|Platform:||Xbox Live Arcade (Indie Games)|
For a while now, retro fever has kicked in for many of us despite how far video games have advanced; not only how the games look and play, but the way players play them too. We might be blessed with technological wonders, but some of us turn the other way and look back at old times. Sure, games back than were quite archaic and there are tons of fun modern games, but in our biased nostalgic hearts, the old days were the best times ever. The simple fun gameplay, ideas that felt fresh, and a lot of the charm are what seem to have gotten lost with newer gamers over the years. Companies are also aware of this retro trend and have capitalized on it through services like Virtual Console and Xbox Live Arcade, and games like Mega Man 9 and 10 made specifically to re-create 80s style gaming right down to the delightfully horrible box art. A plethora of indie game developers wanting to recreate the old school magic by their own hands, including the guys at Zeboyd games with their debut RPG, Breath of Death VII. It's a pseudo 8-bit RPG that faithfully pays tribute to classic Dragon Quest games by emulating its layout style, but also has its own strengths and features to make it stand on its own. To top it off, this quality RPG experience only costs a mere 80 MS Points (oe dollar!)
The year is 20XX and humanity is in a constant state of war with each other (as usual.) That is, until a random nation launches a nuke, and foolishly wipes out its own race. In place of the humans, the undead began to rise and lived in peace and harmony, until the day evil monsters began to ravage the lands. In these tough times, a true hero is needed, which is where Dem, the skeleton knight, comes in. He is a man of no words (due to having no tongue), but tough at heart and lets his actions speak for themselves. With evil on the rise and with the persistence of a cute ghost girl, he sets out on a journey meeting several more comrades along the way. Normally, one would think their goal is to travel the vast lands to find and take down the source of all this evil, but no, their goal is to seek out the secrets of the past. Why did they undertake such an unusual task? Because one party member pesters them to, and it just so happens that this task conveniently relates to taking down evil, so everybody wins!
From the opening cut scene alone, the game sets a comical tone which is where its greatest strength lies. It uses a lot of referential humor through lines or phrases from other RPGs and many mainstream games. There is an even a small anime reference when a party member randomly sings her own variation of the American Pokémon theme song. These references are easy to pick up if you are a seasoned gamer, but some are done in a subtle matter and that is where the genius lies. Town themes are cleverly named by incorporating the Japanese and English name of an RPG series into one word such as "Motherbound" and "Lufestapolis." Upon closer examination, a lot of NPCs are also named after RPG protagonists, but with some letters missing, like Ronf or Maxm. If you can pick up on these references, then you truly are a JRPG fan. Heck, about 70% of the text is made up of references, but it's well-executed and adds lots of charm to the game. The only drawback is that many jokes will go over your head if you haven't immersed yourself in gaming pop culture.
The only real downfall in the story comes from character interactions, or the lack thereof. They're actually quite good, but there aren't enough of them. Your party members barely talk to one another throughout the story, and despite having a chat option where your party members can interact more, it's heavily underutilized. It's no big deal, but it's a shame when the game with such fun dialogue interactions uses them so scarcely.
Strangely enough, I couldn't get into the game's visuals. It utilizes a mixture of 8-bit and 16-bit graphical styles, which I still adore these to this day, but the execution here comes off a little weak. Maybe it's because the dungeons are either sloppy or bland in design, the tiny sprites, or a combination of the two, but it's just one of those things where it did not click with me. On the plus side, I do like the character and monster designs. The occasional portraits are also nice to look at. The visuals easily capture the look and feel of an old school RPG like they're supposed to, but the charm wasn't there for me.
I did not think the music was that great but it fared better than the visuals. It uses synthesized music instead of chiptunes and contains a nice balance of melodic and atmospheric tunes that are fun listens that don't leave much of a long term impression. It also gets bogged down by some weak entries like the monotonous battle theme and the uninspired, albeit fitting, cave theme. Regardless of its flaws, the does its job of setting the various tones and features enough good songs to keep your ears entertained.
Breath of Death plays like your typical turn-based RPG, but incorporates a few interesting elements to spice things up. The first feature is a combo system where all your party members' attacks build up a counter, and special skills are unleashed based on how high the counter went. The counter resets back to 0 after each use, and while these skills are initially powerful, they become less useful when you eventually get stronger skills at your disposal. Another feature is that monsters get stronger with each passing turn, forcing you to take an aggressive stance, and ensuring fast-paced battles. Slow and dragged-out battles are just no fun and I am glad the developers made it this way. Other aspects include team attacks automatically earned throughout the story and full HP restoration after each fight. In addition, comrades do not die on you during a fight. They get back up after the fight and still reap full EXP. MP recovery is limited, though. MP can only be fully restored through save points, but they're uncommon. Plus, the lack of items present occasionally forces you to conserve. These features may not sound like a big deal, but they work well and I commend the developers for adding their own tweaks to such familiar mechanics.
The developers also took a cue from some GUST games by establishing a limited number of random encounters in each area. In GUST games, you only can fight a certain number of times until the area is devoid of random encounters, but the encounter rate resets back when you re-enter that area. In Breath of Death, the encounter limit never resets back to the original amount, meaning once all the encounters are fought they're gone for good. You can also select a fight option to make encounters happen instead of running around in circles waiting for one. These battles count towards the encounter limit, and is a useful option for speedy grinding if you choose to do so.
When your characters level up, you can choose between either stat boosts or new skills. Stat boosts are self explanatory, but skills are gained at fixed levels, and you have a choice of what you want the skill to do. Some common examples include making a skill a powerful attack that targets one enemy or a weaker attack that hits everyone. Also, each character's abilities remain exclusive, which forces you to play as their specified roles but you have some freedom on how you want to pull off their specialties. What fun is it if you all the characters have the exact same skills and builds? These bonus sets do a great job bringing the best of both worlds by giving players a degree of customization while keeping each character individual.
Outside of combat, there is nothing else to do. All you do is go through one dungeon after another to progress the plot, occasionally stopping by a town to rest/save and buy new gear to increase likelihood of survival. There are some side-dungeons scattered around that reward you with extra equipment, but those take only a few minutes of your time. At least the game remains fun, and before you know it, five to six hours have flown by and you've reached the end of your journey. You can replay the game in another difficulty or play the unlocked score attack mode where you go around fighting bosses again at fixed levels to earn points. It's purely for extra amusement, and barely differs from the game you've already played before.
Breath of Death VII It was a short experience, but a fun one at a great price to boot. Sure, the technical portions come off weak, but its all about the strong writing and solid gameplay, and for just one mere dollar, I see no reason why any retro RPG fan should pass it up. Even if you're still on the fence about getting it, you'll only be out a dollar and you will show support to a good indie developer. For an RPG whose sheer fun factor is on par with a lot of the $30 to $60 games people shell out multiple bills for, it's an extreme bargain. Breath of Death VII is a flat-out steal. Just get it already.