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BREATH OF FIRE / Square+Capcom / SNES
Groader's cousin Toader
Breath of Fire was Capcom's first venture into the world of RPGs; they published it themselves in Japan, but since they'd never before localized an RPG (or anything with so much text) in English, they decided to farm it out to Squaresoft for the Western release rather than try to tackle it themselves. Our old bud Ted Woolsey, who handled the SNES-era Final Fantasy games and Chrono Trigger, got the duties on this one, but you'd hardly know it was him unless someone told you. No "Son of a submariner!"s or other goofy lines - Woolsey does his usual solid work here, but it seems like he was rushing with this one a little more than with his major Squaresoft projects. The translation is leagues better than the shit job Capcom did when they tried to localize Breath of Fire II on their own, but it still really isn't among the better jobs in RPG history.
The game itself seems like a play-it-safe clone of the Dragon Quest formula, content to be solidly Meh in all aspects. The extremely linear quest sees you as Ryu, a young man who is destined to be a hero because he has a dragon tattoo on his head and badass Azn Mullet hair. For this reason alone he is rather suddenly selected by the Light Dragon clan to go out on a quest to defeat the Dark Dragons, when the power-mad Dark Dragons (gee, who would think the Dark Dragon clan would be evil?) destroy their village and kidnap a girl named Sara (who the Light Dragons apparently hold in high esteem, but the sketchily written story never makes clear exactly what her role is.)
Um, I actually didn't know that would happen
The story and progression of events are the game's greatest weakness, and this isn't the fault of Woolsey's translation; for a long time I've suspected one of the original designers actually let one of his young children write the story, or at least went to them for consultation on new ideas constantly. The plot is just a collection of some of the most simplistic fantasy and RPG cliches and tropes one after another, with all sorts of deus ex machina stuff just happening whenever it's time to move on to the next dungeon or town or whatever. The game reads like a 12 year old's first RPG Maker project. The start of the game illustrates this nicely - after the attack by the Dark Dragons, the Light Dragon elders are just suddenly like "Hey you! To defeat Dark Dragons you must go on quest! Here is 300 GP good luck!". Just because, y'know, it's an RPG, and that's what happens in RPGs. No sense of subtlety or depth whatsoever. The next town the character moves on to is a kingdom that has somehow managed to have its castle invaded by a band of monsters headed up by an evil toad; no explanation how or why this happened, or why the main character even bothers to stop in to clear the castle out for them - you just do it because it's there, and it's the next town you run across on the world map. The third kingdom you visit, Nanai, is actually destroyed by the main character (without the player really getting a say in the matter or knowing what is going on) for incredibly vague reasons; since the hero is the typical Mute Protagonist we have no idea how he feels about this, but after the town falls, some random merchant runs up to reassure us that "It was a hard choice for you to sacrifice Nanai, but the results show you're a true hero!" The rest of the entire game just bulldozes on like this.
Not to say that it is all bad - if you can tolerate childish (sometimes completely nonsensical) writing, there are some qualities to appreciate here. Chiefly, the graphics - the game is short on animation, but uses a rich and vibrant color palette, and packs the backgrounds with a lot of small detail. It's basically a really good-looking "end of early generation" SNES title; not as good as FF6 or Chrono Trigger, but a marked jump ahead of FF4 and thereabouts. The gameplay is also fundamentally solid - the menu system is easy to navigate and makes sense, and battles have a zippy pace (and do you the nicety of showing remaining HP for the enemies, bosses included), and for most of the game the encounter rates are reasonable and the overall difficulty rarely requires a grind session.
You tell me dude, it's your house
Unfortunately the most tedious bit of the game is the first few hours or so, when battles consist mostly of just hacking away and using the occasional item or healing spell. Eventually the game gives you a roster of eight characters, and there's a number of ideas here that hadn't really been implemented in RPGs prior to this. For example, this is one of the few that lets you switch out characters during a battle. There's also a character named Karn who fuses with other characters in battle to create sometimes grody but very effective hybrid mutant characters. All the characters also have a secondary ability that can be used either in towns or on the world map; the main character fishes (not yet developed into a mini-game here unfortunately), another character can hunt animals with his bow for powerful recovery items, you even get a merchant who can set up an impromptu shop when empty stalls are found in towns. Most of these abilities are simple but they do add life to the game, and are something I would have liked to have seen more often in RPGs of the era.
Counterbalancing the gaining of these abilities, however, is the fact that encounter rates pick up sharply in some later dungeons and map areas, and the game often just kind of dumps you off to wander about until you stumble into the next destination (particularly when you gain the ability to fly.) With no overarching world map of any kind in the game, it can be easy to get lost. Also, boss battles sometimes represent massive spikes in difficulty from the dungeons they are in, which may take you by surprise and cause you to have to re-tread a dungeon all over again.
Breath of Fire was better back around 1993 when it came out, when RPG options were much fewer and farther between. With a glut of them now, there's little compelling reason to revisit this one, but you can definitely find some things to appreciate in it. On the whole though, I think most gamers will find it a little too slow and tedious, and the atrocious story and writing weighs it down quite a bit.
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