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Patrick Hope: The real Final Fantasy XIII

You’ve probably heard about the Final Fantasy game that was recently released and is getting some pretty rave reviews. What? You say that Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns met with a lukewarm reception? Oh, you’re thinking of the game that’s Final Fantasy in name only. I’m talking about the one that actually plays like a Final Fantasy game — Bravely Default on the Nintendo 3DS.

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It’s been at least a month since I wrote about some hot game on the 3DS that you need to play RIGHT NOW, so it only seems fair that the first new game I discuss in 2014 is on the 3DS.

Bravely Default is Square Enix’s latest attempt at a new series and came out in America on Feb. 7 after having been out in Japan since the end of 2012. It was hyped as being a Final Fantasy in everything but name, which ended up being startlingly accurate.

Bravely Default takes heavy inspiration from Final Fantasy V, centering itself around a job system. Each of the four main characters, Tiz, Agnes, Ringabel and Edea, can hold one of 24 jobs (classes) ranging from your basic thief or black mage to more exotic choices like pirate or conjurer.

Each job has its own set of base stats, weapon and armor affinities, and skills to learn. Figuring out how to plan and coordinate jobs to maximize your effectiveness is very important part of the game. It definitely doesn’t hurt that a lot of the jobs have really cool costumes. And where will you be utilizing the job system the most? Why battles, of course!

The fights in Bravely Default are of the classic turn-based variety, but with one major difference that gives the game its odd name. In addition to the basic options like “Attack” and “Item,” there are options for “Brave” and “Default.”

Whenever you or an enemy performs an actions, it uses one Brave Point (BP). You gain one point each turn, so if you just attack or use an ability or something, your points will always fluctuate between minus-1 and 1. Think of it like a simplified version of the Xenogears battle system, where you were allocated points to string together combos.

Anyway, if you choose “Brave,” you can attack up to four times in one turn by sending your BP down into the negative numbers. This might let you finish off an enemy in one turn, but if you don’t, your character will be stuck doing nothing for a few turns. The other side of the coin is “Default,” which not only puts your character into a defensive mode where damage is halved, but it stores up an extra BP, with a maximum of 3 at any one time.

So a pretty basic strategy, especially against bosses that have counter moves or can hit like a truck, is to default a bunch of times and then drop the hammer on the boss all in one turn. The damage you’ll do is the same as if you attacked every turn, but you’ll suffer way less damage. There are other strategies that can work as well, but the Brave/Default system adds a layer of strategy that is otherwise missing in a run-of-the-mill role-playing game.

And this is an RPG, so some mention should be made of the story.

If you’re used to the modern Final Fantasy games with especially intricate storylines, you might find Bravely Default refreshingly simple. See, there are four crystals in the world. They represent the four elements. And there is darkness consuming the crystals, so it’s up to your posse to take care of business. There’s more to it than that, but at its heart, Bravely Default is a big shout-out to the old save-the-crystals plots from the old Final Fantasy games and Final Fantasy IX. There’s also a fairy named Airy, so if you like fairies that say something because “Listen” and “Watch out,” this is the game for you.

Even in this more maligned era of Final Fantasy, the visuals and music for the series have always stood out.

As a spinoff of sorts, Bravely Default holds up its end very well. All the character models look great and are individually distinctive and many of the backgrounds look like they were pulled right from book illustrations. The music is of the classical variety, with all of the tracks sounding appropriate for wherever they’re used.

The 3DS has been on an absolute roll since about the end of 2012 and Bravely Default is another must-have entry on the system and at about 40 hours, it will keep you occupied for a long time.

I imagine that, someday, Square Enix will decide to disown the whole debacle that’s Final Fantasy XIII and just say Bravely Default was the real Final Fantasy XIII all along.

There’s no absolutely insane plot or really awkward characterization here. Just having fun switching jobs and saving crystals. And that’s what games are supposed to be about, right?