As I promised I would, I've begun going back through my game library and finding the old classics I've left unfinished. These are all titles I made it all the way to the end of, and then stopped right before vanquishing evil for good and all. There's a lot of ground to cover, but I began this journey of a thousand steps with Breath of Fire III. After about 70 hours of gameplay, reliving my favorite moments from this classic from Capcom's library (including one of "Hey, I didn't suck all those years ago! This last boss really IS hard!), I can count this one as off the Backlog.
I first picked up Breath of Fire III when it was practically a new release. I loved the first two games, the second one especially I could play for ages. With the third, I found a title which still tied in to the history of the first two games, but was a unique story at the same time. It didn't lose any of the charm the first two had, and in fact used the hardware advantages it had to add to the traditional presentation the series is known for. Vibrant colors, lively cities, sweeping adventure and subdued, subtle moments; this game had it all. I played it for dozens of hours, all the way through to the end.
|Though many of those hours were spent listening to the jazzy overworld theme.|
Then, in the last dungeon, I stumbled across the last boss before I was ready for her. She made mincemeat of my team and I hadn't saved in hours.
So, that was that. I turned it off and never played it again. However much I loved this game, whatever kind of attachment I had to seeing it through all the way to the end, it just wasn't worth it to me to walk through that last dungeon again. I'm sure at the time I told myself "oh, well that's an upsetting loss, I'll put this down until tomorrow." Well, tomorrow took about 13 years to get here, but it's finally arrived. Breath of Fire III has been vanquished, and it's time to move on to the next game on my list.
But playing through it gave me reason to stop and take stock of why this gem never really caught on. It did well enough in sales and reviews, and as I've previously stated, it's at least as fun as some of the best-selling games of today, but Breath of Fire III tends to get lost in the shuffle when talking about the great RPGs of the Playstation-era. So before I get into my personal experience with going back and enjoying my adventure with Ryu and the gang again after all these years, let me begin the first part of this post with a different topic.
Timing a release.
More important than you might think.
|And that's just one example.|
When you're releasing some new media, you want to make sure you don't do so at a time when something similar, and possibly superior, is also hitting the market. You want to offer something unique to the world, at least for awhile. You want to be the thing that everyone tries to copy; the first of a new wave of pop singer, the first comic character in a string of gritty reboots, the first fast food restaurant to offer a new and exciting way to kill yourself.
|Narrowly beating out Wendy's lard milkshake.|
The worst thing to be is something released almost simultaneously. At least the hordes of copycats which invariably follow a success can ride the coattails of the initial wave of public interest for awhile. If you come out with your media at the same time as something else which catches on more easily, that's the end of you. It was the poor timing of this nature that gave us a world where Garbage succeeded instead of Republica, where 30 Rock graces television sets instead of Studio 54, and where Armageddon is remembered as "that meteor movie" instead of Deep Impact. Although to be fair to Deep Impact, it predicted that there would be a black president, whereas Armageddon predicted that Liv Tyler would be a solid leading actress, and so far only one of these predictions has come true.
|He's hoping he can reach a middle ground with the meteor.|
Of course, there's one more form of bad timing. The kind that happens when you release something in the same category as something else which was SO big, and SO popular, and SO pervasive in the market that fans aren't going to be happy with anything less than more of that same thing. Instead of drumming up interest, this monument to a genre actually hinders your success, because people take a look at what you have to offer and say "well that's nothing like that other thing we like." Fans don't expect you to reinvent the wheel, they expect you to be the exact same wheel as the wheel they already own and have driven the last hundred thousand miles on.
With that in mind, let's talk about Capcom's first post-Final Fantasy VII RPG release, Breath of Fire III
I have to believe that somewhere in the heart of Capcom studios RPG branch, a poster with the face of Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi sits, pinned to a dartboard, blacked-out eyes and a Hitler mustache etched in with black marker. Now, before anyone gets carried away, let's not feel too sorry for Capcom here. They're still at the top of the world when it comes to 2D scrollers, fighting games, survival horror, and action, but it seems whenever they want to venture into expanding their empire into the Role-Playing world, Square-Enix is there waiting.
The first Breath of Fire game was a solid first foray into the world of RPGs and even got more praise than its contemporary, Final Fantasy IV, by some reviewers. The problem? Breath of Fire was developed and published by Capcom, but in North America they went with a third party for distribution - so anyone who bought it saw a great big "Squaresoft" etched in front of Ryu's hand.
|Square put it there as a message to Capcom - they'll always be reaching,|
but will never be able to touch it.
Breath of Fire II, in every way a superior game to the original, and one explored some pretty dark themes and grim character moments, and was one of the first games released in the U.S. which allowed overt themes of religion, fell prey to "well this is good, but it's no Final Fantasy VI and/or Chrono Trigger." There was one more problem with it - Capcom released Breath of Fire II the same week the Sony Playstation debuted and the Super Nintendo went the way of bell bottoms and disco.
So now Capcom is up to its third attempt at hitting it big with a Role Playing Game and the winds are finally blowing in their favor. In 1998 the Playstation was at the peak of its popularity. The company is riding a huge wave of success entitled Resident Evil. Square released the genre-redefining Final Fantasy VII the year before, but so what? A whole year has passed, and if anything this has just made the public more hungry for RPGs. The iron is hot, they must have said, and so common sense tells us to strike.
I won't say it was a mistake, because Breath of Fire III is anything but a mistake. It has a bright and vibrant world to explore, creative enemy designs, interesting characters, a story that is vast and underpinned with subtle gestures by the players and nods to the two games which came before it, and several other enjoyable factors. It has all of that, but it doesn't have any of this;
Or any of this;
|This is what really killed them, honestly.|
Breath of Fire III was built using a graphics engine not all that superior from what you could find on the SNES, and still used sprites instead of FFVII's polygons or FFVIII's more realistic polygons. Capcom may have known how this would look, however, and they adjusted accordingly. Rather than try and infuse some dark and apocalyptic story into the game, they made the adventure match the style. The music is bright and peppy, with a jazz-inspired overworld theme, fast and catchy battle music, and in-town tracks which range from "happy and peaceful in springtime" to the absolute grittiest, "1940s film noir parody." They knew they didn't have a look like Final Fantasy VII's techno-apocalyptic world of Gaia, so they didn't try to act like it. Even Breath of Fire II had some soul-wrenching character moments, but those were omitted from the third entry. Everything was bigger, brighter, friendlier and clearly made with fun in mind.
Breath of Fire III sold about 425,000 units in Japan and another 230,000 in North America within the first year of its release in each region, a more-than-respectable number for any video game of its day.
Final Fantasy VII sold 330,000 copies in North America on its first weekend. To date it has sold over 10 million units worldwide.
|For awhile you could use these as cash at major retailers.|
Once Final Fantasy VII sunk its fangs into the gaming industry, nobody wanted happy, peppy stories with a silent hero and his lovable anthropomorphic sidekicks. Nobody wanted anything that wasn't Final Fantasy VII.
|That includes this.|
I don't want to take anything away from Final Fantasy VII. It's a wonderful game, and despite comments about being overrated which have sprung up as people try to look cooler by distancing themselves from the more rabid fan contingents, it really was as epic and inspiring as people made it out to be. It also made it so that for a long time afterwards, people just weren't interested in anything that couldn't measure up to it, and to many people that was an unreachable standard.
But here we are now, fourteen years later. Final Fantasy VII is a distant memory, and Square-Enix has spent the last decade hilariously destroying their once-famous brand in new and creative ways.
|"Our plan for the next one is to just make a movie, throw in some|
quicktime events and chocobos and call it a game."
So with the passage of time, how does Breath of Fire III stack up, going back and replaying it again, all these years later?
Well, I'll tell you.
Breath of Fire III is great.
I loved this game when I first played it, but I didn't remember how much power it has to serve as a timesink you don't care about wasting away hours to. From the moment I saw that enormous dragon fossil in Dauna mines, I was hooked all over again.
|Wouldn't YOU want to know what happened here?|
Let's break things down and see what this gem gets right.
The hero of our story, Ryu follows in the Breath of Fire tradition of being a blue-haired, teenaged mute descended from a now-extinct clan of dragons. Despite the fact that everyone believes his race almost exterminated everybody in the world, and that he has no communication skills beyond nodding "yes" or "no," many different people from diverse backgrounds and varying levels of political power fall in line to help him achieve a number of ill-advised and often suicidal goals. He begins the game as a child, but around the halfway point a time jump brings us into his mid-to-late teen years.
At first I thought Momo might be the first non-anthropomorphic ally in a Breath of Fire game (not counting Ryu and Nina, and Nina barely counts anyway since she's part bird) since the thief Parn in the original. Then I realized those white ear-things aren't part of her hat, they're attached to her head in some way. What she's supposed to be with those, I have no idea, but mysterious animal hybrids aside, Momo is a techno-wizard in an era where machinists struggle to understand the ancient machines constantly washing up from the ocean. Her father was a great inventor, and she knows that she's living in his shadow. Absent-minded, socially awkward, and harboring a cute little machine named Honey, Momo and her bazooka provide some of the game's more humorous moments.
Stemming (get it?) directly from Momo is Peco. Her father was dedicated to studying a way to produce more crops using the world's fuel source, chrysm. Unfortunately, chrysm led to some unforeseen mutations - like a hopping, sentient onion. A replacement for Breath of Fire II's Spar, he exhibits the same talent in speaking to other plants, which in this case plays a huge part in the game by allowing you access to Yggdrasil. Whenever the tree speaks (which it does only through Peco) I like to imagine it does so with the voice of Morgan Freeman.
Like Ox and Rand before him, Garr is the team's giant and heavy damage dealer. He also has some talent in fire spells, but a severely limited pool of MP to cast them with. Garr is the last active Guardian, the people chosen by Myria to do the good work of cleansing the planet of dragons. He teams up with Ryu after he begins thinking that maybe he might have wanted to ask "why" once or twice during the wholesale slaughter of the Brood, and is the one who pushes Ryu in the direction of going to go meet Myria in the first place. He's a stoic, but not one-dimensional character, and also has the benefit of getting his best weapon earlier than anybody else, insuring that you'll be hearing the "Gung!" sound he makes before smacking someone with his spear for hours on end.
The series to this point has had a few constants. First, a blue-haired young man named Ryu with no dialogue to call his own is the last descendant of a race of powerful dragons. Second, he will gather a group of friends as he journeys across the world, and they will all be humanized versions of different animals (or plants), except for a princess with wings named Nina. Third, somewhere along the way, you will encounter and recruit the aid of a snake-lady named Deis (Bleu in the U.S.) who's usually game-breakingly strong. Finally, at the end of these travels will be the cause of all the world's problems; the Goddess Myria.
|She loves you far too much to let you live.|
This game introduces us to the same standard concepts of the first two, except that a mystery element is thrown in; in the last two games, Myria was actively trying to take over the world. Now it seems the world has gotten much smaller, and the Goddess is nowhere to be found. The story opens with miners digging up chrysm finding Ryu, who starts the game as a baby dragon, frozen in crystal. Dead dragons suspended this way is apparently a common site in the mines, as all this does is spark a conversation about how the Brood devastated the world in some ancient war. Predictably, Ryu wakes up, but not-so-predictably, he immediately barbecues the two miners and goes on a killing spree through the mine until he gets whacked on the head and thrown in a cage.
And that in a nutshell introduces the core concept of the story. It's always been pretty clear in Breath of Fire games that dragons are awesome, and there are some bad dragons, sure, but the hero is one of the good dragons and will always do the right thing and save the day from evil. This Ryu starts out by horribly murdering a half-dozen innocent men while in a confused stupor. I don't just mean video game-style beating them and they vanish, either. Their smoking corpses remain on the screen after Ryu engulfs them with flame. So the question is constantly being asked - WERE the Brood terrible, destructive monsters with too much power for their own good? Was Myria right all along? It takes a good long while to build up to an answer. While you're playing through though, watching all of Ryu's antics and heroics, remember that he's just one freak out away from roasting everyone around him.
|"Ah, sorry, you startled me and I burned you alive."|
Every character experiences a degree of growth in the course of their journey together, from Garr questioning his faith to Momo trying to escape her father's shadow. In a completely unforeseen move never before attempted in a Role Playing Game, certain parts require you to explore the backstories and motivations of your companions in order to advance the plot. In fact, there's an entire dungeon near the end which is specifically dedicated to nothing but discussing their reasons for traveling with Ryu. While there's nothing particularly epic about any of this, it does at least make sure everything makes sense. Sure, everyone has their own selfish reasons for tagging along, but that doesn't negate the fact that they continue to stick around through impossible odds to see Ryu through to the end, because they care about the kid.
The game does have some fairly glaring flaws. The translation is shaky at a few points (what do they have against periods?), but even if it were perfect the story suffers from a lack of the kind of focus towards the last boss found in the first two games. In the original, the Dark Dragon Empire is established as the main douchebags of the planet when they burn down the hero's home and kill most of his friends and family. You spend the whole game taking the empire apart, piece by piece, until you reach the driving force behind their destruction, Myria. In the sequel, a twist occurs revealing who the main villain was all along, which makes several pieces planted earlier fall into place, and leads you to the final confrontation with DeathEvan, a demonic deity spawned by Myria.
Myria's certainly in the third game, and she has a fairly large role, but nothing that happens really has anything to do with her.
That more than anything threw me off while I was playing through. I guess it just never occurred to me the first time around, but aside from a single fight at the game's halfway point, you never meet any of Myria's followers or cronies. You never have to deal with her schemes or unravel heinous plots she's put in your way to deter your progress. There are no evil chancellors or wizards, no loyal army of soldiers lead by a cruel and powerful general. For just about the entire game, Myria is a completely passive entity. She just hangs out in the final dungeon waiting for you to arrive. Any obstacles in your way are trivial - it's pretty well established that all the things keeping you from getting to her have been where they are for thousands of years before you came along
|The physical challenges were little more than a formality at this point.|
There is a recurring crime syndicate that has an iron grip on plot for a good chunk of the game, but by the time you deal with their big boss (another guy who comes out of nowhere), it's pretty clear they have nothing to do with Myria and are more concerned with thieving and swindling than ancient Goddesses and dragon wars. You really only go after Myria because one guy in your party says you probably should.
|"So now that I've tried to kill you a few times, let's go talk to the person|
who ordered me to do it."
So in the first game your enemy was a world-conquering Empire, in the second it was legions of devout followers and powerful underlings, and in the third it's . . . sand.
|Myria's outdone herself this time.|
|Science patrol, what have you done?|
This is a story about a boy seeking answers about himself, his people, his past, his future. It's a story about the friends who help him along the way, and the fantastic journey they undertake and the dangers they face together. Also, there's some Goddess or something plugged in there, I don't know.
Gameplay and Design
I love the decisions they made in designing the game. They went with sprites over polygons, so they compensated by giving the little cartoons a dozen subtle animations to express themselves. They didn't want to throw in a huge love story, so they worked tiny moments into the script which told you everything you needed to know. The romantic subplot between Rei and Momo is so subdued you'd miss it if you weren't looking for it, but it's all there - Rei commenting in Momo's health just a little bit more than everybody else's when you're all crossing a treacherous desert. Momo pausing to stare at Rei as he chats up a local girl in some town. Breath of Fire III only wanted to explore one story, that of Ryu confronting Myria about why the Brood were destroyed. While telling that story, though, it wanted to imply several others and leave them to your imagination.
And without any FMV sequences or dialogue-heavy cutscenes, they managed to do that, using only sprite animation and nuance.
|And occasionally the language of dance.|
Aesthetics aside, let's discuss the gameplay. As in the previous two games, Ryu has the ability to transform into different dragons of increasingly stronger varieties throughout the course of the game. Breath of Fire III sets itself apart with the gene splicing system, because dragons, as we all know, are feared most for their knowledge of biochemistry. Throughout the world and occasionally after fighting certain enemies, Ryu obtains new Brood genes. By splicing genes in different ways, you end up with different forms to experiment with, each with unique abilities. The goal is to get Ryu's ultimate form, the Kaiser Dragon, to wreak havoc upon the wicked.
|We're absolutely certain Myria wasn't right about them?|
|Man Capcom, get some originality.|
Now, the game can't be all Ryu, his team needs something to set them apart as well. That's why the designers put in the skill system, and one of the most fun and simultaneously frustrating of elements of the game. To make another Final Fantasy comparison, in Breath of Fire III everybody's a Blue Mage. The cerulean sorcerers are known in the FF series for the double-edged sword of being able to learn all the special abilities usually only available to enemies - that is, if they get hit with them and survive. The same principle applies here; if an enemy uses a skill you can learn while you're using the "Watch" command on it, there's a chance you'll learn it and have it forever. The downside? Definitely not 100%. I personally spent many a fight trying to goad a skill out of an enemy as many times as I could, waiting for the "!" to appear over the head of the character I had watching, indicating that they'd learned it that time.
|His first lesson is chopping down trees with your beard.|
And don't think you're locked in to skills once you learn them, either. You're able to remove skills from players and put them on others. Don't want to take the time to level Momo from 30 to 45 to learn all of Deis's skills? Keep Peco at level 1 and let him do the grunt work, then just shift all the snake-lady's spells right over.
|Toil, my fairy minions! And study new ways with which I might exploit you!|
Exactly what it looks like. An armor-plated mini-narwhal has been terrorizing the fairies (who can fly? And live on land?), and you need to put it down before their village can be put up. The scene leading up to this has Dolphin airing his grievances with you and the fairies in a thick Australian accent - a scene which you can then replay with English translation if you couldn't understand.
The only thing I'll say about fishing is that it's in every Breath of Fire game, and this one does it best. The rods, the bait, the struggle, the variety of uses for what you catch, the fish-ranking system; this is a well-implemented mini-game.
In fact, it reminded me of something I couldn't remember for the longest time until I recently figured it out.
They took the entire game Black Bass for the NES, spruced it up with better music and graphics, made Ryu the main character, and inserted it wholesale into this game. So remember, when you pay for Breath of Fire III, you're actually paying not just for an RPG gem, but a classic sports title as well. How can you pass up a deal like that?
If I had one serious complaint about the mechanics of the game, it would be the way in which you get all the best items. As someone who played a lot of Final Fantasy XI, I can tell you that the worst part of the game was always killing the same thing over and over again trying to get an item, because it only dropped from this one thing and the drop rate is insultingly low. MMOs are famous for this kind of stalling tactic to keep people hooked and interested. But MMOs are just using a tried and true formula for stretching out a game's playtime, and Breath of Fire III was a prime instructor. The best sword for Ryu in the game, the Goo King Sword, comes from an enemy that only has something like a 1/16 chance to appear in one area of the game, and then a 1/256 chance to drop the sword. If my math is right, that equals a whole shitload more battles than I should have to fight to get one weapon only usable at the very end of the game.
And don't think that's the end of it. In the last two game areas, almost every enemy is carrying one of the items you need to max out your character's gear, with similar chances of actually getting it to drop after killing them. I will play through any quest, no matter how long, convoluted, or difficult to get an item in a game if I know that there's a guarantee that item is there waiting for me at the end. Set up a precise series of events in the past so you can obtain the weapon in the present? You got it, Chrono Trigger. Kill enemies until you've got 1,000,000 bolts? Sounds like a plan to me, Ratchet & Clank. Win a race in 0 seconds? Why not, Final Fantasy X? There's no random chance element here - you put in the work, you get the item, end of story. I can agree with that.
And before you ask, of course I got the sword. I got all of Rei and Garr's best stuff, too.
I'm sincerely sorry I didn't dust myself off and finish this game the first time I played it, all those years ago. It's quirky and off-beat both as a role playing game and a Breath of Fire title, but stays traditional to both in all the right ways. There's a brilliantly conceived world to play through and discover, and a cast of characters you can spend hours falling in love with. And most importantly, I never got rid of my old strategy guide, so I didn't have to rely on GameFAQs for anything.
Although, full disclosure, the official guide is kind of terrible, so if you wanted to rely on some of the FAQs or message boards there, I don't think I'd blame you.
|It's got tons of pictures, half of them on the wrong page.|
If you never got around to playing this one, or if it's been sitting in your Backlog like it has mine, then I recommend giving it another shot sooner rather than later. Like I've said before, you'll have at least as much fun as anything else you might have played recently.
Well, with Breath of Fire III tucked away, I'll be moving on to the only other game on the list I have with me right now - Suikoden III. I lost to the final boss in that game as well, but if I've learned anything it's that defeat is just a temporary setback, even if it's one that lasts for 13 years.
I'll get to work, and until next time, you keep playing.