Bravely Default Could be the Best Final Fantasy in a Decade

With its focus on mechanics over theatrics, Square-Enix's newest brand recalls the developer's salad days.

Preview by Bob Mackey, .

It doesn't take an advanced statistician to notice the Final Fantasy brand has seen better days -- even the upcoming spinoff, Lightning Returns, places the alliterative series title directly after the name of its inexplicably popular heroine.

So it isn't surprising to see Bravely Default -- branded in Japan with the subtitle "Flying Fairy," or FF, just in case you weren't getting it -- make no mention of its main inspiration, even if the game happens to be a spiritual sequel to the flawed-but-fun 2010 DS RPG Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. But where the latter explicitly banks on nostalgia, Bravely Default instead takes a much more confident approach, rethinking the class systems of classics like Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics into a modernized form, and offering an impressive amount of customization to boot. In a better world, Bravely Default would fit in right alongside the mainline Final Fantasy series -- but as the last five years have shown us, maybe that really doesn't matter anymore.

While Bravely Default has some impressive production values, mixing 2D and 3D assets alongside Akihiko Yoshida's distinctly noseless (and adorable) character designs, the real meat of the game can be found in its mechanics, which force the player to experiment and rethink their approach with each new challenge. If you've played Final Fantasy V and Tactics -- and by all means you should -- Bravely Default's various job classes should seem familiar, though they offer their own twists. As expected, leveling up jobs grants skills that can be applied regardless of changes down the road; so if you'd like a tank who can also act as a healer in a pinch, learn White Magic as a White Mage first, and your armor-clad behemoth can sling cure spells with the best of them.

It looks like Final Fantasy IX, right? Good, because that's the vibe the game is going for.

And depending on what your party is up against, Bravely Offers some clever battles that require some serious job system strategizing; in the demo, for instance, one of the later bosses charges up and hits hard, so I had my Performer change into a Knight while retaining his singing skills -- which include a song to draw the enemy's attention. With this character acting as the bait, I covered my party's durable punching bag with a Protect spell, keeping him alive, and the rest of his teammates safe from harm.

Of course, Bravely Default's focus on customization wouldn't be all that impressive if it didn't feed into a battle system which provides plenty of feedback and rewards smart tactics. Though the terminology may be a little alienating at first, the game's "Brave" and "Default" commands aren't too difficult to understand after a few battles. Your characters need at least zero BP (Brave Points) to act, and when they do, up to four turns can be taken using the "Brave" command -- so if you're staring at an easy battle, it's smart to have your characters use all of their possible turns in one go if the enemies before you look weak enough to crumple under the force of 16 (or more attacks).

There's also a lot of Final Fantasy V here.

Every turn taken reduces your characters' BP by one, though, which means if you pull this strategy on a boss, they'll get in at least four free attacks -- enough to severely limit your chances of success. This is where the "Default" command comes in handy; using it puts characters in a defensive state while adding 1 BP to their total. The trickier battles task you with keeping careful watch over these Brave Points, while keeping in mind the best times to hold back and go all out. Strangely enough, these battles feel less like Final Fantasy and more like the tightly focused Dragon Quest, where each turn demands maximum efficiency -- especially against bosses.

Bravely Default may be crack cocaine for people like me who've grown up alongside Final Fantasy, but it manages to make several friendly (and optional) concessions to anyone not intimately familiar with the grammar of Square's flagship series. Along with offering basic difficulty settings, Bravely Default allows you to turn off encounters entirely, or adjust them to suit your very specific needs -- if you want to grind for money without making your characters overpowered gods, you can turn off experience and job point gain by quickly jumping into a menu. And this general feeling of customization extends to nearly every element of Bravely Default; each of the characters has a unique costume for each of the 23 total jobs, so it's entirely possible to jump into a certain specialization due to the ridiculous duds it drops your squat characters into -- I'm fond of the Vegas-appropriate Performer's attire.

Honestly, the fact that they didn't call this "Final Fantasy Something-or-Another" makes a person wonder if they lost the trademark to the series. It's Final Fantasy.

Previews are best served with measured expectations, but after playing ten hours of the demo and seeing some of the later content via appointment, it's hard for me to control my excitement over the pending release of Bravely Default. As someone who's had a healthy amount of skepticism about Final Fantasy since the PlayStation 2 era, what I've seen of Bravely Default so far has basically delivered everything I've felt the series has been missing since 2000's Final Fantasy IX. But you don't have to be as jaded as me to find joy in the game; if anything, Bravely Default could serve as a fresh start its developer, and one that brings a slew of new gamers not necessarily familiar with Final Fantasy into the fold. As long as the game's strange name can weather the harshness of the retail world, the 3DS is shaping up to be an ideal place for Square-Enix to reinvent themselves, and thankfully, without the costly bombast of the console space.

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Comments 16

  • Avatar for Thusian #1 Thusian 4 years ago
    For my tastes I find that Final Fantasy as a franchise suffered from giving its audience what it thought it wanted, rather than what it actually wanted. So 13 is this linear verbose cut scene laden game which tries too hard to eschew turn based combat.

    If you look at the average game thread circa 2006 you will see people having huge expectations for the cinematics of a HD FF, and bitching that turn based combat is a relic (things you can still hear by the way). In practice the game that came out of that drive was not that well received, meanwhile this game with turn based combat and not as much reliance on cut scenes, with customization, and strategy emphasis is getting praise. Hmmmm maybe we loved Final Fantasy for a different reason than we thought.
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  • Avatar for alphaCat #2 alphaCat 4 years ago
    After playing the demo, I've got mixed emotions. I feel like the ability to adjust random encounter rate and the brave/default point system is both a blessing and a curse. I found it really easy to "break" the challenge of the gameplay. The demo felt very "grindy" and easy; I always felt like if I used my party's 16 brave points on the first turn, I could crush any enemy; and I felt little reason not to do this, even with bosses. I rarely died at all and felt very little of the real challenge that 4 heroes of light presented.

    I have read that the demo is not entirely representative of the actual game, and that is my hope, as the production values and design aesthetic have great potential.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #3 kidgorilla 4 years ago
    This is one of those few times where a demo has legitimately swayed my buying decisions. It was so robust and gave me so much to do I didn't want it to stop. I'll be thanking whichever Square or Nintendo decision-maker with my $40
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  • Avatar for Thusian #4 Thusian 4 years ago
    @kidgorilla I went full 50 for the collector's edition.
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  • Avatar for widdershins #5 widdershins 4 years ago
    Bravely Default wasn't really on my radar until the demo dropped, but I've really taken a shine to it. It's got everything I love about FF5, and is just so damn pretty to look at. The subtle tweaks to what you can inherit from job to job are great, and even though I was lukewarm on it at first, even the brave/default mechanic ended up winning me over after a couple of boss fights.

    Really though, Tiz as a performer kills me. Those sunglasses are the best, and I can't wait to check out all the ridiculous costume combinations.
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #6 renatocosta90 4 years ago
    I've been slowly playing the demo, since beating Project X Zone last week (it took me more than half year!), and the moment that "made" the game to me was the first boss.

    While I absolutely adore the FFV-inspired design decisions, random battles boil down to a fantastic mash of braving and attacking. But the boss battles, as Bob said, could be where the game would really shine through. This is one game that I will definetely pick up.

    And since I usually don't get too much on the way of streetpasses down here in my country, try to add me there, fellow readers: FC - 2122-5976-2982
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  • Avatar for jeffk #7 jeffk 4 years ago
    Does anything from the demo carry over once you've bought the game, or is it a standalone deal?
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  • Avatar for IPA #8 IPA 4 years ago
    Four Heroes of Light is such an underrated gem -- wonderful mechanics, and lovely aesthetics that bely a real challenge. And the Black Mage class is actually viable! :)

    Will pick this one up immediately methinks.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #9 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    too much hyperbole in this article
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  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #10 AxiomVerge 4 years ago
    How does the story seem to be shaping up?
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  • Avatar for TotalHenshin #11 TotalHenshin 4 years ago
    @jeffk There are bonus item sets that will be given to you in the retail title for completing certain tasks in the demo. Also, there's this streetpass town mechanic where the number of residents you've accumulated in that town, up to 20, will also transfer over in the retail version. I do not think there is anything else.
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  • Avatar for alphaCat #12 alphaCat 4 years ago
    There is a simple exploit you can do to get free villagers without streetpass, google it, it's right before the 2nd boss quest.

    axiomverge, no sense of the narrative from the demo, it's all explore and fetch quests.
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  • Avatar for abuele #13 abuele 4 years ago
    The demo hit quite the spot for me, I had to suspend my Zelda gaming for a while, I think not since I'll be grabbing a copy for this game.
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  • Avatar for matthewyoung47 #14 matthewyoung47 4 years ago
    Hey bob you forgot a game in your article. Final Fantasy III is the only true final fantasy game :) Considering it was the first one with the job change system.
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  • Avatar for orient #15 orient 4 years ago
    I've had Bravely Default since Christmas but haven't touched it due to ALBW. Once I'm done with that, it's all Bravely, all the time.
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  • Avatar for The-Fool #16 The-Fool 4 years ago
    @orient Curiously, I've had both well before Christmas, except now that I've finally finished Bravely Default, it's ALBW time!!
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