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.
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).
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.
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.