Let’s face it, the initial reaction to those preview screenshots of Breath of Fire V would have put any OAP on a ventilator. Many found the cel-shading quite cheap looking and those preferring the graphics of the last two games would be thrown into torture. On the other hand, dismissing the cel-chading distracted the main thing that should have been on people’s minds – that a new Breath of Fire game was arriving on the PlayStation 2.
Though I’ve never played the first two Breath of Fire’s, I can say that there has been much contraversy among peers as to whether the PlayStation installments lived up to the SNES entries. Breath of Fire III came across as mediocre-at-best entry to the striding series while the more slightly acclaimed Breath of Fire IV was what many assumed to be the last lifeline of the series, its reception was also lukewarm. Now the Breath of Fire series lies in stagnation and maybe the PlayStation 2 could revitalise the franchise. So did it? Slow commercial sales figures may lead you to believe otherwise.
In honesty, Breath of Fire V is the boldest of the bunch. However, that boldness leads to yet an entry that will divide people’s opinions rather than just stun them with awe. The outcry and response to the sudden combination of unusual unorthodox gameplay (the battle system is unremarkable) and sunburning graphics is not only a sign of bravery, but maybe recklessness as well. After around an hour of playing the game, you will be hit with a wave of insecurity….
….Of feeling either: Is Breath of Fire V harmlessly different or an aimless waste of opportunity? At best, Breath of Fire V will have just enough charm to lure in the odd gamer in stages, but never does the game stand out as a cutting edge RPG. The production of the game flirts with the pretention that it was a deliberate move to make the game messy. There is a great feeling of loss contained in the game, and the potential of actually making a strike on the PlayStation 2 could have given the series better attention. Personally, the bizarre and rather unwashed stance of this game leaves me with the impression that perhaps Capcom should hand the reigns of the series over to another company (perhaps Square Enix?) After this attempt, the series is indeed in the territory of “against all odds.”
At first, either through consulting the manual or just reading into the first accounts of the game, the plot seems rather good. Thousands of years ago, a natural catastrophe descended onto the world forcing the inhabitants to live underground. You play the everlasting Ryu, a ranger, with the task of hunting the underground monsters to keep the people safe. Along with his partner, the ambitious Bosch, the main objective of Breath of Fire V is to break out of the undergound suburbs by reaching the surface of the main world again. There is a system called the “D Ratio,” that is a serial ranking given to these rangers. Ryu is caught in a medium of rangers who have or haven’t qualified for higher ranking. His partner Bosch seems to be moving up swiftly though.
After a rather slow introduction, Ryu is firmly assigned on a mission to securing a shipment that is undergoing transportation. Along with Bosch, you will come across some very mean enemies (that certainly gave me a run for my money) in the early going. In traditional RPG disaster, the cargo is hijacked and Ryu and Bosch are split up. And this, begins the real adventure of Breath of Fire V. As normal as it may seem, there are many sidetrips to Breath of Fire V’s plot that stem into interesting territory and make the journey more intense.
The plot does more than just touch up an escape journey. There will be many hinderences stopping you from reaching the surface. Cue on the expected terrorism, illegal science experiments and the classic corruption and betrayal that are RPG plot staples. The character of Ryu has a personality, giving him more dialogue than he has ever received. But in return, the Breath of Fire love interest, Nina, is now the “mute” one. This isn’t entirely bad, but it’s what you’ve come to expect. However, full credit must be given to Nina’s character this time around – she’s probably never been better. Throughout the course of the game, you’ll see Nina in a more innocent light and the way she draws the group together is truly endearing. Still, Bosch is the cliched “cool best friend,” but a striking personality as the game unfolds.
This addresses a long problem with any Breath of Fire game. Never has Ryu actually dealt with being a dragon in the fashion other heroes would deal with internal crises. And never has Nina stepped outside the cliched circle of just being the princess that Ryu wants to protect. Luckily (and this is one of the neon signs of the game), Ryu doesn’t begin as a dragon. And when he does discover his dragon powers, he finds his life flipped upside down because of it. Nina isn’t a princess, but a tragic character nonetheless that -while having Ryu still undyingly protect- makes some shocking revelations in the game. This really is an incremental progression in the somewhat stale plots that have barraged the series and RPG’s in general. And despite only three characters being playable, the story ups the arsenal to make sure that they are all you need.
We come to the pivatol moment of the game – the gameplay. Now, to the credit of Breath of Fire V, it consists of completely fresh ideas. But people who have not played Final Fantasy Tactics, and from what I’m told, the Resident Evil series, then Breath of Fire V may be a little misleading. You could argue that Breath Of Fire V has become a strategy based game in terms of battle. The battle system used here is a tad like the one implemented in Arc: Twilight Of The Spirits.
The backgrounds are basically the underground caverns and mine shafts in Ryu’s world. Enemies can be seen on screen and will run into you when they see you, but you can also strike first for the initiative. Therefore, with the trademark action given to a character, if you swing your sword and strike the enemy, you will have the first turn. To be honest, unless you do this, you could pretty much die – it makes all that difference. Another good idea is that you can “trap” your enemies with a concept called the “PET” system. Basically you can acquire items to distract or hold off enemies. The items vary from meat to dynamite, but all will come in handy for getting past cantankerous monsters.
In battle, everything is controlled by AP. When you engage combat, you can use the whole room, but you move via a circular area. Say you move to the end of a circle bubble, the circle will start over again from where you’re standing. But now moving and attacking costs AP (in the fashion of Jagged Alliance.) You can choose the type of attack with the controller buttons. The X, Square, Triangle and O buttons will have a different form of attack and there are three levels of different moves; you can also assign skills you’ve learned to these levels. If you have enough AP, you can combine attacks, which will increase the damage by a short percentage. Budgeting how you move and what you do is all very well related to the word strategy, but that doesn’t mean that the battles won’t get slightly repetitive at times. Other than this, the battles can either grapple with your attention or completely throw you. The word strategy is a great mention, and being able to trap your enemies during battle and unleashing those devastating moves define fun above anything else.
The saving grace perhaps, is the fact that using items doesn’t cost AP and you can learn new skills (as in any other strategy RPG game.) You can gain them in many ways such as by opening chests and stealing them from monsters. These abilities will help boost the D-Ratio, and build your acceptance or stance in the Breath of Fire V society. Your D Ratio will graduate in progression, and if you die, it will be cut in half. And this is my main qualm about Breath of Fire V – the decision to restart and the D-System.
In this game, if you die you have to restart at the beginning of the game. Yes, that’s right. You will have to start from the be-ginn-ing. Capcom then tries to play fair in the fact that they give you the option to carry half of your experience and items over to the new game by loading from where you last saved. This is not good, because the skills, items and levels you have acquired will be thrown out of the window. Accordingly and you have to get past those previous bothersome monsters for the hundredth time that you couldn’t defeat a boss. So every time you fight a major boss, it’s more than the party’s life at stake. Opinions will differ, and whether you define this as “hardcore” or not is entirely up to you.
The D-System is so unconventional that it will take forever to appreciate it. It states in the game that after Ryu has awoken his dragon self, there will be a pulsing bar on the screen. This will very slowly increase during the course of the game (as long as you’re playing, not by the events that happen.) This becomes a percentage, and when the percentage reaches 100%, the game will end. Regardless of where you’re at, even if you haven’t completed the game, it will just end. In any case, Breath of Fire V has a time limit to complete the game. And what’s more, if you use the traditional dragon powers of Ryu, you are charged with a 10% strike against the percentage bar. Unfair? It has the rewards but yes, it is. Restarting will open more of the story, but the push to complete the game even faster and the restrictive use of dragon powers are obstacles in doing so. This presents a thorough challenge, but the strange position you are put in is very unsavory if you really want to feel comfortable in this adventure. It’s bad enough plunging into caverns where monsters are lingering, but you’re also worrying about the time you have left. Adrenaline rush or not, sometimes a little more time is required to smash foes into pieces.
Another reason why this could be considered to be a bad move is that Capcom is shoving you to complete the game in a shorter time than the game even consists of. The length of the game is very mediocre and the mere battle challenge of the game alone would have preserved a decent length. However, the D-System can push you so far that the game (if you are experienced) will be completed in 10-20 hours. Other than that, items are really expensive and your only option is to scrimp and save, sell, or identify weapons and armor you find in battle. Also, you can only save your game if you have save tokens. And speaking of save points, you’ll most likely find them at start and ends of dungeons.
As previously said, the graphics looked disgusting. But that was only a first impression. Once into the game, there is a vast appreciation for the techniques that Capcom have tried out here. There is the somewhat hazy picture you’re roaming in, but the cleanly polished textures are really intriguing to stare at while you’re playing. The characters themselves are also quite unique. Ryu rather looks suave (if a little girly) in a retro leather jumpsuit that I quite like. Nina has a more disturbing look of being rail thin, with a ripped nightgown. However, it does convey the tragedy of her character perfectly well. And Lin, who looks like Sly Racoon meets Catwoman, looks spiffy in her chaps and leg warmers. The animations run smoothly also, and the facial features of the characters really portray the current situation or emotion they are feeling. I can niggle at the clunky movement when the characters run, but that’s about it for the animation side of it all.
But as you’re playing in an underground world, everything is pretty much dark and dismal looking. This is understandable, but very dull to play in. The lighting is very bad, and while the cel-shading may outline the borders of characters, items and the environment – nothing ever looks toned. To say the graphics are unique is true, but they are an acquired taste like many games that use cel-shading. The movie sequences amazingly repent though, with decent animation and good shading that pays off nicely. Overall, I find the graphics misleading at first, but a natural beauty after five minutes spent with the game.
Directed by Yasunori Mitsuda, who worked on games from Xenogears to Chrono Cross, the music is what you should have come to expect by this composer: sheer brilliance. I found it very familliar. Technically, the music isn’t bad – but it does sound dated whilst travelling through dungeons. There are themes that fill in the scenes of happiness to sadness to spine tingling twists and it honestly has that extra spice that really makes a scene that much more memorable. Occasionally, there will be an infectious slice of music that just manages to get under your skin for the humming sessions. And the battle music is more of a soundtrack composition from a movie. Breath of Fire V’s soundtrack may not reign supreme next to the almighty sounds from Final Fantasy, but it holds it’s own ground for the most part. The next thing in line for improvement would be full on voice acting. It would certainly refresh the poor characters from feeling underdeveloped. Aside from that, the sound affects are perfect. Gasps from characters when something has sprung upon them or when they’ve been hurt, swords clashing and the impact of being wounded sound authentic.
All in all, Breath of Fire V proposes mild fun in gameplay terms that would most likely suit the hardcore gamers. There is a system called the Scenario Overlay that adds new cutscenes in the game after more plays. This contributes massively to the strong plot in general, but is it enough to guarantee more replayability? After the dismal and frustrating adventure of the D-System, will you really want to put yourself through it again? That is my only qualm about the game; it was a nice concept but far too complex to digest. Hardcore gamers will indeed relish in the fact that there is a reason to play again, but for the rest, it’s pretty much dead in the water. The almighty question to regard concerning this series now is “Are we finally going to get a superb game from Breath of Fire series?” The answer is a little upsetting. The game falls into a mixed catergory, and people will respond with mixed feelings. But let me tell you something: I absolutely destested paying for this game at one point, but despite that and although the game is a slow burner, this could be the Breath Of Fire game fans have been hoping for.