Scientists once thought that modern humans outlived Neanderthals because we were more “advanced,” in evolutionary terms, than our older relatives. But recent research shows that our success was a lot more complicated. Neanderthals had a lot of advantages. They were stronger than humans and likely just as smart. Homo sapiens were just better at working in groups. In fact, genetic sequencing shows that almost all modern humans have a bit of Neanderthal DNA, the result of interbreeding that may have helped diversify our gene pool as we spread across the world. There’s a digital version of that genetic selection going on in Bravely Default. Most of the game’s DNA is a classic Japanese role-playing game, but Square Enix has spliced in a bit of a Facebook game’s social strength to give Bravely Default more longevity.
The name of the game might not have Final Fantasy in it, but Bravely Default borrows much of that series’ items, mechanics, art style, and even character archetypes. Your team includes a farm boy whose village was destroyed, a priestess with a martyr complex, and a lady knight with a temper. They’re trying to restore four elementally powerful crystals to stop the world from falling apart. The amnesiac ladies man, Ringabel, is the only really likable member of this bland crew, in part because of the character’s droll voice acting.
The bad guys are equally two-dimensional, too busy twirling their mustaches to complete their goals. (Tip for RPG villains: When someone’s about to surrender and only asks for reasonable treatment, it’s not the time to tell her you’re going to torture her. Maybe just wait until after she’s safely trapped on your skyship before you reveal how evil you are.) Your rivals are also made to be disposable: Your party members only acquire new jobs (i.e., skill sets) like Monk and White Mage by killing the boss who holds those powers. So don’t expect evildoers to have much staying power.
But Bravely Default makes up for those shortcomings and other traditional weaknesses of Japanese RPGs with some new elements. The game gets its name from a distinctive flourish of game design: Characters can choose to “Brave” and take up to four actions in a row or “Default,” guarding themselves against an attack while banking an action for later. If you use Brave when you haven’t stored extra action through Default, you go into “action debt,” meaning that you do nothing but take hits from enemies until your action total is back in the black.
Balancing those two approaches is key to winning battles, and permutations abound. Some fights can be quickly ended by just having all of your characters attack as much as you can. But you can easily fall into a trap by choosing to attack an enemy four times only to have your foe choose Default, which radically reduces your damage and leaves you vulnerable to multiple follow-up attacks. Sometimes, you’ll want to store attacks up to kill an enemy in one shot and keep your opponent from healing. You can also store actions on your own healer so that you’re ready to get your team back in perfect health after a brutal assault.
Along with adding a tricky battle mechanic to the standard turn-based RPG, Bravely Default lets you tweak the difficulty level at any time. You can even customize the rate of surprise enemy encounters, depending on whether you’re looking to do some serious grinding or would rather just zip to your next destination unmolested. Those tweaks would be enough to let Square show their classic games aren’t in danger of extinction, but Bravely Default’s social mechanics take it to a new rung on the evolutionary ladder.
Using the Nintendo DS’s StreetPass feature, players can make friends and call them in to help with a special power in a particularly tough fight. Once a day, the game will introduce you to any players currently online, even if they’re in Japan, meaning North Americans are going to get some powerful buddies—buddies who have been playing for a lot longer and whose characters can end a battle with a single action. The game will also periodically hook you up with computer-controlled allies if you seem lonely.
While getting bailed out is nice, the biggest social component comes from rebuilding your poor farm boy’s village. Much like in CastleVille or many other Facebook games, every bit of construction takes time, and recruiting friends makes it faster. Getting new structures up and running rewards you with access to special moves and a host of powerful gear. Your village is on the clock even when the DS is in sleep mode, so there’s a strong incentive to set things up right before bed and check in first thing in the morning. If the evolutionary success of a game is measured in its ability to addict Homo sapiens, Bravely Default was engineered with very good genes.
Developer: Square Enix
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS