a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

breath of fire one

Console RPGs are one of my favorite genre of video games, but it's been awhile since I've found a new-to-me RPG I could really sink my teeth into. Over the past couple years, I've tried a bunch of old games that didn't click with me. I didn't see much point writing about them, because the problems are very unique to my brain type, and I didn't want to talk shit about games that a lot of people like, but off the top of my head, I've played and bounced off of: Chrono Cross, Dragon Quest 5 (both the SNES fan translation and DS remake), Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, Final Fantasy Legend (aka the first SaGa game), Final Fantasy 8, Final Fantasy X-2, Golden Sun, Lufia 2, Shining Force 2, Persona 4 (PC release), Wild Arms.

That's a lot! I was starting to worry I'd just be playing the same RPGs over and over forever. But a friend recently began streaming Breath of Fire 4 for the Playstation, and I remembered that's one of those series I never thought about trying. Couldn't tell you why. Maybe I was conflating it with Fire Emblem. Anyway, I'm several hours into BoF and I'm liking it. Instead of exhaustively nitpicking each game in the "DNF" pile, I thought I'd talk about what I like about Breath of Fire.

the pacing

This is maybe the most important factor to me in an RPG. So far, it has the perfect balance of combat, exploration, and other. The battles are short, most of them winnable in a turn or two. There are no needlessly complicated systems. It's cut from the Dragon Quest cloth. Battles are fully turn-based and your characters can attack, use items, use magic, and defend. What else do you need?

The combat isn't so difficult that it's gotten in the way of exploration. The style of combat is "attrition pressure", by which I mean no one individual fight is likely to give you trouble, but by pushing yourself deeper into the dungeons, you encounter harder enemies that do more damage and take longer to kill, necessitating the use of more items and magic points for continued survival. The balance is just about right so that by the end of a dungeon, I'm feeling the pressure of lack of resources, but not so much that I feel the need to turn back.

As the pressure mounts, I get that worried feeling that I'm running out of healing items and MP, the monster groups are getting tougher, the prudent thing to do would be to turn back. But no. I've come this far, the end is in sight, I mustn't turn back now.

Like Dragon Quest, you don't lose progress in death. It takes some of your money and you're resurrected at the last save point. Unlike Dragon Quest, you only lose a quarter of your cash on hand, not half. There's a vault, but also unlike Dragon Quest, you can put any amount of money in there, it doesn't have to be in increments of 1000. Since I know each death can only be a very temporary setback, I'm emboldened to take risks, to keep pressing onward, and the satisfaction when the risk pays off is high.

The dungeons are designed to make me feel like a seasoned explorer. They're interesting to navigate but not so complicated that I get lost. There's plenty of treasure to find, and traps that serve as an inconvenience you need to work around, not a dire threat.

When I finish a dungeon, the "rest and reward" phase is tight and satisfying. I sell all the gear I was able to find upgraded versions of in the dungeon, buy whatever better gear is available in the shops, talk to all the NPCs again and figure out my next goal.

The story doesn't get in the way. There are almost no cutscenes and all the information is presented in one or two text boxes per NPC. There are times it feels awkward, because Japanese is denser than English and they have to pack a lot of information into not a lot of space, but I strongly prefer that to the over-correction you typically get in later JRPGs, after localizers gained the ability to add more text boxes. The presentation of the story doesn't slow you down and doesn't take control away. You'll be off exploring the next thing before you know it.

the combat

Even though it's completely turn-based, the visual and audio design makes it feel very dynamic. It's slow compared to a Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy game of the era, and it does feel a bit slow, but not enough to become tedious. The characters and enemies have very nice-looking and well-animated sprites. The sound effects are nice and crunchy. Even when all I'm doing is selecting the "auto battle" button (which is most of the timeβ€”it's not a high-strategy game and that's ok) it's satisfying to watch the battle unfold, hearing the crunches and the whooshes of attacks, and watching the monsters' shiny life bars shrink and change color from green to red as I drain them of their vitality.

You start out without a party, just the single protagonist character. The hero has no magic, and the need to use an item mid-battle rarely arises in the first couple hours of the game, so I was choosing "auto battle" almost exclusively. The fact that it kept my interest speaks volumes about how well-crafted the audiovisual elements are.

I've picked up two party members, and each new character adds new abilities and interesting wrinkles to a satisfying combat system without overcomplicating it. I can still autobattle my way out of most situations, but some monster formations have a threat I want to eliminate early, so I go into manual mode to make my party focus fire on it. Sometimes there's more than one of these threats, so it becomes worthwhile to expend some combat magic or use an item. It's enough to keep me on my toes.

third part

This is where I ran out of steam. There was going to be some stuff about puzzles and solutions. And maybe I'd find some way to shoehorn in talking about the game's charm, and how it's hard to define but I know it when I see it. Anyway, it's good 🦝