"You walk through a dungeon and when you get to the end, you never find yourself thinking what a boring drag of a place it was. Instead, you're almost (dare I say it?) anxious for the next dungeon. How Capcom manages to keep things so fresh is beyond me, but each dungeon is unique and a pleasure to explore, even though enemies do attack more often than you might appreciate."
The world is in chaos. Strange demons are appearing throughout, wreaking havoc as they struggle to bring about the arrival of their dark god. All that stands in their way is a small group of adventurers led by one young man named Ryu and an oprhan named Bow. Yet as the plot thickens, so do the alliances on the good side, until Breath of Fire II, Capcom's latest RPG offering on the Game Boy Advance, turns into an epic RPG that you simply must experience.
I've already touched on the story in general, but that doesn't quite do it justice. If you've played RPG's for long, you know that story hasn't always been the main reason to keep going. In titles like Final Fantasy, you barely had an active plot at all, just shadows in the background and things that unfolded through cryptic dialogue. It was much the same for the Dragon Warrior games, as well. Then the Super Nintendo and Genesis RPGs came about and they changed things entirely. Titles like Final Fantasy IV proved that plot should play an integral part in the modern RPG. It was about this time that Americans saw the first in Capcom's answer to Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, Breath of Fire. It was released by Square in the US and it sold well, enough that you have to pay quite a bit now to get your hands on the original cartridge. Encouraged by the good response, Capcom went to turn the tale into a series. And so each successive installment grew grander and for the most part, more exciting. Yet story always keeps a few elements the same, such as a hero named Ryu with hidden heritage (you can figure out what that is by the title of the franchise, if you work at it hard enough). Then there's Windia and there's Nina and a few other small things that seem mostly constant. In this way, story doesn't differ so much as it might in the Final Fantasy franchise, a rather refreshing concept.
Like Breath of Fire before it and Breath of Fire III after it, then, playing Breath of Fire II inspires a brief spell of deja vu. That's not to say the dungeons are the same. They're not. Nor are the maps of the locations or, well, much of anything except a few small elements that make you feel right at home. Even though the story changes dramatically from title to title, there's something familiar to which you can readily cling.
All this is probably just a long-winded way of saying that no, Breath of Fire doesn't have a plot quite so intricate as the modern Final Fantasy title. Yet with that set aside, there's the simple fact that it does the job and then some. I had never played the game until the Game Boy Advance version, despite the fact that it was available on the Super Nintendo for years (a fact for which I'm kicking myself now). So when I got a copy and was able to play it, I found myself strangely addicted. It didn't happen so much at first, but around 2 hours into it, I found it difficult to stop playing. Five hours of playing later, I'd have to make myself something to eat. I stood over the stove and my meal, wondering what would happen next. Would they find the thief? When would Bow get to join up again? Where might I find that next demon?
Besides the twisting plot that keeps one engrossed, there are things like the fact that you're always finding some new side to a place you've already visited. At first I was slightly annoyed by what seemed a lot of useless running around in the same general area, but I grew to like it. Dungeons and the world map are designed in such a fashion that what at first seems immense gradually grows smaller in your mind as the world's scope increases. That's not to say that running from HomeTown (a town right near the start of the game) to Coursair (a town much later in the game) is ever a joy, but it hardly seems all that annoying.
Part of this, I think, is the battle system. Though it's turn-based, you don't feel like you're waiting forever for things to happen. Battles seldom last all that long. You either win, run, or die. And if you're in an area where you know the enemies well and are confident your party can easily win, auto-battle is an excellent feature. Especially noteworthy is the fact that this auto-battle doesn't drain your magic. In the early portions of the game, magic is a precious commodity indeed, as you haven't yet gained the skills and modifications to your characters that you'll find as things get closer to the conclusion. It's nice that the computer doesn't automatically cast some huge spell on a weak enemy during auto-battle mode, something I've noticed happens with alarming frequency in other titles.
But Breath of Fire II isn't other titles. Though it at times seems like the same old thing you've seen again and again, it's really the best of almost every RPG element. I already mentioned the story and the battle system, both of which are excellent. But there's a general feel to the game overall that's hard to put into words. You walk through a dungeon and when you get to the end, you never find yourself thinking what a boring drag of a place it was. Instead, you're almost (dare I say it?) anxious for the next dungeon. How Capcom manages to keep things so fresh is beyond me, but each dungeon is unique and a pleasure to explore, even though enemies do attack more often than you might appreciate.
Probably because the enemies attack so often, each new area is briefly an excercise in raising levels. Because the battles are so fast-paced, though, you don't have to spend forever in a given place. And you can push onward at a good clip without fearing much damage. Bosses are somewhat difficult, but going through like I did, I had no huge stumbling blocks. The largest one I found was when I spent several hours wandering about because I was foolish.
Therefore, let me save you a problem right now by saying this: read the instruction manual. Contrary to the old NES manuals I remember from the company, the instruction booklet for Breath of Fire II is vibrant and even helpful. It lets you know something about each character and mentions what skill a given character possesses. Those skills don't seem so important at first, but you will find soon enough that they are. Ryu can fish if you equip a fishing rod, for example (important because good fishing skill lets you make money more easily than you might by flying through a bunch of random battles), Bow can hunt, and Sten can cross narrow gaps on the world map. All of these skills are not the type that are used in battles. They're used in more static situations. And to use a skill, you must have the character who's skill you wish to use leading your party. I played quite a while before I discovered this. It's not just there for dressing, though, and you'll find yourself tinkering with it to make progression simpler (and at times, it's absolutely required).
Besides switching the order of your characters, you'll sometimes find yourself defining which four will be in your party. There are eight of you in all, and only four can be active. Sometimes plot dictates that someone is unavailable for use, but there are definitely times when you'll have to switch out who is involved. Therefore, it's a good idea to level up everyone at around the same time, something that is a pain in Breath of Fire II just as much as it is in any other RPG. With so many little tricks Capcom used to make this title operate smoothly, you would have thought they could fix this flaw, but it's still there.
It's a small flaw, though, as are any of the other mars in this excellent title. Mentioning the weak translation seems almost petty. I think it's a fault of the system's screen, but there are some hideous problems in this department. Not with spelling, really, but rather with punctuation. You'll be reading a sentence and see no period, then the next one has a question mark or an exclamation mark. No problem, you tell yourself. They just don't use periods. Then some sentences do. Consistency is definitely lacking. I'm probably the only one that will bother, though.
Like I said, though, such problems are minor. They're easily outweighed by all the strengths. Besides those I've discussed above, there are also the graphics and sound. Obviously, this title looks like a SNES game. It's as simple as that. It looks like a GOOD game from that system, in fact, because it was. Characters are well-animated, much like you might expect from an older title like Final Fantasy VI. Each area has its own distinctive feel, as I said above, and a lot of that comes from graphics. The world map might re-use textures a fair amount, but the dungeons do not. In battle, monsters move like monsters should. They're not of the stellar level you would find in a Playstation title, but they are animated. And they look good. Backgrounds also look nice. There are times when you can forget you're playing on a handheld. I would say the game overall looks more like an early Playstation RPG than a revamped SNES one.
And like I said, there's sound to appreciate. The music here is very, very good. And it doesn't sound all that mangled coming out of the Game Boy Advance speaker. Music feels epic, and if you're being an idiot like me and pulling an all-day/most-of-the-night gaming session and starting to get a headache, you can select the option to turn off the music and hear only the occasional sound effects (which also are quite nice).
Also quite nice is the save system. This is a portable game. That means there are times when you'll be playing and the battery light will start warning you that you're about to lose out. You're in the middle of a long dungeon, perhaps, and you can't reach the save point (they often are at towns). What do you do? You save right there! But rather than making this a privilege players could abuse, Capcom set it so that you return to the title screen, then can turn off the system or go from there. Resume the game from that point, though, and the temporary save will be lost. This means that you can't save right before a boss, then keep trying until you beat him. Other games have used this system, but I can't think of any that have used it better than here. The location of the 'permanent' save points and the ability to save within seconds at any given point (except in mid-battle) is a true blessing and is executed perfectly.
As you can probably tell, I enjoy the time I spend playing this game a great deal. A lot of people have praised Golden Sun both here and elsewhere, and they're welcome to continue doing so. For me, however, Breath of Fire II offers more than that. I haven't even gotten into the town building aspect (recruit characters to help build your town, much like a later title such as Suikoden), or the early equivalent of the Breath of Fire III concept of splicing genes, or any other number of tiny intricacies Capcom included. You can even link systems to exchange items with a friend! Perhaps the only reason not to buy the game is the price tag. $40 is just a lot of money for a handheld game, and it's likely to remain at that price for a fair amount of time to come. With that said, Breath of Fire II is in my opinion the best use of $40 that you can currently find for the system. It'll keep you entertained quite easily for 25 hours if you let it, and I can imagine some people growing so addicted that they go through several times and spend much more than that. If you like RPGs and you need to play some on the road, then, my thought is that you'll have a hard time doing better than Breath of Fire II.
Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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