BREATH OF FIRE IV / Capcom / PlayStation
Breath of Fire IV would easily be the best of the first four games in the series were it not encumbered by a clunky, sometimes infuriating isometric perspective and tile-based movement system. Add in that the designers didn't really seem to learn any lessons from the things that went wrong in Breath of Fire III, and you have a lot of great art and atmosphere going to waste on a game that forces you into a tedious slog to get to it.
It's the usual story as established by the first three games - blue-haired dragon-boy Ryu awakens mysteriously with amnesia, he quickly meets winged girl Nina, and they go on a quest that ultimately ends with killing the deities of the land for some reason. There's a marked change of style from the previous entries, however. Xenogears seems to have been a heavy influence on the developers, what with the whole Middle East-East Asia fusion culture thing going on. There's also a very heavy emphasis on art quality. The third game introduced large and nicely detailed sprites, but BOF IV dials that up to 11 along with colorful, expansive backgrounds (apparently handled by the Darkstalkers art team). The music also undergoes a fairly radical shift toward a mix of traditional symphonic and minimalism; some areas roll with nothing but ambient sounds. The unique synths and loungey jazz that permeated the previous games are almost entirely gone.
The Xenogears influence also extends to the gameplay, at least when moving characters through towns and dungeons. You move in a rigid tile-based way with an isometric camera angle, which you rotate through four fixed angles. As the first town demonstrates, often none of them are any good. You're forever rotating the camera trying to just see your own sprite and what's around you, with the view blocked by buildings, trees or whatever else in the environment.
Battles are better, but still not perfect. The front/back row system of the previous games makes a return, enhanced a bit here with the support characters visible and sometimes throwing out a ranged attack to help. You can also freely swap characters from front to back in the middle of a battle, which I don't remember being the case in the previous games. They also move along at a nice clip and generally look fantastic, with really detailed animation and some great-looking enemy sprites.
The main issue with battles is that advanced features really aren't explained in-game. For example, you learn crucial new battle skills by getting hit with them while defending, but the game never bothered to mention that anywhere and you can get left behind if you're not doing it from early in the game. The developers also took the same lazy shortcut to "challenge" that they did in BOF III; as the game wears on, enemies just keep having incredible movement speed and always get the first strike, and they just spam some irritating mass status effect spell. And while battles do look great, sometimes the length of the elaborate unskippable attack animations gets really annoying.
BOF IV has excised the tedious backtracking that plagued the second and third entries for the most part, but it's introduced a new form of bullshit to the mix - mini-game abuse. You're constantly hit with little mini-games that often are poorly explained and obnoxious to complete successfully.
The game's overarching story also feels like a long march to nowhere. You can basically divide it up into two main segments: Running Away From The Evil Empire, and then Going To Attack The Evil Empire. Both of these segments are just a chain of going from town to town, where there's some contrived obstacle to get past before the march can continue (a la the structure of most of the first BOF game). Chapters that put you in control of nemesis Foul Lou are dribbled in to break up the tedium, but these lose some impact thanks to an iffy localization that has Foul Lou speaking in a weird mishmash quasi-medieval dialect.
BOF IV is great to look at, but playing it for a few hours reveals that all of the other pieces are in varying states of Not Quite There. It ends up feeling disjointed, and spending so much time wrestling with the unhelpful camera and turgid tile-based movement does not at all dispose you to give it the benefit of the doubt on any of its other questionable elements.
* Gameplay Video