In the 8-bit era of gaming, Capcom found much success in the home console market in the form of Mega Man along with an entire slew of games bearing the Disney license. This streak would continue into the nineties when they released Street Fighter II, the title that codified the genre of competitive fighting games in the public eye. It is difficult to overstate how much this game dominated arcades. Millions upon millions of quarters were spent, and it wasn’t uncommon for fans to have to wait over half an hour for a chance to play it. Naturally, once ports were created for the Super NES and the Sega Genesis, they quickly became bestsellers.
Fresh off their triumphs, Capcom set their sights on a then up-and-coming genre that was quickly gaining momentum thanks to the efforts of Squaresoft: the JRPG. Produced by Tokuro Fujiwara, the creator of the legendarily difficult Ghosts ‘n Goblins franchise, and featuring a cast of characters designed by Keiji Inafune, better known as the brain behind Mega Man and its countless spinoffs, this new project saw its completion in 1993 under the name, “Breath of Fire.”
Playing the Game
Breath of Fire is a JRPG that features a turn-based battle system. As was standard practice for the genre at the time, monster encounters are random. You select actions for every character in your active party, and a round of combat is subsequently played out. Although your party will eventually consist of eight members, including the protagonist, only four participate in battle at once. You are allowed to switch party members out should the need arise – even in the middle of a fight. That said, you lose if your frontline characters are defeated. Should this happen, you will be transported to the last save point you used with half of your money gone. EXP is divided evenly among the conscious party members, including ones in the back row.
When upgrading weapons and armor, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that each piece of equipment has their own weight. Intuitively, heavier loadouts will slow your characters down in combat. This creates an incentive to hold onto older pieces of equipment even when a new one provides superior defensive capabilities. If you run into a horde of quick enemies, it may be worth switching to lighter armor so your designated healers can act first.
With one exception, each of the eight characters has their own ability that can be used when not in combat. You use them by placing the appropriate member at the front of the line, usually accompanied by pressing the action button at the appropriate time. For example, after a skirmish on the overworld, animals may appear. In these situations, the bow-wielding party member can hunt these creatures. Successfully bringing them down will reward you with meat, effectively getting you a free healing item capable of healing the entire party. Alternatively, you can sell it for a small profit. You’ll find yourself using these abilities often because they’re all required to complete the game and get the best ending.
The SNES has a reputation for boasting an impressive library of JRPGs – some of which are still considered the greatest games ever made. With this in mind, does Breath of Fire fare well against classics such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI? I don’t think it does. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it hasn’t aged well if for no other reason than because I can see someone approaching Breath of Fire after having experienced later games with decidedly more polish being able to pick up and play it with little difficulty.
Instead, the main weakness of the experience is how uninspired the gameplay is. The levels are a little more than glorified mazes that run the gamut of stock JRPG dungeon motifs, from decrepit castles to tall towers to dingy caves. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but outside of using the lead party member’s special action to get past an obstacle, there really aren’t any puzzles to solve. You’re just running through these areas, exhausting every path so you can get all the treasures while occasionally getting interrupted by a random encounter.
Furthermore, the characters are balanced poorly. In fact, nearly half of them fail to bring any real advantage outside of the few instances where you’re forced to use them. Three of the characters I’m thinking of actually have a purpose in that a fourth has the ability to fuse with them, creating a new, powerful ally, but in practice, it feels like the developers programmed around the problem rather than directly addressing it. A good JRPG with a large cast should have each character serve a different purpose so that the player will be incentivized to use them all at some point. Because only four or five characters are worth using, chances are great that most people who play this game are going use them exclusively once they join.
One last problem I have with Breath of Fire concerns the game’s final sequences. It’s not uncommon for games with multiple endings to necessitate players to go off the rails a bit in order to get the best outcome, but you still have to clearly outline what needs to be done. Failure to do so can result in a particularly nasty beginner’s trap. In this case, it involves using an item found in a specific, nondescript location, and later returning to an early dungeon you would otherwise have no reason to explore. To be fair, it’s not possible for you to lock yourself out of the best ending at any point, so you never have to start the entire game over from the beginning should you fail to meet the requirements, but I still can’t help but wonder exactly how people were able to achieve it before the internet was in common use.
What also doesn’t help is how taking the steps in order to reach the true final boss results in you gaining a technique which renders the encounter trivial. Specifically, it’s a spell that fuses all eight characters together into one powerful being. Although that may sound impressive on paper, it’s a situation where you only have control of one character who can only deal a fixed amount of damage every round. It’s a big problem when the climactic showdown at the end of the game is no more complicated than the very first boss fight.
Analyzing the Story
Thousands of years ago, a goddess named Myria sowed the seeds of discord by offering to grant wishes to any group of mortals who could gain her favor. The strongest tribe of humans, known as the Dragon Clan due to their ability to shapeshift, found themselves divided into two factions, representing Light and Darkness. With the goddess actively encouraging bloodshed, it didn’t take long for the conflict to escalate into an all-out war – one that threatened to end with mass extinction. Just as the world was about to be destroyed, a heroic member of the Light Dragons and his companions rebelled against Myria herself, imprisoning her using enchanted artifacts known as the Goddess Keys. Fearing that their powers were too dangerous, the Light Dragons then isolated themselves from the rest of the world, eventually sealing away their abilities.
The hero of this story is a Light Dragon named Ryu. He awakens to find that his village has been attacked by the Dark Dragons. Led by the charismatic Emperor Zog, they seek to gather the Goddess Keys, and achieve total world domination with Myria’s power. Ryu’s sister, Sara, a powerful magician, uses her powers to drive away the Dark Dragons, but is captured by them in the process. Now, Ryu must make his way to the imperial capital, rescue his sister, and defeat the Dark Dragons before they are able to unleash the goddess’s poisonous will onto the world.
Considering the creators at Capcom have never exactly been known for their quality writing (outside of the Ace Attorney series, at least), it’s a little strange in hindsight that they would decide to make an RPG, for they are games which often live or die based on the quality of their stories (or lack thereof). Granted, Breath of Fire was not their first foray into RPGs, as they had previously developed Sweet Home, a rare horror-flavored interpretation of the genre based on the Japanese film of the same name, and Destiny of an Emperor, a strategy title loosely inspired by the events depicted in the classic Chinese novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Breath of Fire differs from these previous efforts in that it was one of their first role-playing experiences not based on an existing work, so the question is: how does the story hold up? To begin with, it stands out from its contemporaries in that, with one possible exception, not a single member of the main cast is a normal human. Indeed, many of them resemble monsters you would fight in random encounters in any other JRPG, and the protagonist eventually gains the ability transform into a dragon. Going from having dragons assume the role of top-tier enemies typically fought nearing the endgame to actually playing as one provides an intriguing reversal of the genre’s conventions.
One aspect the story does well is showing just how much of a toll the Dark Dragons’ campaign is taking on the world’s citizens. To wit, the fourth town you visit is the first one that hasn’t been razed or occupied by their forces. It hammers home the point that, for the first few scenarios, you have no one to rely on but yourself. This makes it that much more satisfying when others finally start joining your cause, and the tide begins to turn in your favor.
However, despite these ideas, Breath of Fire has a pretty typical JRPG plot. It’s just another story where you’re the hero who must defy the odds by taking on an evil empire that wants to conquer the world before their twisted ambition can be realized. If you’ve played any RPG from the eighties or early nineties, you’ve already experienced most of what this plot has to offer.
Moreover, the translation is a tad stilted. I wouldn’t go as far as declaring it outright bad, but barring the bouts of censorship which plagued many Japanese-to-English translations in the SNES era, it seems overly literal; it’s as though nobody in charge of the localization process realized the importance of going a step beyond the confines of the script by reimagining certain concepts that simply don’t have an equivalent in other languages. It should also be noted that Breath of Fire was made in an era when space limitations were still an issue which hadn’t been completely overcome. Generally speaking, Japanese relies on fewer characters than Western languages to form complete sentences. As the people who allotted spaces for names of protagonists or important items had their native language in mind when doing so, this often created a problem when it came time for localization. All of a sudden, the space limits went from being adequate to debilitating. This created a lot of weird moments in the English translation such as people referring to one of the aforementioned Goddess Keys as the “LtKey” instead of the “Light Key” or every playable character serendipitously having a name with no more than four letters.
Despite these setbacks, the story does have a few surprisingly poignant moments – especially nearing the end of the game. They’re rare, but they are impactful, and the writers do a good job of letting them speak for themselves. Do they make up for the tedium the rest of the game entails? Not quite, but it does at least indicate to me that the creators were trying to think outside of the box, and I think it counts for something.
Drawing a Conclusion
Breath of Fire probably would have been more impressive had it been released before Final Fantasy IV, which helped pave the way for games with interesting, multidimensional protagonists that undergo definable arcs. It also wouldn’t be long until we were treated to games featuring antagonists with more complex motivations than catering to their own insatiable megalomania. In the face of the rapidly evolving genre of story-heavy games, Breath of Fire, brought practically nothing new to the table, feeling more like a forgotten relic from the NES era than a trailblazer. If one were to create a game based on a hypothetical JRPG style guide, only contributing the bare minimum of personal touches, chances are great that the end product would be very similar to Breath of Fire. If you’re a big fan of JRPGs, and are itching to experience one you may have overlooked, checking this game out wouldn’t be the worst idea. Otherwise, feel free to skip this one; you’re honestly not missing out on much if you do.
Final Score: 5/10