That Square Enix should choose to release a spiritual successor to Final Fantasy spinoff The 4 Heroes Of Light with a title as unwieldy as Bravely Default says much for how far the publisher’s biggest star has fallen. Presumably the intent was to avoid this new JRPG – from 3D Dot Game Heroes creator Silicon Studio – being tainted by association, but it’s hard to avoid the similarities. You’ll meet White, Black and Red Mages; drink Ether to replenish Magic Points; and use Phoenix Down to revive fallen allies. This is a new Final Fantasy game in all but name, and that being the case, it’s comfortably the best since FFXII.
Its title refers directly to its battle system, and you’ll soon understand why. This is the fulcrum around which the game turns – it’s a game of daring advances and strategic retreats, of risking all in a glorious assault or playing the defensive long game before striking suddenly with brutal force. At the start of each turn, you make your choice. Pick Brave and you can stack up to four moves, using physical and magical attacks, summoning allies or dipping into your supply of items. Yet you’ll deplete your stock of Brave Points and be unable to move again until the counter ticks back round to zero. Opt for Default, however, and you’ll bank a Brave Point per turn, also earning a defensive boost. A few turns of holding back and you may be able to launch a bold counteroffensive across two consecutive rounds, but by then it may be too late.
It’s a simple system that’s intuitive and easy to parse, yet astonishingly deep, flexible and delightfully tactical. Very few enemies here feel like cannon fodder. Even weaker opponents are capable of dealing out significant damage, enough to ensure you’ll want to be well stocked with potions and have one of your four-strong party learn the Cura spell. It’s combined with a Job system that allows each character to master several abilities, their current Job bolstered by support skills learned in a previous role. So you can have a Knight who moonlights as a healer, or a Summoner with a sideline in stat-boosting songs. In the late game, you might see a vampire Ninja fighting side by side with a pirate Thief, and the flexibility afforded you by such a wide range of possible skillsets makes each random encounter something to relish. For once, you’ll be glad of the interruptions, even if they do come less frequently than in many of Bravely Default’s peers.
Besides, it’s another opportunity to admire some of the finest creature art on 3DS. A grotesque sandworm heaves and shudders, while a skeletal guard’s jaw slackens as it scratches its exposed spine with the tip of its rusted blade. If the painterly aesthetic of The 4 Heroes Of Light was held back by the hardware, then Bravely Default makes the most of a more powerful portable. At times it feels like you’re strolling through a gallery of exceptional concept art, and Silicon Studio takes every opportunity to show it off. Idle for more than a few seconds and the camera will retreat to a wider view of your current location, delicately dollying towards your party leader as you thumb the Circle Pad. With a handful of exceptions, the game leans on fantasy archetypes for both its menagerie and its locations, yet these are no less vividly realised for their familiarity.
The narrative is equally rich and detailed. It manages the rare trick of making the player aware that their quest is but a small part of a wider conflict without diminishing its significance. Your quartet of heroes is tasked with reviving four elemental crystals in an episodic journey that throws obstacles both predictable and unexpected into your path. The good-natured Tiz is a standard-issue hero, lionhearted and stubbornly noble; his is the most tragic backstory, since he’s the lone survivor of a destroyed village, which must be rebuilt in an ongoing aside. Agnès, meanwhile, is the winsome wind vestal, bound by duty to reawaken the crystals. Which leaves Edea and Ringabel as the wild cards, the former defecting from the villainous forces chasing Agnès at the game’s outset, and the latter offering an enigmatic twist on the amnesiac hero trope.
The scenarios are uncommonly dark at times and Bravely Default takes risks with its character arcs, too: as Agnès’ burden begins to weigh heavy on her fragile shoulders, she develops a single-minded resolve that sees her abruptly dismiss any potential distractions, even as others plead for help. Extracurricular missions here are not inconsequential fetch quests, but fully ripened side stories that add to the world and its characters, with many featuring surprising plot developments and just about all of them offering new Job prospects as your reward for their completion. It’s a pity that such strong narrative ideas are bludgeoned by a script that’s never knowingly underwritten – wrongly surmising that one word won’t suffice when you can use 27 instead – while the mannered and melodramatic delivery often undercuts the story’s emotional beats. You can skip the cutscenes, though you’d miss enough of note that it would be unwise to do so.
That shouldn’t, perhaps, be too much of a surprise, nor should a bloated runtime that wrongly equates length with value; this is a JRPG, after all, and much of this goes with the territory. But so refined is Bravely Default for the most part that its problems stand out all the more – and they’re cumulatively enough to ensure that it falls just short of Fire Emblem: Awakening, Xenoblade Chronicles and Persona 4: Golden as the best of its class. And yet in its finest moments, that clumsy title couldn’t be more appropriate. This is a game that skilfully blends the safe with the courageous in an alchemical fusion of old and new, somehow brave and default all at once.
Bravely Default is released on December 6 for 3DS.