Final Fantasy has always been a series about change, with each entry endeavoring to try something new or different. Because of that, the “traditional” Final Fantasy experience has often been left by the wayside as the franchise evolves. However, in 2012 Square Enix released the greatest homage to classic Final Fantasy it could have, even if it didn’t bear the same name. Bravely Default wasn’t just a nostalgic throwback to classic turn-based RPGs, but also a vision of how the genre can modernize and stay relevant.
Bravely Default uses the exact same story setup as Final Fantasy, casting you as four Warriors of Light that have to save the world of Luxendarc by restoring four elemental crystals. The Final Fantasy framework is entirely intentional, and the game’s narrative uses Final Fantasy tropes to layer in some fascinating twists and turns.
There are plenty of arguments to be made about Bravely Default’s pacing problems, but the seemingly generic story methodically turns into a deconstruction of Final Fantasy and the genre at large. It’s hard to go into too much detail without spoilers, but as interesting as Bravely Default’s narrative is, the gameplay innovations it brought are what really stand out to this day.
Bravely Default uses the same style of turn-based combat as classic Final Fantasy games, but with one massive twist. During battle, you can use something called Default to defend and build up one Brave point. These points can be stocked and used all at once, allowing characters to use multiple actions in one turn. This provides a fascinating new strategic edge to battles, especially when enemies can use Brave actions as well. On top of all the normal considerations, you now need to factor in managing your resource of Brave points, while keeping an eye on the enemies.
On top of this Bravely Default introduces the best job system since Final Fantasy V, with a wealth of different jobs that all feel unique, from the well-known Black Mage and Monk to the wildly different Vampire and Salve-Maker. This system lets you equip a secondary job on top of a primary one, opening up a wealth of combinations and abilities to use. Combining jobs is an idea Square Enix has returned to for years, even in games as recent as Stranger of Paradise.
Bravely Default is entirely about customizing your experience, and apart from the job system one other revolutionary feature encourages that idea. In the setting menu, players can fine-tune the frequency of random encounters with a slider that lets you move the frequency up or down, or even turn them off entirely. It’s such a small but brilliant change that makes the experience astronomically better. If you’re tired of battling in a dungeon you can simply turn off battles and explore, or if you need to grind a few levels quickly you can bump battles all the way up and use the fast-forward feature in combat.
There’s another aspect to this, however, as turning down the frequency of encounters basically lets you adjust the difficulty. If you want an extra challenge by earning minimal experience, you can do that. Many modern RPGs have eliminated random battles by putting enemies directly in the environment, but Bravely Default showed there was still a totally viable way for random battles to work.
There are a handful of other features that make Bravely Default such a charming RPG, including an entirely optional town-building mechanic and utterly gorgeous hand-drawn backgrounds. It all contributes to a game that packs in oodles of charm and is simply a blast to play, even when the pacing feels long and drawn out with filler.
Bravely Default was developed by Team Asano, the same team that would go on to develop the HD-2D line of games, including Octopath Traveler, Triangle Strategy, and Live A Live. It’s easy to see how Bravely Default served as the jumping-off point for Team Asano’s later games, from the Break-Boost system of Octopath to the unique classes of Triangle Strategy.
Bravely Default was the perfect handheld experience, a compact RPG that had a huge amount of depth, but let you customize your experience for playing on the go. While it received a strong reception at launch, 10 years later it’s clear Bravely Default was more influential than we initially thought.