2020-Jun-24: Breath of Fire: The Playstation Era

After Breath of Fire II, we'd see a three year gap in BoF content. BoF2 did generally well in reviews and has a status as a mainstay of the console. I'd totally be willing to admit my harsh take on it is mine alone and doesn't represent reality.

The next installments would arrive on the Playstation.

Breath of Fire III (Playstation) (1998)

Once again, BoF3 is set in a completely different world with very few links to prior chapters. Though you still have the dragon-brood Ryu, the princess Nina, and Bleu shows up too (though starting from this chapter she's renamed to Deis in NA releases).

In a word, BoF3 is improved. It's improved in every way. The developers really took to heart the shortcomings of BoF2 and sought to try to clean them up while still keeping the series true to its roots. It shows quite a bit; practically everything I disliked in 2 is made better or completely obviated in 3.

While most RPGs of this era were attempting to squeeze 3D performance out of the Playstation, BoF3 took a slightly different approach of mixing 3D environments and 2D sprites to create a look that's aged really well, as opposed to the blocky mess that is Final Fantasy 7 or the pixelated noise of Final Fantasy 8. It demonstrates one of the most solid transitions of a series from 2D to 3D that I've ever seen, and it keeps the BoF2 art style in the transition, making players who finished 2 feel right at home.

The music is also amazing. Having access to full CD audio, the BoF3 team went all in on composing a very large and high quality soundtrack. A couple of tunes from the game made their way into my personal playlists. I'm not much of a musical expert so I can't really talk on why the music is so good; it just feels real dang nice and appropriate for any given situation.

Also improved is the dragon system. The single shot attack that uses all your AP from BoF2 has been replaced with the most expansive and complex dragon system in the series, and that system basically forms Ryu's entire identity as a fighter in this one. Throughout the game you find dragon genes; these represent individual concepts like "Fire", or "Ice", or "Fighting" or "Inversion", and you transform by mixing three genes into a single dragon strain. The resulting dragon is a fully controllable character with stats, abilities, and appearance that reflect the chosen genes. There's a few that work far better than the rest, but based on the situation and what you find, you may find dozens of different choices viable.

The messy fusion system from BoF2 has been completely removed, replaced with a master/apprentice system that lets certain NPCs tutor your party members. This tutorship alters what stats they gain on level up and lets them learn new abilities. I mostly used it to enhance each party member's strengths: giving more intelligence and AP to casters and more attack power to fighters. You could use it to normalize everyone into hybrid characters too, if you wished. It works really well for giving you more flexibility and choice.

Next on the list of improvements is that you can alter your party at any time out of battle, rather than having to return to town. As a result you can exhaust a character completely, then swap them onto the bench and bring in someone else to fill their slot. However only active fighters get experience and the game's scaling really favors the idea of picking a main three and sticking with them.

They haven't fixed their obsession with forcing you to run certain characters though. Just now they force them into the main party with no warning for certain events. That can end real badly if the character they force in is weak, hurt, or under leveled. In my playthru this happened constantly with Nina. There'd be segments where she'd get forced in for a battle, I'd tag her back out, take six steps, trigger another scene, and she'd be forced in again.

Finally, with the addition of the apprentice system and gaining abilities through training, BoF3 also introduces skill acquisition by learning abilities from enemies. Any party member can skip a turn and spend it "watching" an enemy. If that enemy uses a learnable skill, you'll learn it. Several really important skills are learned this way, like Double Strike, Snap to lower defense, a couple of elemental spells to round out magic kits. Ultimately though it's not mandatory and hardly worth stressing over if you can't learn something.

I think one of the most memorable moments of BoF3 is the intro though. You start the game and wake up in dragon form, deep in a mine, encased in a crystal. Two miners are talking when the crystal shatters, the dragon emerges, battle begins, and you find yourself in control of the monster on the "monster" side of the arena. These early battles are calibrated to be impossible to lose, letting you experiment with the new D-pad/cross based menu system in BoF3. Your dragon has a counter attack that'll 100% defeat anything that manages to land a blow on it. I wouldn't be shocked if the math was such that you could not lose in this opening segment. But you have full control to experiment and play too. It's so good!

This sets the stage for a series of events that has a child-aged Ryu captured by the miners and shipped in a cage to parts unknown, only to have a disaster wreck the transport and leave him, now transformed back into human form, passed out in the woods to be rescued by Rei and Teepo: two fellow children who live in a house hidden in the forest and get by as petty thieves.

As you gain control, BoF3's next major improvement surfaces: the world map is now free of random encounters and is node tree based rather than an open grid. You can walk across the entire world without getting a battle, explore to your heart's content, and look for secret hidden areas and fishing spots as you wish. It's such a breath of fresh air after the massive encounter rates of BoF1 and 2. BoF3's encounter rate is still fairly high (and is prone to a really nasty issue with forcing an encounter on the first step in every new area), but at least on the world map you have peace.

The story though does its usual BoF meandering. At first Ryu is mostly content to try to forge a new life with Rei and Teepo rather than figure out who he is. That crashes down when an act of Robin Hood style charity brings the wrath of the local 1% down on their heads. Rei and Teepo disappear, presumed killed, their house is torched, and Ryu is left alone in the world again.

Over the next, oh, quarter or so of the game Ryu flees toward Wyndia, meets Nina (whom in this incarnation is once again an offensive caster, but a less consistent one than in BoF2), gets chased by the thugs who torched his home, eventually gets caught and sold into slavery, and enters a battle arena to win his freedom where he meets Garr and the plot itself emerges. Garr is an ancient dragon hunter who killed off the brood hundreds of years ago; or so he thought. So imagine his surprise when he sees Ryu.

Garr joins with Ryu, offering to take him to a place where he can learn about his origins. The next quarter of the game is getting there; to Garr's home town and a ruin in the mountains that enshrines dragon hunters of the past. Along the way most of the cast is collected, including the ever-important Momo: a bit of a ditzy scientist lady who wears a graduation cap and cloak and wields a bazooka (with shockingly low accuracy...) and Peco: a sentient but mute onion who can transform momentarily into a gargantuan plant monster to deliver huge blows. You also meet Bleu/Deis, who is a teacher in this one (and has a really amusing scene involving punching Garr in the groin).

At these ruins, Garr reveals he's the last dragon hunter; the only one who refused to sleep because he felt his mission was not yet complete. He attacks Ryu, the two fight, beat each other senseless, and there's a fade to black. Years pass, and we resume control of Ryu 10 years later. He's an adult, and he's living in the mine at the beginning where he woke up. More than half way through the game, the "child" arc ends. It's a pretty shockingly long intro, if you can call it that.

The rest of the game is re-gathering your party, most of whom have grown and changed in some way, and setting off to find god to ask them why they created the dragon hunters and killed off the brood. No save the world plot here; that's all the party wants. Everyone has their own reasons for going, but they all intertwine with Ryu and Garr's purpose.

If BoF3 has a major black eye it's this: mini-games. Fairly frequently, the game will derail its normal progression loop to force you to play a mini-game to fulfill some task. These can be as simple as timing games to perform log cutting, drawing water from a well with proper button presses, or cooking by selecting the right ingredients. More complex mini-games involve speedrunning a rocky shoal in a boat and traveling a giant expansive desert by starlight. Unfortunately these mini-games are all mandatory and some of them are really hard, really long, or really frustrating.

The desert was an entire four hour stream for me. It takes an hour to traverse, you have no map and can only navigate by the stars, and if you go off course there is no recovering it. You'll wander until you give up and use an escape item to leave. It was a real unfortunate segment of the game, coming right before the final dungeon, so it's also real fresh on the mind following completion. It alone probably dropped an entire "out of five" point in my mental review of the game.

BoF3's dungeons are shorter than 2's, but they still err on the long side. Then you also have visible loading times between battles and areas. As a result, BoF3 is the longest of the series, taking me almost 45 hours to finish. The final dungeon is a marathon of epic proportions, taking a stream and a half to fully get through, but it ends in probably the easiest final battle of the series. You reach god, who is the goddess Myria (another rename as it's canonically intended to be the same Tyr from BoF1, I believe), who sought to destroy the brood because she needed full control over humanity and the world to save it from ecological disaster.

You can choose to side with her for the bad end, but who would do that? The true end is fairly bitter-sweet as it's implied the defeat of Myria leaves the world in a state of late ecological collapse and it's unknown how humanity will survive. It's very Shin Megami Tensei neutral ending in that way.

Also Momo is adorable.

Breath of Fire IV (Playstation) (2000)

Much like BoF1 and 2, BoF3 and 4 came close together; less than two years apart. Despite this, BoF4 represents a massive diversion from the series thus far. You still have Ryu, you still have Nina, but in this one the roles are reversed. While you can't really claim for certain any character is the main hero, it's definitely Nina who comes the closest to that honor. Ryu is a silent protagonist as he always is, and it's Nina who calls most of the shots in addition to being the first character you actually control.

The art style has also had a major facelift, fully embracing the capabilities of the console to produce a cel-shaded looking world and cast. This stylistic change is rather divisive for most; you either love it or you hate it. I loved it. I could also see how it forms a bridge to the even more divergent style of the final chapter in the series-- but more on that later.

This new style is heavily influenced by Chinese lore and aesthetic, as is the plot. It permeates everything with the game: story, graphics, character design, area design, music... It's quite different than the medieval proto-European feel of prior chapters.

If BoF3 represented major improvements on the pain points of BoF2, BoF4 represents a complete and total fix of everything wrong with 3. That's a big statement to make, isn't it? I stand by it.

The world map has been further refined into a Super Mario World style static path between nodes system. If you like the idea of freely exploring an overworld you may not like this, but some aspects of exploration are retained by letting you sometimes enter fields between points and explore for new paths on the map. This also enables some carefully curated backtracking without encounters becoming tedious. The encounter rate in general seems to have been stepped back quite a bit too.

The party system has been polished up as well. BoF4 re-instates the system of giving everyone experience after a battle, so you don't have to pick and choose who to use. It also allows you to freely swap party members during battle. At the start of each turn you get to pick who is in: three out of six characters. Those characters can be freely targeted by the enemy while the other three rest in the back and regain AP. You can't just recharge AP freely though; regained AP only lasts for the battle. It does allow for careful managing of your party to allow for free healing, though. The strategic usage of your healers this requires though makes it a balanced mechanic.

Late bosses will require full usage of all six characters, constantly dancing in and out with them to keep recovering AP, restoring health and status, and recovering from major disasters that slay allies. In fact, this system addresses even the shortcomings you usually see with a three character combat system in that a character who is KOed is immediately moved to the back, freeing their slot for another member the very next turn. There's no dead turns, no dead weight. You fire on all cylinders until your entire backline is wiped out.

With the advent of the flexibility of having six characters you can freely swap, BoF4 also adds a combo system that heavily rewards using abilities in a specific order. It's really deep with a lot of edge cases, but the basic rule is that if you use the same element multiple times in a turn, each subsequent use gets stronger, and if you use two different elements that follow the elemental affinity circle, the second spell changes to a more powerful AoE variant. It's extremely important for adding attack options, since each element of magic only has 2 or 3 spells. It's really cool.

The dragon system has been simplified. You still find "genes" (or rather dragon crystals) but these now grant individual forms instead. The forms are element biased and generally escalate in power as you progress, so unless you hit an elemental weakness issue, you'll use the last one you got. Each dragon form also has its own HP bar. If you get KOed as a dragon, you return to base Ryu form and that dragon is dead until you rest at an inn. You really have quite a lot of latitude to use dragon forms in this one, between being able to recover temporary AP, and each dragon having its own health bar.

Finally, one of the most important improvements is dungeon length. The dungeons in BoF4 are bite-sized compared to prior chapters. This fits in well with the ability to recover AP in battle. You're not longer forced to carefully manage attrition because dungeons are either short, or have rest points spaced through them, so the AP recovery doesn't obviate any kind of careful resource management you have to do. To prevent things from being too easy, enemy scaling in BoF4 is powerful, with the late game becoming pretty much a case of rocket tag.

The plot for BoF4 is pretty wild too. The short of it is Ryu... as in the great powerful dragon... is split in two: the Ryu in your party and Fou-Lu, a resurrected all-powerful god-emperor from a thousand years ago. Your POV switches between Ryu and Fou-Lu, showcasing completely different experiences with the world. As Ryu finds friends and a happy but struggling society in the peaceful Alliance republic to the east, Fou-Lu traverses the now corrupt and militaristic Empire to the west, running from his former soldiers and finding destitute and desperate feudal peasants.

Both Ryu and Fou-Lu know it is their destiny to meet and re-combine, but whichever half is stronger at the time will become the dominant personality. While Ryu believes in peace and freedom, Fou-Lu understands and remembers the dragon's original purpose: to subjugate the world under a global empire to end war. Honestly, this is the most direct and straightforward of all the BoF plots. You know what's up almost from the beginning. I like it; the prior games meandered way too much.

This kicks off a pretty free-wheeling exploration of the world so far, as part of making Ryu powerful enough to take on Fou-Lu is finding the spirits of other dragons and getting them to help him. These dragons are in places you'd already explored. You can outright remember several of them from seeing them before; others need to be sought out. You can also skip them entirely, but you'll be denied your most powerful dragon form if you do.

The plot never errs from this point: gain power, meet Fou-Lu, recombine and keep Ryu the dominant personality. It's a laser focus, and you're reminded of it time and again as your focus shifts to Fou-Lu and you witness another terrible disaster befall him, further pushing him into despair and rage. Eventually he snaps, and decides to destroy the world rather than unify it, even further raising the stakes on the eventual meeting.

The meeting is the final boss. Ryu and Fou-Lu fight in what is probably the longest final boss segment I've ever played. For an hour I felt like I was barely hanging on, constantly swapping healers in and out, barely keeping my party beyond the reach of death, getting one-shot by random powerful melee attacks when Fou-Lu's dragon form felt like doing that. It was a brutal, horrifying tribulation fit for the end of the main BoF series. In the end, Ryu's party emerges victorious, Ryu assumes control of Fou-Lu's powers, the two merge, and together purge the world of gods and dragons entirely, rendering them all normal humans. If you considered the BoF series to somehow be linear in the same universe, you could consider this the end of the timeline of dragons.

It's really quite sad. Fou-Lu wasn't evil. He was summoned for a purpose: to unify the world to end a millennium of wars. He did that then went back to sleep, only to wake again to find his creation corrupt beyond redemption. He was chased by his own army, forced to witness anyone who reached out a hand to help him be murdered by the empire, and finally subjected to a biological weapon that makes "war crime" seem like an understatement. He had too much, he snapped, and because of that he had to be destroyed by Ryu. He didn't deserve that; not in my view.

So Ryu is a silent protagonist as always, Fou-Lu is this white haired regal badass who speaks in middle English and starts the game at level 65. Nina is probably the most well-developed and coherent iteration of the character here, taking the role of party leader more or less, and being a super-powerful hybrid offensive caster and healer. The AP recovery system also actually empowers her to fill both roles!

Other cast members include Cray, a tiger-man who tries to be the leader but lets his emotions get in the way, who is a tanky melee fighter with buff magic and some slightly effective offensive magic as well. I mainly had him buff up and hit things for 2-3 turns worth of damage at once. There's also Scias, who is a mercenary samurai burzoi with a stuttering problem (which was localized/censored from being a drunken slur in the original Japanese, apparently). His main gimmick is being a hybrid healer and crit attacker; a combo I've never seen before. Then there's Ursula who is the party's pure offensive mage but comes pretty late in the plot and doesn't really get a chance to be plot-relevant. Finally there's Ershin...

Ershin is a robot... suit of armor... thing. It looks like R2D2, it speaks in the third person, and it starts out as a tank and physical attacker. Ershin is a strange mystery who seems to be multiple personalities, talks about talking to itself all the time, and even argues with itself from time to time. The game just brick jokes this for about a quarter of the game before you learn anything about it: Ershin is the product of a failed summon. Like how Fou-Lu/Ryu was summoned, someone attempted to summon the deity Deis and failed, resulting in her spirit being trapped in the armor. The magic, or something, also gave the armor a mind of its own, so Ershin is its own entity, with Deis inside of its mind talking to it and giving it instructions and insight.

You eventually free Deis's mind and allow her to more or less take full control of Ershin, but the two work in tandem rather than one trying to consume the other. This allows Ershin to become a full red mage, with physical attacks and powerful magic-- though you need to use BoF4's apprentice system to really highlight one or the other. I mostly used Ershin to punch things for crits. It also has the feature of randomly being able to deploy a rocket fist from the back row that seems to either crit or miss. It often missed; honestly it was more funny than annoying.

Gosh though, I could ramble about how beautiful and clean BoF4 is. Easily my favorite of the series. The plot had some real emotional stakes too since you controlled Fou-Lu; you saw his plight, you saw what turned him to despair and destruction. If not for the sword of Damocles of the forced re-unifying, you could think in time he could be healed.

Oh and Momo is here too. She's a trainer, and she's just... there... in Wyndia, talking about how she isn't sure how she got there. She's the "default option" trainer. If you don't know how to apprentice someone, she gives a couple of HP per level with no down side. Momo being here is important; I love Momo.

BoF4 was the last "pure JRPG" of the series. There's one game left, but it's quite different, and needs its own post.