The Breath of Fire series began back in the glory days of the SNES, but was largely overshadowed by RPG efforts from Square. The first was actually published by the RPG giant, even though being developed by Capcom. The game was reasonably popular, and a sequel followed several years later.
The series had a small but devoted following, and when the third of the trilogy was announced on the PlayStation, gamers rejoiced. The game looked very promising, and the screenshots released on the ‘net stood out. When the delays finally diminished, and the game was released in April, it was picked up by the RPG crowd, which was looking for something new after general discontent with Square’s SaGa Frontier.
Was the game worthy of the pre-release hype that had generated? While Breath of Fire III has some very nice concepts and ideas, the execution leaves something to be desired.
The first thing that people will notice about the game is the colorful graphics. Everything is hand-drawn, and nicely detailed. In fact, the diversity of the color palette used is refreshing – the blue skies and green trees of the outdoors contrast nicely with the dirt and grime of mines and crypts. Characters are animated nicely, with a variety of different positions for various actions. Important objects stand out to the player, but never seem out of place. One minor problem with the graphics, however, is the fact that many times, the characters and the backgrounds seem separated – although not to the degree of SaGa Frontier, the characters superimposed over the backgrounds seem out of place at times.
The enemies are also drawn well, and although there is some palette swapping, there are a fair number of different enemies, all with animations and styles of their own. Bosses in particular are detailed and pleasing to the eye. Attacks look varied and are usually quite nice to look at – magic spells in particular are impressive.
Controls are simple and intuitive, for the most part. Characters respond well, and battle commands are easily selected and implemented. One slight flaw, however, is aiming the characters when they use their actions outside of battle (Ryu’s sword swipe, for example) – it can be difficult to quickly determine which direction to move the character in to use their actions. Characters can move in eight directions – but only act in four. Even at the end of the game, I was struggling at times to properly orient my characters in that manner.
The sounds and music are mixed. For the most part, sounds are done fairly well. A nice touch is the voice acting – each character screams out the name of their attack as they do it – in Japanese, of course. The music has been criticized, however, as it is fairly unique for an RPG – light jazz style tunes. While there is certainly nothing wrong with light jazz, these criticisms have merit – the music just isn’t that good. There are a few tunes that you’ll be happy to hear, but the majority range from bad to forgettable.
Breath of Fire III’s strengths are evident in the variety of gameplay. The first innovation are the Enemy Skills and Examine commands. While enemy skills are certainly nothing new, and have been around since Final Fantasy V’s Blue Mage, the methods of gaining them differ here. If you are in battle and an enemy uses a skill you think you’d like to try to learn, you can have your characters spend their turns examining the enemy, and if that skill is used again, there is a chance of learning it. This system has its limitations, however. Each skill in the game that can be learned can only be learned once – and by one character. In other words, go ahead and learn that Double Blow technique – but only one character will be able to know it. This serves to balance things, but the majority of techniques are useless in many situations, making it difficult to balance the useful techniques amongst your party members.
Techniques can also be learned from Masters, another innovation. There are a total of seventeen Masters, and each teaches different techniques. Furthermore, when apprenticed to a Master, characters will develop differently – some Masters raise your statistics at level ups, while lowering others. These mainly make sense, as spellcasters will raise AP and Intelligence, while lowering Power (as an example). To further clarify, characters do not actually lose statistics at level changes. However, if a character would normally gain 3 HP at a level increase, and their Master has a HP decrease of -4 per level, they would not gain any HP at that level up. Aside from statistic modifiers, each Master will teach techniques at set number of levels. Some of these techniques can be learned from enemies, but others can not. One major flaw, however, is that the level tally is not continuous. If a character needs 8 levels to gain a Master’s final skill, they must be apprenticed to the Master for 8 straight levels. If they switch to another Master and switch back, they must start from the beginning. This isn’t necessarily bad, but a great inconvenience, especially with some of the more powerful Masters. It’s very restricting being apprenticed to Deis for fifteen straight levels to gain her final technique, especially if you realize that a Master’s statistic modifiers are taking that character in a different direction than you’d like.
To handle these techniques, they can be stored in “Skill Notes”, and exchanged back and forth between characters with “Skill Ink”. One Skill Ink allows you to move as many techniques back and forth as you would like at once between any of your characters, but their relative rarity means that it is usually best to wait until there are multiple changes you would like to make.
The mini-games in Breath of Fire III are numerous, and generally entertaining. The most notable is the fishing, which has evolved since the original’s simple “use the fishing pole in the well” methodology. Throughout the course of the game, fishing spots can be found on the map, each containing up to five different types of fish. Different types of lures and rods can be selected, and different fish have preferences. Different fish (there are twenty-three types of fish, ignoring the fact that a whale is not actually a fish) have different properties in battle, ranging from healing to offensive attacks. Furthermore, Manillo (a fish merchant, similar to Gobi from the original BoF) can be caught, and will give you various items for the fish you have caught. Fishing is simple and addictive, and one of the best parts of the game.
Another heralded mini-game is the Fairy Village, which can best be compared to a simplified SimCity. You have fairies with different strengths, and you can choose their jobs – hunting, clearing land, and building (initially). Once the village is more fully developed and populated, a variety of options open up, including shops with rare items, a casino, a music test, and more. Two notable jobs for fairies are explorations and the Copy shop. Fairies can be designated as Explorers, and go off on voyages searching for items. While the fairies can be killed, they often bring back good items, including some rare and powerful artifacts. The Copy shop is a very useful, yet annoying job – you can give the fairies in the shops virtually any item and they will make an exact, functioning duplicate. The problem is that the best items (generally the ones you want more copies of, like powerful armor and artifacts) are extremely hard to duplicate, and often get destroyed in the process. In the end, while the hassle of resetting the PSX multiple times is worth it for extra copies of your items, it is best compared to breeding Chocobos in Final Fantasy VII – worth it in the end, but a tremendous pain to do.
The rest of the mini-games are largely uninspired, and generally serve no function than to make the game longer.
Another innovation is the Dragon Gene system. There are eighteen different Genes, and some are hidden during the course of the game (others are given automatically). During most battles, the main character is able to select up to three Genes and turn into various types of Dragons. The system is simple, but allows great depth. If you want a Frost dragon, include the Frost Gene. If you want raw physical power, use the Force Gene. In addition, there are many different special types of Dragons, such as the Trygon, Myrmidon, and Mammoth. The dragons have high power, defense, and hit points, and provide an extra layer of protection for the main character – if a Dragon is killed, the main character reverts to his human form without a scratch. Each turn, however, the Dragon uses up AP – one half the casting cost of the spell, so the more powerful dragons can be used for shorter periods of time than their weaker counterparts.
Yet another innovation is allowing the player to set up camp on the overworld. At camp, you can change party members, talk to the characters, and rest and save. Resting in the overworld is entirely free, and can be done at virtually any time. However, resting in the wild isn’t perfect. When characters are unconscious at the end of a battle, their maximum HP is decreased until they can rest at an inn. While sleeping in the wild restores HP and AP, wounded characters need to seek an inn. Not a bad idea, until you reach areas of the game where inns are unavailable.
Perhaps the final innovation is the addition of formations. There are a total of six formations that the characters can be placed in, but most are totally unnecessary. For the early part of the game, the Power formation is handy simply because it drastically increases one (most likely the main) character’s attack power while offering no real disadvantages. Later on, the Chain Formation is the formation of choice, as it lets the party all move at the speed of its fastest member. While a nice idea, the formation ultimately weakens the game, as it removes one character’s weaknesses entirely. Prior to learning the formation, most players would likely shy away from strong, slow characters, simply because their speed is such a handicap. However, with that obstacle removed, why bother stocking your party with fast, weaker characters when you only need one?
With all the innovations, Breath of Fire III brings a great number of cards to the table. Unfortunately, there is one major factor working against the game – tedium. I played the game for several months over the summer, and quit playing for four months – I only picked the game back up the other day to finish, since I knew I was near the end.
Why is the game tedious? There are several factors. You may have noticed by now that the story has not been mentioned in the review until now, and this is why. The overall goal for the characters is known for much of the plot, but there is no real desire on the part of the player to reach that goal. Rather than provide some meaningful tasks to do, most of the tasks the players have to accomplish have no real bearing on the story. It is a sad statement that the most focused hours of the game come very early on, with the characters attempting to foil a pair of villains that are mainly there as roadblocks. Furthermore, with the large number of minigames, players will find themselves unable to concentrate on the ultimate task at hand simply because the game refuses to let them.
Ultimately, the story is very shallow. Even at the end when there is a lot of plot, it seems tacked-on, as if Capcom had to provide a reason for the player to spend over 40 hours on the game (and there should be a reason, but it should be a GOOD reason). Furthermore, character development is essentially non-existent, and characters change very little during the course of the game. Ryu, the hero, suffers from “Mute Character Syndrome”, and the emotions of characters during the game are expressed via icons (such as teardrops and question marks) placed above character heads on the screen. It is a sad day in gaming when one character, a mutant onion that cannot talk, seems better developed than the hero does. As it stands, most of the characters are unlikable, forgettable, and simply a pain to deal with.
Normal battles are very common, and most require no strategy whatsoever – players will find themselves using the auto-battle command often simply because it’s all that is required. Furthermore, battles are very common due to a poor design decision on Capcom’s part. There are two moving speeds – painfully slow, and tolerable. Unfortunately, when the party moves at a faster speed, the rate of random battles is drastically increased. There is no reason that the player should be punished because they would like to be able to get to where they are going at a decent rate of speed.
Of special note is the Desert of Death, an area towards the end of game that should receive some sort of award for punishing the player. The idea isn’t that bad – a mini-game chronicling the party crossing a vast, uninhabitable desert. Rather than opening up the overworld, Capcom puts Ryu on a special screen, gives you directions on how to navigate using the stars, and sets you free. For the first few minutes, it’s fun, having to check to make sure you’re going the right way. It soon becomes apparent that there are major flaws. Battles occur with alarming frequency, and if your characters are wounded, they are stuck – there’s not an inn in sight, and it’s horrible watching your characters’ maximum HP sink until they are horribly fragile. After battles, the character will be spun around, and you need to re-orient yourself according to the stars, and if you get lost, you’re stuck. The translator also needs to be beaten, as the directions you are given for the Desert are unreliable. You get the correct directions before you enter the desert – no problem. However, the directions available once you are in the desert (for reference) are incorrect. There is no excuse for such a major error. Even once you get around these flaws, you’ll have to spend over an hour just getting through the desert, and then you must fight a boss with your weakened characters. Oh, did I fail to mention that if you want some of the best equipment in the game, you’d have to go back and spend another hour or two in the desert? It’s fortunate that this occurs late in the game, because if someone had to deal with this early on, I highly doubt anyone would bother with the rest of the game.
The translation is rather bad. Aside from the error I mentioned above with the Desert of Death, there are dozens of mistakes throughout the game. You’ll never see a period at the end of a sentence, at all – a great number of statements just seem to trail off, and you expect more than what you’re getting. Words are frequently misused, such as “loose” being used instead of “lose”. The dialogue is equally as bad, and even the attempts to develop character personalities are cliched and repetitive – Rei’s “Don’t that just beat all?” is nice the first dozen times, but the hundreds of times afterwards make you want to cause harm to him.
Ultimately, Breath of Fire III tries very hard to bring some new ideas to the RPG genre, and succeeds to a degree. These innovations are ultimately not enough, though, and the huge flaws in the game simply prove insurmountable. If you haven’t checked out Breath of Fire III, it is very hard to recommend unless you are fan of the series or you’ve played all the other RPGs on the market.