GAMES - Review
16:24 - 29th January 2014, by Matthew Edwards

Bravely Default

Despite a slow start in 2011, the 3DS has gone from strength to strength. Looking back at the titles that have surfaced on Nintendo's handheld in the past 12 months, it's fair to say that 2013 has been the best year yet. But while A Link Between Worlds may seem like a fitting end to a seminal gaming season, Square Enix has made one last dash for the finish line with Bravely Default, a JRPG that harks back to the heyday of the Final Fantasy series, while injecting the genre with some much needed flair and refinement.

The game's distinctively soft style is the work of Akihiko Yoshida, the same character designer who worked on Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII. The 2D backdrops and 3D character models are minimalistic compared to the likes of Tales of Xillia and Lost Odyssey, but they deliver a world of brushstroke fantasy that defies an otherwise modest budget.

The story focuses on a quest to reawaken four tainted crystals. It breaks free of convention as much as it embraces it, and while the four main characters are typically one-dimensional in their personality, the liberal use of voice acting (including Spike Spencer of Evangelion fame) is more hit than miss.

If the story and cast are above average, then the real feather in Bravely Default's cap is the outstanding combat system. Over the years, many gamers have been put off playing JRPGs due to the monotony of random battles and turned-based combat. Bravely Default features both, but it gives you the option to turn off the former, while dramatically increasing the speed of latter. Better yet, it features the titular "Brave" and "Default" systems. Brave lets you take up to four turns ahead of time, but leaves you venerable to a counterattack if you fail to end the encounter early, while Default lets you stock a turn by doing nothing.

It sounds complicated on paper, but the tactical implications of this system become second nature very quickly, and when you combine it with the classic Final Fantasy V job system - complete with 24 occupations that range from the familiar white mage and knight to the more outlandish pirate and vampire - you're left with a style of turn-based combat that's inherently rewarding and refreshingly swift. The innovations don't end there, either, as the development team have made the most of the handheld's online and StreetPassing capabilities. You can customise special attacks before sending them to a friend, and even repopulate a village by wandering past other 3DS owners.

In the end, Bravely Default comes across as a JRPG that could've only been achieved on a handheld. It's less concerned with flashy cut-scenes that decorate the screen with particle effects, and instead relies on its warm style and absorbing gameplay. This not only makes it the best Final Fantasy game that Square Enix never made (only published), it also marks it out as one of the finest JRPGs in recent years. Here's hoping that the planned sequel, Bravely Second, is equally accomplished.

At around 30 hours for the main quest and a fair bit longer if you plan on hunting down all 24 jobs, Bravely Default is pretty much the full package. It combines a timeless art-style, free-flowing combat system and pitch perfect score for dramatic effect. It's like an old-school JRPG with less tedious grinding and more modern magic.
SCORE: 4.5/5
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