breath of fire one, two
...continued from breath of fire one, one
Breath of Fire doesn't really have puzzles in the Zelda sense, e.g. there are no little sokobans you have to solve to open up the next room in a dungeon. At least so far. I mean puzzles more in the adventure game sense, where the game gives you clues and you have to figure out what to do next.
I'm five-ish hours into the game, and so far I haven't felt stumped to the point where I consider a walkthrough, or have to leave the game for awhile and come back. The only resource I have is a PDF of the game's manual, which does offer some vague guidance in the form of what order you visit the towns in, but it doesn't give much away.
I'll spoil one puzzle to show an example of what I mean, so skip to the next section if you haven't played Breath of Fire and are planning to in the future.
This is the most recent thing I've done in the game, so it's fresh in my mind. Figuring it out was a satisfying way to end a long session. I had just recruited the third party member, an archer whom the localization team has tragically named Bo. The only hint I had regarding where to go next is that I would have no problem finding my way through the forest with Bo leading the way. I assumed this meant that I had to go back to the forest dungeon, which is a dark, misty thicket like the Lost Woods in A Link to the Past. I figured that with Bo in the party, another exit would become apparent. But I scoured the forest and nothing was different; the only ways to go were into the dungeon within the forest, or back out the way I came.
Sidebar: I forgot to mention in the "balance" section yesterday, but Breath of Fire has an item called the "Mrbl3" (🤷♀️) that serves the same function as the Holy Water (or fairy water, or protection spell) from Dragon Quest: it stop random encounters temporarily.
Except that in Breath of Fire, the item actually works. In Dragon Quest, the holy water only prevents certain monsters from showing up in certain situations, and it wears off after about 10 steps. The Mrbl3 actually lasts long enough to make it worth it, and they're cheap enough and you have enough inventory space to stock up on them. So instead of tediously fighting my way through one pointless battle after another, I could leisurely explore the forest, retrace all my steps, and make sure that I had revisited every nook and cranny.
Anyway, I ruled that out as a solution. So I went back to town to rest, stock back up on Mrbl3s and and talk to everyone again. I tried to understand what they were trying to tell me.
I consulted the manual. It said the same thing: "You'll be free to move through the woods with Bo in the lead."
But wait, that's not the same thing. "You'll be free to" is a weird way to phrase it. I could already move through the woods. And huh, that's weird, the screenshot shows Bo at the front of the caterpillar party. Surely they don't mean...?
They did mean! I had to go into the menu and literally put Bo at the front of the party. It wasn't about the forest dungeon, it was about the forest tiles on the world map. They're impassable to Hero and Nina, but once Bo was at the front of the party, I could walk right through them. I've never seen an RPG where party order is a meaningful mechanic outside of combat. What a clever little subversion, and I figured it out all by myself! Well okay, the manual basically gives you the solution. But I thought to check the manual all by myself!
The charm of a game is something that's hard to define, but I know it when I see it. It's in the little things that ultimately don't matter: the fact that shopkeepers have cute little animations when you end your transaction where they bow or blow you kisses. The fact that sometimes NPC homes have bowls of fruit you can eat, for no real reason. The fact that the NPCs aren't just humans, there are towns full of bird-people and dog-people. The fact that the world map isn't just a zoomed-out version of the overworld, it has a hand-drawn look and gradually fills in as you explore. The fact that the monster that looks like a giant amoeba gradually shrinks to nothing as you whittle down its health. They didn't have to draw all those extra sprites, but they did.
No one of these things is consequential, but they add up to a greater whole. If you take the wide view, any JRPG of this era is going to look identical—generic anime protagonists go on a generic quest to defeat the ultimate evil and save the world. It's the little details that don't matter—those are what elevate it above generic fantasy RPG world #72.
thoughts on manuals
I always find a PDF of the manual whenever I play a new old game, and try to complete the game using no other guides or walkthroughs, if possible. Sometimes the manual will give away a puzzle solution, but I don't consider it a spoiler, because the information in the manual is what the designers, or at least the localizers informed by the designers, believed the players would need to have an optimally good time.
I recently finished the original NES Legend of Zelda for the first time, and I never would've made it without the manual. But it wasn't a step-by-step guide telling me what to do: it gave me just enough information to get started, and help me figure out what I need to figure out. I'd go so far as to say The Legend of Zelda, as originally intended with the manual and map that came in the box, is my favorite Zelda game. This is what I miss most about manuals: curated guidance. When you look up a walkthrough, there's no granularity: all of the information is presented like an encyclopedia. If you're stumped, there's no way to get a hint to help you move forward without giving away the solution, and you'll probably spoil yourself on several other things in the process. Walkthrough writers use a scientific lens, deconstructing and documenting every part of a game in a straightforward manner.
But there's value in only having some information. A manual writer's job is more like that of a DM in a tabletop RPG: the players would get bored if the DM just told them everything they should be doing (the infamous "DM railroad",) but if they tell the players nothing, it's easy for the players to get lost in the weeds. It takes a skilled DM to find the right balance, and to adapt to the players' needs.
A video game manual can't replicate the experience exactly, because it can't respond to the players and give them more or less guidance as needed, but it can anticipate the most likely roadblocks and give the player just enough of a hint to find the solution, or at least feel like they found the solution, on their own. Many modern games take a more "all or nothing" approach: they either put all the information you need in the game, leading you directly from one objective to the next with no ambiguity; or they drop you into a world with no information whatsoever and expect you to use the wiki. Neither experience, to me, matches the magic of being dropped into a world with a manual written by people who know just the right amount of information to help you feel like the hero 🦝