Review by Iyamtebist
Don't hold your breath
One thing that I could never really quite understand with a lot of game journalists and gamers in general, is why they often cite the 16-bit era as the golden age of JRPGs. The common reasoning for this is likely that a lot of these people simply remember this as the time that Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger came out, and because, they do not make games like they used to. While the quality of the games is up for debate, JRPGs were even more niche back then than they are now to the point that most JRPGs never made it out of Japan, and the ones that did had the tendency to have a poor localization attempt, and a higher price tag. To add this, there is the fact that, with the exception of Phantasy Star, Lunar, and Shining Force, nearly all well renowned JRPGs from back then were on the Super Nintendo. The JRPG market was also dominated by Squaresoft, leaving few non Squaresoft games that are cited as the systems best. These three games are Nintendos Earthbound, Neverlands Lufia series (Lufia 2 more so than the first game), and Capcoms Breath of Fire series.
Now being familiar with both Earthbound and Lufia, It makes sense that people would come to the conclusion that all SNES JRPGs must be amazing if you combine those and the large majority of Squaresoft titles. On the other hand, if the original Breath of Fire is considered to be part of the golden age of JRPGs, then Breath of Fire is fools gold. While I cannot personally speak for the sequel, Breath of Fire quite simply does not hold up well to todays standards, or even some of the standard that existed at the time. Breath of Fire had a lot of potential and a lot of things going for it; it is just a shame that these things were squandered on a mediocre game.
The story, at first, looks interesting as it starts when Ryu, our main protagonist, is told in his dream to wake up immediately or else he will die. He wakes to find his home village being burned to the ground, and everyone is hiding inside their homes from the Dark Dragons, the games obligatory evil empire. While hiding from the enemy forces, Ryus Sister Sara turns all the villagers to stone in order to hide them from the enemy forces, and attempts to hold off the Dark Dragons by herself. Afterwards, Sara is defeated by the enemy and is presumably killed. Saras stone spell wares off and the villagers awaken to see their town destroyed. The last of the towns money is then given to Ryu, who then sets off on his journey to stop the Dark Dragons.
While the beloved peasant village is burned to the ground trope itself is a bit overused in JRPGs, it was done to great effect in Breath of Fire because; it gives you your main motivation and gives the player a reason to care about what is going on, which gets the player hooked on the story early. Unfortunately, the main plot is missing in action for the next twenty hours and, instead, you are stuck focusing on fixing the problem of whatever town you are currently visiting or collecting various plot coupons. While the Dark Dragons do show up occasionally, you never actually get to take any initiative against the enemy until the last two hours of the game.
Unlike the rest of the game, the last couple of hours had emotional depth, compelling atmosphere, and decent character and plot development. In fact, just about nothing that has happened after the intro has any relevance during those last two hours. You could have cut out the entire game after the intro and you would still have everything you need to understand what is happening. In a game with proper pacing, we would have had decent plot development spread out throughout the game, but in Breath of Fire, we have about three hours of plot and twenty hours of filler content.
In other aspects, the game does manage to hold its own. The graphics are not really breath taking by any means, no pun intended, but they are done better than some JRPGs released at the time like Lufia 2 and Earthbound. Battles are displayed Final Fantasy style, where your characters are visible on screen and are on the opposite side of the enemies. What is different here is that they are seen from an isometric view, and have more detailed animations for attacks than in games like Final fantasy IV or VI.
The music is pretty good, for the most part, with some beautiful and haunting songs that accompany the experience and add greatly to the atmosphere. There are also plenty of heroic world map songs throughout the game which give off that traditional, heroic, JRPG vibe. The one issue I have with the music is that certain songs get very repetitive very fast. As I went through the game, I found myself tired of hearing the same music for each dungeon to the point that the songs lost their effect due to overuse. The boss music is incredibly overused to the point that it is used at against plot mandated encounters against what are basically normal enemies. It does not help that the boss music itself is not really that good. Regardless, most of the music in Breath of Fire is top Notch and tries to carry the games story and atmosphere, or at least what little there is of it.
The final nail in the coffin of Breath of Fires hope of having a well told story is Squaresofts incredibly poor localization effort. Even by the low standards of localizations in the 16-bit era, the translation in Breath of Fire is still abysmal. For example, did you ever notice how in some JRPGs, there will be two guard BPCs next to each other that both say the exact same thing? Breath of Fires NPCs are like that except even worse. In just about every town you go to, there will be at least three or four different NPCs spread out around town that all utter the same generic line. I highly doubt that the NPCs were this bland in the original Japanese script considering that there would not be a point to having them otherwise, and it seems incredibly likely that the translators simply did not bother to translate a lot of NPC dialogue. This removes a really large amount of believability to the games world, and simply comes across as lazy
What is even worse about Breath of Fires English script is that almost all of the games dialogue feels really awkward and often kills the mood of the game. To add to that, most of the games items and spells have awkward names and tell you nothing about what they do. For example, a spell that is supposed to increase your defense is referred to as petrify when used in battle, but is listed as Fort in the menu. The reason for a lot of the awkward translation errors is likely that they had to fit the characters into the small space that the Japanese symbols took up, and that the standards for localizations were lower back then. Regardless, this is still something that no game released today could get away with, and just makes the game a lot more frustrating to play.
Those are not even the worst aspects of the game that occur as a result of the awkward spelling. First of all, the inventory screen is almost always looks incredibly cluttered and confusing to deal with due to there being several items with awkward spelling and the lack of an option to automatically sort the inventory. It does not help that the game does not even do a good job at explaining what these items do. Instead of explaining what they do, certain items are given a generic description of, can be used in battle, that tells you nothing about what the items actually do in battle. You cannot even infer what most of them do because of the awkward and nonsensical spelling.
It is even worse when dealing with equipment. There is no feature in the game to compare the attributes of two different weapons. Technically the descriptions list the stats that the weapons and armor add, but there is no way to know the stats of your current equipment other then removing them, and examining them on the menu. However, unless you have another piece of equipment to swap it out with, you cannot even do that because the game does not let you remove equipment without swapping it out with another piece. This basically means that whenever you buy new equipment, there is a good chance that it will not be any better than what you currently have equipped, which will lead to you resetting the game several times in order to avoid wasting money
Those are not even the only devilish tricks that Capcom pulled with the equipment. There is equipment in this game that, when equipped, will cause adverse effects such as increasing the random encounter rate drastically, or making the user take double damage. When this happens, the game gives absolutely no indication as to what is causing it, meaning that there is no way to know which items will have this effect. In fact, there are items in the game that are labeled as cursed that have no such effect, and some that are not labeled as cursed that do have these effects.
So between the awkward item spellings and descriptions, and the cursed equipment, there are definitely a lot of things that can cause serious confusion while playing. However, that is not even half of the problem. Many of the sequence triggers in the game are annoyingly abstruse and incoherent. To give a few examples, there are certain abilities that you can only obtain if you have a certain piece of equipment. You are intended to procure these items by fishing for them in random wells and bodies of water in the game. Now it is already clear that it makes no sense to find Dragon Armor in a well, but it is made even worse because, in order to fish for something, you need to have a rod and worms equipped. Again the game never tells you about the function of any of these items, nor does it give you any clues on where to find them.
The pace of the game is broken further do to mandatory fetch quests, similar to those above, that tend to appear at random, unfitting, intervals. There are many occasions where the game will stop your progress and make you do something mundane such as collecting items for a potion, and making you deliver messages between two unimportant NPCs to get in object to enter the final dungeon. The items you need are, of course, almost always in out of the way locations that the game gives you no indication that you are intended to go to, or any information on how to reach. Ultimately, if you plan on playing Breath of Fire, then you better have that link to GameFAQs open at all times because the game pretty much requires it every other minute.
Design wise, Breath of Fire is a mixed bag as well. The dungeons, for the most part, are generally well designed and are enjoyable to go through at first. However, as you progress in the game, puzzles are included in the dungeons, puzzles which range from fun and not overly intrusive, to ones that are entirely trial and error based, and will take you hours to solve if you are not using a guide. All puzzles are made less enjoyable due to the inclusion of random encounters in the middle of them. The reason for this is that puzzles require thought and concentration, and if you are taken away from the puzzle for a battle, then you will not be able to focus on the puzzle and will forget what you were doing. To the games credit, there are items that stop random encounters that you could, and will pretty much need, to use during these puzzles; it is just that the puzzle rooms should not have had random encounters in the first place.
There are three examples of the latter puzzles that were notably bad. The first one had you walking through a maze with switches that remove the foreground when walked over. This was annoying because the exit of the maze was not at the end of a corridor, and could only be guessed through trial and error. The second was a maze with tons of invisible geysers that pop out of the ground at seemingly random spots. These geysers both damage you and block your way through the maze. This gets annoying due to you not being able to see the boundaries of the maze, and the fact that the game has a slight pause every time you run into a geyser, essentially taking the controller away from you every other second. The last one yet another maze that features tiles that rotate the screen when stepped on and make you lose your sense of direction. Once again, this does not go well with a maze that requires a specific path to go through which, once again, makes this puzzle nigh impossible without a guide.
The battle mechanics of Breath of Fire are surprisingly good. Battles are done in the traditional, turn based fashion where you select all your characters moves at the beginning, and they play out in order based on the agility stats of characters. Random battles are fairly easy and you can mostly brute force your way through them, in which you will find yourself trying to do so in the most efficient way possible. The boss battles mainly consist of damage and healing. Stat buffing spells do have a slight impact on boss battles, but they do not really add much overall. The game does have a few unique features, such as a character that can turn into a dragon, and one that can fuse with other characters in your party, which creates one party member who is stronger than any of the other characters individually. The latter is especially useful considering that you have a total of eight party members and can only use four in battle.
While the battle mechanics in Breath of Fire are well done, they still are not enough to carry the entire game. Breath of Fire had a lot of potential going for it, but it is brought down by its poor pacing, lazy translation, and overall bad design choices. I will admit that I do not think Breath of Fire is necessarily a bad game, and I did get some enjoyment out of it. However, I do not feel as though I can recommend it to others. I suppose that Breath of Fire does have enough to satisfy some people, and, for all I know, they could still greatly enjoy it despite its flaws, but I would not hold my breath if I were you (pun intended).
Product Release: Breath of Fire (US, 08/10/94)
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