polite and unsuspecting Charles, providing you can blink away your disbelief that Charles does not immediately vanish from existence like the countless monsters you’ve just defeated, dredge up the vague recollection that the light, sound and numbers box you hold in your hands once contained a video game, and recreate the tactic you once so naively dismissed as cheap and unfair yet now seems like an elaborate game of Go in comparison to the Kafkaesque nightmare you have just endured.
With Charles defeated you can confront the final boss, which is the question of whether it is worth proceeding to the end of a 50 hour game that, if you’re feeling generous, you can claim to have enjoyed half of, and that half is but a distant blurred memory of battles and characters that used to be entertaining before the all-encompassing darkness of the grind within a grind settled in and destroyed any joyful emotions you may have once held. Perhaps the final dungeon will lift the darkness and restore your faith in both Bravely Default and the medium of gaming as a whole, or perhaps it will simply twist the proverbial screw and turn the grind within a grind into a grind within a grind within a grind, or perhaps a grind within a grind within a grind within a grind, where the greatest grind of all is the one you make in your daily life to wade through this virtual nightmare by sacrificing any hope you once held of living a happy and fulfilling life. This question is the ultimate gamble, and neither this review nor any other can help you answer it. The choice is yours and yours alone, and in making your choice you will finally understand the meaning of the game’s seemingly nonsensical title. Will you be brave, or will you default, the game asks, indicating that the developers were well aware of what a miserable odyssey they had spawned all along.
With all of this in mind, I give Bravely Default seven out of 10.