Bravely Default and Bravely Second are available on the Nintendo 3DS.
I love me a good RPG – JRPGs in particular. I have for about two-thirds of my life now, jumping on the Pokémon train way back when and riding it ever since through Kingdom Hearts, Golden Sun, the Mario & Luigi series, and many more. Heck, I’m playing through Square Enix’s delightful Octopath Traveler right now.
Well, not right now right now – I’m typing at a desk at the moment, you see. A bit tricky to do both at once. But you get the idea.
And I do make an effort to sink myself into as many as possible. They still occupy a good half of my backlog of games, and I make it a point to play every main Final Fantasy and Pokémon game as they come out.
But here’s the thing – I can only really play a very limited number of them.
There’s only so much time in the
day week month life.
Video game RPGs are almost universally rather long affairs – it’s more the exception than the rule when a campaign lasts under forty hours, and that’s typically before you start factoring in most of the optional content. Between beating down random encounters for experience and resources, exploring every nook and cranny of a world, and taking on the many non-required quests on offer, there’s always a ton to do in a given RPG.
Yeah, they were doing the whole open-world thing a solid two decades before Grand Theft Auto made the idea into the popular kid on the block. Throw a decade on top of that if you want to drag tabletop games into the discussion, plus however many centuries you want to exaggerate by if you want to use role-playing in general as your argument.
But the traditional RPG format itself is long. You’re operating on systems that are generally rolling dice behind the scenes, which mean that encounters have to last long enough for the player can’t feel cheated by one bad random number coming up. There’s an element of small-scale tactics, so there has to be enough space for the player to experiment and be rewarded for playing carefully. And battles have to be numerous enough that the experience tallied up seems like a reflection of the player’s growth over time.
Besides that, they’re generally trying to tell long, sprawling, epic stories most of the time – everybody’s gotta crib from Tolkien’s homework, even the sci-fi settings. If you’re gonna role-play a character, after all, you’d better be doing it long enough to get into a headspace and make decisions that matter over time.
Luckily, the Bravely series – its demo software in particular – short-circuits an awful lot of this.
Firstly, there are some major systemic tools used across the series to make everything about traditional RPG combat streamlined and convenient for the player.
Like the fact that you can skip random encounters entirely. From the first half-hour of the game. Gone completely. Many other games will make you earn this, forcing you to taste the regular rate of monsters biting on your ankles every dozen paces until halfway through the game or more. But Bravely knows what’s up. You can double the encounter rate if you do need to thrash some buggers for experience, then slash it down to zero once you’re becoming annoyed with it. Personally, I set it down to about 50% most of the time and still stay ahead of the level curve; not having to bother punching below my belt is every bit as much a time-saver as it is a headache-saver.
Plus, the auto-battling is way more fleshed-out than in just about any of Bravely‘s peers. Typically, an auto-battle feature will make your characters blindly use the most basic attack command ad nauseum, or at best whatever command they used last. Here you can have it as a pre-set, and due to how Bravely‘s battle system works, you can have your characters automatically execute any four moves in succession. Multiplied by a party of four, having sixteen moves to execute with hardly lifting a finger should let you roll right over the lion’s share of the rabble.
With these two features together, getting through one of Bravely‘s dungeons takes only a minimum amount of time over what you’re choosing to spend there.
But the demos do even one better.
Rather than giving the player either a vertical slice of the game or bundling up the first hour or two of play, the Bravely Default and Bravely Second demos use assets from the game to construct a new campaign in the range of four-to-six hours.
Now, that’s a fairly generous for a free demo of a game, but it’s also way below what the overwhelming majority of RPG campaigns will ask of your time. Even the shorter end of the usual crowd like Chrono Trigger, I Am Setsuna, or the original Golden Sun are going to run you in the neighborhood of five times that to run through the lore of their world and actors, go through the three-to-five acts of
grief the story, and give the player enough space to breathe in between, even if you’re pointedly just .
Instead, the Bravely demos are formatted much like one part of a serialized campaign. The game drops you in a limited play area, you assume a rapport with a party that’s already fully-formed when you get to them, and you’re given a relatively short campaign to deal with. Your progression will very rapidly unlock different aspects of the job system, putting you on a sort of accelerated path through learning the game’s ins and outs through hands-on experience. It’s a microcosm of what the entire game will be, yet it’s narrative contained and manages to be mechanically satisfying by the time you’ve finished out the tasks before you.
They’ve been enough to tide me over on the series in the past every time they come around, whether or not they’re meant to be just a taster for the main game. And both of the Bravely Default games have had oh-so-much more to offer; more of the same, to be sure, but expanded in interesting ways. Much of the fun in Bravely Default is in playing with all of the tools for the battle system that you gradually unlock over time, but their demos manage to provide the bulk of the same experience in around one-tenth of the time.
And honestly, a lot of the time, that’s what I’d like. I want the good, comforting taste of an RPG, but I also want to be able to finish it off within a week before my impatient little brain realizes “hey, we’re still on that same game?”.
Unfortunately, those two wants seem incompatible in the majority of cases.
I love me the long-running campaigns of Persona and Final Fantasy, sure, but I really do wish that we had more vignette-like JRPGs in this vein. Maybe somebody will figure out how to do it in a way that’s satisfying on its own merits. And you could make a case for certain games fitting the criteria (Ys perhaps, and a few stragglers like Crimson Shroud). But most of the genre still struggles to hit a mark under the 30 hours where a game can start to drag on, and under 20 remains an abnormality.
Especially with the success of the genre on the 3DS and ever-growing prevalence of the Switch, I believe we can work our way down there.
Or maybe we ought to start back from the distilled core of the Bravely demos and pad things out very judiciously.
Either way, the genre could do with a some brevity a touch more often.