More RPG clichés than Final Fantasy fan fiction
Around this time last year, I wrote an essay for university in which I argued that Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga was a hybrid of two genres: the platformer and the RPG. While my grade for this piece of work ended up being pretty pants, one positive thing to come out of this frustrating chapter of my academic career was my discovery of a new genre: the Japanese role-playing game. Up until then, I’d hardly moved beyond Pokémon as far as RPGs went, but I soon found myself in possession of a number of classic titles on GBA and DS. The first of these was Breath of Fire.
Breath of Fire was first released for the Super NES by Capcom in Japan in 1993, and North America the following year. As with many RPGs of the era, the game never made it to Europe, so the first time we ‘Yuropeeinz’ got to play it was when it was remade for the Game Boy Advance in 2001. A few minutes into the game, I was struck by how dated it was. The combat is a no-frills, properly turn-based affair – no fancy Active Time Battle shenanigans to be found here. The plot is cheesier than a Quattro Formaggi pizza, while the gameplay was invented in about 1987. Still, it’s all part of the retro charm, right?
To some extent, yes. Assuming you’re happy to forego the new-fangled real-time combat systems of many western or modern RPGs, the turn-based battles are well-executed, with your party of heroes enjoying a range of spells and abilities. It’s just as well fighting is pretty fun as you’ll be doing a lot of it – the encounter rate is ridiculously high, with a random battle occurring every ten steps (quite literally in some dungeons). You may find yourself buying a lot of Mrbl3s (yes, seriously) – the equivalent of Repel in Pokémon – to keep the monsters at bay.
This brings me on to another feature of Breath of Fire‘s early-90s origins – the presentation. The dialogue is in a form of broken English that varies from the grammatically-incorrect to the almost-incomprehensible, rendering the already-predictable plot even less gripping. The items, as suggested before, have names that are often impossible to interpret because of the five-character limit for each one’s name (“IceSH”, “E.Key” and “WtrJr” are among the more understandable ones). The game’s story itself revolves around a blue-haired lad named Ryu, who is the only surviving member of the Light Dragon clan and must travel the land, forming a party of anthropomorphic animal warriors to obtain all the Goddess Keys before the Dark Dragon clan take over the world! I can’t think that was imaginative in 1993, let alone 2013.
All these draconic antics do give the opportunity for one little aspect in which the game does break the JRPG mould. Ryu gains the ability to transform into various dragons throughout the game, turning him from a spiky-haired kid into a fire-breathing beast. While it’s a nice idea, its implementation could have been done better, as the two best dragons are only found right at the end of the game, while many of the dragons are rendered useless due to you always having a more powerful one available which you would inevitably use instead. I’m informed, however, that in later instalments in the series, this dragon system was indeed significantly expanded upon.
While it sounds like I’m moaning about this game, it is actually quite good. Despite the broken dialogue and the cheesy plot, watching the story unfold is quite compelling, and the large variety of party members, each with his / her own weapons and abilities, is fun to expand and battle with. It’ll keep you going for a while, as well, with the story taking 30+ hours to complete. Unfortunately, there isn’t a thing to do after you’ve beaten the final boss – once the credits roll, there are no post-game sidequests or anything to keep you playing any longer. Nevertheless, it’s a solid RPG that was probably rated quite highly upon its release, and considering it’s Capcom’s very first foray into the genre, it’s not bad at all. I’ve yet to play the true SNES “classic” RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, but while the reviewers say Breath of Fire is nowhere near that standard, it will certainly provide an enjoyable, retro-flavoured quest full of hardcore turn-based battles and an old-school RPG story.