“Live your own life, for you will surely die your own death.”
– Latin proverb
The Breath of Fire franchise was Capcom’s RPG answer to the wildly more popular Final Fantasy series by Square. While Breath of Fire rose to the occasion by presenting standard representations of its genre, it would always be overshadowed by its more famous rival. This was true of Breath of Fire II and Final Fantasy VI on the SNES, and now we can see it to be true of Breath of Fire III and Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation.
Everyone has heard of FFVII and its characters. Even people who haven’t played it. But how many people remember Breath of Fire III on the PS One? How many who’ve played it remember all of its characters as quickly as FFVII’s?
Yet the comparison isn’t truly fair, for BoF III is a great RPG, stubbornly clinging to the ancient ways, but a great RPG nonetheless. I wrote this concerning its prequel, and I think it says everything I want to say about how BoF III being “standard” isn’t the same thing as being “boring”…
When compared with titles like Final Fantasy VI, Breath of Fire II will inevitably feel out-dated, formulaic, customary, even unoriginal. While Square was toying about with Active Time Battle systems to speed up the energy of random encounters, or changing about the way characters interacted and learned magic skills, the Breath of Fire series stuck to the traditional guns of strictly turn-based battle systems, learning magic by gaining levels, gaining levels by getting experience points, dungeons with bosses at the end, equipping weapons and armor to increase character stats, traversing through a linear storyline, and adding new characters to your party with little to no customizable traits. None of these things mean Breath of Fire II is a bad RPG. They simply mean it comes from a series that didn’t push the genre any further but did what it did best in a purely time-honored fashion.
Lost and perchance drowning in a sea of ingenuity and innovation as the genre continued to develop, it’s no wonder that Breath of Fire, with its penchant for methodical, tried-and-true gameplay, went the way of the dinosaur. It seems the series is extinct and the remains are fossils.
Again, does that mean these are terrible games? Certainly not. They may not tantalize with new features or tickle the fancies of those wearied of the ceremony of random battles and grinding for level ups, but they are valuable relics of what RPG’s once were and still play as excellent exercises in conventional storytelling through video games. Not quite as successful nor fancy as its peers, the Breath of Fire games stand distinct as steadfast anchors of…
We may not have had the RPG genre as we know it today without the foundations of games such as this one.
Now that all that’s been said, here’s my assessment in a nutshell. Breath of Fire, the first game, is the weakest and most forgettable in the series, followed by Breath of Fire II which is not so well-received for its poor translation but it is in fact my favorite as a SNES classic. Breath of Fire III is widely respected as the best in the franchise and then there’s Breath of Fire IV, which is just sort of strange and almost like a poetic footnote on the series. Of course there’s Breath of Fire V, but I haven’t played it, and if I haven’t I’m certain nobody else has!
Breath of Fire III opens in a mine with the discovery of the body of a dragon whelp trapped in subterranean crystal. Dragons have long since been extinct, as BoF III takes place centuries after the events of the first two games. On a side note, this is one of the most interesting facets of the Breath of Fire series, how certain characters, races, and concepts change and evolve in one cohesive world over the period of millennia. The sense of history is at least something which Final Fantasy is incapable of, by definition.
Anyway… the miners accidentally wake the baby dragon, which was in a state of hibernation. To show its gratitude, the dragon proceeds to tear face and it kills the miners before they have a chance to put it down. Escaping from the mountain, the dragon is finally captured and secured to a train but in transit it escapes again and falls unconscious into the nearby woodland.
Rei, a young thief living in the forest, finds a little boy naked and helpless, about to be devoured by wolves and rescues him. Taking pity on the boy, Rei decides to take care of him, suspecting he’s an orphan. Back at his hideout, Rei greets his friend Teepo with the little boy. As the boy sleeps, he has a dream of a mysterious man who calls him Ryu and then a vision of an angelic woman.Ryu grows up with his new friends and learns the way of the sword and of disreputable thievery from them. Together the group of youths scrounge food and steal from the wealthy McNeil family of the nearby village. However, Ryu is made for greater things than these, for he is in fact that dragon from the mines, able to transform into a human and also into fantastic beasts. He is a descendant of The Brood, a now almost entirely extinct race of ancient people.
His somewhat idyllic life with Rei and Teepo comes to an end when all of their heinous deeds finally catch up with them. They rob from the wealthy member of an underground crime syndicate who sends two hitmen to take revenge on the three. Their woodland hideout is burned down and Ryu is separated from Rei and Teepo, alone again.
There are more than a handful of ties back to previous entries in the series, referencing the dragon-race, the Wyndians, Nina, Bleu/Deis, the goddess, and so on. This narrative has been playing out for millennia.
The story of Breath of Fire III extends far beyond the youth of Ryu and on into his adulthood. On his journey to find his lost friends, he will face the crime syndicate again and gain several new companions, and continue to learn about his true nature and his fate at the hands of an all-controlling goddess named Myria, waiting at the edge of the world.
The 8-bit Review
Breath of Fire III was first released in Japan in September of 1997, the same year that Final Fantasy VII was released. They’re both PS One games but to compare their graphics demonstrates two different philosophies on graphics. FF VII was the first Final Fantasy set in 3D but it used crude polygon characters on pre-rendered backgrounds. Nothing wrong with that except that it hasn’t aged quite well at all and the pre-rendered backgrounds specifically place it as a product of the mid 90’s. FF VII was opting to raise the standard for how these kinds of games are presented and it certainly did that.
In contrast, the FMV-less Breath of Fire III relied heavily on traditional presentation, as we’ve already talked about. What this means in terms of its graphics is that it employed “hand drawn” 2D sprites in the vein of older 16 bit consoles imposed over isometric 3D backgrounds. In a sense, it’s the reverse of FF VII: 3D characters over 2D pre-rendered backgrounds versus 2D sprites over fully 3D backgrounds. Or to make another comparison with a little title that came out in ’98 called Metal Gear Solid, which used fully 3D backgrounds and characters…
With FF VII and BoF III, neither style is truly “better” than the other. Both visuals have their merits, and while FF VII is arguably far more popular and iconic, hosting cinematic cutscenes, Breath of Fire III features jaw-dropping animated 2D sprites the likes of which nothing in FF VII comes close to with its practically Precambrian 3D.
It makes FF VII look stiff, ancient and crude by comparison. The fluidity, personality, and luster of heavily stylized sprites like these are very much a time-honored tradition of RPG’s up to that point, taking cues from the RPG classics of the SNES. BoF III had a wealth of graphical history to rely upon. It’s not perfect, and it’s not the direction that games eventually went in, but the refinement of this visual method shows most clearly, and perhaps finally, in Breath of Fire III.
The choice of music on this sound track may be the most controversial area in this game that’s just playing it safe. It’s distinctly jazzy and makes heavy use of keyboards, xylophone (wat?), and electronic sounds which at times reach some really driving and other times where it sinks to the level of elevator music. Ditching the orchestral traditions of earlier JRPG’s was a risky move which resulted in a “you either love it or hate it” soundtrack.
Personally, I don’t find these tracks too awful. I listen to jazz regularly anyways. For me, a soundtrack works regardless of its style of compositions or its genre unless it clashes directly with what’s going on on screen. So how well does this strange choice of hepcat and big band jazziness gel with the medieval-esque, high fantasy settings of Breath of Fire III?
The answer is: quite well indeed. With only a few songs that are actually jagged to the ears and annoying to have to listen to, the majority of this soundtrack serves the gameplay. The battle music, the world map music, and the various songs of villages and cities imbued with this new personality enrich what could otherwise have ended up as a bland and run-of-the-mill musical outing in an RPG fantasy game.
I’m not saying that you’ll love it, but it works for many who have played the game and at the very least doesn’t take away from the whole presentation.
Standard, not “average”, is the word of the day with Breath of Fire III. Random, turn-based battles, gaining experience, progressing through a linear story, crawling through dungeons, all of the typical RPG fare is here with a few notable exceptions.
Fishing, the perennial feature of the Breath of Fire series, returns here with a vengeance, much more complex and more involved than ever. Most of the playable characters also have a special ability they can use in dungeons and villages outside of battle to interact with environments. There’s also a Fairy Village sidequest in the game, which involves raising up a community of faeries in order to access special features and unique items.
The best addition to the Breath of Fire lineup is the Master System which debuts here. Various unique NPC’s throughout the world can take on members of your party as apprentices. Becoming a student under their tutelage will allow your characters to learn new skills and abilities they wouldn’t otherwise. Often a master will require you to undertake a specific task before agreeing to teach you, but once you’re apprenticed, you merely need to gain a specific amount of levels and then you can be taught their secret arts.
A master will only teach an ability once, but you can always use a Skill Ink item later on to switch learned skills around to the characters that can best benefit from them in combat. Furthermore, training under a master with slightly modify your stat gains upon every level up. This is a really innovative system that augments classic character roles with a little bit of customization, ensuring that your party members are not too similar nor dissimilar.
Also, there are the Dragon Genes. Ryu can gain powerful transformation abilities by finding Chrysm ore, the crystallized remains of his ancestors, The Brood. Once multiple genes are collected, they can be spliced to access new transformations and new powers, expanding Ryu’s roster of dragon forms.
The storyline of the Breath of Fire series is laden with religious undertones and a wealth of recurring characters and concepts. You’re forewarned: there are SPOILERS AHEAD, sirs and ladies.
Near as I can tell, there are several themes forming the basis of Breath of Fire III: rebellion against oppressive authority (however benign), making your own choices and destiny, the repetition of history, the limits of scientific knowledge, and overcoming cultural/racial distrust to name a few. Breath of Fire III is… complicated. There are a lot of characters including Ryu, Rei and Teepo, Nina the princess of Wyndia, Momo the scholar, Peco the seedling, and Garr the ancient guardian.
Ryu discovers that Garr and his race of guardians were the ones who exterminated his people, The Brood, in a mass slaughter presided over by the goddess Myria. Myria, by the way, is the same goddess from Breath of Fire where she was named Tyr. She apparently has always had a feud with the race of dragon-people and thus promised the guardians that they were ushering in an age of peace with the genocide of The Brood. Garr attempts to honor his ancient pact and tries to kill Ryu, except Ryu bests him in combat and Garr realizes that The Brood were always to powerful for the guardians and they must have died peacefully without fighting back.
So why did Myria want The Brood killed? Traveling to the edge of the known world and beyond, through deserts and mountains and ancient cities with streets strewn with the ruins of forgotten technology, the group reach the goddess herself and are finally reunited with Teepo, who had been lost since the crime syndicate burned their forest hideaway to the ground. They discover that Teepo had been living in seclusion in a false Eden under the watchful eye of Myria, or rather under her threat that if he should leave he would be destroyed.
Myria, turns out, had The Brood murdered by the hundreds centuries ago because they were too powerful. So too she ensured that technology was also taken away from the world’s cities, lest the races destroy themselves. In her own eyes, she sees herself as a motherly protector of the world, willing to take away dangerous toys from tiny, insignificant creatures to prevent Armageddon but justifying genocide. She wishes to maintain an idle, global utopia of safety. And she gives Ryu the choice to live in peace in her Eden the rest of his life, like Teepo, or to challenge her will and be destroyed like all the rest. Will Ryu choose unchanging status quo? Or will he choose to take the reins of fate into his own hands, even if that means an uncertain future?
END OF SPOILERS
Given that we’re talking about fairly basic RPG elements here, there are no more than a handful of surprises in terms of the gameplay. This could very well even serve as a great gateway into role-playing gaming. But if you grew up playing RPG’s or are in any way familiar with them, especially mid 90’s and earlier, than Breath of Fire III should be easy to pick up. You might have a bit of struggles with managing master-learned skills or the dragon genes, but nothing too major.
I don’t think Breath of Fire III is so much hard as it is long. Or at least it seems long. It all fit on one disk but the sprawling storyline debating over servitude or nihilism demands a chunk of time. However, there are a few boss fights sprinkled along the way which provide quite the challenge. The battle against Stallion, Dragon Lord and Myria can all be difficult. I feel that I died more often than I usually do in RPG’s, and that’s considering I like to be prepared by doing lots of grinding. Also, a high encounter rate in many areas and a few nasty regular enemies round out a more than moderate score for Challenge. Requires patience as the old ways do.
I’ve been going on and on about how Breath of Fire III relies on time-honored traits. Coupled with all of that plus the fact that this is a second sequel to the original game and we’re talking only an above average rating in Uniqueness. What pushes it just over is, ironically, its insistence upon tradition in light of the rapid advances in presentation and technology seen even just on the PlayStation in its genre.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I’m not sure why I became a “classics nerd” as opposed to a “techie” or a “contemporary” one. If I had to guess I’d say it’s because purchasing brand new games has always been something just out of my reach financially growing up the way I did and working the way I do now. That means I’m inevitably playing older games rather than new releases, which are generally more expensive than games which have already been out on the market for a decade or so. In short, I’ve played a lot of games prior to the year 2000 and only a handful after that, by comparison.
So then, I’m sure it’s the fundamental doctrine of Breath of Fire III in sticking with the habitual and the ritual so far as RPG’s are concerned which resonates with me. I’ve played this game through more times than any other Breath of Fire, except for maybe II, and I consider it to be one of the seminal RPG’s of the first PlayStation. It could never be as popular as others but considering how far we’ve come now, Breath of Fire III may even come to look like not only a relic but like a unique interpretation of the role-playing game with its emphasis on tradition. If you’re not familiar with the roots of RPG games, I’d suggest this one for you.
Aggregated Score: 7.9