"Omae wa...nani o shiou to shite iru? Doko e ikou to iu no da?"
"You...what are you trying to do? Where are you trying to go?"
The Breath of Fire series has always been a hit or a miss with me. While some games of the series were pretty good, such as Breath of Fire II for the SNES, others, like Breath of Fire III, have been perfectly bland. So, when Breath of Fire IV was first released in Japan with little to no fanfare, I was pretty skeptical. The characters looked the same (don't they always?), the colors used in the game had a 'dull' feeling to them, and it kept that annoying camera control scheme that drove me nuts in BoF III. But my outlook on the game completely changed when I turned the game on the first time.
It was the opening movie. It had great music, animation, and the sequences looked quite interesting. The scenes that it depicted were very cool, and the dialogue was compelling as well...except for one thing.
It was in Japanese.
Now, the fact that it was in Japanese shouldn't be surprising...but this is a domestic release we're talking about, not the import. Seeing as how the Japanese subtext under the title isn't translated either (Utsurowazarumono), it becomes quite evident that BoF is a pretty minimalistic effort into the translation, with all voices in Japanese.
Of course, this may actually turn out to be a good thing, since 99% of all games with English voice actors tend to suck big time and most American people won't notice bad Japanese voice acting if it hit them in the face. A lot of people are likely to go with the "Damn, I don't know what he said but that sounds cool," approach to this game. I did translate the lines in the opening theme throughout this review, so people who are interested can simply read the lines.
BoF IV is a game where there are actually two main characters, Ryu and Fou-lu. On their search for the missing Princess Elina, Nina and Cray stumble onto Ryu soon after their Sandflier crashes due to a dragon attack. Ryu, unfortunately, not only wakes up completely naked, he has no recollection of his past or what he is except for his name. Nina, taking pity on Ryu, offers her help to regain Ryu's past while continuing her search for her lost sister Elina and their adventure begins.
"The One Who Destroys"(lit. The one who changes (the world) to nothing)
On the flip side, we have Fou-lu, the revived first emperor of the Fou-lu Empire. Reawakened hundreds of years after his deep slumber, he goes to fulfill the second part of his promise to the mortals of this world as god...death.
The story, if you can remember, is a semi-throw off to the first BoF game, where it was Ryu and not Nina looking for her sister. Fortunately, BoF IV is nowhere near a linear game both story and gameplay wise. While the game used a lot of cliches, the "dual-hero" was thoroughly entertaining and both its story and character development was fairly solid.
The graphics in this incarnation of the BoF series are a slightly better form of those in BoF III. They use more detail on the world maps and most characters, monsters and party members alike greatly benefit from the large number of animation frames used in this game. There is touted to be more than 3000 frames of animation per character, and this shows in the fight scenes where the attacks are performed much more smoothly than in most 2D RPGs.
Aside from the animation, much of the special effects, such as spells, seem pretty reminiscent of the previous games. While there are some improvements, no one is likely to be impressed by them...except for perhaps the dragon summons.
Unlike previous BoF games, when Ryu transforms into a dragon, he actually transforms into a Man/Dragon Hybrid, and you see his true dragon form only when you perform his special attacks. These scenes are very well done and as an added bonus, you can skip most of the animation after you've seen it once, a nod to the people who dislike summon sequences that take a minute to play out.
The overworld map has also changed. Instead of a regular overworld map used in most RPGs such as Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, the overworld map in BoF IV looks more like an atlas, with little marks as to the special locations available. While this may sound like a small cosmetic change, this allows for two things.
One, you have a bigger feel for the size of the world that the game takes place in. A common thing that often ticks me off in RPGs is that once you get the ultra airship/spaceship/UFO, you can circle the world in 30 seconds, and that there are usually about 4 cities to a continent. Are these worlds all the size of a moon? I doubt it. By having the overhead map like this, you often feel that your characters are actually traveling great distances rather than taking 100 steps into the next continent.
Second, you can introduce new locations by points on the map. Wild Arms II used a similar tactic, but it was more than a bit awkward and harder to believe than when you use this atlas approach.
"Shinjitemashita yo...saishou kara."
"I've believed in you...ever since the beginning."
The gameplay of BoF IV is perhaps the most appealing to long time fans. Unlike RPGs where you are forced to rotate a number of your party members out whenever you have more party members than you do slots for battle, all members fight in BoF IV. While there is a limit to 3 active characters in any battle, you can switch characters in and out with ease. When they are in the 'back row', your characters will regain SP (BoF's version of Mana), cheer you on, or even fall asleep to regain more health. As a result, you'll find that fights on average are a bit tougher than your run of the mill RPGs, and it's not uncommon to be forced to rotate your characters even when you're fighting non-boss monsters.
In addition to this, BoF IV has a combo system where you can try to get the highest combo possible. The main point in having combo attacks stems from the fact that it is possible to mix 2 spells to result in a more powerful spell. For example, Burn and Sever will result in Firewind, Sever and Frost will result in Jolt, and so on. You can also combo defensive spells as well, like Protect+Heal. In addition, you'll find that your regular specials will do more hits if it's part of a combo and not done separately, which makes very useful against tough bosses.
To complement the combo system is the skills system. You can learn skills in one of three ways. The first way is to simply level up, where you will learn certain skills and spells along the way. Secondly, you can learn skills from your enemies by guarding when they are using a skill that you can learn. And lastly, you can learn skills from various masters.
Masters in BoF IV are various people whom you can train under, resulting in various stat changes and skill learning. Some masters offer an increase in HP each level you gain, while others increase some stats while decreasing others. It is up to you to decide which master, if any, to study under in order to fine-tune your character. You can also learn skills from your masters, and this is done in a different manner. Instead of gaining the skills that a master can teach after a certain number of levels, you must complete a certain requirement and then come back to that master in order to get that skill. These requirements are varied, from simple time passing to getting certain number of combo hits, max damage done, how many times you've gotten into battles, etc.
No BoF game is complete without mini-games such as fishing, and it is here in spades. These games range from Sandflier racing to hide and seek and while you may find them entertaining for a while they tend to get on your nerves sooner or later, something which happened to me. Thankfully, you don't need to do well in order to continue on with the story, but there is a bad part about not doing well in such games and not doing it often...Game Points.
The game point system has to do with the number of points that you are awarded for doing mini-games successfully. While this may not seem like a big deal at first, it becomes a big deal when you get dragon transformations later because you find an ugly truth to this...the evolution of your dragons is COMPLETELY dependant on the number of Game Points you have.
All but 2 dragon forms has a basic form and an evolved form, with the latter enjoying higher stats and more skills. This means that in order to have an easier time in the game, you'll need to work hard at playing these games...which I decided not to do.
On the bright side, the soundtrack to BoF IV is quite good, especially the one used in the opening theme. The music has a far-east theme that I don't quite recall used in other games, and it's a nice change of pace from the fast-paced music that we see so often in a lot of games nowadays. The sound effects, while not spectacular, are also good enough to let you play without annoying you much, if at all.
"Souda to iu no ka!? Chigau! Hito wa...hito wa sonna ni yogoretewa inai!"
"So is that what it is? You're wrong! Humans...humans aren't so evil!"
On the other hand...we have the controls. I've always disliked the way the camera worked in BoF III and IV is no exception. It uses a 3/4 top-down perspective that has become the standard when it comes to making a 3D environment using 2D sprites, like in Diablo, but it is different from Diablo in two respects. One, you can change angles, and two, there is NO transparency. This is sort of a give and take situation. Because there is no transparency, you are forced to rotate the camera in order to see where you are going, but this doesn't always work to your satisfaction. For one thing, you're sometimes NOT allowed to change angles. Why is this? Because of this "feature", you'll not always have a clear idea of where a wall actually exists and where you can walk 'into' the wall. I do admit that there are only a small number of screens where this is forced onto you, but it is very annoying whenever you have to do this.
This also applies for some screens where they let you turn only 90 degrees. In fact, I missed an entrance to a cave once because it was near impossible to see the entrance and didn't find it until I moved the 'wrong' way by accident. While you have been given all 360 degrees of rotation in most cases, this doesn't work out all the time either. For one thing, you can't turn while moving, which slows you down considerably, and second of all...there are places where things are invisible no matter how you turn. It annoyed the heck out of me, and while I learned to cope, it still ticks me off whenever I have to turn 270 degrees or so to make sure I'm not missing anything.
And finally, you have the translation work itself. For the most part I'm impressed. Aside from the non-dubbing of the opening theme already mentioned, there is little to fault. The English used doesn't sound like coming from an eight year old, and they manage to get the dialogue translated pretty well to boot. While it was a tad annoying to see Fou-lu using "Old English" with "thou" and archaic words like "hither" , it was nothing major. What did throw me off was the abundance of words from another Asian language...Korean.
I'm speaking from playing the import version for only 4 hours, but I'm almost positive that there were no Korean references in the Japanese version of BoF IV, but there are a lot of Korean words used in the US version of BoF IV. Where do you see them, you ask? Simple. Dragons. EVERY dragon that is mentioned is given a Korean moniker. The Wind Dragon, for example, is named P'ung Ryong , where P'ung is the Korean word for wind and Ryong is the Korean word for Dragon. The same applies for other dragon names such as the Water Dragon, which is Hae(Water) Ryong, and so on. The elemental spells are also given Korean names as well, such as Hwa(Fire) and Bing(Ice). The fact that Hwa is used for fire is a clincher to my belief that these Korean names weren't present in the Japanese version because it's pretty much impossible to pronounce Hwa in Japanese.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not against using Korean names in RPGs...heck I'm Korean myself, but it's still puzzling as to why it's there in the first place. I'm guessing the translator was Korean and he wanted to stick in cultural references somehow...
Either way, BoF IV is a worthy sequel to the BoF series. While the camera is as bad as ever, it is much more playable than BoF III ever was and it holds its own even against the heavy contenders such as FF IX and Lunar 2 as a solid RPG. Hopefully, the camera will get fixed in one of the later BoF games so it'll give players like me an easier time playing the game without ripping their hair out...