Last week saw the release of two much-anticipated Square-Enix games in the North America region. One, Bravely Default: Where the Fairy Flies, is the 3DS spiritual successor to Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light and is a standalone game that should have been released here sooner than it was. The other, Lightning Reutrns, is the actual successor to Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, and promises an ending to a trilogy that was never supposed to be a trilogy. It’s really interesting to me that these games were released in the same week. Why? Because they appear to represent two completely different design philosophies within Square-Enix and also represent some truly interesting things about the Final Fantasy brand itself.
So what are the differences, specifically, between the games? Well, aside from the obvious answer of “everything”, I’d like to break things down a little more.
Obviously, the combat is very different. Bravely Default is a turn-based game in the style of, specifically, Final Fantasy III. The one that got remade for the DS, not the one that was actually FF6. This says a lot about how much of a throwback the game is. And how much of a shock it is to see a game like that being put out by Square that isn’t a remake of a game that was actually from that era. Lightning Returns, on the other hand, has shed what few trappings of the ATB system that FFXIII clung to and has become, mostly, an action game that relies on precision timing and reflexes. In fact, if one really thinks about it, one would realize that the numbered Final Fantasy games have not been truly turn-based since FFX. Which, given that the series made it’s name on that style of system, is extremely mind-boggling to me.
The plot is pretty different as well. Not that I’m far enough into Bravely Default to be able to tell you conclusively that the plot doesn’t disintegrate in the last third of the game like most other Square plots do. However, the beginning is what I’d expect from an old-school Final Fantasy game. I had even made the comment that had I played all of the SNES Final Fantasy games and skipped everything afterward, I could pick up Bravely Default and say “Yes, of course, this is a new Final Fantasy game”, in many respects not just limited to plot. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is a far more worthy followup to FFIX than FFX was. Now, compare that to the widely-known fact that the plot of FFXIII is a jumbled mess, with a sequel that came literally out of nowhere and had one of the most terrible non-sequiturs in probably all of video game plotwriting. I will give you that Lightning Returns probably does the best it can with what it has to work with, but it has taken up the task of resolving plot threads from two games that don’t even feel like they should have been connected to each other at all.
One of the demos was brilliant and fantastic. Guess which one. Perhaps Square-Enix realized that Bravely Default was fighting an uphill battle in terms of name recognition. While it probably originally was supposed to bear the Final Fantasy brand name, the decision was made somewhere along the line to shed that and sort of make it a standalone thing. And I’ll be honest with you here, I would probably have passed on it, at least initially, if it weren’t for the amazing demo. The demo takes a few areas from the game and drops the player into them with about a quarter of the available job classes unlocked and lets the player test-drive the game for three dungeons or so. That may not sound like a lot, but between that, the town-building minigame, and a handful of optional bosses,the demo clocks in at about 10 hours of gameplay. Lightning Returns gives the player the exact same opening sequence from the full game, which barely an hour of gameplay. It is, comparatively, lazy, though it does what most demos set out to do.
The philosophy of online connectivity is very different as well. Lightning Returns has some online components, though it mostly amounts to ‘post your achievements to Twitter and Facebook, and maybe leave some in-game messages to other people currently playing the game’. It is the sort of thing that feels a little tacked on, but then, in a game like that, why would anyone need any online connectivity at all? It just isn’t necessary, and there’s no real justification for it being there. Bravely Default, on the other hand, makes a very strong case for the (still optional) online features. The townbuilding minigame gets far, far easier the more people you add to it from the internet. You can summon people from your friends list to use attacks in the middle of fights (yes, this breaks the difficulty curve, but who cares, it’s awesome). You can link your characters to people on your friends list to borrow class abilities they’ve already learned. And, finally, once you figure out how to do it, adding people from your list is as easy as having the game scan your friends list for people who have also played the game. It’s a combination of good features and people finally starting to figure out how to use the 3DS online capabilities in ways that aren’t extremely cumbersome.
There are differing approaches to DLC. Now, both games have DLC, and in both cases they are things which could be seen as fairly frivolous. In Bravely Default, though, there is only one piece of DLC, and there isn’t all that much motivation to purchase it. The concept is, you can purchase Sleep Points which can give you extra turns in battle. Except, you get those points anyway by leaving your 3DS in sleep mode. It just sort of struck me as something included because they felt like they had to include some form of DLC. In Lightning Returns, DLC mostly comes in the form of additional costumes and equipment for Lightning. Most of it is cross-promotional and, at times, at least weird if not actually pretty cool. One of the pre-order DLC costumes, however, is completely and totally game-breaking. The Cloud costume includes with it a special ability that can do massive damage to an enemy which has been ‘staggered’ (this game’s version of guard-breaking). It makes quite a few bosses, and most large creatures, incredibly easy to kill.
There are also differing approaches to difficulty levels. Specifically, when and to what extent you can change them. In Lightning Returns, you get one chance, right at the beginning, to set your difficulty level. This choice is something that will affect the entire game experience for a lot of people, especially people expecting something similar to the first FFXIII games. While those games were a bit challenging at most, Lightning Returns is punishingly hard on the standard normal difficulty that most people would select. And by the time most people would realize the mistake there, they have probably put far too much time into the game to want to restart it. Bravely Default, on the other hand, lets you fine-tune the difficulty on the fly, so that you can adjust it based on whatever style of gameplay you’re wanting at any given time. Are you grinding for levels or cash? Bump up the encounter rate. You can even toggle on or off the ability to gain experience, money, or job points if, while grinding one specific thing, you don’t want to outpace the rest of the game on anything else. It’s the difference between “Pick the wrong difficulty? Tough.” and “Pick the wrong difficulty? Well, you can change it to suit yourself!”
And yet… …And yet, the games aren’t totally different from each other. They’re actually kind of similar, at least a little bit, deep under the surface. Not in any sort of mechanical way, but rather on some sort of thematic level. Because…
At its core, each game is about resource management. Sure, it can be said that every RPG is about resource management, and Bravely Default has many of the standard RPG conventions: HP, MP, items, money, etc. In combat, however, Bravely Default introduces something quite new: the idea of storing and spending turns. If you ‘default’, you store a turn for future use, and if you ‘brave’, you use more than one turn at once, whether you’ve stored it up or not. You are, in effect, wagering your turns on the hope that you’ll kill whatever you’re fighting more quickly. Normal fights can be ended by simply braving a whole bunch and demolishing the enemies in one turn. Boss fights, though, become a game of balancing your braving and defaulting to produce the best outcome. Lightning Returns is also about resource management, though the results are potentially much more punishing. In battle, each ‘schemata’, or set of equipment, has its own ATB meter which recharges when that set isn’t being used. Part of the management there is swapping between equipment sets in such a way that you have no downtime. Outside of battle, there is another set of resources to manage: the balancing of time, EP, and HP. On normal difficulty, HP does not refill after battle, and the only way to restore it is to use items or the Curaga spell, which costs EP. EP is also used to teleport between points of interest and to freeze the game’s free-running clock. And the clock determines how much time you have to finish all the game’s main quests and as many sidequests as possible before the game ends. So, really, one’s ability in battle directly influences how much time one has to complete the game. While it seems, and is, pretty restrictive, it is also a case where better resource management will make or break the experience for a lot of people.
So, while the games have gotten very different reviews and are very different experiences overall, I like to think that each game is an experiment on how to implement resource management in terms of gameplay. Is one better than the other? Well, probably. I know I have certainly gotten more enjoyment out of one of the two. One’s mileage may vary though, as each game seems to want to target a different type of player. Much has been made of the fact that Bravely Default is a better Final Fantasy game than the game that actually has the words Final Fantasy in the title, but I’m actually glad that Square decided to give that game its own space. If nothing else, it means that both games have definitely proved their originality, each in different ways, and left it to the players to decide if either of them are worth it.