Breath of Fire Series

Breath of Fire is a series that, in my mind, hated the earlier games the farther you played the series.  In the first game, you’re Ryu the last of clan of Dragons, with a portentous scar who’s trying to avenge his lost family via fighting another clan.  You soon pick up a winged princess, Nina, who’s spunky enough to risk her life trying to fight her enemies.  The rest of the game is gathering elemental keys and fighting your way to face down against a goddess.

Breath of Fire's Nina is a fast mage using rapier weapons. (1993 JP, 1994 US)

The game has a couple of interesting features.  There are anthropomorphic animal clans in the world with some broad stereotypical features.  Each party member has some sort of skill that can help you cross the world.  So there’s this sense of amazing power when, say, Nina turns into a gigantic bird so you can zoom around the world map.  There’s a bit of a sense that the game is an endurance run like a fighting game since bosses ‘regenerate’ some of their health as you kill them, and there’s a fair amount of item usage to handle the amount of damage you take.

Wake up!

The opening of BOF has a voice telling you that it is time for action.

Breath of Fire 2 has better graphics.  It keeps the saturated color palate of the first game, and adds much less stubby character graphics.  Unfortunately, the game suffers from a rather poor translation. It’s bad enough that it constantly feels like you might be reading more into the story than what was meant to be there.  What’s implied though is an unusually mature story for a SNES game of that era.

A red jewel versus her original mood.

Breath of Fire II does suffer from a rough translation.

Your hero, Ryu, is a tiny kid in a blissful village (complete with a mood ring like crystal in the dialogue boxes.)  He listens to his sister talk about their mother (who she claims is a dragon,) and tries to close his eyes to see her.  When he opens them, everyone in town treats him like a thief (flashing the gem darker and darker,) and he ends up fleeing with an orphaned thief.  They flee into a cave and are defeated by a massive monster.  This is a much more ‘powerless’ and dark intro compared to the first game.

Breath of Fire II's Nina uses magical blasts for an attack, and is a powerful mage. (1994 JP, 1995 US)

Almost every playable character in the game has a tragedy.  The Nina of this game is a frailer mage with a dark prophecy.  In the end, it comes true, but it was not her hand that resulted in that dark fate.  Amusingly, the characters in the second game are sort of weird mirrors of the characters in the first game.  Bo in the first game is a stoic ranger who’s a tall wolfish dog.  Bo in the second game is a short tubby bulldog.

Breath of Fire III's Nina starts out as a naive princess. You can customize her stats to reduce her fragility. ( 1997 JP, 1998 US)

The third game was on the PS1.  In it, you again have a Ryu that grows up in the game.  This comes complete with upgrading his attack animations over time.  The Nina in the third game also starts out as fragile and her family is estranged.  She and Ryu spend a part of the game on the run, struggling to not get victimized by various adults.  However, the game feels darker, and you never quite get that sense of soaring justification.  For example, your last fight as a child in the game is due to betrayal.  The end of the game is basically choosing free will over not having the country slowly turn to a desert.

Breath of Fire III is the first 3D game.

The fourth game is also a PS1 game.  Unfortunately, it feels like a step backwards in a lot of ways.  Your characters are beautifully animated and the graphics have an interesting pallid watercolor like effect.  The polygonal dragons look awkward by modern standards and most of them aren’t very dragon like.  The camera and the walking controls feel awkward compared to the first game.

It's hard to say why walking feels so much more awkward in Breath of Fire IV.

Ignoring the actual graphics and the game play, there’s unfortunately another issue with the game.  Nina, at best, is bubbly and niave, and at worst almost annoyingly clueless.  The plot depends on some curious choices at best on the part of the heroes.

It doesn’t feel much like the previous games.  The saturated palate is gone.  Ryu and Nina are different.  Ryu doesn’t have a mess of dragons to turn into.  The dragons you fight tend to not be dragons at all.  Everyone drops their plotlines to follow Ryu’s story.

Breath of Fire IV's Nina is a pretty typical frail staff using mage. (2000 JP / US)

The fifth game is basically a dark dystopian future.  Your hero, Ryu, has a low chance of ever working with a dragon, giving him a low social rank.  You run through a fairly short game trying to drag an anorexic mute to the surface so she won’t die due to the polluted air.  Every time you restart, you unlock more story and other things you can open due to a higher rank.

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter's Nina is very different. (2002 JP, 2003 US)

That anorexic mute girl?  The one with the red withered wing like shapes?  Is supposed to be your Nina.  Some people adore the strategic gameplay and the idea of short games that lead up to more story scenes and more things to explore.  Other people detest it.  I do believe that it’s inarguable that this game does not feel much like the first games.

In fact, you could say as the series continues, you have less and less ‘powerful’ characters who live in a more and more bleak world.  Your Nina’s wither in strength and narrative power, and your characters manage less and less vengeance for the world.  The fantasy elements of the dragons and the anthropomorphic animals fade and the games become more about the journey of the hero in a darkly lit time.  While I prefer the earlier gameplay to the later games, that doesn’t mean the changes are necessarily a bad thing.  Still, it’s a curious thing to repeat characters and roles and to not play to nostalgia in ways that someone might expect.

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