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

I haven't posted in three months. That's largely because I undertook a project to play through every (accessible) game in the Breath of Fire series and wanted to do a giant write-up on all of them when I was done. Foolish really because there's more here than can fit in one post.

I finished the project though. 155 hours of total gameplay across five games. We don't talk about Breath of Fire VI: a doomed mobile game that can't even be played any more.

It's been months since I played the SNES games, but they're pretty fresh in my memory since I've been thinking Breath of Fire non-stop for months on stream.

Breath of Fire (SNES) (1994)

Despite coming out three years into the SNES lifespan, Breath of Fire is an extremely "Early SNES" JRPG in playstyle and handling, though it's worlds above that in graphics and music. The starting experience of BoF is a rude one: being stuck with a solo melee fighter for a couple of hours of gameplay as he struggles to out-level the low HP and damage numbers that result in even 1 HP chip damage adding up rather quickly. After slogging through the first dungeon or two solo with limited access to healing, however, the game picks up pace rather quickly.

The plot and opening characters set the precedent that'll be standard for Breath of Fire for its entire lifespan: a hero named Ryu, a princess-turned-heroine named Nina, and Ryu's discovery of his power to turn into a dragon and unleash devastating powers at a cost. In this chapter the goddess of desire, Tyr, is locked away with seven keys and legends tell of her granting of a wish to anyone who frees her. In a search for the keys, Ryu's clan of peaceful dragon shapeshifters is wiped out by the evil Dark Dragon army, and Ryu sets out to get revenge and rescue his kidnapped sister.

Once you're introduced to Nina, you now have a sustainable duo of damage and healing. Once you have Nina, the game's truly begun. Everything before that is kind of this rough pre-starting period where you're just waiting for the ability to play the game rather than constantly mash attack with Ryu with the occasional heal.

Though for a good chunk of the game, one of the odd pink elephants in the room is the utterly strange damage formulae and number scaling. Early on you get access to an item that lets one character per turn do 30 damage to all foes. This item remains useful for Nina for 75% of the game, which feels really strange-- Nina only healing and using this one item for the entire game. She's no damage dealer though, being closer to a White Mage in this incarnation, so having some kind of damage option is welcome.

Magic does flat damage unless it hits an elemental weakness/strength and will often start out obscenely powerful before winnowing away to a pathetic whimper as the physical capabilities of the party grow. Ryu's dragon transformations also do flat damage. Defense takes a massive role in damage prevention, so throughout the game you don't really feel your damage growing, nor do HP figures grow all that much either. This can create a strange frustrating feeling that you're not powering up, though you are.

On the note of HP and damage figures, Breath of Fire does a strange thing with enemy health. You can always see the remaining health of your enemies. It appears as a bar that ticks down as they take damage. However boss enemies have a second, secret bar. Once you deplete the visible bar, the boss will flash, change AI scripts, possibly gain new abilities, and the battle will continue with no bar being visible from that point. How much HP they have left at that point remains a secret until they go down. Some AI changes are pretty massive too, revealing new powerful abilities, changing who the boss targets, etc. It's a neat little tweak, I kind of wish they kept it.

The cast of characters you eventually meet are all unique and memorable. Aside from Ryu and Nina, you meet Bo who is a hybrid ranger/attack caster, Karn who is a thief who later gains the ability to make use of characters not actively in your party, Gobi who is a strange fish-man whose main purpose is to be water transportation, Ox who is... an ox... and is the party's tank and heavy melee, Bleu who is an ancient goddess resurrected to help the party as a powerful caster, and Mogu who comes way too late to be relevant in any way but a way to dig underground to progress the plot and find hidden loot.

You can have four characters in your party at any time, but they all gain experience for battles. Furthermore Karn presents a way to make use of everyone in the form of fusion spells. Karn learns four spells that fuses specific allies into his body to create powerful creatures that become new party members. The most powerful of these spells conveniently zorts the four weakest party members together into a behemoth to take one of your party slots, leaving the other three for more useful heroes.

Karn's fusion capability is a neat way to keep everyone useful, but also completely invalidates the existence of four party members, forcing you to throw them into the blender and use the other members constantly. That said, the fusion fodder: Ox, Gobi, and Bo, have very short ability lists and it's like they're designed to be perma-fused. It's a shame, I liked Bo. I almost never got to see him after I got Karn's fusion ability.

Dungeons in the original are marathons. A dungeon can easily take an hour or more to get through, and there's a lot of them. Crypts, towers, cave networks, castles... there's a variety of locales, but they all basically boil down to slogging through a fairly high random encounter rate in one of a couple of tilesets and trying to find the way to the bottom (or top, or side, or whatever). It's all very samey without much in the way of unique mechanic to set one dungeon apart from another. The lack of easily acceessable AP (mana, mp, skill points, etc) restoration also means these marathons have to be prepared for carefully and may require a bit of grinding to succeed.

Another small rough edge is the strange detailing in items. The most famous issue is that of the marbles-- or rather Mrbls. The game has three items: Mrbl1, Mrbl2, and Mrbl3. One of these is a smoke bomb, preventing encounters for a set period of time; one of these is a battle use item that causes the user to instantly inflict a critical hit; and one of these is the same, but only a chance to crit. Which is which? Who knows. What logic is there to this? There is none. With only six characters for item names, you get utterly Paladin's Quest level of tomfoolery like "APtn", "DkKiss", "F.Stn", and "W.Ant"

Breath of Fire also begins the tradition of Ryu being into fishing, though in this installation the fishing "mini game" exists only as an ability to find rods in the world and with certain rods, talking to specific fishing spots to get loot. This is, however, the only way to get the Dragon equipment set that you need both to power Ryu up, and to get his ultimate dragon form, so it's quite important.

That ultimate dragon form is quite a hidden secret that unlocks the true end of the game. The final boss can be a horrible slog, capable of throwing powerful spells at your party and taking forever to whittle down... or you can just destroy her with the ultimate Agni dragon form. Though getting the form is a pretty strong showcase in "Designed to sell strategy guides" from the era.

All and all, the original BoF is a very boilerplate JRPG for the era with some neat ideas and a few rough spots. It does however set the stage for all the standards you can come to expect in future titles.

Breath of Fire II (SNES) (1995)

Just a year later, Breath of Fire II arrived. It would continue the tradition of a dragon-blooded Ryu, a winged Nina, and a lot of turning into a winged beast, but otherwise it was more or less completely divided from the original. Breath of Fire II is a twisted, politically-charged mind-frag of a plot that's only made more confusing and exasperating by the fact that its translation was almost completely incomprehensible. I'd not hesitate to use the word "botched" here.

I'd played about half the original game before, so I decided to try a fan re-translation this time, and it helped approach the plot and gameplay itself significantly, though the game itself still has some glaring issues.

You no longer have strange flat damage curves, but now the damage curves seem almost upside down. Leveling up can reduce your damage, spells seem to have damage multipliers swapped, enemies are needlessly spongy and grinding is all but required multiple times-- but you're almost completely incapable of grinding past the intended level of content thanks to a ridiculous sheer cliff of an experience curve. Also the encounter rate is even higher than the original, making even short dungeons a slog-- but these dungeons are also even longer then the previous chapter's. Get ready for entire play-sessions being one dungeon.

To its credit, Breath of Fire II has a deeper, more engaging plot (when translated properly), stronger sound and music, brighter, more vibrant and clean graphics, and some real satisfying animations and attacks. Ryu's critical hit is especially satisfying to me.

BoF2's main stand-out point is the plot though. As a child in a peaceful secluded village, Ryu goes to visit a sleeping dragon in the mountains only to return home to a village that has completely changed. His father and sister are gone, no one remembers him, and he's forced into the orphanage at the church of Saint Eva where he eventually leaves by night and stumbles into a cave where he's killed by a giant grotesque monster... only to have time flash forward 15 years and you take over Ryu as an adult mercenary on the other side of the world. What???

You get jack squat on this plot point for 95% of the game, you best forget it. No, what happens instead is in the course of doing petty mercenary work, your friend Bosch (or Bow in the original US release) is accused of a crime he didn't commit and is forced into hiding, and you must clear his name. This plot element lasts half the game before you suddenly remember "hey, a bunch of really bad stuff happened in my home town, I should do something about that".

The second half of the game is just trying to get back to your home town of Gate, while the Church of Saint Eva seems to be gathering followers at an alarming rate and sending them off to some kind of sanctuary for worship. Suspicious! The church, as it is, is definitely a giant effigy for the Catholic Church, and they don't even try to hide it. The entire game is one quasi-political snipe at the concept of organized religion. I'm not one to complain, but wow do they lay it on thick.

You eventually come to find out this is all related. The "Saint Eva" of the church is a demon growing in power from worship and sacrifice, your town was attacked by its minion and the villagers were subjected to memory alteration, and the dragon asleep on the mountain is your mother, who stopped demons from destroying the world ages ago at the cost of her own strength. Oh, and organized religion is bad!

While dealing with all of this, diversion is the name of the game. While trying to clear Bosch's name, you end up diverting into a colosseum, but to get in you need to go find a man in the woods and get his blessing to enter, and to do that you need to track down Rand and.... so on and so forth. Every major goal within the plot, you'll dig down 3 or 4 layers of abstraction, finding yourself in some random dungeon trying to find the magic fish of west Antioch or something before you remember "Hey wasn't I doing something really really important before ending up here?

Whew the plot is a trip. But how does the game stack up? Well despite BoF2 being well-loved and remembered by fans, my blind experience on it put it significantly less fun to play than the original.

A lot of things built into the game just don't work. The fusion system, for example. Rather than have a hero who can cast a spell to fuse party members, you have to go to one specific location in the world to fuse them-- then your fused character can be de-fused by any number of things like being KOed, hit with a status effect, or dropped to low health. It's my theory that the devs couldn't make sprites for every fusion in every state, so any unusual state like a status effect or dead had to de-fuse you. But it's painful as heck because you have to go all the way back to one town to redo the fusions, every time this happens.

Also the dragon system got gutted. While in BoF, Ryu could take the form of a dragon for the remainder of a battle, in BoF2, dragon forms are single attacks that take all of your AP and do damage based on the percentage of your remaining AP. So not only do dragon forms only last one turn, you can't use any of Ryu's other abilities or you weaken the ace in the hole that is your eventual dragon attack. You'll want to save it too, since the dragon forms typically represent a massive reduction in boss health.

Additionally I mentioned the experience curves; well having to grind for about two hours to even start the final dungeon doesn't endear me much to a game. Finally there's Sten. Oh Sten...

Sten is the most unlikeable, undesirable character I've ever controlled in an RPG. He's a slimy womanizing jackass who brings mediocre melee attacks, mediocre magic with no AP to power it, and paper-thin defenses to the table. The moment he was thrust into my party I benched him, and BoF2 rolled back on the system to give even your bench experience, so his levels stagnated. This turned out to be a mistake when I reached the dreaded Highfort: Sten's home town.

It's here that you're forced to take over Sten solo and fight a 1v1 duel against a former friend. If you benched Sten immediately like I did, this fight is impossible. There's not even a prayer of a chance. Oh, and you're trapped in Highfort, solo, until you win. Fortunately this isn't a softlock: you have free access to healing and there's monsters in the basement, but at base level even the monsters have a 50/50 shot of killing you, and you need a lot of levels to take on the boss. So yeah, it's fortunate it's not a softlock, but this means they knew. They knew this was an awful idea prone to horrible amounts of frustration, and they did it anyway.

I cheated. I'm not ashamed of it. I turned my experience gain up and gained 10 levels in 3 fights. I'd do it again too if in the same position. Don't judge me. I also benched him again as soon as I was done. I hate Sten.

Another mark against BoF2 is just the convoluted plot triggers and party composition muckery. The game loves to force people into your party to bypass ridiculous barriers. Want to get into Simafort? Better have Jean with you to get in. Same with Nina and parts of Windia. Katt is the only way to get into a town near the end of the game for no reason than somehow a boulder that only she can break keeps respawning in perfect position to block the road. This is how the game forces you to bring specific people into specific dungeons, as you can't swap them back out without going back to town.

All that said, BoF2 gets some things right: Nina is now an awesome black-winged offensive caster with the ability to regen AP in combat (though it sometimes fails). Katt is a pretty amazing character too who takes the form of an agile high damage attacker with a brick joke in the form of joining the party early in the game with final-tier offensive spells but she'll never get the AP to cast them; ever. Rand is something you rarely see in games like this: a melee/healer hybrid who can hold his own doing damage and healing at the same time. Jean is a melee/status hybrid frog prince who's pretty neat though I didn't use him. Bleu is basically a second Nina. Spar is a really great non-binary plant person who is a buffing/healing/melee hybrid. And there's Sten.... yay Sten...

While BoF2 does roll back on giving your bench experience, they do at least give you flexibility in finding a team you like and sticking with it. I ended up running Ryu, Nina, Rand, and Spar for most of the game once I had full agency over my party. This turned out to be a pretty powerful combination of offense and support, leaning a bit further into healing than I typically do. It worked well... until the final boss.

The final boss's main gimmick is AP drain. It hurts. It turned out to be a 45 minute marathon of a battle during which I consumed literally every item in my inventory and barely scraped out a win with my AP reserves dry and half my party dead. Marathon boss fights are another norm in the BoF series.

It's definitely not the worst game I played ever, but it's the weakest of the Breath of Fire series. Which is a shame because graphically and musicially it's stellar. Animations are fluid and show a lot of how the heroes carry themselves, the plot was interesting and went somewhere a lot of games didn't at the time. Just the pacing was awful, the encounter rate was awful, and so many things just didn't work right.

And that's two out of five games. Playstation era next? Probably.