Though not held with the same level of admiration as Final Fantasy IV, Breath of Fire proved to be a modest hit in 1993. It found its audience among the newly formed JRPG fanbase, and is considered one of the console’s better games. Because of its success, Capcom decided to do what they did best – greenlight a sequel. Many of the same employees who worked on Breath of Fire returned for the sequel, though Tatsuya Yoshikawa, who previously contributed promotional artwork, designed the entire main cast this time around. Furthermore, while Squaresoft stepped in to publish Breath of Fire overseas, Capcom’s USA branch performed that duty for its sequel.
The game, titled Breath of Fire II: The Fated Child, was released in Japan in 1994, receiving its official North American localization the following year. Unlike its predecessor, Breath of Fire II saw a European release around six months after its North American debut. The game met with the same level of success of the original Breath of Fire. Though not exactly a bestseller on the same level as the average Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest installment, it nonetheless moved 350,000 copies in Japan, and fared well enough internationally to reinforce the following the first one established. Though the first game is liked by the fans, the second is considered to be a major improvement. Some even go as far as saying it’s on the same level as other contemporary classic JRPGs such Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. Does this cult classic deserve to be held with the same regard as its decidedly tough competition?
Playing the Game
Five-hundred years have passed since the events of Breath of Fire. A six-year-old boy named Ryu lives in a small village along with Yua and Ganer, his younger sister and father – the latter is also a priest for the Church of St. Eva. One day, Yua, refusing to take a nap, runs out of the house to the tall cliffs on the outskirts of town. Ganer asks Ryu to find Yua and bring her back home. When he finds her, a monster leaps out of the bushes. Ryu fights to defend Yua, but the monster quickly overwhelms him. Luckily, Ganer shows up in the nick of time, felling the demon with a single magical blast.Years earlier, a horde of demons invaded the village, killing the mother of Ryu and Yua. A dragon appeared to physically seal the entrance to the demons’ realm with its own body. Yua wished to visit the dragon, claiming that by taking a nap in front of it, she can see her mother in her dreams. Ganer escorts Yua back to the village, but once Ryu follows suit, they’re nowhere to be seen.
None of the villagers recognize Ryu, mistaking him for an orphaned child. In his own father’s stead is a priest named Halk, who the villagers claim has been the minister for as long as they can remember.
Similarly believing Ryu to be an orphan, Halk allows him to stay at the church. That night, a fellow orphan by the name of Bosch convinces Ryu to run away with him to the big city and live as thieves. As they leave the village, it begins to rain. Taking refuge in a cavern, they stumble upon a powerful demon named Barbaroi, who calls Ryu the “Fated Child” and easily smites the two of them, though they survive by the skin of their teeth.
Ten years have passed since that fateful day, and Ryu and Bosch now make a legitimate living as people for hire in the town of Newhaven. The fate of Ryu’s family is unknown. Little do they know that by accepting an innocuous job involving a missing pet, they have set in motion a series of events which will decide the world’s fate.
Breath of Fire II builds on the gameplay established by its direct predecessor. It’s a JRPG that places a significant emphasis on exploration and combat. When exploring towns, you can interact with NPCs to learn more about the community or gather information relating to your current mission. Towns usually have inns, shops, and banks. For a small fee, you can stay at an inn to restore health (HP) and ability points (AP). Weapon and armor shops are often adjoined, and the proprietors’ wares increase a character’s offensive and defensive capabilities respectively when equipped. Similarly, many item shops share the same building as banks. Should you fall in battle, you will lose half of your money, known as zenny in this universe. You may also lose or gain money due to plot events. Whatever the case may be, your bank savings will remain safe; only your transactions will affect your balance.
The bank can also hold items for you should you run out of space. Items are grouped together, but once you obtain nine or more, it will take up a second slot. For example, if you hold eleven antidotes, it will show up in two slots – in one group of nine and another in two. The process of saving is mostly unchanged. All you have to do is find a dragon statue in town. Praying to the deity gives you the option to record your progress. It should also be noted that your party members are no longer present at all times; once you obtain more than four, the dragon god will also allow you to swap them as you so choose.
Once you’re ready to venture outside of the city walls, you’re taken to the overworld. It and a vast majority of dungeons are considered hostile regions. Accordingly, every step your characters take has a random chance of triggering a monster encounter.
Combat is recognizable to anyone who has played the original Breath of Fire or indeed any JRPG before this one. It functions on a turn-based, round-by-round basis. That is to say, you input an action for each character, and a round of combat is subsequently played out. Unlike in Breath of Fire, you are not shown a monster’s HP bar until you’ve defeated at least one monster of that type. A battle is concluded once all members of a side are incapacitated or have otherwise left the field. A victory will result in conscious party members gaining experience points and zenny for each monster defeated.
One notable aspect of the original Breath of Fire was how each character had a unique ability they could utilize if they were placed in the front of the line. That makes a return for this game, and many of them are required to advance the plot once again, but this extends to combat as well. In other words, every character in the game has a special command they can use in battle. Ryu has the “Guts” ability, which allows him to regenerate HP based on how much he has left. His friend, Bosch, has the “Snipe” command, which launches an attack from his crossbow that will either deal a single point of damage or inflict a critical hit. These abilities, at best, tend to be situational; most of the time, you’ll end up forgoing them in favor of attacking normally or casting the various spells each character learns. Their biggest advantage is that they don’t cost AP to use, so some of them can be useful under certain circumstances.
Formations are assigned in a slightly different manner. While the original Breath of Fire featured a system similar to that of Final Fantasy III wherein characters could be assigned to the front or back row, in Breath of Fire II, you can assign one of four fixed formations to your party: normal, scatter, defense, and parallel. Where a character is placed in the formation will affect their base damage modifier. This affects damage inflicted and received by the character. In the normal formation, the modifiers are 130%, 100%, 90%, and 70% for the first, second, third, and fourth characters respectively. As a result, fragile characters are best placed in the fourth position, as they will take less damage overall, and their low physical strength means the negative modifier doesn’t hinder them too much. The scatter formation grants a positive modifier to three members of the group and a 95% for the fourth, making it ideal whenever your party lacks a spellcaster. Because the defense formation gives a neutral modifier to the leader and a negative one to the remaining three members, it can be handy should your party face a perilous situation with limited resources. Finally, the parallel formation takes a middle road between scatter and normal, giving the first member a 120% modifier and the fourth one a 83% modifier.
Upon winning a battle on the overworld, there is a chance you will discover hunting or fishing spots. The latter occurs in fixed locations while the former can appear in most grass or forest tiles. Hunting works mostly the same as it did in Breath of Fire; the key difference is that you no longer have to worry about random encounters, as animals now appear in these isolated areas as opposed to on the overworld. By placing Bosch at the front of the party, you can have him shoot a crossbow bolt in the direction he faces. Successfully hitting an animal will reward you with meat, a potent healing item in the first third of the game. Alternatively, you can sell them for a decent profit. Two other characters can also partake in hunting, though they’re not as good, for one of them lacks a ranged attack while the other will cast a spell that burns all the animals present to a crisp, rendering them inedible.
Fishing is noticeably more involved than it was in Breath of Fire. Rather than just equipping a baited rod, finding a body of water, and hoping that you get lucky, there is an actual minigame this time around. After casting the line, you must wait for a fish to latch onto it. Fish may react differently depending on the kind of bait you use, and it’s important to realize the durability of each rod. If the fish is too strong, you will be unable to reel it in. The goal is to wear down the fish’s stamina gauge so that it will be easier to catch. Fish also make for decent healing items – especially when considering the low cost of the bait used to capture them. On occasion, you may be able to catch things other than fish. Merchants belonging to an aquatic race can be caught by placing gold coins on the hook. A successful catch will allow you to buy things from them like you would in a normal shop. You can also find treasure chests sitting on the ocean floor. These boxes typically contain powerful equipment, so it’s worth looking out for the best rods.
Unlike a vast majority of JRPGs at the time, you can gauge the level of danger each area presents. On the status screen, there is a goblin at the top of the screen. If he’s asleep, there is no chance you will trigger a random encounter. If he’s awake, he will begin to dance. The encounter frequency is indicated by speed of his dancing. It should be noted that if his dancing is very slow, it means there is a limited number of encounters to be fought in the area. As such, if you fight enough battles in such an area, the monsters will eventually be eradicated, rendering it safe.
As evidenced by the several new features, Capcom put a bit more effort into the development of Breath of Fire II than they did with its direct predecessor. This is also apparent in the greater of number of sidequests available to the player.
My favorite one involves building a town. Shortly after the first quest is completed, Bosch finds himself on the run from the law, and Ryu ends up guiding him to a hermit’s cottage past the mountains. Later in the game, you have the ability to recruit a carpenter, developing a single, remote abode into a bustling community. Your potential tenants can offer a variety of rewards in exchange for giving them a place to live; some provide a service while others set up shop. You can invite up to six people to your town, and all of them will be assigned to a specific house. In other words, if you invite an NPC to live in the first house, the other ones who could have taken up residence in that particular dwelling will not ask for one. This lends the game a degree of replay value its predecessor lacked, as there are many kinds of interesting combinations to try.
Even if there is an abundance of fresh, new ideas, some of them didn’t work very well. Sometime in the first third of the game, you will meet a shaman named Sanamo. Shortly after speaking with her, your characters gain the ability to fuse with her and any other shaman you may encounter. Anyone other than Ryu |and a secret ninth character| can be fused with up to two shamans at once. They represent the attributes of fire, water, wind, earth, light, and darkness, and the combinations can produce powerful results. A basic fusion increases a character’s stats. A very successful fusion will change the character’s sprite color, giving them a large stat bonus. If a fusion is particularly potent, the character’s appearance will change, which often grants them a new unique ability.
On paper, this system is an improvement over the fusion system that featured in Breath of Fire because there is a lot more depth to it. Rather than having spells that fuse select characters, you can experiment with the six shamans, leading to interesting combinations without having to sacrifice any of your party members’ physical agency. However, with the way the game is set up, it’s far less useful in practice. To begin with, if a character’s health is low enough, the fusion will cancel itself out. This is especially bad because by the time you have access to the best fusions, many normal enemies know the “Death” spell, which has an anomalously high success rate in this game – even when you use it for yourself, oddly enough.
The other issue is that you don’t have access to most of the shamans until fairly late in the game. Two are recruited shortly after the mechanic is introduced, a third is required to advance the plot roughly two-thirds of the way into the game, and the remaining three can’t be found until you’re ready to enter the final dungeon. This significantly hinders your ability to experiment with the shamans to the point where you will learn how to manage without their help, making their powers superfluous under the best circumstances. |To make matters worse, you can’t even use the shamans’ power in the final battle because your party members are unavoidably killed off just before it begins.|
The reason Ryu himself cannot fuse with any of the shamans is tied neatly into the plot. Like his similarly named ancestor, Ryu has the ability to transform into a dragon, and his tribe’s blood overwhelms the fire shaman’s initial attempt at fusing with him. Unfortunately, like the fusion system itself, Ryu’s transformation ability has been significantly depowered. The spells cost Ryu all of his remaining AP and the damage they inflict is a fixed amount dependent on his current amount of AP compared to the maximum. Furthermore, they only last for a single attack, making them slightly fancier magic spells that can only be used once. On some level, I can understand why the developers would do this. In Breath of Fire, dragon transformation spells had steep AP costs, and the hero didn’t gain that many per level. None of this prevented him from trivializing the game’s difficulty after learning the first set of spells, with very few bosses after that point posing a legitimate threat. I can appreciate wanting to balance the game, but I feel the developers wound up overcorrecting. It was a wasted effort in the end because there are still ways to utterly break the game if you know how, though to their credit, it takes a lot more effort, experimentation, and foresight this time.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: This section will contain unmarked spoilers.
The original Breath of Fire stood out somewhat in that there was not a single normal human among the main cast. It provided an interesting reversal wherein beings that would be generic monsters in a contemporary JRPG, serving no higher purpose than rewarding the player with EXP upon defeat, were the protagonists. However, it didn’t change the fact that it was an entry-level JRPG plot involving a young citizen of a razed village forming a diverse team of heroes to triumph over the evil empire before their plans for world conquest could come to pass.
Meanwhile, Breath of Fire II wastes no time giving its story a level of intrigue. As a kid, Ryu returns to his village after finding his little sister only to find that nobody remembers who he is. The once kind villagers now have nothing but contempt for somebody they believe to be a thieving street urchin, and his father and sister are nowhere to be seen. The prologue then ends with him being effortlessly defeated by a powerful demon. The original game’s opening sequences weren’t exactly lighthearted, as a significant amount of time passed before you discovered a town that wasn’t utterly destroyed or under imperial occupation. Breath of Fire II went several steps further by having the protagonist go through far more traumatic experiences at the age of six.
Indeed, I have to say that the biggest improvement Breath of Fire II brings to the table involves its main cast. In gameplay terms, your party members have much better balance, with only a few of them coming across as redundant. From a story standpoint, it becomes clear that the narrative is a bit more character-focused than the previous game. Breath of Fire II gives every one of them their own arc and backstory. This is typically achieved by making the presence of certain characters mandatory for certain scenarios. Indeed, you are sometimes made to guide them through trials only they can complete. All of this succeeds at giving every one of them a surprising amount of depth for video game characters of that era, touching on subjects such as parental abandonment and PTSD brought on by the ravages of war.
When your town is about to be established, the hermit’s dwelling is converted into a four-story apartment. As you enter the building, the members of your party depart for the living room, and from here, you can speak with them. They often have interesting comments to make about the various plot developments that arise. Those who were not in your party can be found in their personal room. On occasion, they may have something different to say in private, and it’s usually worth hearing them out.
This newfound character focus even manifests when interacting with those outside of the party. As you speak to certain characters, an artifact known as the Dragon’s Tear appears on the right side of the text box. It changes colors based on the disposition of the character you’re interacting with. Reddish colors indicates feelings of intense dislike, orange and yellow suggest neutral temperaments, and the tear turns green and blue whenever the speaker is feeling positive. Extreme ends of the spectrum are indicated whenever it turns black or flashes between all of the colors. The former tells you that the speaker is pure evil while the latter means they completely trust you. Barring a few specific, usually optional cases, it’s more of a novelty than anything else as far as gameplay is concerned, but it’s a nice touch that lets you gauge characters’ intentions for yourself.
The first significant story arc involves clearing Bosch’s name when he is accused of stealing an item from the manor of a wealthy man, Trout, in Newhaven. This arc often faces criticism from fans because it involves chasing after the real thief. I myself believe this arc to be something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s drawn out to a ridiculous extent with the game requiring you to travel back and forth across half of a continent in pursuit of a goal that always seems to be just out of your reach. The only reason you’re able to catch up with the thief at all is because she ends up getting arrested by the authorities in another country. In order to release her from jail, you wind up having to clear the name of the kingdom’s prince. The process involves several consecutive fetch quests for ingredients with which to enter a culinary competition that ends up being rigged against your favor anyway. In other words, for Ryu to acquit his best friend, he must acquit another person he just met. By the time Bosch is back in your party, he is all but guaranteed to lag ten or more levels behind everyone else. Thankfully, he does gain levels at a relatively fast rate.
On a positive note, the quest to catch the thief succeeds at signposting to the audience that something is seriously wrong with the world. You fight people who have apparently lost their souls to their vices, turning into demons when you confront them. The first such incident occurs when you arrive at a town with a coliseum and enter a tournament. The man in charge of arranging the event wants nothing more than pure carnage, intending to shoot a poisoned needle at the combatants. Things get worse later on as you encounter a gang leader who lusts for a kingdom’s princess and a fake prince who wishes to usurp the throne. After you finally catch the thief and bring her back to Newhaven, you learn Trout has been consumed by his avaricious nature.
The second third fares slightly better, but it does follow the same pattern wherein you are given a seemingly straightforward task only for it to be rendered unnecessarily difficult when the plot deems it necessary for you to take multiple detours to reach your destination. In fact, it’s to the point where someone who isn’t versed in JRPGs is going to seriously question if what they’re going through really is worth the hassle.
Though I feel the ideal game should be consistent with its quality, Breath of Fire II does become amazingly good in the final act. It’s to the extent where you’ll be questioning if you’re even playing the same game anymore. By far the biggest revelation the story has to offer, and the one around which its central conflict revolves, is that the Church of St. Eva, the world’s dominant religion, is actually an evil conspiracy concocted by the spawn of Myria, the first game’s antagonist. He is drawing power through the world’s sentient beings who worship him, falsely believing him to be a benevolent god. His strength is such that he can now drain energy from the Earth itself, as he causes the plant life to decay around Ryu’s former village, Gate, where the entrance to his realm resides.
It is at this point the plot takes a very dark turn as many sympathetic characters end up sacrificing their lives so that the protagonists can defeat this powerful foe. It’s not as though the casualties are throwaway NPCs either; you spend a fair bit of time with them before they’re killed off, making their prior interactions with the party all the more poignant in hindsight.
Though the evil religion is a fairly common JRPG trope, it wouldn’t really be until the fifth console generation that it truly cemented as a thematic cornerstone. What’s especially impressive is that Capcom somehow managed to sneak this by Nintendo of America’s highly strict censorship policies at the time, which usually prohibited any religious connotations. Even though the Church of St. Eva is presented as a benevolent organization for a majority of the game, it was still an impressive feat. In doing so, Capcom gave us one of the earliest games that becomes a massively different experience upon conducting a second playthrough.
The only real complaint I have about the endgame is that in order to achieve the best outcome, you must once again go completely off the rails by accomplishing several random sidequests. It’s not quite as bad as Breath of Fire because you can reach the true final boss easily enough without a guide, and if you’re the least bit savvy, you won’t render yourself ineligible from obtaining the most desirable ending, but it’s still a little disappointing that the game doesn’t even remotely hint towards the correct course of action. It’s only when you’re putting your plans into motion that you gain any of the needed information.
Drawing a Conclusion
Breath of Fire II is a lot like Earthbound Beginnings in that how much enjoyment you will get out of it depends entirely on you soldiering through hours of tedious filler to reach the amazingly well-done end sequences. Unlike Earthbound Beginnings, it’s a much more accessible game, having a better sense of pacing due to providing the player a clear goal at all times along with party members gaining levels at a reasonably quick rate, which in turn, obviates the need for grinding. However, even with the advantage it has over its predecessor, I still find that recommending Breath of Fire II is a little difficult.
It managed to stick the landing more gracefully than a majority of its contemporaries, yet the endgame sequences are not quite to the point where I can definitively say they rest of the experience is worth slogging through just to see what they have to offer. Moreover, with its vaguely bland level design and frequent random encounters, it’s not a title I could easily recommend to someone who isn’t already a fan of JRPGs. If you are, then it might be worth trying out if you’re looking for one you may have missed.
Having said that, if you’re at all interested in playing this game, I advise against playing the official English release, which is an exceptionally poor translation. There is a superior fan translation that adds a lot more flair to characters’ dialogue while doing away with the bouts of censorship brought on by Nintendo of America. Breath of Fire II may not have been the best JRPG the SNES had to offer, but at the same time, I have to give Capcom credit for putting unique spins on these tropes in a time when few others were willing to.
Final Score: 6/10