Breath of Fire: A Series Retrospective

Breath of Fire is a series of JRPGs developed over at Capcom. I'm not entirely sure how popular or well known it is, but growing up the first two games in the series were some of my favorite portable games. You may have seen a few bits of news on the upcoming Breath of Fire 6 that's being made for the mobile market in Japan, which is what led me to create this. Who knows just how BoF6 is going to turn out, or if we'll ever even see it outside of Japan, but I'd like to take the opportunity to inform everyone about the ins and outs of this great series.

If you don't have any knowledge of the series then feel free to use this as a guide to which games are worth playing, and if you're a veteran of the series then hopefully you'll enjoy reading the thoughts of a fellow fan as I recount my tales through these five games. The only things you need to know about the series as a whole going in is that every game has a blue haired boy with dragon powers named Ryu and a blonde girl with wings named Nina. The games also have recurring enemies in the same way that the Dragon Quest series does with its slimes and golems and whatnot. Let's get started!

Breath of Fire: A Series Retrospective

Breath of Fire I

The first entry to the series was originally released on Super Nintendo, but was later released on the GBA, which is where I played it. The story of the first BoF is a very simple one: you are a member of the Light Dragon Clan who, long ago, got into an argument with the members of the Dark Dragon Clan over a powerful deity named Tyr who teased the ability to make their wishes come true. The goddess drove a wedge between the two clans and eventually a hero rose up and banished Tyr, locking her away with seven keys. As the game starts your village is under attack by the Dark Dragon Clan who are now seeking the keys to release Tyr. This sets you on your journey to make friends with the varied races of this world and stop the Dark Dragons.

I loved this game as a kid but I unfortunately have to report that it has not aged well by any means. I've got plenty of examples of why that is. First off is the encounter rate for random encounters. Oh my god. I am fairly sure that I have never played a game in my life that had a higher encounter rate than this. And it's not just an "every now and then it goes nuts" kind of thing, it's consistently bad. Another poor piece of game design is in the buffs you can apply in combat. If you buff a party member's attack or defense there is literally nothing done on screen to show that the character is buffed or for how long.

Another frustrating thing is that the character stats don't seem to work right. The first two characters to join you are Nina and Bo (he uses a bow, see what they did there?) and while Bo may have a higher defense stat than Nina, he still takes more damage from every source and there is simply no explanation as to why.

The game also suffers from incredible translation issues as well as generally poor writing. There's a bit very early on where Nina goes off on her own with some soldiers to save her father, the king, and gets kidnapped. There's a scene of the one guard who escaped telling the others what happened and they decide to ask for the strange traveler's (that's you) assistance. The guard runs into the room where you've been sleeping and I swear to god with no introduction his exact words are "The wizard has captured our princess. Help us?"

There's also just a general lack of direction in the worst way possible. You're given really vague instructions, sometimes little to no instruction at all, and have to do things that will leave you wondering "Wait, why am I even doing this?" And with how ridiculous the encounter rate is you won't want to be stuck having to explore the world at length. Unfortunately I'm gonna have to recommend you give this one a pass.

Breath of Fire: A Series Retrospective

Breath of Fire II

This entry was my favorite of the first two growing up and was also a SNES / GBA title. The story for this one is a lot more in-depth and revolves around a strange religion that has taken over the hearts and minds of people in a relatively short time, making people all but forget about the once honored Dragon God.

This is another game that made me sad upon revisiting it, because it simply has not lived up to my memory of it. One of the biggest complaints I have about this game is that it's simply not balanced in a very fun way. The large majority of the battles are simply attack-spam fests with occasional healing, hoping your team kills the other first. You get one damage dealing caster early on but her spells are barely as strong as your other characters main attacks, despite that they cost AP to cast.

Another example of poor balance is that when you obtain a new party member his/her level is always unnecessarily low in comparison to other members. There's a character named Spar who joins you who was level 12 upon joining me even though my characters I use regularly were all level 21-24. This is made even worse by the fact that there are points in the game where you'll be forced to use those characters despite their low levels because they each have a special ability in the world. Spar for instance is the only character who can let your party walk through forests on the world map.

The translation effort in this game is pretty abysmal as well. If you try to sell something to a shop you get a wonderfully confusing message like "1x25 is worth BronzeSD." There's even a part in the game where you're asked a Yes / No question and the answers are reversed. This isn't a clever trick, it's just a poor job from the team who brought it over.

While I like the base story of the game, just about everything you have to do along the way feels incredibly throwaway. There is legitimately a part of the game where you have to seek the wisdom of a great, wise tree about what strange demon is causing trouble in the world and he tells you that he forgot. Once again I will unfortunately have to recommend you pass this one up, unless you're looking for a trip into history.

Breath of Fire: A Series Retrospective

Breath of Fire III

This entry in the series is the first one to be released on Playstation and is still a fan favorite. This game's story is essentially split into two parts: the first few hours of the game are spent as a kid, traveling the main continent and learning about your lineage as a member of the Brood (the race of dragon people that made up the clans of the first game). The second part of the game will have you playing as an adult Ryu on a journey to learn about war that caused the rest of your kind to get wiped out many years ago and the goddess who sanctioned that war.

I finally get to tell you about a series entry that has aged well for the most part! BoF3 and 4 were both entries that I never got to play growing up, so finally getting to play both back to back a couple of weeks ago was an exciting time for me.

BoF3 adds several new features to the series. The first, and most widely loved, is the Dragon Gene system. This system allows you to collect special dragon genes over the course of the game and combine different genes in combat to create unique dragon forms to battle with. It's a very cool and unique system but unfortunately it requires you to remember which combinations had the results you liked, which can be annoying.

Another new feature for BoF3 was the master system. This is a very cool idea that is handled pretty poorly. Essentially how it works is that as you travel the land you'll meet people who can serve as masters. You can set individual characters as apprentices to the masters and each master will alter that character's stat growth in a different way and will gift that character with special spells after they've gained a certain number of levels under their tutelage. The problem with this system is none of it is explained well. Most masters don't bother telling you what stats will grow for better or worse and they give you little info on when to return to visit them, if any.

Some other issues I had with the game include the strange and annoying camera system that used the game's isometric view and awful camera control to hide chests from you in annoying places as well as the game's annoying way of randomly swapping out your characters without your consent.

There's honestly a lot more I could say about this game if I had the space. It has the best version of the fishing minigame in the series, an interesting story, characters that are more interesting than those in any of the previous two entries, and it doesn't require a whole lot of grinding, which is always a plus! This is a great entry to jump into if you want to give Breath of Fire a shot as its connections to the other games are very light.

Breath of Fire: A Series Retrospective

Breath of Fire IV

This entry really surprised me. I played every Breath of Fire main entry over these past two weeks and BoF4 impressed me the most. This game is (arguably) not actually connected to the previous entries at all. There are theories that it's a prequel as well as theories that it's in an alternate dimension. I like to think of it as its own thing; a fresh start for the series that keeps everything that makes a Breath of Fire title what it is.

The story of BoF4 is a mix of politics and religion. It takes place shortly after a ceasefire has brought a war between two countries to a halt as they work out peaceful negotiations. The dragons in this game are considered gods and you'll actually play as two different characters in this game. You'll of course play as Ryu primarily, who in this game is a young man who appears in this world with no idea of how he got there or who he really is. You'll also occasionally swap over to another character named Fou-Lu, the god emperor who created one of the countries centuries ago and has now returned to take back his place as emperor.

In my opinion this game takes almost everything that's been introduced in previous Breath of Fire titles and improves on it. The master system in this game is fantastic. Every master tells you exactly what impact they will have on your characters and the goals you must accomplish to learn special abilities from them are interesting and not simply "gain 3 levels and come back."

By far the biggest improvement that this entry made to the series was that every character you have gains experience together. This means that at any time you can decide to start using a character you have completely ignored for 10 hours and they'll be good to go. However, you're unlikely to completely ignore a character for that long in this entry because there's another awesome improvement in this game in that you can swap between characters mid combat. You'll have three active and three in reserve and those in reserve slowly recover AP during combat.

The game also has some of the most amazing sprite work and animation I have ever seen in a PS1 game, as well as some damn good music. It has vivid colors, a beautiful art style, and smooth animations. I actually enjoyed going into random encounters because I got to experience all of those aspects more. The only two issues I really had with this entry were the camera system, which was similar to that of Vagrant Story in that you used L1/R1 to change the camera in 45 degree increments, and the fact that your dragon form always looks the same throughout the entire game, which felt a bit lazy.

The characters are all great and the story is intriguing. If you're only going to play one entry in this series I would highly recommend it be this one, though I know many others will say that BoF3 is superior.

Breath of Fire: A Series Retrospective

Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter

Oh boy. This entry is the black sheep of the series. Dragon Quarter has a cult following of its own, but most series fans seem to agree that it's one you can pass over. The reason for Dragon Quarter's mixed reception is that it is a massive departure from the rest of the series. Every entry up to now has been a turn based rpg with a large cast of characters, but this entry uses more of a tactical turn based kind of system and only has three characters. The game also has a lot of very strange systems in place that, at least in my opinion, simply aren't fun.

The story is a bit difficult to express, but essentially you play as a guy named Ryu who is a low ranking ranger in a world where everyone lives underground and constantly has to worry about the quality of the air and the rampant monsters in the tunnels. When out on a mission with a fellow ranger, the two of you get separated and you meet a member of a radical resistance movement who shows you that everything isn't how you thought it was.

This is a game designed to be played multiple times. You might think "Oh sweet, replay value!" no I mean literally if you want the full story you have to play the game multiple times and continue to do better each time. It simply withholds information and cutscenes from you your first time through. There are a lot of other weird systems in place as well. Saving can only be done with a "save token" which aren't exactly common and you're not likely to ever have an abundance of them. You can also gain "party experience" in addition to each character's personal experience. You can divvy up that party xp to whomever you like at any time. You may want to hold onto it though because if you get stuck and choose to restart the game from the beginning (which you can do at any time) then that party xp is one of the few things that carries over to the new playthrough.

The combat system is actually kinda interesting and I can see why some would enjoy it, but the game never even attempts to tell you how it works. I was an hour or so in before I realized that I could be comboing abilities together.

Honestly there's not a lot I can say about Dragon Quarter. It is a very strange game that doesn't feel like it at all belongs in the series. I didn't really hate it, but it wasn't my cup of tea either. I just feel kind of indifferent about the whole thing. I can't really give a solid recommendation on it so if you're not sure yourself then look up some gameplay footage of it or ask others' opinions in the comments.

Final Thoughts

It's really sad that the first two entries didn't survive the passing of time for me, but III and IV still manage to be great games. I'd highly recommend trying them out, especially IV. If you have a personal favorite or just have a different take on the series as a whole than me, then feel free to tell me your thoughts below! Thanks for reading!