Nobody Cares About It But It’s The Only Thing That Matters: Pacing And Level Design In JRPGs
I wrote this to explain why I don’t like Bravely Default, but it has a lot of utility outside of that, so I hope people like it.
Level design seems to take a low priority in general for games criticism, especially for RPGs; it isn’t the only thing to talk about, obviously, and the script often rightly takes priority in many writers’ minds. That being said, I am less forgiving that discussion of level design is almost always overshadowed by discussion of battle design, because no matter how flashy and cool battle design is, it’s the pacing and level design that makes the difference between making a game tedious or fun! Maybe, just maybe, the interestingness of the turn-to-turn decisions of a JRPG are directly proportional to the pacing of those encounters and it might actually be possible that you can design a fascinating system and then immediately grind it into dust by forcing a player to do the same thing nine billion times in a row. Or, to be more specific, because no JRPG doesn’t make you do the same thing nine billion times in a row: pacing and level design are important because they are what make the combat-to-combat sequence variable and interesting such that the same encounters actually become meaningfully different from each other, and not tedious.
Bravely Default, like a lot of other JRPGs, specifically your Final Fantasies and specifically your Final Fantasies with outrageously permissive character building, is much more about the plan you set up for combat than your turn-to-turn decisions in combat. These systems are traditionally good matches for tedious games, because permissive character building systems are all about finding the least tedious way to play it. “If I get to level 30, I can unlock this spell, and that’ll let me wipe a random encounter in two turns instead of three, and therefore…” etc. It’s Candy Box, but because it doesn’t do the math for you, you get to be the one creating the most efficient encounter clearing machine, and so it feels like you did it yourself, and so you feel like a genius. It is the sort of system that often is described as “broken” even though in actuality it’s explicitly designed to be broken! Games like this are at their best when you feel like you’re getting away with something you shouldn’t, and Bravely Default is quite great at that.
Same for the “Brave” and “Default” system, which adds some of these qualities to turn-to-turn combat as well, and part of what makes Bravely Default’s system feel more exciting than games with excellent character building but few interesting in-combat decisions. “Brave” allows characters to basically take out a loan on future turns by acting multiple times in a row on your first turn if you’re fine losing your next four, and “Default” lets you defend while stocking up on a turn for later. When you realize that you can turn your whole party into Black Mages and have everyone Brave four times, then spam an all-targeting magic spell, clearing encounters in seconds and never having to pay up on you loaned turns, it feels like cheating, and it feels great! That’s the point.
With a system like this, all Bravely Default needs to do is not be completely unbearable, but it can’t quite do it! Why? What’s the problem? It’s this:
Bravely Default’s level design is The Big Book of Easy Mazes (ages 3+). The twists that Bravely Default throws at you on the formula of Go Down This Hallway and Then Turn Around are 1) maybe instead of going from point A to point B, you have to hit a switch at point C first 2) you end up in a dead end and have to backtrack 3) maybe you should go out of your way to get a treasure chest (helpfully counted!) instead of the most efficient route.
Mazes are not very fun after age four because either one of two things are true: 1) you can either see the most efficient answer instantly 2) the answer is hidden from you, so you are merely making arbitrary guesses at what the most efficient path is. There is no penalty for wandering around these tedious mazes due to how permissive that very permissive combat system is, except, very crucially, wasting your time, which is the harshest and cruelest penalty you can inflict on a player. Nothing could be meaner than encouraging and expecting a player to explore every little nook and cranny and then make every step an agonizing slog. And your time is exponentially wasted because every step you take isn’t just wasted travel time, it’s a chance for a random encounter to occur at every mistaken step!
Yes, you can turn the random encounters off/50%/200%; this is a band-aid over the real problem, and the very existence of this option (only added in the updated and international versions, not the first JP edition!) shows this was an acknowledged and understood problem. And you can relieve the tedium for a little while, but you still will have to grind eventually—though, getting to choose where and when is nice(r). It’s a red herring though! Saying that the problem is the encounter rate alone completely ignores the context and level design that make the encounter rate so unbearable.
There’s the mechanical penalty of losing resources (health, mana, items) as well, but Bravely Default almost never lets you run out of those resources, which is kind only in the sense that you’ve got no excuse not to explore every tedious corner. If it’s trivial to wander around looking for every treasure chest, it’s not a meaningful choice. You can see the end of your resources coming so far away that all it really does is force the player to do even more backtracking back to the closest save point at little risk for only yet more time wasted. The most significant limiting factor by far in this game how much tedium the player can physically stand.
Etrian Odyssey is also a retro RPG, though its formula is much older-school than Bravely Default’s (it’s based on Japanese nostalgia for American import Wizardry) and for that reason doesn’t feel much like Final Fantasy or any other 90s-00s JRPGs that Bravely Default invokes. I’ll skip Etrian Odyssey’s combat design for the most part, but it involves detailed character building, though the constraints are a lot more limited than Bravely Default’s. What’s really, truly important here, is the pacing and the subsequent possibilities this opens for level design.
The biggest difference is that Etrian Odyssey exists in title-by-title grid structure, where every step taken is from one space to another, like a map on graph paper, and is equal to a single turn of combat in terms of time. Let’s compare maps:
Right off the bat we can tell these are substantially more complex! But that’s not even the thing that I’m going to talk about; I’m going to talk about why that complexity is possible in the first place.
Etrian Odyssey is a pretty and adorable JRPG, but it is paced much more like a survival horror game! Resources in Etrian Odyssey are extremely limited. It is very expensive to buy healing items, you can’t just turn any party member into a healer like you can in Bravely Default, and healing is a resource you can run out of very quickly. It’s the same basic systems, the only real differences are just numbers, but number are everything here.
Etrian Odyssey is also a game about exploring. As I explained, Bravely Default has two limiting factors to exploration: resource depletion (to a barely noticeable degree), and wasting the player’s time (to an extremely noticeable degree). Etrian Odyssey fixes this by making resource depletion an overwhelmingly greater concern than tedium.
This is so crucial I feel like I couldn’t possibly articulate it enough—Etrian Odyssey depletes the resources you need to continue exploring long before you get bored of exploring! This difference changes everything. In Bravely Default, when you see a treasure chest, you’ve been taught to dread the unknown number of random encounters between you and it. When you see a chest in Etrian Odyssey, you know exactly how many steps it will take to reach it, and you have a color-coded circle on your UI telling you how imminent a random encounter will be. This feature, combined with the grid layout, lets you understand instantly and almost exactly how many random encounters lie between you and the chest, with just a tiniest bit of RNG spice on the top (RNG is the saffron of game design). You will be prepared for everything that happens.
Etrian Odyssey is informative about the encounter rate because the number of encounters the player can endure is very strictly determined due to the scarcity of health, mana, and items. So when you see that treasure chest you have to decide—do you have enough to walk over their and open it? Or are you already so spent you have to head back home? You never know how the RNG might shake out in practice, but you have enough information to plan in theory. These choices become very interesting! And you’re not bored yet, because you run out of resources before you can be, so you really, really want to take that step, explore more, see how much you can push yourself, even though maybe you shouldn’t…see how powerful it is to tempt players into making the wrong choice? How much more thrilling is it when the stakes are high but you know the odds! You’re still fighting the same first level encounter dozens of times, but the encounter at full health and resources is substantially different from the one where you’re running on empty but one fight is all that’s between you and the next treasure.
Pacing! Level design! These things can exist in RPGs if you let them, and they can make or break everything else. I think about how Undertale has button-press finger skills combat and no character building to make its combat unique and different—but also how it makes levels short and fills them with puzzles and keeps everything extremely trimmed down in length so you rarely get a chance to start hating it. That’s a totally different solution to the same problem. It introduces new problems (not everyone can do the finger skills, some folx like character building) but it is at least fundamentally time respectful. Bravely Default doesn’t need to waste your time for combat that interesting, it just can’t think of any other way to do it, which you may forgive.