Developer: Silicon Studio
Publisher: Square Enix
Without the Final Fantasy label holding it back, Bravely Default is free to inject new life into the stagnating JRPG formula.
We've said it before and we'll say it again: Final Fantasy really needs to take a break for a while, giving Square Enix room to experiment with exciting new ideas. Bravely Default is this year's case in point, a spiritual sequel to Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes Of Light that gives us the comfortable airship-sailing, crystal-locating, power-levelling experience we know and love, yet pushes the boat out on sweeping innovations to the combat, underlying RPG systems and 3DS hardware features. Legendary artist Akihiko Yoshida has run rampant, creating a breathtaking watercolour world to explore and enjoy.
Blending the old with the new was a risky business, but the result is truly superb... and yet another reason why you probably ought to own a 3DS. Seriously. I won't stop banging on about it until I Streetpass you.
The story and structure is familiar Final Fantasy fare, harking back to the first three games and handheld spinoffs. Four heroes from all walks of life (a naive yet brave shepherd whose village was destroyed, an amnesiac lothario, an excitable swordmaiden and demure priestess) provide likeable company for dozens of hours of questing, seeking to bring balance to a corrupted world by restoring harmony to its four crystals. Though somewhat derivative on paper, the plot and characters reveal hidden depths, quietly subverting what you'd normally expect from the series. Whether mocking Ringabell's amnesia rather than dwelling upon it, or delivering the occasional story bushwhack that throws us for a loop, Bravely Default revels in quiet yet confident changes that all add up, making the experience feel fresh and vital.
Fully-localised English dialogue is also a very nice touch, helping to flesh out the cast with flowery and ornate dialogue, and adding an extra layer of depth to sidequests that you'll rarely find in the genre. That said, the voice acting is decidedly mixed in terms of quality. I personally found myself switching between the English and Japanese dubs every few hours (and perhaps wishing Side UK had handled that side of things).
You probably won't care, though, because most of your brain will be too busy processing the visuals. Inspired by Rembrandt and other old masters, Yoshida has crafted one of the prettiest games on the platform. Every environment and city is a single painstakingly ornate watercolour that's presented to you in its intricately-animated entirety before the camera swoops down onto the characters. From an impossible clockwork desert city to jawdropping sunsets over jagged papery mountains, Bravely Default's stunning backgrounds deliver what most games only show in their concept art loading screens. It really is visually arresting, sumptuous and genuinely beautiful in the main despite somewhat jaggy character models.
So far, so good, but Silicon Studio (the developers behind 3D Dot Game Heroes, if you're interested) have stamped their authority onto Bravely Default with some massive deviations to how we usually play JRPGs. In fact, I'm tempted to say improvements.
The familiar turn-based battle system is as versatile and tactical as ever, newly refreshed by the titular Brave and Default system. Characters can defensively turtle up and stockpile turns using the Default command, allowing them to unleash a devastating salvo of attacks, skills, items and spells when the time is right. Conversely, you can take up to four turns at once by selecting Brave, sacrificing some future turns for short-term punishment and healing. This system may seem incremental, but it totally switches up the way you approach encounters, since ruthlessly cunning enemies and bosses also take full advantage of the new mechanics.
I'm delighted to report that a intelligently-designed interface with handy shortcuts and time compression options makes this an absolute breeze to pull off. It's impossible to sleepwalk through battles or drop your guard, adding extra depth and tactical timing to even the most basic of skirmishes, and turning boss battles into enthralling showdowns. I don't want to go back.
Random battles may seem antiquated in 2013, but again, Bravely Default dares to be different. The encounter rate and difficulty can be modified at any time, allowing you to advance without incident or optionally power-level whenever you want. Put-upon players can also spend 'sleep points' to stop time and get an edge in more punishing boss fights, though accruing this premium currency is an utter hassle without spending real money on optional microtransactions. I'm genuinely disappointed that Square Enix gracelessly ignored Play Coins in favour of a little chiselling, but since players can change the difficulty on the fly, I'm not entirely sure why you'd ever feel the need to splash out.
The job system is also absolutely sensational, and perhaps Square Enix' most impressive showing since Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2. Swapping between the dozens of varied classes is hassle-free and instantaneous, providing a stock of swappable active and passive skills that let you build up a truly unique fighting force.
Better yet, Bravely Default then goes all-out on utilising every single advanced feature that the 3DS brings to the table. Friends we Streetpass or meet via the internet can link skills with your characters, leap into your game to help out in tough fights with personalised special skills, and move into a virtual town in an addictive city-building minigame. Challenges and 'nemeses' can be wirelessly sent and battled, adding extra depth to the experience. Even the intro cinematic uses the 3DS' forward-facing camera to drag our heroine directly into the real world. Or in my case, the bathroom (oh the joy of handheld gaming), whereupon she disappeared down the sink. It was hilarious. Yes, I obviously washed my hands.
As the icing on the cake, Bravely Default considerately introduces you to each new gameplay element with clear guides, rewarding tutorial quests and one of the most comprehensive in-game encyclopaedias I've ever seen. Just leafing through its impeccably-written bestiary and item descriptions will kill a fair few hours and fill in an extraordinary amount of optional lore. Every aspect of this expansive adventure is polished to a mirror shine; offering both mammoth quantity and meticulous quality.
In throwing off Final Fantasy's shackles, Bravely Default ends up being better than almost every series entry of the past few years. To be honest, the only thing we miss are the Moogles, who have been replaced by nondescript adventurer NPCs. I have a fever, and the only prescription is more Moogle.
Beyond this chronic lack of Moogle, there are a couple of minor tonal missteps in this reviewer's opinion. The stylised female character models often flash a depressing amount of oversized thigh regardless of job (come on Japan: let girls wear functional chausses and cuisses already... and no more cringey beauty competitions), while a seemingly innocent subquest suddenly takes a turn for the unbelievably dark and twisted, making me flip the lid closed and spend some time processing what just happened. Mind you, a JRPG being able to surprise and blindside even veteran genre fans is definitely no bad thing!
And that's the key, really. Bravely Default is a game that charms and surprises at every turn, that makes us feel comfortable and familiar one moment yet forces us to embrace new ideas the next. The 3DS has enjoyed a truly exceptional year, and the last big exclusive of 2013 is ultimately one of its very best.
- Revitalises Final Fantasy with engaging new combat system, jobs and numerous subtle innovations
- Visually arresting watercolour art style
- Exceptional use of Streetpass, Wi-Fi, AR and other 3DS features
- Enormous and polished, comfortable yet unpredictable
- Inconsistent English voice acting
- Needs more Moogle!
- Ignores Play Coins in favour of (totally unnecessary!) microtransactions
The Short Version: Bravely Default dares to refresh the classic Final Fantasy formula with quiet yet confident innovations across the board, resulting in one of the best JRPGs of 2013 and a fitting end to a barnstorming year for Nintendo's handheld.