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.
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 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.
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.