“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
-Lord John Dalberg-Acton
In the mid 90’s, the Super Nintendo was enjoying its unparalleled success (sorry, Sega). This was especially true in terms of RPG’s, dominated by classic titles released by Square such as the Final Fantasy series, Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger, as well as role-playing offerings by other developers like Nintendo’s Super Mario RPG and Earthbound, and even the hidden gems like Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia and Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals.
In the middle of the noise of so many great RPGs was Capcom’s attempt at establishing their own role-playing series with the original Breath of Fire, released in 1993. It was an okay game with a decent reception and traditional gameplay, but it represented the foundation of what is still Capcom’s best known role-playing franchise. Though it did little other than add to a console that was already crowded with RPGs, JRPGs, and TRPGs, it was followed up by a sequel, Breath of Fire II, was released by Capcom one year later in 1994.
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.
Breath of Fire II, however, was a huge step up from its predecessor, the first installment in the series. BoF II has better characters, a better storyline and presentation, much better graphics and audio, and is all around much more memorable than the original. In fact, despite being as overshadowed as it was, I’ll come right out and say that Breath of Fire II may be one of the better RPGs to appear on the SNES with great character and enemy sprites, detailed backgrounds, vivid colors, and a real breadth of gameplay.
Set five years after the first Breath of Fire, the narrative opens with an ominous, reptilian eye and a voice speaking of coming evil and the faith necessary to endure it. The transition follows a young blue-haired boy named Ryu, raised together with his sister by his father in a church. Their mother is no more. Ryu and his sister Yua play together in the mountains behind their village where a giant dragon slumbers. They often fall asleep there and dream of their mother. Their father scolds them and Ryu naps, dreaming of the reptilian eye staring at him.
When he awakes and returns to the village, known as Gate, nobody remembers him and his father and sister are gone. The priest takes him in and Ryu meets Bow, an orphan and a thief, who steals even the candles from the church. Together, Ryu and Bow leave the village and head into a cave in the nearby mountain range. In the darkness, they encounter a frightening demon that attacks them and nearly kills them. A voice calls Ryu the chosen one.
Fast forward to present day. Ryu and Bow, still together, have become rangers in another village and are given a job that will take them on a vast adventure, uncovering the secrets of the church of St. Eva, battling back the armies of darkness, realizing Ryu’s true destiny and heritage, and encountering many friends along the way: Katt, Rand, Nina, Sten, Jean, Spar and Bleu (a secret character).
Breath of Fire II’s themes of distrust of organized (especially Western) religion are common in Japanese RPGs. If I was to make a somewhat educated guess about why that is, I’d say it’s similar to some of the mindset that occurs where I grew up in Hawaii where Westernization, which was sometimes too aggressive, is viewed in a negative light and Christianity, the religion of the West, is lumped in there with it, unfortunately. Final Fantasy Tactics is an example of this. However, BoF II seems to bear up this theme even more strongly, as it functions as the entire backdrop of the threat. The church of St. Eva has many innocent and deceived followers, but it has replaced the Dragon God of ancient times and seeks to raise up a hideous monster beneath the village of Gate, called Deathevan, by feeding it power through its churches. Pretty dark.
It turns out that (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Ryu is a member of an almost extinct group of people called the Dragon Clan, half-human half-dragons of a sort, with incredible powers. 500 years ago, the Dragon Clan’s warring nearly destroyed everything and now they are reduced to but a few in a city beneath Gate called Dologany (Dragnier in the original Breath of Fire). On the surface, the only surviving members of this Clan are (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Ryu and presumably his sister, Yua, later Patty, and his mother, the dragon on the mountains behind Gate that tried to bar the gates that led to Deathevan.
While the story is pretty heavy, couched as it is in religious language, the world of Breath of Fire II is not without its charm, largely due to the non-human “clans” that populate it as other people groups. Several of your party members are examples of these.
Bow is a dog-man and loyal companion to Ryu since they were children. Katt is a fierce fighter met in the Coliseum and member of a group of cat-people, not surprisingly. Rand, the tank, belongs to an agricultural, armadillo like people. Sten first appears as a traveling clown but he actually comes from a militant nation of apes. Nina bears the wings of the Windian kingdom though because her wings are black she is exiled as a dark omen. Spar the Grass Man is a sentient plant. Bleu is an arrogant and ancient sorceress and possibly a member of the Dragon Clan or something else. Jean, hilariously, comes from a country where everyone looks like a frog and they all speak very poor French while pretending to be high-class. Dat European social-commentary, tho.
The world of Breath of Fire II has a sublayer of history because it’s based on the first game in the series, and some of the changes that have taken place over time can be fascinating. The franchise is known for its recurring themes and motifs. Among these are the Dragon Clan and the Windians, two people groups represented by two characters who join your party. However, while in the first game, the Dragon Clan was more aware of their powers, in BoF II, the abilities of the Dragon Clan have become latent and rare. Similarly, in the first Breath of Fire, the Windians were more capable of flight and transforming into great birds, but by the time of the second game, this ability too has waned.
I’m surprised that more people who grew up on the SNES haven’t ever heard of Breath of Fire II, and even fewer have played it. I get that it was overshadowed by many other classic RPGs.
My opinion of it may be higher than others since it was one of the first RPGs I completed on my own, but replaying it again as an adult, it still seems like a solid game in the traditional vein of things. There aren’t many surprises here but it holds up pretty well. I haven’t played the Game Boy Advance re-release for longer than a few hours, so someone better qualified may be able to shed some light on what the updated version is like. Handhelds aren’t my thing.
Breath of Fire II is no Final Fantasy VI. Let’s just get that thought out of the way. But it doesn’t deserve the obscurity it hides in. It’s easily one of the better RPGs on the Super Nintendo, if you can get past its shaky (at best) English translation.
The 8-Bit Review
I can think of a few other SNES RPGs with better graphics than Breath of Fire II. The overworld and dungeons seem particularly tiled and repetitive in BoF II, the latter specifically suffering from monotonous design and layout. Magic abilities aren’t hugely impressive, though atmospheric effects are little better. Most of the NPC sprites are pretty simplistic as well.
However, where Breath of Fire II really shines is with its battle sprites. They’re animated with extreme articulation. For example, when Jean attacks, he grins, leans back, raises his rapier, wiggles his eyebrows and then jabs, all in a fluid motion. The battle backgrounds aren’t half bad but the detailed sprites for your own party and the enemies and bosses are superb. These may just be some of the best animated sprites on the Super Nintendo system.
The Breath of Fire II OST has more than a few tracks that loop far too quickly and therefore sound more like cycling soundbites than actual songs. The dungeon theme song (above) is one particular example where it’s just the same thing over and over again. Considering how much time you’ll spend in the many, many dungeons of the game, the problem is further compounded. However, that isn’t to say that this is a terrible soundtrack. It has its moments. It’s all going for the grand scale of an adventure with some gravitas, with tracks that utilize pipe organs and synthetic symphony to convey grandeur. Further, considering how long the game is, its soundtrack is actually fairly broad and there are plenty of tracks which draw upon a central theme of heroism, and plenty of others that are brooding and sinister. It’s nowhere near as melodic or memorable as other RPG contemporary soundtracks, but taken on its own, it isn’t below average. In fact, some of it has a lot of character. My favorite track from the game is the one that plays in Simafort, which is the country of French-speaking frog people. Hahaharpsichord:
The OST is more than mediocre. By far it’s best music is the kind played over the battles: ultimate rock. Below is a late-game city track for Dologany (contains a lot of regret and sadness) followed by a battle song.
This world is huge. You gain several different modes of transportation: Jean transforms into a frog, you can ride a whale, you even get a flying town (called TownShip) that you can park wherever you want late in the game. There are many places to visit and explore that are well out of the way of the main quest.
Battles are pretty straight-forward, turn-based as I mentioned. It’s surprisingly challenging, considering how old this method and style of RPG is. Pretty tough to make it the whole game without a gameover and you’ll need to rely on plenty of grinding if you expect to make it through some of the mid-game boss fights.
You’re unable to customize your characters so choosing the right ones for your four-person party is crucial at several junctures. That is unless the game forces you to use certain party members because of the narrative. That threat alone means you can’t afford to let anyone fall too far before in gaining levels, meaning you’ll need to ensure your party members all gain a sufficiently equal amount of experience. It’s a classic RPG trope and the Breath of Fire II characters provide you with just enough balance to be able to strategize your way through any situation.
BoF II sidequests are fairly minimal for an RPG, especially by modern standards. There’s virtually nothing else to do once you reach the end of the game except for grinding and collect a few items you might have missed. However, one really cool sidequest involves TownShip. This was a hideout you’ll enter early in the game that serves as a place for your friend Bow to stay in after he is framed and becomes a fugitive. It eventually becomes much more than a mere hideout when you rescue children in Capitan and the villagers reward you by offering to send a carpenter to build you houses. This becomes the basis for TownShip and you can choose any one of three carpenters who will build one of three different styles of houses: medieval, log cabin, or middle eastern. After your houses are built, you can begin to invite people to come and live in your brand new town. Many of the people you can invite are helpful in one way or another: opening shops, selling rare items, opening new fishing spots, changing some of the cosmetics of the game, and so on. You can expand your town and eventually enable its flight. Yes, you can take your hideout with you. All of those useful special shops you can keep within an arm’s reach.
Another really cool innovation to the gameplay comes in the form of the shaman system. When Ryu runs into a strange old woman and another younger woman, they explain they’re experimenting in binding souls as shamans in order to unlock latent power. But when they attempt to bind the young woman with Ryu (spoilers: highlight to reveal) his dragon power is triggered and he accidentally burns down the forest where the shamans were living. Therefore, the shamans force themselves into your TownShip and from then on you can meet shamans of other elements throughout the world and invite them to join you: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, Holy and Devil.
You can choose to bind up to two shamans of any combination to any one character and sometimes the binding can trigger new powers and even secret forms, boosting your characters stats through the proverbial roof. This becomes absolutely necessary if you intend to survive the Infinity Dungeon at the end of the game. The shaman system can even change characters so dramatically that the amount of playable characters in the game doubles.
Breath of Fire II’s story isn’t incredibly complex nor is it incredibly unpredictable, but it does bring in many different characters and settings. There’s a lot of weight and a sense of loss and tragedy in this game. Some of it can even be pretty frightening. That indicates a level of earnestness. It owns the story that it’s telling of all the hate and prejudice and anger throughout the world fueling this monster to rise and destroy life.
I would have scored BoF II higher in narrative if not for its awful English translation and I’ve never played it in Japanese, which might as well be Greek to me. You’ll run across the average typo and grammatical error, but there are tons of spaces and weird punctuation in the dialogue, like – too many – exclamation marks!!! The story suffers because of the shoddy translation. I wonder what some of the lines would have been like (less silly?) if they had taken the time to do it proper.
Capcom was renown for terrible translations. They actually had Square do the translation for the first Breath of Fire, which wasn’t horrendous, but Square had their own projects they put their attention into, clearly. But with Breath of Fire II, Capcom was on their own and they did the translation in its entirety, rendering several portions of the dialogue unintelligible. The fishing line translation is infamous: swapping No for Yes, and vice versa, and telling you to equip a “lod” instead of “rod”. Wat?
As already mentioned, Breath of Fire II is fairly difficult. There are definitely easier RPGs that hold your hand, whereas in BoF II, you’re sort of left to your own wiles and you have to figure out what some of your abilities do and what your different characters are best at. Without necessary grinding, you’ll be at a major disadvantage. While that’s strictly classic RPG… it definitely is not something that will appeal to everyone. This is a game with a lot of meat on its bones. Get ready for some tough bosses and some major dungeon crawling with a high rate of random encounters.
What’s not to know about a typical RPG outing? Breath of Fire II has little innovation so there’s really nothing new to learn, especially if you’re a role-playing aficionado. Aside from figuring out what weird abbreviations for item names mean, there’s not much new in BoF II that you haven’t seen before. That means it’s easy to pick up and play without having to sit through huge tutorials on new battle systems and whatnot.
Breath of Fire II does borrow a lot from its predecessor in several areas, though its a definite improvement. Considering how traditional it is, one might expect this score to be lower, but it really hits the traditional RPG nail on the head so well that it doesn’t deserve to just be lumped aside because it follows the tried and true formula from the inception of its genre. BoF II has just enough good ideas to feel unique and it doesn’t resemble any other RPG of the time too closely. It’s worthy of being remembered as one of the better entries from Capcom’s best known role-playing franchise.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
If you’re looking for a solid RPG that represents classic role-playing mechanics, then look no further than Breath of Fire II. It’s such a meat-and-potatoes game, a standard of what traditional role-playing games are like. There may be several better options for the SNES alone, but Breath of Fire II does not deserve its own obscurity. Though it suffers from a stupid translation, it excels with 2D visuals and lots of gameplay hours, if you’re looking for that sort of thing. It’s recommendable, but it’s not for every retro gamer. I recognize that my attachment to it is due in part to nostalgia. It was one of my firsts.
Aggregated Score: 7.4
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Categories: Game Review