Breath of Fire (SNES) review
"The eight characters that compose Ryu's party all have their own specific uses and abilities, which makes backtracking very useful. Many early-game dungeons have their share of locked doors and crumbling walls hiding rooms full of treasure that isn't accessible until certain characters have joined. While it might not be mandatory to retrace your steps to grab most of these goodies, many are very useful — ranging from stat-enhancing items to equipment that's likely better than what was at that last shop you visited."
If there's one way in which Breath of Fire truly impressed me, it was with its sense of pacing. The game opens with the villainous Dark Dragon clan looking to assert their claim to world dominance....with their first step being to eliminate their long-time rivals, the Light Dragons. Since, over the generations, the Light Dragons have lost much of their power, the confrontation is a one-sided affair, forcing the good guys to take refuge in their elder's house while their village burns around them.
In an effort to save the rest of the villagers, Sara, the sister of protagonist Ryu and one of the few Light Dragons with power, casts a spell to temporarily turn everyone else to stone (protecting them from the fire) and sets out to confront the enemy forces. While her magic causes the common footsoldiers to flee, their commander, Jade is made of far stouter stuff. While respectful of Sara's power, his proves to be greater and the opening scene ends with him assumably the victor. Back in the village, the spell eventually wears off and with the blessings of the remaining townspeople, Ryu sets out as the last hope of the Light Dragon clan to prevent the Dark Dragons' scheme from succeeding.
However, it will be a long time before Jade or Dark Dragon Emperor Zog even deign to appear on-screen. As the top-ranking members of the Dark Dragons, they have little to do with their group's attempts to gradually conquer the world. For a good number of hours, while Ryu builds levels and gains allies like all good RPG heroes do, his DD adversaries will go by generic names such as "Lancer", "Bowman" and "General". When pressed into battle, Generals prove that at least the Dark Dragon elites are more than mere human adversaries, as they transform into a fearsome monster before entering the fray. Then again, Ryu also has special transformation powers as a Light Dragon. By proving his worth in combat at a handful of shrines, he gains the power to shapeshift into any of a multitude of draconic forms.
Eventually, Zog realizes his plans are being threatened by Ryu and his gang, which leads him to give marching orders to Jade and four other subordinates. However, there seems to be a bit of dissension in the ranks, as the henchmen seem worried that Zog is just trying to keep Jade from attaining some greater goal. Ahhhh.....intrigue.
There are a lot of good things about Breath of Fire. The game features a number of lengthy maze-like dungeons, including a few late-game ones that are very tricky to get through. The eight characters that compose Ryu's party all have their own specific uses and abilities, which makes backtracking very useful. Many early-game dungeons have their share of locked doors and crumbling walls hiding rooms full of treasure that isn't accessible until certain characters have joined. While it might not be mandatory to retrace your steps to grab most of these goodies, many are very useful — ranging from stat-enhancing items to equipment that's likely better than what was at that last shop you visited.
Very little of Ryu's quest feels tacked on, which is an additional bonus. The game essentially is divided into a number of lengthy chapters, with each one focusing on the party either preventing a particular Dark Dragon plot or obtaining a key item in their quest. For example, fairly early in the game, the party visits a pair of towns suffering because the Dark Dragons have blocked the river running between them in order to "persuade" them to relinquish an item essential to their plot. Ryu's party decides that they can remove the man-made dam by using a gigantic golem in the vicinity, but they need a mechanism to control it. All of this leads to the party going through two dungeons in order to get that item and then fighting the Dark Dragons twice over control of the golem. Throughout the game, the gang goes through a number of towns and dungeons, but virtually all of them are essential to one quest or another, with the few exceptions being short, simple passages from one region to another.
Unfortunately, the few parts of the game that feel unnecessary happen at the worst possible time. Late in the game, both before and after assaulting Zog's isolated fortress, for some inexplicable reason, the party gets sent on a myriad of fetch quests. It kind of took me out of the moment when I'm essentially being told, "It's time to finish off Zog!!!! Uh.....but first, we have to go here to get a broken part to this elevator and then there to fix it.....and, wait, that mysterious dude who's been popping up to help us is now telling us to go somewhere else to get a special item Zog's vulnerable to. We are fighting him at some time, right?" And that's only part of it, as I also had to get four components to a potion to cure one character's amnesia and deliver letters back-and-forth between two people to get an item necessary to enter the game's final dungeon.....all in roughly the span of two or three hours.
The pace of Breath of Fire's gameplay also is questionable. Early on, things seem very rough, as before getting any dragon powers or allies, all you can do is have Ryu attack and use items. The first handful of bosses take an eternity to bring down and it's a battle of attrition getting through those early dungeons. But as the game goes on, certain party members get overpowered, making the game pretty easy. Ryu's more powerful dragon forms can tear the crap out of most anything, while another party member, Karn, obtains a handful of spells allowing him to meld with other characters to create superhuman beings far tougher than any of those characters would be individually. For that reason, I remember the giant frog in the first dungeon as a tougher opponent than Jade, Zog or any of the other late-game baddies. The only thing I really struggled with over the last half of the game or so was one particular dungeon with a lot of tiles that, when stepped on, would spin the entire room around, making it a nightmare to figure out where I was going.
Still, it's not a piece of cake to get the game's more super-powered abilities, as they're not always easy to locate. To find all of Ryu's dragon forms or Karn's transformation spells, you'll have to carefully search the entire world, making use of just about every character's special ability. It takes a lot of work (or the frequent use of a guide) to get your party to the point where they can simply run over the game's heaviest hitters. About the only problem with this is that the game has multiple endings with the only way to get the best being to find a very well-hidden ability.
My overall impression of Breath of Fire was a positive one, though. While not some monolithic RPG for the ages, it was a solid, competent title with a diverse array of characters and plenty of secrets that only can be unearthed by a specific party member's unique skill. In some aspects, Breath of Fire is among the elite RPGs of its era, but due to a handful of glaring flaws, the overall product is "merely" above average.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (May 08, 2009)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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