The mighty "Final Fantasy" franchise has fallen on tough times. The Japanese role-playing game that once could cause temporary work stoppages in Japan has lost its mojo. It veered away from memorable characters and suspenseful storylines and mutated into a mess of computer-generated cinematics and dull heroes.

The company got away from what made the series great, and that's why Square Enix's "Bravely Default" is such a fascinating project. Developed by Silicon Studio, the game is an attempt to return to the franchise's roots.

Yes, this "Final Fantasy" spinoff features airships. Of course, the story is focused on elemental crystals and warring nations. There are still summoning spells and plenty of magic. However, the developer adds a modern twist to the formula while staying true to the classic turn-based combat.

The story focuses on four heroes: Agnes Oblige, Tiz Arrior, Edea Lee and Ringabel. Agnes, the vestal of wind, is on a quest to purify crystals against a corrupting force that has fouled the waters and caused chaos in the land. She's accompanied by Tiz, whose village was mysteriously wiped out, and Edea, a warrior with ties to Oblige's antagonist, the Duchy of Eternia. Meanwhile, Ringabel is an amnesiac who guides the group using a strange book that foretells the future. Each character has secrets, which players uncover as they grind through enemies and bosses.

On the gameplay side, "Bravely Default" adopts a job system that lets players customize the four characters in any way they see fit. And they can add a smart mix of ninjas, summoners and templars to the squad. Part of the gameplay depth comes from using the right combination of jobs and abilities to maximize the protagonists' powers.

Although character-building is critical, mastering the updated combat system is just as important. Players must get a grasp of the Default and Brave moves that add a fresh wrinkle to fights. Going into Default allows a hero to stock up Brave Points while boosting their defense. Later, the same hero can convert these points into additional actions per turn. The challenge is in how to balance these two moves along with the Sleep Points that grant an extra turn so that heroes can rout the enemy.

When it comes to online connections, "Bravely Default" throws StreetPass and Nintendo 3DS friends into the fray. Players can summon the heroes of these allies into battle. If they're having a tough time, they can even borrow abilities that they may not have. It makes the solitary Japanese role-playing game more social.

These changes are almost enough to give fans flashbacks to "Final Fantasy's" heyday. The only issue is that the plot takes too long to get interesting and move into fresh territory. The other problem is that there are almost too many features that can distract from the main objective. But those flaws are relatively minor compared to a good effort that gets the series back on track.

Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/gcacho.

'BRAVELY DEFAULT'
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Platform: Nintendo 3DS Rating: Teen