“Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.”
With this review of Breath of Fire IV, I have now encircled the entire run of the Breath of Fire series, as far as this writer is concerned. Beyond this point there be monsters.
Yes, there are indeed more Breath of Fire games after IV but Capcom’s answer to Square’s successful Final Fantasy franchise performed the video game equivalent of jumping the shark. Before moving to mobile (often the veritable death of a franchise at least in terms of priority that its creators give to it) the Breath of Fire games were fine representatives of the standards and traditions of JRPGs. While none of the previous games stood out as shining fantasy stars against Final Fantasy, they were at least cohesive and you knew what you were getting when you played a Breath of Fire game. Changes in tone and gameplay which took place in the series from the first game to the third were not drastic.
As I’ve mentioned in my critiques of the previous three games in the series, Breath of Fire was steadfast and stalwart about RPG traditions. Whereas Final Fantasy was frequently about innovation, Breath of Fire never moved too far beyond static turn-based combat, experience grinding, linear storytelling, and random encounters. Oh there are similarities between the two franchises, such as their dedication to recurring names like Cid, Bahamut, and Ultima or Ryu, Nina, and Wyndia.
Each Final Fantasy reinterprets itself and takes us into a new world, the previous game being truly a “last” fantasy adventure in that universe with those characters (though direct sequels have in recent history changed this). With Breath of Fire, the games (at least one through three) have a clear and direct relationship with each other, and this can even be explored to some extent through to this fourth title. It would seem that telling a long, continuous saga spread out across millennia is much more difficult than being allowed the creative freedom to tell new kinds of stories with new characters and new mechanics. Final Fantasy lent itself to being reinterpreted whereas Breath of Fire did not, until Capcom forced it into a new interpretation too far from its roots. Thus Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter seems to have alienated and lost the series’ core fanbase and Capcom’s dragons have never been the same since. Heck, Breath of Fire 6 was never released outside of Japan, anyway.
Perhaps the pendulum swung too far after Breath of Fire IV. Players expecting custom and coherency with the previous titles as had been the par for the course thus far were likely turned off by dramatic alterations made to the Breath of Fire formula (I include myself in this camp). When Dragon Quarter arrived on the PS2 in 2003 in North America, I had little to no interest, even though I had been following this epic tale through the series since the first game.
Capcom had made too sudden of a shift from turn-based role-playing gameplay to a strange new amalgam of gameplay including 3D and real-time elements. Perhaps it proved to be a shock to great for the Breath of Fire system. It’s a franchise which has never really recovered, having sunk even further into obscurity. I meet and talk with plenty of gamers and while they know Final Fantasy of course and Dragon Quest and so on, fewer have heard of Breath of Fire.
Where Breath of Fire IV comes in as is as a happy medium. One of the best received games in the brief series, Bof IV began the trend of departure from the schematics set forth in its three predecessors without going too far. This is likely apparent to any player who experiences the first few minutes of the game. It opens with an anime-styled introductory cutscene.
I recall that this upset me, though at the time I didn’t understand why. I was fifteen, alright? In retrospect, I think I viewed the RPGs I loved on the SNES as medieval, high fantasy adventures with detailed and realistic characters. The sudden leap to an animated intro with characteristically anime eyes and expressions was likely jarring to my video game worldview. I suppose my younger self didn’t expect a JRPG to be so Japanese, strange as that sounds. However, I do think that there’s been a move in JRPGs since then toward a more “on the nose” Japanese animation influence.
That aside, once the game began, there were more differences which took some time to become accustomed to.
Immediately, the washed out and faded colors are unusual, especially coming off the much brighter and colorful BoF II and III. Though there are 2D sprites on 3D backgrounds as in BoF III, movement is now isometric. World map movement is restricted to paths, open exploration not permissible, though secret paths open up if you can find secrets in the field. There’s much more of a Middle East and Far East influence in the cultures and music of the game over the European flavor of the previous entries.
The dragons themselves, a core ingredient in this series, are reimagined in bizarre fashion. I like that the dragons are associated with forces of nature but I distinctly remember seeing the Mud Dragon and thinking “That’s it?”. The gigantic 3D dragons don’t gel well with the 2D sprites of other characters, especially when the perspective of a scene slowly circles around the cast.
These were at first disappointments until they became the distinctions of a game I ultimately enjoyed.
Breath of Fire IV begins with Nina, princess of Wyndia, and Cray, chieftain of the Woren tribe, searching for Elina, Nina’s sister and Cray’s love. Elina has gone missing and many expect the worst, but Nina and Cray end up running into a dragon that changes into the form of a young man, Ryu. The blue-haired amnesiac joins Nina, while across the world the Emperor Fou-Lu awakens from his tomb after 600 years.
The story is told jumping between Ryu and Fou-Lu as playable characters. The former learns more about his heritage and identity alongside Nina, Cray and a group of other friends in the East, while the latter is dogged by the modern Fou Empire in the West as he ascends as prophesied to his ancient throne.
This too is a departure from the straightforward storytelling of the previous games but its dualistic themes and structure succeeds in drawing the player into the game’s world, laying on the mystery and curiosity. The player isn’t permitted to swap between Ryu and Fou-Lu at will but the change between them is prescribed by the narrative. Seeing the tale from the two dramatically different perspectives, in terms of personality and geographically, allows you the chance to reflect upon the game’s events as they happen each in turn as you attempt to piece them together.
At bottom, Breath of Fire IV is different from its forebears, but not so much so that it treats its own roots with disdain. Refinement may have been at the forefront of thought during its development, rather than pure innovation, which allowed the project to take some risks without needing to be different for the sake of being different.
In a franchise like Breath of Fire, that means something.
The 8-bit Review
Underscoring the much more Asian setting, the visuals appear to adopt a Japanese watercolor appearance. This includes softer colors, many of them faded and mixed with browns. Because the game is consistent with this style of visuals, they’re acceptable in their coherency. Yes, the older games look candy colored by comparison but there’s enough good in Breath of Fire IV for its graphics to stand on their own legs.
IV on the left. III on the right.
The pixel art in the Breath of Fire series has been historically stellar. IV is hardly an exception. Color palettes aside, the 2D characters and enemies are highly detailed and visually interesting. I cannot vouch too much for the larger 3D bosses and dragons, though. The presence of too many ill-fitting 3D creatures which look as if they’re not interacting with the other characters drags the game down, but the 2D sprites feature some extremely fluid pixel animations and these jive with the 3D backgrounds as long as the player perspective isn’t rotating. The game overall has aged fairly well due to the 2D effects, not the 3D ones.
This score abandons the heavy jazz of the previous game and creates its own unique sound with Japanese and Eastern influences, to which I say “yeah sure go ahead”. I wasn’t on board with the elevator easy listenin’ and bossa nova coffee shop music in a sprawling quest about dragons, gods, and monsters. Here, at least the music matches the settings and the cultures of this game’s world. Where it succeeds it soars beautifully, but at its worst (in a few tracks) it sounds quite ugly and dissonant.
Composer Yoshino Aoki (Breath of Fire III, Final Fantasy XV, the Mega Man Battle Network series) brought familiar Japanese instruments and orchestral sound to her score for this game. There’s a wide emotional range afforded but I mostly remember the elegance, the ethnic sounds, and the occasional creepiness. Composer Taro Iwashiro put together the music for the opening cutscene, which explains why that particular song sounds so unusual compared to the rest of the score.
“Truth and Dreams” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard in a video game. I used this song as an alarm clock for a while. Waking up to such relaxing music was one good life decision, as far as I’m concerned.
I went back and took note of something from my Breath of Fire III critique. I gave that game a 9 for visuals and 7 for audio. Here, I did the reverse. Overall, I think IV has the much better soundtrack and III has some of the finest 2D sprites you could hope to find in the 90’s.
Breath of Fire IV remains fairly traditional in terms of JRPG gameplay, including familiar Breath of Fire staples like turn-based combat, fishing and hunting. The faeries return from the previous game as does the master system, which has been expanded upon without being fundamentally changed.
The master system is an accompaniment in BoF IV to party member customization. You can find masters throughout the world and pick characters to apprentice under them. While apprenticed, a character’s stat increases and decreases will become modified with each level gain and they’ll have the opportunity to learn unique skills and spells. A character can switch their master for another one and build up a repertoire of specialized attacks over the course of the game. If you feel like you made a mistake and had the wrong character learn a specific attack from a master (master’s only teach a spell or skill once), you can transfer skills between characters with Aurum items.
On the other hand, remaining under a master for a longer duration facilitates a kind of class system where a character’s stats may make them even more specialized in battle.
One really cool and minimal addition to Breath of Fire IV’s gameplay has to do with swapping characters around in combat. Only three characters can be used actively in battle with any other extra characters sitting on the back burner. You can choose to swap these characters in and out in any order during your turn, which allows you to adjust to different situations. Final Fantasy X (released the year after Breath of Fire IV) essentially did the same thing and now I’m spoiled by this function and I want it in every turn-based RPG I play.
Breath of Fire IV brings another layer of strategy to combat with a magic combo system. Magical attacks used in a certain order (based on the order in which characters take their turns) can enhance each other and even turn into new attacks. For example, two fire spells used back to back will guarantee the second spell hits harder than normal, but if a character unleashes a fire spell followed by a wind spell then a new spell is performed, such as Simoon. This can be confusing without a grasp of the speed ratings of your party members and getting a sense of who attacks in what order but the combined effect of a triple combo is awe inspiring.
This is where I’m going to talk story SPOILERS. You can skip this section if you like by doing a little Ctrl+f Accessibility.
Ershin is a great character. I just wanted to say that somewhere in this review.
As the tension in the story ramps up, Ryu learns that he belongs to an immortal race called the Endless. Believed to be gods, they are actually dragons brought into this world from another one by the summoners of Chek. The Fou Empire is interested in harnessing the power of these gods but their imperfect summoning of the Yorae dragon split the entity in two: Ryu and Fou-Lu.
Yorae’s essence was divided across space and time so while Ryu appeared in the East, his other half Fou-Lu was summoned in the East into the past to become the first emperor only to enter a kind of hibernation from which he awakes at the start of the game. The imperfect summoning also accounts for Deis, an immortal character who appears in other Breath of Fire games, who inhabits protective armor, without bodily form.
Despite these mistakes, the empire continues to pursue the power of the dragons, even learning how to create their own Endless. One of the most graphic scenes in the game comes when Nina and Cray finally find Elina. She was captured by the empire and slowly transformed into an experimental immortal, her body growing out of control into a massive biological nightmare. The empire’s plan would be to torture her endlessly to fuel their cursing weapon, the Carronade. Some surprise body horror in an otherwise gentle JRPG was quite the shock.
Many fans have speculated how Breath of Fire IV ties into the lore of the previous games, which all three took place in the same universe in a saga spread out over the course of thousands of years. There are no easy answers and while some have suggested that BoF IV represents the distant past before the first Breath of Fire, I don’t think that this is anywhere made apparent.
What makes the most sense is that this world of BoF IV is a parallel universe, evidenced by the villagers of Chek and the empire attempting to summon entities to their world, one of whom is a character that appears in the earlier games and another, Ryu, who is a lineage of characters from the earlier games. After all, this particular world doesn’t include any major presence or mention of Tyr/Myria or Deathevan, the main antagonists who left their marks on the world of the previous games.
But it’s not just a theory… it’s a well-red theory.
Magic combos and dragon forms can be a little confusing and underwhelming. Some combos and dragon attacks inflict multiple hits on enemies but when it’s a series of 1’s in terms of damage inflicted, it’s easy to think you’re doing something wrong. It doesn’t help that the dragon forms don’t exactly follow a prescribed elemental format you typically see in RPGs. Still, this game appeared at the turn of the century relying on the principles of the past. By today’s standards, it will appear very traditional and familiar to many.
Surprisingly, this game features more than one ending. You won’t need to play through the entire tale a second time to see both, so beyond that there are some secret paths to find and complex mini games to enjoy, but it’s far from an RPG with exceptional replay value. I have played through it more than once mostly to get a better grasp of its story, since it’s told in parallel parts.
Being the fourth presentation in a series that seemed to resist too much change meant Breath of Fire IV wasn’t the most unique JRPG on the block. Conversely, this game had the opportunity to refine the gameplay and storytelling of its predecessors. It notably took fun things about the third game and made them even better. At the same time, it escaped the sedimentary layers of restrictive lore that its predecessors had built up by trying something new with the dragon saga. Compared to other big name RPG franchises out there, Breath of Fire may be a little more obscure but Breath of Fire IV is a substantial experience you can sink your teeth into.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
The first four Breath of Fire games were a quartet that only appeared across two consoles. The first two games came out on the Super Nintendo and the second two were released for the PlayStation One. That’s a mere blip in the whole scheme of video game history, so why play the Breath of Fire series at all? Well, they confront serious themes of fate, organized religion, the sociological impact of the concept of God, and the abuse of power. They are great emblems of historical RPGs. They created a vast, complex, and at times nuanced world playing out in a kind of cycle across generations. Figuring out how they fit together is a pleasure that the Final Fantasy series (to which I made comparisons) cannot really afford.
I didn’t like Breath of Fire IV when I first started playing it years ago, but over time it became one of my favorites.
Aggregated Score: 7.6
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