Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Breath of Fire III, perhaps the series’ most popular installment, is a transition RPG, exemplifying the changes the genre experienced as it went from fourth generation systems to the PlayStation era. The game has all the classic mechanics of a SNES game, with graphics and sound that are not much different. Yet if you look at the master and skill systems, the mature story and decent voice acting, you see clear signs of the next generation.
While it isn’t the step forward that Final Fantasy VII and Xenogears were, Breath of Fire III is still a classic in its own right. Now that it has been ported to PSP, hopefully a new batch of players will be able to see the achievement that this game represents. Breath of Fire III is almost textbook; this is how a traditional RPG is meant to be done.
You probably will not need to study the instruction booklet too much to play this game. The seven character roster has not been altered for the PSP version. There is Ryu, the protagonist who is always in the party. There is Rei, the quick attacking thief, Nina, the princess mage, Momo, the inventor and stat-booster, Teepo, the warrior wizard, Garr, the big man, and Peco, the onion. That’s right, onion. If you did not already know, this game allows you to play as an onion. If this is the kind of thing you have wondered about, idly conversing with chums in your parents basement on a Friday night, now you have a game that lets you experience it.World map exploration, villages and weapon shops – all of it is pretty straightforward. As for combat? Random encounters, turn based combat, and no ATB bars. Each round you give input to each of the characters in your party, and agility stats will determine who goes first. Super quick characters may even get an extra turn to act before everyone else. You can select attack, defend, use magic or skills, run away, or use the observe command. The latter technique is where the game strays a bit from older RPGs. Characters can learn the skills of enemies by observing them. It does not always work and some skills (magic in particular) cannot be learned this way, yet it adds another strategic component to battles.
There is also a master system, whereby you can apprentice characters to various NPCs throughout the game. Doing so allows you to learn new skills and alter character growth through levelling up. Some masters will increase the amount of strength and HP you gain at level ups, but as a penalty, they will decrease the amount of magic power and AP gained. The fact that masters have negative points is a good thing. It forces you to seriously consider how you want to develop each individual character. You can play to strengths or weaknesses. Garr has naturally high attack power and defense, so you might want to improve his magic by apprenticing him to Mygas, Emitai, or Deis. Rei is naturally very fast, so you can push him towards greased lightning status by apprenticing him to Meryleep, who gives an agility +2 bonus as well as some excellent skills.
The characters are different enough to make these kinds of decisions matter; everyone has his or her role. Ryu is a balanced attacker, an excellent healer, and ultimately the most powerful fighter as his dragon powers evolve. Rei’s quickness and Weretiger abilities make him deadly and dangerous (to your own characters as well). Momo is possibly the best support character with her status boosting and attack magic, and her bazooka gives her an attack that can easily match Ryu and Rei (though it’s not terribly accurate). Nina is the all out magic user. Garr is your tank, thanks to his high HP, defense, and attack power. And Peco is an amusing combination of melee prowess, skills, and support techniques.
On the topic of battles, the random encounter rate is a bit higher than average. You will do a lot of fighting, and the battles may feel slow early in the game. On PSP, the load times seemed even worse, particularly at the end of battles when Ryu would celebrate ten full seconds after the fight ended before I could move on. The difficulty is sharper than you might expect. Often times, the game does not give you a save point before boss fights, or any at all in a dungeon, and boss fights are easily lost if you just try to throw all of your strongest attacks at an enemy. AP is not easily restored, and unless you spend a lot of time grinding, most bosses will have attacks that can hit your entire party very hard. You need to really think about making a balanced, well prepared party before taking on some of the game’s bosses, especially in the early and late stages.
There are some amusing side games as well. Fishing is back and expanded in the PSP version. From the start menu you can play a fishing mini game with various timed challenges. During the actual quest, fishing can save your life if you stock up on the right kinds. There is also a Sim-City type game with a fairy village that can be very useful later on if done properly. Taken together, the fishing and village sim games offer a nice break from the main game in a story that offers few side quests.
In an era when more and more RPGs were switching to 3D, Breath of Fire III showed that simple, colorful 2D sprites could still work. The characters are all quite distinct and there is a good variety of NPCs as well. The cities and villages are not terribly big, yet they each have a unique design that gives them character. From the pious Middle Eastern vibe of Urkan Tapa, to the fantastic forgotten city of Caer Xhan.
Easily the game’s best animations are in battle. The spell animations are extremely fluid and bright, considerably more attractive than the average 3D RPG of the era. Ryu’s dragon transformations and the variety of bizarre bosses you fight along the way are two areas where the graphic designers really shine.
Breath of Fire III has an unusually good story, however, its biggest weakness is its unassumingly slow start. The first five to ten hours may not seem interesting to players looking for a more grand conflict. As a young boy named Ryu, you start off pulling childish pranks with two forest boys until going too far one day and ultimately incur the wrath of an organized crime syndicate. After spending perhaps a bit too much time evading and defeating the gangsters, the journey starts in earnest after Garr befriends Ryu and leads him to Angel Tower. I really do not want to spoil the story for the two or three people reading this who have not played the original game, but I will say that the twist with Garr about a third into the game is magnificent. It is not so bizarre as to seem random or forced; it makes perfect sense and is not so easily predictable.
From there begins the quest to seek out the Goddess Myria and seek the truth about the dragon clan. There is a libertarian vibe to this showdown, as the Goddess is essentially a kind of dictator who invokes genocides and keeps humanity ignorant “for their own good.” Defeating her frees humanity from her yolk, while also forcing human beings to bear the responsibility of liberty. They must deal with the challenges of increasingly dangerous technology, the vast and spreading desert, and the possibility of the Brood’s power returning and destroying the world. The game even offers an alternate ending where the player can go along with the Goddess and stay forever sealed away in her garden.
It is a bit deeper than your typical JRPG fare and it has a solid cast to give it life. Ryu is a very well done silent protagonist. The enormity of his role in the world almost justifies his lack of speech; there are no words for what is expected of him, and in a weird way it makes sense to watch him stoically soldier on in silence. Garr’s conflicts and self-doubt are also well written, particularly when he meets Ryu as an adult in the Dauna mines. I will always remember that scene where he tells Ryu “you have both the power and right to kill me,” and then asks to be allowed to live long enough to find out the truth. On top of that you have Momo, who is more than you just your typical mad-scientist ditzy-inventor. Like Lucca in Chrono Trigger, there is another side dealing with Momo’s family that we see later in the game, and her maturity in managing her father’s plant, as well as her ceaseless faith in science and dutiful research of Peco and Honey, make her a character worthy of your time.
And then you have Rei, my favorite character overall. Even in the beginning with Ryu and Teepo, he is more than just a prankster. He has a definite moral compass. You see this if you talk to him regularly during camp sequences. When a problem at the enhanced food research plant erupts, Rei’s commentary could speak for modern skeptics of genetically enhanced foods, as he simply states “Isn’t regular food good enough?” When he seeks revenge against the gangsters as an adult, it is hard to condemn his bloodlust fully. His loyalty to his friends led him to devote years of his life to avenging them, which is why it is such a heart-wrenching moment when Rei finally meets Teepo again. His response to the Goddess Myria’s demand for obedience is the best of all the characters.
Nina is an average character; she grows up throughout the game and is less irritating than many similar precocious princess characters. Even Peco, a character I do not use much, turns out to be much more than meets the eye by the end of the game.
With such a good cast and a story that steadily gets more and more thought provoking, Breath of Fire III trumps many more celebrated 5th generation RPGs with the quality of its narrative.
Breath of Fire III’s soundtrack is underrated, though not by much. Most of the music is average, although there are some really infectious village themes and the boss music is definitely cool. The Eden theme music is a good example of music that feels both happy and sad at the same time. There are some powerful, simple melodies during the game’s dramatic moments. Not exactly mind-blowing stuff, but suitable. There is also a decent amount of voice acting during battle for spell and skill attack names. This is identical to the English version since they never bothered to translate it. There is a nice range of styles from Garr’s baritone to Nina’s soprano, and none of them are grating. Rei and Momo are my personal favorites.
I call Breath of Fire III “the little RPG that could.” It’s a bit slow, not extraordinarily stylish, and the basic mechanics are very traditional. And yet it was a treat to play through the game again. The above-average difficulty and solid skill and master systems make every level up and every completed dungeon seem like a major leap forward. The story takes some patience, but consistently gets better, especially during the adult phase of the game. On the PSP, the game looks and sounds crisper than ever before, and the fishing game is a nice distraction. If you did not get Breath of Fire III when it originally came out, then you missed a gem.