While Final Fantasy explores new gameplay conventions, Square Enix still knows how to make a classic turn-based JRPG. Bravely Default may not be an entry in the company's storied franchise, but it's built in the same vein as classic turn-based RPGs, all while modernizing the genre to give players a lot more variety along the way.
The story is fairly by-the-numbers, following a merry band of four characters, each brought together by happenstance. Tiz is the last survivor of his village, which was swallowed up by darkness. Agnes, vestal of the wind, is the key to helping restore the world, but is hunted down by the Eternian Council of Six all throughout the story. They're soon joined by an amnesiac Cassanova named Ringabel (try not to groan too loudly over that pun) and a former Eternian warrior named Edea. They band together to restore the world by helping activate the four elemental crystals scattered about. It's a story that would resonate with just about any Final Fantasy fan, crystals and all.
Where Bravely Default begins to set itself apart from its contemporaries is through its unique battle system. Each character can use direct attacks, magic spells, and use items, as is the case in any game. However, there are also two new options: Brave and Default. The former allows characters to attack more than once in a phase at the cost of having to sit out the same number of turns, while the latter lets characters build Brave Points (BP) and raise their defense by abstaining for that phase.
This system creates a number of interesting possibilities, letting players attempt to finish a battle quickly by using up 16 moves in a single phase, but with a very high cost should those moves fail to end the battle. I found myself a sitting duck many times when I gambled with that method and lost, leaving me to defenselessly eat attacks for the next three phases. It also leads to intersting combo possibilities. For example, characters can buff themselves for their first turn and follow up with direct attacks that take advantage of increased stats. Combat in Bravely Default proved pleasingly cerebral, as I had to outwit several enemies that were more than willing to utilize these same types of tactics.
More fun is Bravely Default's Job system. Run-of-the-mill Jobs like White Mage and Knight could be found through natural progression, but the cooler jobs are hidden behind side quests. This adds some major incentives to completing the game's side stories, as these Jobs are not only among the most potent in the game, but also prove to be the most fun to use. One side quest, for example, rewards the party with the Spell Fencer Job, which allows characters to infuse their weaponry with the elements or with negative conditions. Bravely Default's main narrative is a long one, easily exceeding 30 hours, but the rewarding Job system makes experiencing the game's full story worthwhile.
A Job's application to combat is even more interesting, as characters can equip a secondary Job's abilities to add to their primary one. There was an instance in the game where I took equipped Ringabel with the Spell Fencer Job, but also equipped him with the Time Mage abilities to also give him control over spells like Stop. These combinations prove a lot of fun to play around with, though truly taking advantage of this system will mean increasing your grinding time. Secondary Job abilities are only granted once they're also leveled up. This means characters will be switching Jobs around a lot to earn the best spells, since only primary Jobs earn EXP in battle.
One major aspect of Bravely Default that I truly appreciated was that the inevitable grind could be set at my own pace. Players can hit the pause menu at any time to not only set the game's difficulty at any time, but also set the encounter rate. Those simply hoping to explore a dungeon can do so by turning encounters off completely. Likewise, those needing to level up quickly for the next boss can double the encounter rate. This proved incredibly helpful, especially when I got lost in a dungeon with almost no health remaining.
Of course, while I appreciate being able to set the grind to my own pace, at the end of the day, it's still a grind with no way to expedite the leveling up process. While I appreciate the idea of being able to set my own difficulty at will without penalty, I wish more had been done with this concept. I would have liked to be able to set the game to Hard and receive a greater EXP bonus, to give me some sort of incentive to push myself and my party, while also making the grind a little shorter in the process. As it is, leveling up can get a bit tiresome and can take quite a while.
Bravely Default is a refreshing infusion of modernity into what's otherwise a traditional old-school RPG. It adds some new spice to turn-based battles, while also adding an engaging story, an engrossing Job system, and much-needed customization. It even utilizes StreetPass in an effective way that helps move the story forward. Square Enix may be taking its signature Final Fantasy series to new places, but Bravely Default shows that they still know what makes a good, traditional JRPG.