The Final Fantasy name used to mean something. Once one of the biggest franchises in gaming, the series has been let down by a number of forgettable releases, some truly dismal mobile spin-offs, and more ports than I can count. A new Final Fantasy game just isn't a big deal anymore, and it's been that way for some time. But tomorrow Square Enix will release a new 3DS game that brings back that classic FF feeling fans have been clamoring for — except this time it has a new name.
Bravely Default is a classic Final Fantasy game without all of the baggage attached to the franchise. Making its debut in 1987, Final Fantasy has spawned more than a dozen games, each of which features a completely new story and cast of characters, as well as new tweaks to how the game mechanics work. But over time the games grew increasingly complex, moving away from the original spirit of the series.
For people who have played any of those earlier games, everything about Bravely Default’s setup feels familiar: you control a small band of warriors and venture across a huge fantasy landscape in an attempt to restore four magical crystals and save the world. There are random battles and turn-based combat, and even some of the names are the same — Final Fantasy veterans will notice they're using many of the same spells, items, and weapons as they did in past adventures. It even looks like a Final Fantasy game, with adorable character designs facing off against wacky-looking monsters.
A streamlined, more accessible role playing game
In a lot of ways Bravely Default feels like a streamlined, more accessible version of the seminal RPGs many of us grew up with. The world, while large, is compact enough that you'll never really get lost finding your next destination. There are still plenty of cut scenes, but much of the dialog is optional, letting you decide how deep you want to dive into the story. But by far the best change is in the way combat works. Bravely Default's turn-based battles are fairly standard, letting you exchange turns with enemies to perform actions like attacking or performing a spell. But the game also features two brand new options: brave and default.
Default essentially lets you forfeit an action and defend instead, weakening any attack you might face that turn. But it also lets you store something called BP, or brave points, which lets you perform multiple actions in a single turn by choosing brave. You can perform up to four actions in one turn, using BP you've saved up by defaulting. You can also perform multiple actions even if you haven't saved BP, but this means you won't be able to do anything for the next few rounds. It's a risk / reward scenario: if you think you can defeat an enemy in one round, you can be brave and use up all of your actions to pull it off. But if you're wrong, you'll have to spend the next four rounds simply watching as the bad guys mercilessly beat on you. Once you get the hang of things, it leads to much faster battles, particularly when it comes to the random fights against weaker foes.
Aside from the new features, the team at Square Enix has smartly pulled the best ideas from Final Fantasy, while leaving out the stuff you don't want. Chief among these is the job system, which was one of the best features of both FF V and the Tactics series of strategy spin offs. It’s essentially a more fluid form of character customization — instead of having characters that are locked into roles like healer or fighter, you can change their focus at any time. As you play you'll be able level up these jobs, unlocking new abilities while also discovering new, more useful jobs by taking on side quests. It really gives you control over your squad, and is flexible enough that if you don't like a decision you've made, you can always switch back.
It's 'Final Fantasy' where it counts
But while the game largely borrows the best traits from the Final Fantasy series, it falls flat in a few places, most notably with the story. There aren't any truly memorable characters in the vein of a Cloud or Zidane, and the sometimes grating voice acting can make the verbose dialog feel even longer than it already is. It also has some strange moments of casual sexism that feel at odds with its otherwise cute and charming setup. This mainly centers around a creepy old mage who is constantly leering at the female members of your party. At one point he tells a young woman who he has known since she was a child that she's grown to be plump and jiggly. Later on he invites her to stay in his bed.
Thankfully, the frustrating moments of Bravely Default are fleeting. It's a game that will remind you why you fell in love with Japanese role playing games to begin with — that amazing sense of adventure coupled with the joy of strategically building your party. Bravely Default started out life as a sequel to the DS game Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, so the FF nods aren’t too surprising. But according to producer Tomoyo Asano, even as the game grew into something outside of that universe, the team decided to keep those nods to make it more approachable. "We felt like these are things that are familiar to people and make it easier for them to get into the game," he told Kotaku.
It might not have the name, but Bravely Default is pure Final Fantasy where it counts.