Courtesy of Square Enix
Courtesy of Square Enix

Japanese role playing games (JRPG) have a reputation for clinging to the past when it comes to gameplay. Square Enix, the long-loved developer of the “Final Fantasy” series, has been accused of this practice for a while now. This all changes with “Bravely Default” on the Nintendo 3DS, which feels like an homage to the classic turn-based JRPG with a unique twist to the combat style. But what is this twist, and how does it improve gameplay?

This is a tale of a young boy named Tiz who lives a normal farm life. Out of nowhere, his home — along with the rest of the town — gets eaten up by the ground, leaving nothing but a giant hole. Very early on you meet three other characters: Ringabel, Agnes and Edea, each related to the incident in some way. They form your team the whole way through as you attempt to figure out what is happening.

Everything about this game feels like a huge epic. The art style looks handdrawn, like a large pastel picture. Each town is big and lively; let the 3DS sit for a couple of seconds and the camera pans out, giving you a glimpse of how large and beautifully detailed the cities are. The music blends in well with the art style as well, sounding like an epic symphony similar to those found in film. Then there is the writing — clever, funny and at times very mature. Each of the characters have their own personality through the writing; some are girl-chasing lovebirds, while others are very serious. Unfortunately, the dialogue’s voice acting can be hit-or-miss. Some characters sound like professional voice actors while others sound like untrained children who don’t know what they are doing.

“Bravely Default” at its base is a classic turn-based game in which you and the enemy take turns attacking each other. Each turn you can act out the normal moves of attack, or use items on your party like any other JRPG. The twist comes from being able to make a choice between the new options: Brave or Default. If you choose to default, you go into a defensive position, in which you can’t do anything else that turn. The opponent gets a free shot at you, but you take less damage since you are in a defensive position. Choosing the Brave option takes turn counters away, but allows you to attack up to four times per turn. Meanwhile, a counter system keeps track of the turns you have. Why is this needed? Each time you start a battle the counter is set at zero. Here is the catch, though: In order to have a turn, you must have a counter count of zero or higher.

Each choice has an upside and a downside to it. You can choose to Brave all the way to negative four to dispatch the opponent very quickly, but if you fail, you will be a sitting duck for four turns. On the other hand, you can choose to Default and potentially have eight attacks in two turns, but will lose a lot of health in the process. This new gameplay style adds a whole new level of never-before-seen strategy to the JRPG genre, giving the player a lot of options during battle. There is even more depth in the gameplay when you consider the fact that each character can take a different role on the team: white mage, dark mage and knight, among others. The interesting thing about this is that jobs can be switched to unemployed at any time, so no choice is ever permanent.

Integrated into the background as well are the SpotPass capabilities of the 3DS. For Tiz to rebuild his town, other people are required, which is where SpotPass comes in. Every time you get a SpotPass, you get a person in your town. The town has a lot of work that needs to be done, so the more people you get, the quicker it gets done and the more cool items are given to you. There is nothing that you need to do, just find more people to SpotPass.

The beginning of “Bravely Default” is reminiscent of “Star Wars: A New Hope” (No spoilers, but get your AR cards ready) and it only gets better from there. Square Enix has managed to create a classic JRPG that feels very fresh. The Brave or Default choice is what makes this game stand out, but in the middle of it all it is still a well-balanced, very challenging, turn-based JRPG with lots of missions and side missions that will keep you busy long after the credits roll.

Rating: 4.5 stars