Names are funny things, in the world of JRPGs none is bigger or more ironic than Final Fantasy, so called because when its creator – Hironobu Sakaguchi made the game Square was on the verge of bankruptcy and he believed that Final Fantasy would be the last game he would ever work on. It would be Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy.
Almost a quarter of a century, fourteen games and numerous spin off movies and TV series later, the Final Fantasy series is one of the most successful and influential in the history of the genre.
Initially conceived as a spiritual sequel to Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light, Bravely Default, despite the name change, is the best Final Fantasy game Square have produced since Sakaguchi left the company in 2003.
On the surface you’d be forgiven for assuming that Bravely Default is named after its battle system, and it is to an extent, but its odd title could also be seen it’s raison d’être. It’s clear that (developer were attempting to create a game that was innovative (or Brave) yet still retained the spirit of traditional JRPGs (Default). For the best part they accomplish this by cleverly meshing together many of the tropes, themes and gameplay elements from classic 16 bit era JRPGs, in particular Final Fantasy and, to a lesser extent, the Tales series, and infusing them with modern features and twists.
Bravely Default centres around the exploits of four teenage heroes on a quest to save the world. There’s Tizz, the shy but pure of heart, farmhand who’s hometown of Norende has been sucked into a giant sink hole. Ringabelle, the lecherous amnesiac who’s only possession is a journal that can apparently predict the future. Edea, the feisty tom boyish daughter of a feared military commander and Agnes, the Vestal of Wind, a sheltered altar girl who is on a mission to reawaken the power of the sacred crystals which have been corrupted by a mysterious power. This has resulted in all kinds of terrible catastrophes occurring throughout the world, such as Norende’s destruction, the seas turning to poison, the wind no longer blowing across the desert, dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria, Ok maybe that the last one was from Ghostbusters, but you get the idea.
Not only do our heroes have to contend with a world in which nature is seriously out of whack. but they are also public enemy number one as the forces of the Eternian Empire who believe that the crystals are enslaving mankind and are hunting anyone who worships them.
At first glance, Bravely Default sounds like your a-typical JRPG battle of good vs. evil in which the awkward but loveable heroes come of age whilst fighting against an evil empire for the good of the world. However, first impressions can be incredibly deceptive because Bravely Default delights in playing with the genres narrative tropes and player’s expectations and as the narrative progresses and the character’s motivations are laid bare, it becomes evident that things are not quite what they seem, that bubbling away just under the surface is an incredibly dark, brutal and sophisticated tale that belies the game’s storybook visuals and super deformed character designs.
Bravely Default’s visuals and art direction are top notch. Cleverly combining detailed, hand drawn backgrounds with subtle but effective use of the system’s 3D effects to create some absolutely jaw dropping vistas. Which make Bravely Default look like a living popup book.
My only minor quibble is that the game’s character models don’t quite do the beautiful character designs and artwork by Akihiko Yoshida (Final Fantasy Tactics) justice, looking a bit too much like the cutesy characters from Crystal Chronicles for my liking. As such, they undermine the game’s otherwise mature tone.
Supporting the beautiful visuals is some solid voice work by the game’s principle cast, purists will be happy to know that the entire game is playable with Japanese audio. This is accompanied by an epic score by Revo which deftly mixes classical elements with power metal overtones to create a heady mix reminiscent of the work of Nobu Umatsu. Rapidly changing style and tone as the triumphant horns and lilting strings that accompany great voyages across the world map give way to the violent clash of electric guitars and surging bass lines as soon as a random battle begins.
The game’s Job system is best described as the evolution of similar systems in Final Fantasy III and V’s. Starting as freelancers, players can then unlock 24 different job classes throughout the course of the game by defeating various boss characters. Once acquired new jobs can then be equipped and levelled up using job points earned at the end of each battle to learn new abilities relevant to each profession.
Not all of the game’s professions are unlocked via the main campaign and most of the more interesting jobs require you to complete the game’s sub missions that pop up when you reach a new area. I would highly recommend taking the time to do each and every last one of them as not only do they feed into the game’s main narrative nicely, helping flesh out the world and the characters that inhabit it, but they also reward you with some of the game’s better classes such as the thief, ranger and valkyrie.
What makes the system unique is the ability to equip the abilities earned from another profession along with your main job. For example, you could choose to be a white mage with the powers of black mage bolted on to create a nice all round magic user or vice, versa, or a knight/summoner or a red mage/ ranger or whatever else pops into your head. With over five hundred possible combinations, character development is incredibly open ended and there’s plenty of room for experimentation. Although arguably, some combinations do work better together than others by complimenting the main jobs strengths or mitigating some of its drawbacks. It’s also worth noting that although you can use the abilities of two jobs at once, only your main job will level up at the end of a fight. So it’s well worth flicking back between your two chosen classes in order to effectively power them up.
Characters are also able to learn passive abilities that are equipped separately to your active abilities. Each passive ability costs a set number of points up to a maximum of five, and do all kinds of weird and wonderful things from stat buffs to auto casting spells like protect and shell on the party before the battle. My personal favourite though was the freelancer ability dowsing rod, which tells you how many unopened chests there are on each floor of whatever dungeon you’re traversing, which makes finding all those hard to spot goodies a hell of a lot easier.
The Brave/Default system, although not that complex, does add a nice twist to the usual back and forth synonymous with turn based combat. Instead of a timer or having a set turn each side starts with one battle point. If you use just chose to attack or use an ability as normal the game functions in the same way as any other turn based RPG. However, using Brave enables you to spend an extra battle point and carry out an extra action (take an extra turn), whilst Default makes you defend and save one (you gain an extra turn). The interesting part is that you can get yourself in debt by using Brave to use up to four actions (turns) at once; consequently, your character then has to wait the allotted number of turns until their points replenish in order to perform another action.
This adds an extra risk vs reward element to battles and adds an extra layer of strategy to proceedings. Do you go all out and attempt to overwhelm your opponents with brute force and hope they are defeated before they can amount a counter attack? Or do you hold back and probe your enemy’s defences, whilst building up your own?
It may sound like a small change and in my experience overwhelming having your entire party take the maximum number of turns and having them pummel whatever gets in their way usually ensures victory whilst traversing the map and most of the early dungeons.
However, during boss battles and especially during the optional fights which conclude most sub missions, successfully using Brave and Default to create a successful multi speed strategy is crucial if you want to survive the encounter, although sometimes you’re simply not strong enough so you’ll have to do some grinding. Luckily, Bravely Default keeps the need to do so to an absolute minimum as well as taking great strides to make the process as quick and painless as possible. Players can modify almost every element of the games random battles, including their frequency, difficulty and the speed of the animation. Turn the speed and battle frequency up to full and set the difficulty down to easy for quick easy grinding, cutting what may have taken several hours in other JRPGs down to minutes.
The most interesting feature found within the game’s combat though, is the ability to summon characters from other player’s parties on your friends list to perform a single action of their choosing, or send your own off to help other gamers via the internet or street pass. Early on in the game this is particularly useful as you can enlist the help of characters that are much stronger than your current party to help even the odds during a tricky fight.
The other less welcome modern addition to the game’s battles are pointless micro transactions in the guise of SP drinks. These make the game a lot easier by gifting the player SP points, which are used instead of a characters Battle points, giving the player several additional turns with no drawback.
SP drinks can be bought from an in game shop and a maximum of three can be held at a time. Alternatively, one is earned for every eight hours the game is left in standby mode.
Yes, their inclusion is a little obnoxious, and they do practically break the game at times, however they are entirely optional and most players will never even need to use them. More importantly though there’s no need to buy them thanks mostly to the game’s incredibly addictive Streetpass features that encourages you to place the game in standby mode whilst you’re not playing it anyway.
Early in the game Tiz decides to rebuild his destroyed hometown. In order to do this Tiz is going to need a lot of help. In a cool twist, additional helpers are recruted from other players games via Streetpass hits as well as once per day via the internet. These new villagers can then be set to work levelling up various shops and expanding the town. This lets you buy a better standard of items and equipment from the games traders as well as unlock new special moves and modifiers to equip to your existing kit.
What makes this mini game so compelling is that all the work is carried out in real time, with tasks taking anything from an hour to several days. However, with every additional villager you set to work the time to perform a given task is halved. Therefore, it is in your best interests to keep your 3DS with you in order to get as many Streetpass hits as possible in order to speed up the restoration process and keep your current population hard at work so they can move onto the next project as soon as their current job is finished.
Successfully blending old school sensibilities with modern features is a feat that many games attempt, but very few successfully accomplish, especially as effortlessly as Bravely Default does.
Nostalgic and instantly recognisable to the old guard, yet inviting and accommodating to those new to the genre, Bravely Default is in many ways the Final Fantasy game Square have been attempting to make since Sakaguchi’s departure.
By dropping the name but keeping the spirit of those classic games, Bravely Default is able to stand on its own two feet as one of the finest JRPGs on 3DS, or any other platform for that matter.