By Drew D. / January 9th, 2020
|Title||Breath of Fire|
|Original Release Dates||SNES:
JP: Apr 03, 1993
US: Aug 10, 1994GBA:
JP: July 06, 2001
US: Dec 13, 2001
EU: Dec 14, 2001
|Platform||SNES, GBA, Virtual Console|
Capcom’s Breath of Fire was released at a time when we would see the birth of many JPRG series whose legacies would carry on for years to come. Although never gaining the recognition or fanfare of Final Fantasy and the like, Breath of Fire would yet earn its title as a classic, ushering in a series destined to capture hearts and forge its own noteworthy legacy in this beloved genre.
Breath of Fire throws us right into conflict, as the Dark Dragons are hell-bent on world domination. A thousand years prior, the Dark Dragons fought the Light Dragons over Tyr, a goddess whose promise of power triggered global war that nearly wiped out all life. As Tyr fanned the flames of war for her own amusement, a hero of the Light Dragons emerged, pacifying the war and sealing Tyr within six keys. However, the Dark Dragons never gave up on wielding such power, pushing the Light Dragons to the brink of extinction and forcing them into hiding. Now, the Dark Dragons have once again laid siege against the Light Dragons and the other peoples of the world in an attempt to seize the six keys and release Tyr. As history threatens to repeat itself, a prophesied hero, Ryu, will emerge from the Light Dragon clan to save the world from ending.
Breath of Fire’s base story is pretty darn epic, as Ryu is tasked to grow into the hero that will save this fantasy world. The militaristic Dark Dragon clan has already forced their oppression onto the many human and anthropomorphic clans and as Ryu ventures out, he will meet and be joined by several characters from these many races. They will all lend their unique abilities and work together to free themselves from both the current Dark Dragon threat and the looming end of the world that Tyr’s release will bring. This base story is mostly introduced in the beginning of the game, but the strength of that hook is enough to carry us to the end. And it needs to, for those introductory narratives are all we really get in terms of story development.
Though we see the unfolding of events throughout the campaign, Breath of Fire’s narrative is perhaps one of the most bare bones I’ve ever experienced. Such an epic backstory is left by itself to entice us to play on, as the narrative beyond does nothing to further develop or support the main plot. Throughout, the plot is simply moved along with vague quests, bland backstory tidbits, emotionless dialogue, and a severe lack of detail or depth to truly hold immersion. For a JRPG, a genre that depends on intrigue and narrative depth, this misstep is painfully evident, especially in the SNES version. The GBA version does have a few added cutscenes and CGs, but it’s not nearly enough to bolster the plot to an acceptable height. At least there is a plot, it just never receives the development it both needs and deserves.
Character development is equally lacking, as none of the characters receive any proper development during the course of their adventure. Each character does have their own introductions when we first meet them, which helps immensely to define their base characterizations, but that’s hardly ever built upon or evolved further as the game progresses. We are instead given hints at personality sprinkled throughout their interactions with each other, but it’s nowhere near enough to take their characterizations any further nor is it enough for us players to make an emotional investment in them. They’re also mostly written with the same voice; there are no unique voices that the dialogue can convey. Even their actions during cutscenes mostly fall short in furthering their individual personalities. It’s again left up to their introductions into the story, as well as their aesthetic depictions, to truly define them. Needless to say, I would have liked much more on the development front.
In regards to gameplay, Breath of Fire features a traditional, no-nonsense RPG style. Turn-based combat, simple menu system, and navigating a world map while utilizing distinct character abilities make up the foundation of the game. Within combat, each character has their own archetype, whether it’s a favoring of strength and physical attack, speed, magic attack, or support. A unique mechanic, Ryu and Karn have the abilities to transform. Ryu can transform into several types of dragons and Karn can merge with other characters to form more powerful entities. This, along with eight characters in total to choose from, lends itself to a myriad of different play styles. Outside of combat, navigating the menu systems takes a little practice, as there are no guides or tutorials in-game, nor are there too many text labels due to presentation limits. The game menus instead rely on symbols and abbreviations, but navigating and figuring out the whats and hows comes relatively quickly. And finally, navigating the world map, including the use of character abilities to cross forests, break rocks to open new paths, or fly across the world, is a simple-to-master ordeal. Overall, this foundation may seem austere in presentation, but there are zero flaws in its quality. The mechanics are solid and function exactly as you would expect.
Unfortunately, Breath of Fire possesses some major flaws in its gameplay outside of its main mechanics. One of these major flaws is the failure of the game to provide any genuine direction. Especially in the SNES version, you are mostly left to yourself to navigate the world and complete quests with nary a hint as to where to go or how to go about them. Getting lost in this world is too easy and the lack of in-game direction makes for a tedious trek. The GBA version doesn’t fare much better in this either, as again, you’re mostly left to yourself to figure things out. Although the game is linear, some progression points require certain tasks to be completed, some of which aren’t mentioned, ever. For example, in order to enter one of the last dungeons of the game, Mogu requires a specific, one-time use item. What it is, where, or how to go about obtaining it is never described. It’s completely left up to players to figure out who to speak with in order to start a chain of events between two random NPCs before gaining the item, and then returning to Mogu’s village to have him learn how to use said item. This is just one example of this obnoxious practice. Another, slightly less offensive, example is the requirement of Ryu having acquired all of his dragon transformations before endgame. Transformations are rewards given by completing dragon shrines and each shrine has its own conditions for access. Completing one shrine typically unlocks others, but these shrines also require you to find certain dragon-named items, too. These items can be found by fishing in old wells. Spotting shrines and wells on the world map isn’t the most difficult task, but zero hints are ever given as to their locations. Also, it’s never specifically mentioned that the needed items are all hidden in these wells and that Ryu needs to fish for them unless you just happen to try it. On top of that, some items can only be fished out with the best of fishing rods. So what seems initially straightforward is in actuality a series of steps and requirements that are, again, left completely up to the players to discover.
Two other major flaws in the SNES version are in regards to combat. One is the noticeably higher than average difficulty level. High difficulty here results in the need for grind. And even with grinding, normal enemy encounters take time to finish and boss battles will nearly all be lengthy ordeals. Though not impossibly tough, the low EXP gains combined with tough normal enemies and challenging bosses does make for a dragged out, less than enjoyable journey. A far worse offense, however, is the ridiculously high encounter rate. There will be many times in which you will only manage a few steps between battles and this combined with the slower pace of battles makes for a painfully tedious, time-consuming experience. Even worse, too many of the game’s dungeons and layouts are unnecessarily large and twisting, meaning that you’ll be spending far more time than you’d like just to get through. It’s so bad that exploration is discouraged lest you want to spend those extra hours for dead ends or, if you’re lucky, meager reward. Thank goodness that these two flaws were directly addressed in the GBA version, as EXP gains, enemy difficulty, and encounter rates have all been adequately adjusted. Also, the GBA version includes a dash ability. Did I mention that in the SNES version, everyone walks at a snail’s pace? Overall, the SNES version’s pros simply cannot cover its fatal cons, but the GBA version’s gameplay corrects most of those flaws, making for a much more satisfactory playing experience.
The SNES version does have its strengths over the GBA version, however, and those lie in its aesthetic appeal. The SNES version has some impressive visuals, especially with its sprites. The characters look great, the sprites for Karn’s transformations are unique, and all of Ryu’s dragon forms are impressive too. In particular, I’m amazed with the enemy sprites, as their details are intricate and all look fittingly menacing. The portrait avatars looks good too, adding those hints of needed character I mentioned earlier. The GBA version has a few missteps though. The color saturation of this version has been turned up, giving the game a far more vivid pallet that clashes with the tone of the story. While it does make things easier to see on a GBA screen, it’s just too much. Also, the characters’ portrait art is changed and although it’s not worse, I do prefer the originals.
Breath of Fire’s audio is fantastic, offering a robust soundtrack that remarkably instills the tones and moods the game aims for. Never once did I not notice the music, nor did I ever feel the songs chosen clashed with the events on-screen. The music stands out, immersing players in the ways the story should have. A complaint with both versions is that some tracks are used a bit too often. The themes for towns and dungeons in particular are well used to the point that you may get tired of them by the end. And a last complaint regarding the GBA version is that the audio is reduced from stereo to a poor mono mix. Overall, the visual and audio aesthetics of Breath of Fire are outstanding and are perhaps my favorite aspects of the game.
As Capcom’s inauguration into the JRPG market, Breath of Fire is satisfactory. Strong foundational gameplay mechanics and an epic introduction help the effort. Adjustments to difficulty in the GBA version and robust aesthetics in the SNES version also add value. Yet the difficulty and pacing issues of the original, the downgrade of aesthetic appeal in the GBA version, and the lackluster story and a mediocre cast shared between both versions are all impossible to ignore. If you’re looking for a solid, manageable RPG experience that will last 15-20 hours, I would recommend the GBA version. If you want the grind and near brutal challenge of the oldschool that will take you closer to 40+ hours, then the SNES version is for you. Breath of Fire has its flaws, but giving it a try may reveal to you just why Breath of Fire continues its legacy today.
Breath of FireCapcomGameboy AdvanceGBAJRPGSuper Nintendo