Breath of Fire IV is the Playstation's second and final installment of Capcom's well-known RPG series. Past Breath of Fire games have inspired extremely mixed reviews, running into storyline and gameplay problems of varying degrees. The series' latest offering, however, is the first that should draw decidedly positive feedback across the board; its well-executed gameplay, strong storyline, and excellent music make it not only the best of the series, but one of the finest RPGs released in recent memory.
As Breath of Fire IV opens, players are treated to a scene of a sand boat gliding smoothly and speedily across a vast desert. Commandeering the boat are two of the game's protagonists: a big, brutish tiger anthropomorph named Clay and the ever-familiar Nina, the winged princess of the kingdom of Wyndia. Nina and Clay are looking for Nina's sister Elina, who vanished during a mission to the nearby city of Senesta. The protagonists' boat trip to Senesta is cut short, however, when a giant worm-like creature traveling through the sand pursues their boat, eventually damaging it enough to make it stop running.
Fortunately for Nina and Clay, the boat wreck takes place near a town named Sarai, where boat parts are known to be sold. After some discussion, Nina heads towards Sarai to find the needed components, while Clay stays behind to watch the boat and protect it from desert pirates.
On her way to Sarai, Nina sees a merchant and his cart trapped in a sand pit. The merchant, in obvious fear of something not readily visible, runs away before our heroine can get a closer look. As she tries to survey the scene, though, Nina falls into the pit. Regaining her bearings, she sees a large, camouflaged transparent creature in the pit. The creature doesn't attack, though; it reveals its dragon-like form to her momentarily before flying away.
Confused by the turn of events, Nina then realizes that there is a naked blue-haired young man in the pit with her. The man is able to introduce himself as Ryu, but he seems to have no memory whatsoever of his past or how he arrived in the present location. Feeling sympathy for the seemingly helpless Ryu, Nina decides to take him with her and continue on her way to Sarai.
Completely unbeknownst to her, however, Nina's chance encounter with Ryu carries more significance than she ever could have imagined. Not only does he prove to be an integral part of her search for her sister, his appearance eventually will change the world that they live in.
Breath of Fire IV's storyline is one of its high points, and it is by far the best that the series has yet seen. The newest installment of Capcom's most prominent RPG franchise carries a plot that is riveting throughout most of its long length. Most of the game's events are interesting, and some truly poignant moments lie within the storyline. Character development is solid; most of the playable characters show some interesting depth to their personalities, and all of them carry a certain charm not often seen in RPG protagonists.
Breath of Fire IV's excellent gameplay is perhaps its strongest individual facet. Unlike the plodding Breath of Fire III, the series' newest offering features noticeably brisk execution, correcting its predecessor's biggest flaw. Commands are carried out faster, and load times are less frequent and shorter than those of Breath of Fire III. You miss enemies with lower frequency, and they use time-consuming status effects much less successfully than in Breath of Fire IV's prequel. Leveling up and accumulating wealth are also much less mind-numbingly slow here than in the last game in the series. Those who fear that Breath of Fire IV might be too short because of its well-paced play need not worry; the RPG is still quite lengthy, it's just not so because of slow play.
Other than the obvious improvement in execution speed, though, Breath of Fire IV's gameplay isn't radically changed from its slow but solid prequel. The randomly encountered battles are still turn-based, and you give your entire team their commands before the turn is generated. Weapons, magic, and items can all be used in battle to attack enemies or aid allies. Skills can be learned from enemies, and they are used similarly to magic.
One of the most impressive features about the newest Breath of Fire's gameplay is its unsurpassed reserve character system. Players can bring 3 characters into combat, but reserve characters can be subbed in and out of the active lineup anytime you issue battle commands to the active characters, and they gain full experience just like the active characters. Characters not in the active lineup regain AP (used for spells and skills) and occasionally even pitch in to aid the ones fighting. Because you can substitute characters in and out of the active lineup during command assignment to individual characters, Breath of Fire IV's reserve character system is even more flexible than that of Sega's Shining The Holy Ark, where character substitutions could only be performed at the beginning of a turn.
Breath of Fire IV also makes a few simplifications from its predecessor. The complex Dragon Gene combination system is gone; instead, individual transformations are gained by acquiring the appropriate special Dragon Crystals. This time around, there are also discrete dragon summon spells, which pretty much have nothing to do with Ryu's ability to transform into a dragon but can be invaluable to players.
Breath of Fire IV's other major simplification is in its world map play, which, for better or worse, is the least involved yet seen in the series. Although players can still set up camp on the world map, play there pretty much consists exclusively of moving linearly between two points representing individual areas.
Although fairly solid overall, Breath of Fire IV's control is perhaps its weakest aspect. On the plus side, your characters can move in 8 directions, and do so responsively, for the most part. A dash button enables them to move more quickly, and the collision detection is pretty accurate. The menus are well organized; they're a bit easier to navigate than those of Breath of Fire III, and they look nice, too.
Where the control runs into problems is with the camera. Breath of Fire IV's camera can be manually rotated in 90-degree increments, but 90-degree increments are often too imprecise for the layout of the dungeons in the game. It doesn't help that the camera can't be manually tilted, or that it always rests in an isometric position. In addition, in many areas of the game, several camera viewpoints are cut off; although the camera restrictions can be handily seen with a small submenu on the top of the play screen, they're still an annoying vice in the game's play.
Graphically, Breath of Fire IV does quite well. Featuring sprite characters on polygonal backgrounds, the area maps in the game exhibit a high level of detail. Noticeable blockiness is relatively minimal, and everything is drawn very well. The animation of characters and enemies alike is some of the best ever seen in an RPG; Valkyrie Profile and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are the only other sprite-based games of the genre that come to mind featuring more frames of animation, and Breath of Fire IV's animation is arguably more realistic than either of the aforementioned games in terms of fluidity and timing.
Breath of Fire IV also features some of the most spectacular spell effects that RPGs have to offer. The regular spells aren't overtly grandiose, but they look great, featuring nice transparencies and lighting effects. The summon spells and dragon transformation attacks, however, will blow you away, rivaling Square's Final Fantasy titles for the best yet seen on the Playstation. Unlike Square's oft-time consuming summon spells, though, the bulk of the animation for the lengthier effects in Breath of Fire IV can be skipped after their initial viewing.
The opening anime movie is similarly amazing, featuring colorful art and smooth animation. The direction is also noticeably superior; the game's intro is one of the best in RPGs, and it should inspire fans to clamor for a Breath of Fire anime of similar quality.
The visuals falter a bit in just two areas. First, the in-game graphics, despite their strong detail, are somewhat lacking in colors. A brighter color palette, like that used in the game's anime opening, would have helped a lot, too. Second, the character designs are extremely similar to those of past Breath of Fire games. Ryu and Nina essentially look exactly the same as they do in the past installments of the series, and even Clay looks like nothing more than a sturdier version of Rei, a playable character from Breath of Fire III. Perhaps the only novel and appealing designs are Imperial General Ursula, who carries a certain exotic charm, and Emperor Fou-lu, who embodies majesty quite impressively. Fortunately, the design of the dragons in the game is considerably more ingenious, following the creative interpretation of dragons that Square's Chrono Cross took. Several of the dragon forms look very humanoid, and some almost resemble real-life dragonflies more than they do stereotypical RPG dragons.
Like its prequel, Breath of Fire IV impresses with its sound department. Sound effects are crisp and clear, and the explosions of some of the grander spells result in an impressive cacophony. Like those in Breath of Fire III, characters let out well-acted battle cries in Breath of Fire IV, which adds intensity to the battles.
The last Breath of Fire game featured a soundtrack heavily influenced by fusion, a sound not often heard in RPG scores. Breath of Fire IV's soundtrack steers away from the seldom-used genre, but it features another relatively novel style associated with a particular area of our world: the Middle East. And the results are similarly strong; in spite of some pedestrian atonal tracks, Breath of Fire IV's soundtrack is arguably every bit as good as that of its predecessor, if not better. Highlights include "Run Straight", a chaotic, intensely driven piece that plays during the frantic sand boat chase at the beginning of the game, and "Bastard Sword", a more traditional symphonic boss theme that excels with its soaring central melody. But the shining star of the soundtrack has to be "Breath of Fire IV", the slow, brilliantly poignant theme accompanying the game's anime opening.
Breath of Fire IV is by far the series' finest game, and it's one of the best RPGs that I've played in recent memory. This one's highly recommended, even to those who didn't like previous games in the series.
A US release is expected in November of 2000.