Monday, August 29, 2011

Breath of Fire slash Dragon Age

"Even with its handful of new features, Breath of Fire III breaks little new ground. Die-hard RPG fans may find it entertaining, but those looking for something new in this increasingly static genre will come away disappointed."
- Joe Fielder, GameSpot, 5/14/1998

"[...]any way you slice it, here's the fantasy RPG you've been waiting for, the one that will keep you up late at night, bleary-eyed, because you have to see what happens next. Like the best fiction, Dragon Age will sweep you up in its world, so much so that when you're done, you'll want to experience it all over again."
- Kevin VanOrd, GameSpot, 11/3/2009

Somewhere along the line, I can't help but feel like we lost our way.

Here. Right here is where we lost it.

The Breath of Fire and Dragon Age games present two similar stories with one very important difference. In Breath of Fire, dragons are a misunderstood, oft-persecuted, and ultimately greatly beneficial race. of which the main character is always a member. In Dragon Age, fuck dragons.

This fucking guy.

Other than that, when I look specifically at the third entry in the Breath of Fire series, there's a lot of similarities to be found. Both feature silent protagonists who are members of an ancient but dying order. Both have Camp modes where you can get meaningful dialogue from your teammates, or just be reminded what you're supposed to be doing. Even the supporting cast is pretty similar. Each team has a big, imposing-looking guy. Each one gets the blonde supporting lead/love interest. There's even two crazy redheads to go around.

Also the mostly-naked sorceress.

Now of course no one would confuse the teen-friendly Breath of Fire III with the more adult-oriented Dragon Age: Origins, but for the point I'm trying to make, their similarities are enough to warrant the comparison. As far as the differences in graphics and gameplay, if Dragon Age had been published in 1998, it might not have looked or played terribly different from a Breath of Fire game. Yet as you can see from the reviews up there, the attitude towards DA:O was that BioWare was shipping the Second Coming, whereas Breath of Fire III was generally received as "yeah, it's not bad, if you're into that kind of thing."

Rapture only available through DLC.

So let's do a quick comparison of these two titles and try to answer the question; was Dragon Age: Origins really that much better, when accounting for advances in technology, than Breath of Fire III, or have our standards as game buyers just dropped to the point where we think it was?

Now, Breath of Fire III was no doubt being measured against the titans of its time. It was only one year removed from Final Fantasy VII, and came out around the same time as Final Fantasy Tactics and Xenogears. Overall, the late 90s were just a bad time to an RPG that didn't have the SquareSoft logo burned into it. Given that august company, its somewhat milder presentation of genocide and global annihilation were perhaps understandably less well-received.

"Hey, I'm a freakin' masterpiece, here!"

Dragon Age: Origins, on the other hand, was released in somewhat less stellar company. The leading RPGs from 2009 were Devil Survivor, Ar Tonelico 2, and Demon's Souls. Devil Survivor was released on the DS and Ar Tonelico on the PS2, which was already well into the end of its lifespan. Demon's Souls came out on the far more impressive PS3, but despite being a fantastic game in all respects, the incredible difficulty of the game turned off large audiences towards it. Thus Dragon Age: Origins, a triple-platform release across PC, PS3, and XBox 360, rose to the top.

This was in there somewhere too.

My point being, both games were being measured against what the standard was at the time. For Breath of Fire III, it was fully-polygonal 3D worlds with - at the time - breathtaking animation, dark and challenging themes, loads of mini-games and side-quests, and fully-animated anime or FMV sequences with orchestral music that challenged the hardware of the Playstation. Furthermore, it came out during a time when, if you wanted an RPG, the PSX was really the only game in town. Breath of Fire III was almost comic in its presentation when compared to what was really selling at the time.

For Dragon Age: Origins, the pond was a whole lot smaller. The Witcher, a comparable PC title, had been released the previous year, but turned out to be a sleeper, receiving limited critical attention. BioWare was already riding high on the success of Mass Effect when it put out DA:O, and, as noted, the field of competition was substantially less, so the game received a lot of hype. Although, that's probably not fair. It's more accurate to say that the entire gaming industry and what people expected from it had changed.

They expected this.

Role Playing Games have been largely relegated to handheld systems these days, whereas RPG-elements have been co-opted as a dressing to the action and shooter game salad on the big consoles.

They just wouldn't taste the same without experience points and skill trees.

These days, if people are going to sink a lot of their day into a game, it's usually one in a series of simple yet increasingly time-consuming point-and-click exercises, like with all the Zynga-published games which make up somewhere around 90% of Facebook. With the advent of browser games, cell phone games, iPad games, and convenient, high-powered handheld platforms, putting all the time and effort into making a large-scale RPG on a console or PC simply wasn't worth it with the market drying up.

Which brings me back to my whole point. At the time Breath of Fire III was reviewed, it was the tab on the soda machine that gives you blue PowerAde. Dragon Age: Origins was the precious life-giving rainfall that sustains fairy shrimp in the desert, who must live out their entire lifespans before their puddle dries up.

"I'll be able to finish this quest if I don't waste time mating!" - Fairy Shrimp

I'm not saying Dragon Age is a bad game at all. I actually find it highly deserving of at least some of the praise it received. I just so happened to pick it up for $10 on Steam right at the same time I began playing through Breath of Fire III for the Almost Got 'Em series. In playing them side by side, I realized I was just as entertained by one as the other. Actually, brief sidebar, I really enjoy Breath of Fire III. GameSpot, as noted above, saw fit to say it didn't really stand out from the crowd. Since I don't make a living lying to people for money, I can point out that's not really true (IGN, whose failings I have previously noted, at least called it "Good"). However, I'm going to save that for a dedicated post about the game, because that's a lot of ground to cover.

One thing I will touch on in this post though, is that Dragon Age: Origins, with its superior 21st century gaming witchcraft, looks like this;

Following the modern mindset that the more heavily shadowed and shit-colored something looks, the more realistic it is. Here's a similar area in Breath of Fire III

Was the world brighter in the 90s? Did color palettes go out of fashion at some point? Both of these are forest zones, why does one that's 13 years old look like a forest, and the one from 2 years ago looks like a colonoscopy?

But I digress.

No, the problem isn't the quality of the game, it's the world into which it was born. Breath of Fire III existed when publishers trying their absolute hardest to make a new era of classics which redefined genres. If redefining things wasn't what you woke up in the morning to do, then don't bother coming in to work, buddy, there's no room around the water cooler for you. The water cooler which, by the way, now holds iced tea.


Dragon Age: Origins entered a world where millions of people will eagerly pay a monthly fee so that they can repeat the same quests, over and over, every day, forever.

"I'll be able to finish this quest if I don't waste time mating!" - Level 85 Paladin

So if the PC Game of the Year had been a Playstation title - or even a PC title - back in 1998, would it have stuck out so far ahead from the crowd as it did?

I'll answer for you. No. Absolutely not. 2009 was the year of Uncharted 2, Assassin's Creed II, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. 1998 was the year of Final Fantasy Tactics, Xenogears, and Final Fantasy VII (every year until about 2002 was the year of Final Fantasy VII, if we want to be honest with ourselves). DA:O stood out as a breakthrough RPG because it just didn't have any competition.

Uh, sitting right here, thanks.

Perhaps this won't be the case much longer. 2011 and 2012 seem set for a slew of RPG releases on major consoles, perhaps inspired by BioWare's success. It'll be interesting to see if this leads to another year of incredible games which will be remembered for years to come, like the late-90s PSX titles, or if it'll lead to a rush to capitalize on a popular fad by pushing out as much loosely-related garbage as possible, like every movie tie-in property ever released.

One thing I'm certain of, though. There will come a time in the not-to-distant future where the latest RPG is being hailed as a milestone in gaming, and I'll be able to pick up a game that never really caught on today and say "but that's only as good as this."

Until next time, keep playing.

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