Breath of Fire III marks the graduation of the popular SNES RPG series over to a 32-bit platform. The transition turns out to be a relatively smooth one, as Breath of Fire III comfortably surpasses its 16-bit predecessors with its improved graphics, involved gameplay, and the strongest storyline that the series has seen so far. However, the newest installment of the series is far from perfect. Breath of Fire III is severely hurt by its slow gameplay, but enough of its elements come together well to make it a worthwhile RPG experience.
As the game opens, the story begins its focus on Ryu, an ancient baby dragon held in suspended animation for countless years in the Dauna Mine. As civilization encroaches on the long-obscured cave that Ryu rests in, he is discovered and subsequently awakened by ignorant miners who quake in fear at the discovery. As Ryu gains consciousness, he is unconsciously sent into a mindless frenzy by the attacking miners and proceeds to toast them with his fire breath.
Surviving this initial encounter, Ryu attempts to escape from the cave, with no help from the hostile miners. After a protracted chase, he is finally subdued and caught, and the miners then elect to ship him out of the mine on a train of mining carts. During his train ride, though, Ryu begins to struggle within his cage and succeeds in tipping it over, falling off of the train, down a mountain, and into a forest.
During his tumble, Ryu transforms into his natural form, which is that of a little boy, and that little boy is what Rei, a rambunctious teenaged tiger anthropomorph, finds during one of his hunting trips. Taking pity on the abandoned child, the Robin Hood-esque Rei elects to bring Ryu home to join Teepo, another abandoned youth that he adopted.
For a short while, the mischievous but good-hearted trio lives an idyllic lifestyle of petty thievery, returning home each night to their base, Rei's tree house. However, one night, Ryu, Teepo, and Rei inadvertently irk an organized crime syndicate operating near their home, and when the mobsters come to exact revenge, the trio is separated, with no knowledge of each others' whereabouts. So, it's up to Ryu to find his companions, and his quest to be reunited with his friends will reveal incredible secrets about both himself and the world that he lives in.
Breath of Fire III's plot gets off to an innovative and interesting start, and although it diminishes over the course of its length, it still does manage to keep players interested. The event-based portions of the story aren't particularly exciting (at least until the end), but they fit within the context of the plot as a whole pretty well. Character development is on the weak side, but the characters do have somewhat distinct personalities.
Capcom's translation of Breath of Fire III is adequate, too. The dialogue flow isn't impressive, but it does steer clear of gaping spelling and grammatical errors. It also stays coherent and understandable throughout most of its length, with only a few moments that entice confusion from players.
Breath of Fire III's biggest weakness, unfortunately, is in its gameplay. Capcom's first Playstation RPG is one of the slowest executing games of its genre ever made. Most commands in the gameplay run at a highly reduced speed compared to other RPGs of today and the past. Players have to wait through load times for nearly everything in the game, even access to the menu screens. Battle commands execute slowly, and on top of that, your characters miss enemies with annoying frequency to drag out routine battles even further. And the text in the dialogue boxes crawls along slowly even at its fastest speed, and it can't be manually sped up or skipped.
On top of all that, the RPG's difficulty balance is relatively inflexible. Those who find Breath of Fire III difficult may have difficulty making it a bit easier for themselves, because characters level up extremely slowly. In addition, money is always in really short supply, so it's somewhat difficult to keep your equipment constantly updated.
Although Breath of Fire III's slow pace makes it extremely tedious at times, the remainder of its mostly tried-and-true gameplay is done well enough to salvage the experience of playing through the RPG. The turn-based battles are randomly encountered, and characters use weapons, magic, and items to defeat enemies or aid allies. Skills can be learned from enemies and are used similarly to magic.
Capcom's first Playstation RPG also brings some relatively new elements to the table, too. Like past Breath of Fire games, the series' third installment allows its protagonist to transform into a dragon in battle in order to gain augmented attack power. However, instead of gaining set forms at certain levels like in the first 2 games, Breath of Fire III allows you to mix and match dragon genes that you find for an unprecedented number of possible forms and attacks that Ryu can use.
Breath of Fire III also gives players a chance to do some town building. RPG fans can directly oversee the construction of a fairy town that is accessible from many locations on the world map. Although I found the town building to have little effect on the outcome of the game, it still does prove to be a reasonably entertaining diversion.
Like its predecessors, Breath of Fire III allows players to do fishing. The difference here is that the fishing has evolved into a full-blown mini-game in the series' newest installment. Catches are tracked by the system, and players can either use the fish as items or sell them for income.
Breath of Fire III also features Lore Masters, who are NPCs that allow your player characters to apprentice under them. Serving under a Lore Master confers attribute bonuses and, in some cases, new skills to the apprentice character. Although most Lore Masters have certain requirements for taking on apprentices, the bulk of them are easily accessible.
Also noteworthy is the fact that world map play is greatly simplified from that of the series' past games. Battles are no longer directly encountered on the world map, and although movement is a bit more complex than the strict point-to-point interfaces used in Game Arts' Grandia and Square's Final Fantasy Tactics, it's still definitely on rails compared to the free-roaming interfaces used in RPGs like the Final Fantasy games. Aside from being able to set up camp there and search for hidden areas, just about the only thing to do on the world map is to move from area to area.
Breath of Fire III features solid control, too. Although the game is played strictly from an isometric viewpoint, control of your characters is standard in its orientation. Your characters move responsively in 8 directions, and a dash button speeds up their movement adequately. Battle commands are very responsive. The field menus are organized pretty well, and although they are a bit sluggish in their responses, they don't detract a whole lot from the game.
Where Breath of Fire III's control runs into problems, though, is with its camera system. One of my pet peeves, at least as far as RPGs go, is when an isometric-viewpoint game doesn't have a mobile camera. Breath of Fire III does have a manually movable camera, but it's still too restrictive for the game's viewpoint. You can manipulate the camera adequately while your onscreen characters are standing still, but the camera returns to its default position whenever they begin to move again. This is highly irritating and slows down exploration of the many dungeons in the game.
Graphically, Breath of Fire III fares a little bit better. The series' third installment utilizes sprites on a polygonal background, and characters and background alike are drawn in vivid colors. The level of detail in the sprites isn't top-notch, but it is adequate. The animation of characters, especially in battles, shows a high level of attention to detail. Spell effects are impressive, especially the dragon transformations.
The stylized character art and designs look good, too, though one could very legitimately make the argument that they are highly derivative of past games in the series. The colors of the character portraits on the field menus look a bit washed out, but the art as a whole ranks above average for RPGs.
Although Breath of Fire III is strong all around, its standout facet is its sound department. Capcom's first Playstation RPG features some of the best sound effects yet heard in an RPG. Spell effect sounds are crystal clear, and some spells are even accompanied by a classy vocal flourish. Player characters also let out battle cries as they fight, and the voice acting (left in its original Japanese) is excellent.
Breath of Fire III also features a well-written soundtrack that stands out in style from the rest of the RPG soundtrack pack. Perhaps best described as a set of fusion-based compositions, the Breath of Fire III score is one of very few in the RPG genre that utilizes the influences that it displays. Although a few tracks drone on, most of the songs are excellent. Examples include the tranquilly poignant Wyndia theme and the brilliantly catchy boss themes.
Although Breath of Fire III's gameplay is decidedly on the slow side, its strength in its other departments merits a hearty recommendation. This one's definitely worth checking out if you're an RPG fan.