Friday 11 April 2014

Snes Review : Breath of Fire (Game 037)

For anyone who puts pen to paper or key to keyboard there is nothing more intimidating than a blank sheet of paper, or a blank screen. Often the hardest thing we have to do in life is start something, once that ball is rolling things often get easier. This is why I’m sat hovering on the title screen for ‘Breath of Fire’, debating if I should press start or not. With any good RPG you embark on a journey, your character starts off weak, grows, learns and vanquishes some foe by the conclusion.
With few exceptions this is not a quick journey and oftentimes you would look at play time ten or even a hundred times longer your standard arcade shooty romp, or platform jumpy frolic. When you start a JRPG you are offering your time, as without pledging many days of play you’ll never appreciate it. This is easier to do when you know the adventure is worththis time investment but for me ‘Breath of Fire’ is unknown territory.  I’ve never played it before and know next to nothing of a series that hasn’t seen a new installment in years.

I have no idea really what I’m taking on so with a deep breath I press start.

To be honest part of the reason I have such trepidation is simply because so few people sing ‘Breath of Fire’s praises. When asked which is the best Role Playing Game on the Snes most will plump for one of the holy trinity; ‘The Legend of Zelda : A Link to the Past’, ‘Chrono Trigger’ or ‘Secret of Mana’. The remainder will either go for a ‘Final Fantasy’ game, 'Earthbound' or ‘Super Mario RPG’. Any other RPG gets overlooked as (particularly in America and Japan) the Super Nintendo saw a lot of Japanese style RPGs released. As a result, very few players now seem to want to return to ‘Breath of Fire’, which is unfortunate as although clearly inferior to the best the genre has to offer it is worth playing even now.

Despite claims on the box that this was from the creator’s of ‘Final Fantasy’, the reality is that Squaresoft only undertook translating and US distribution duties. Given that Street Fighting Chun Li can be found hidden in a backroom in a village of thieves, and ‘Mega Man X’ sounds are used for battle sequences it’s no surprise that this game was actually really developed in 1993 by Capcom. ‘Breath of Fire’ mark their first venture into the world of RPGs. Squaresoft’s involvement was primarily driven by Capcom’s inexperience translating a game with this amount of dialogue, compounded by the fact they were stretched thin having already begun work on ‘Breath of Fire II’. Squaresoft were already known for being the go to company for massive translation projects, however they were also tied up with development of their own next big ‘Final Fantasy’. The end result was that ‘Breath of Fire’ didn't make it to US store shelves until 1994, and any virtues it may have had a year previous suddenly became overshadowed by the double whammy of ‘Secret of Mana’ and ‘Final Fantasy III’. In every way ‘Breath of Fire’ is inferior to both of these games, sticking doggedly to an established 8bit RPG battle system which in 1994 already seemed old fashioned. As Super Play put it at the time “it’s a case of too little too late”.

‘Breath of Fire’ could quite easily be called ‘baptism by fire’ and this stretches beyond the burning down of your village in the opening cut scene. Everything seems stacked against our hero Ryu, to the point where even the weakest ‘grind’ enemies pose genuine danger. As repeated random encounters are around every corner, death can be quick and unexpected, especially since Ryu is so underpowered initially. After the first couple of dungeons you would think this to be less of a problem, but it seems every little minor battle in any new area or dungeon requires massive amounts of recovery spells to avoid an unfair death. Since you also have a limited number of spaces in your inventory, it's not uncommon to have your supplies nearly exhausted by the time you reach the boss of a long dungeon. These boss battles too prove frustrating, not because they are hard, solely because your opponent seems to be indestructible. Every magic or physical attack has barely any noticeable effect on their health. To frustrate things further, once defeated they inexplicably “feel alright” regaining their health and throughout the battle they have the ability to heal themselves. This means it’s hard to know when a battle will be over and how to ration your depleted supplies accordingly. In a genre that’s so dependent on being prepared for anything the world may throw at you, feeling ill-equipped means feeling tense. Similarly the world may be large and expansive, but without a map at the very start (you can find it hidden a few hours into the game) it’s too easy to get lost. There were several times when I knew the name of a place to go, but had no sense where it was geographically. With random encounters springing up every couple of seconds, you don’t want to go the wrong way as that means more random encounters, with decreasing supplies. I often died due to the enemies’ continual bombardment, while actually en-route to buy more health items. Everything in ‘Breath of Fire’ feels like a war of attrition, you’ll win eventually but only if you have enough restorative supplies to alternate with your attacks.

Saving every chance you get, particularly during the opening sections, is advisable and this is only possible in a dragon shrine, within the villages not during dungeons. The method of saving though is rather quaintly presented as a character recording the player’s progression as if it were a great legend. If it were a great legend, it’s one I would like to be told as the story presented in ‘Breath of Fire’ is actually a good one, filled with twists intrigue and quirkiness. The game takes place during a great civil war between the White Dragons and the Black Dragons, within a medieval-esque time period. The heroic White Dragon clan is dwindling and their last hope rests in a young boy named Ryu, who sets out on an adventure to save his sister Sara and in the process save his people. Along the way, he meets many colourful companions, each with a name that neatly fits into a four character text limit. 

Nina is the first companion you come across and though she may end up being the standard “use magic to heal others” character, the manner in which you meet does emphasise that some original thinking was at work during the creation of the game. Instead of simply joining your party, game play moves away from Ryu’s quest and instead centres on Nina's desire to save her father from illness. Though you play as her without really knowing who she is, the fact that you’re no longer in charge of the main character feels simultaneously jarring and exciting. Likewise Mogu, the final member to join your party, is introduced in a novel way. To enlist his help you literally travel inside his dream, taking arms to rid his subconscious of fears and demons. This varied cast of characters is where ‘Breath of Fire’ really excels and the populace of the game are far more interesting than the generic stereotypes you'll find in other ‘Final Fantasy’ style JRPGs. While you can only take four into battle at a time, the goals of the secondary characters are all interwoven into Ryu’s main story so that subplots all feel integrated. Their heroic reasons vary; Bo is there to save his village, Gobi to prove himself as a trader. That’s not to say that your heroes always make heroic choices on the journey though the game. Some despicable acts lead to reward and narrative development, so your conscience must feel comfortable with burgling houses at night, raiding graves and devastating entire towns, in order to achieve your goals.
What is nice though, is that by being able to play as any of secondary characters at any time you to get to experience many different fighting styles. With such variety main character Ryu, with his blue hair and sword skills may seem like the boring rent-a hero choice. His exciting ability to morph into dragons however means he is the character you will revert back to in battle, even though characters such as Bo are much more useful on the world map.
That is of course until you meet Bleu the attractive and hilariously overpowered sorceress. When you meet her she levels up at such a quick rate that she soon eclipse your starting line up and in the process renders all the leveling up you did in the all too frequent battles pointless. The complete inversion of difficulty continues further when the character Karn learns the ability to fuse characters together to form one overpowered super hero. As you cut through bosses with ease, ‘Breath of Fire’ feels a world away from the game you started, where low level slimes were killing you far too frequently.

It’s a lengthy game, at over 30 hours but the majority of that is just spent on the battle sub-screen.
It seems impossible to go further than 10 steps without an enemy pouncing on you. This starts out life threatening, but come the end ends up just being annoying as it really does stand in the way of the narrative resolution. For example, in an hour of play I actually ran into over a hundred random battles. For two thirds of that hour play time, I was fighting the same enemies. The frequency of forced combat is certainly the games’ weakpoint. However, there are so many other niggles that makes ‘Breath of Fire’ really feel older than it actually is. For example upon release in 1994 you would have been able to enjoy ‘A Link to The Past’ for 3 years, so the inability to run or move diagonally and the need to trek back through a completed dungeon make this game feel antiquated.

That’s not to say that ‘Breath of Fire’ is without merit, and in many ways it’s unrealistic to compare it to the best of the genre. Despite the expansive world, each town feels different drawn with a rich varied palette. Used sparingly the visual effects add mood, and although small and squat the characters all are well drawn, defined by subtle quirts and unnecessary flourishes. It’s this attention to detail that alludes to the care Capcom took with their first RPG, presumably keen to create a brand that would prove as lucrative as Squaresoft’s epics. However, ‘Breath of Fire’ adds a level of interactivity with the world map that exceeded anything seen in a ‘Final Fantasy’ game up to that point. The world map isn't just a flat, scrolling surface where your gargantuan character stomps around entering towns or caves a fraction of their size. It has wildlife, varied terrain, dozens of secrets. The world even has night and day rotation that has a real-time effect on the activity of monsters and non playable characters in towns.
This daylight cycle makes the world feels like a world you exist in, rather than one that exists to serve you. It’s no surprise that this idea was stolen in later games of the genre, and it wasn’t the sole idea that ‘Breath of Fire’ introduced to JRPGs. Stacking multiple identical provisions in the same inventory space and different characters being able to interact with environments in different ways, both seem generic staples now, but before ‘Breath of Fire’ they hadn’t been seen. If anything it shows how a new developer, despite following the well worn path bought new approaches to a genre that was already well established.

But despite glimmers of fresh thinking ‘Breath of Fire’ still remains an 8bit JRPG in 16bit clothes. It may look nicer than early ‘Final Fantasy’ games, but they clearly were the inspiration. Even at the time of release the game had been eclipsed by far more ambitious equally attractive titles. It may offer some innovation and a medley of oddball characters, but frequently it feels like a slog to get through.

Even though Japanese Role Playing Games are ones I have trouble getting the courage to start usually within a few hours the hooks are in and I find them impossible to put down. This never really felt the case with ‘Breath of Fire’ it’s interesting but not compelling and sometimes the thought of an hour of non-stop enemy encounters was off-putting. There’s a huge amount of similar games on the Super Nintendo, and while this game may be superior to the majority if you are going to go back a replay the genre I doubt it’ll be the game you’d pick. Much like this formally blank document now awash with over long sentences and contradictory arguments, I’m pleased I did start ‘Breath of Fire’. I can see why it got largely ignored at time of release, Square and Enix may have been revolutionising with every release, but this game at least proved that Capcom had more in them than Street Fighters and Blue Bombers. An admirable first foray then, stuck in the genre’s past but taking tentative steps into new ground with interesting minor innovations and approaches. I’ll be keen to see where Capcom ventured for the sequels, considering they were released (and made) in a post ‘Secret of Mana’ post 16bit ‘Final Fantasy’ era. Maybe when I boot up ‘Breath of Fire II’ for the first time, I won’t hesitate to press start.

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