Monday, January 27, 2014

Bravely Default - the second coming of Final Fantasy

Way back when Square merged with Enix, the two companies decided that Enix's Dragon Quest would continue in the world of medieval fantasy RPGs while Square's Final Fantasy would venture out into new, futuristic worlds.

The resulting Final Fantasies - notably XII and XIII - won over a great number of players and earned piles of critical accolades, but many of the Squaresoft faithful longed for a return to a world where guns and spaceships took a backseat to dungeons and adventures.

That return of that world is nigh, thankfully, and it's coming through the 3DS-exclusive Bravely Default.

It might seem a bit odd that "Final Fantasy" was left out of the title, but Bravely Default was never designed to be a proper Final Fantasy title.  Instead, it's a spiritual successor to a spinoff - which grants it the freedom to do whatever the hell it wants to do.

With this freedom in place, Bravely Default goes out of its way to capture the old-school Final Fantasy's lightning in a bottle (no, not that one...) - the flexible job system (from Final Fantasies III, V, and XI) makes a triumphant return in Bravely Default and turn-based battles with random encounters abound. The end results are gloriously retro in all the right ways.

Still, it's difficult to say why Bravely Default was made in the first place... and harder still to ascertain why Square Enix kept "Final Fantasy" out of its title.

Cynics would argue - perhaps correctly - that Square Enix was testing the waters for a return to this old school style of gameplay to see if it was a market worth developing games for.  The fact that Bravely Default was updated in Japan with a title of "For the Sequel" lends some credence to this, but I - forever the optimist - like to think that there are those at Square Enix who long for a simpler sort of game.

The Final Fantasy XIII saga of games are all beautiful and innovative in their own ways, but they're also a bit too high concept for many Final Fantasy fans to really sink their teeth into... and not just because they turned Shiva into a motorcycle.  Underneath the deep storylines and gorgeous visuals, it felt like Square Enix lost touch with a lot of the fantasy elements that helped the Final Fantasy series become so precious to so many people over the years.

Bravely Default fixes this dissatisfaction with plenty of callbacks to the old Final Fantasy world - all while delivering some enticingly novel gameplay innovations.

Think you can quickly paste a random encounter in Bravely Default?  If so, you can borrow turns against the future of the battle and blow them all in one glorious frenzy of attacks and spells.  If you guess incorrectly, however, you're left unable to act for the same number of turns while the enemy whomps on you.  

Conversely, if you know you're in for pain down the road in a battle, you can store turns and go on the defensive - using them whenever you need a bit more 'oomph' (or Curagas...) to help turn the tide of a battle.

Add to the mix full-voice acting, the ability to freely alter the frequency of random encounters, and an optional auto-battle setting to help make the routine grind of backtracking more palatable, and there's a ton of new features to like in Bravely Default.

But all this stands alongside the old, classic spirit that made Final Fantasy a thing back in the 80's and 90's.  White Mages rub shoulders with Knights, Red Mages, and Dragoons Valkyries, you resurrect K.O.'d companions with Phoenix Downs and heal them with Hi-Potions, and - perhaps most importantly - Bravely Default's story can be summed up in a gloriously familiar sentence, "Four young heroes need to protect a crystal and save the world."

Also, it has boss themes like this.  What more could you want from a game?

Bravely Default is out now in Europe, and will be released in North America on February 7.