Breath of Fire, developed by Capcom and first released in Japan in 1993 for the Super Famicom, wasn’t on my radar until recently. I’d heard the name, but I didn’t even know it was a JRPG series until I got super into the genre in the past year. Since it’s in the Nintendo Switch’s Online library, I decided to give this “classic” a shot.
I put “classic” in quotes because this game is rough. That’s mostly due to the godawful translation, which I’ll get out of the way here at the start, because there are a lot of positives to get to. That English script though… yikes. It feels incomplete, like you’re rarely getting enough information about where to go and what to do, and items often have bizarre names that don’t make sense. Take Mrbl3 — it’s an item that prevents random encounters, but why Marble 3? There IS a Marble 1 and 2, but they’re used in-battle for completely different effects.
Now, this isn’t too bad since you can view item descriptions, but the translation problems extend to more important parts of the game. NPC dialogue is sparse and vague enough that you’ll often spend hours wandering around trying to figure out where to go next. Many characters in a town or room will share the same dialogue, which is annoying, but since you have to talk to everyone in case you miss a vital hint, it gets old fast. Sidequests might involve items whose names give no indication of what they do or who to give them to, resulting in more aimless wandering. It’s hard to excuse a translation this bad when many other SNES era JRPGs were just fine, but let’s move on.
There’s a few more forgivable quirks with the game, like having no way to check the strength of your equipped weapon, many items being useless, there being no indication when buffs wear off in battle, and not getting an Evac spell to leave dungeons until over halfway through the game. A lot of these are typical of SNES era JRPGs and aren’t too much of a problem. The encounter rate is a bit too high, but since you can avoid them completely using the Marble 3 item I mentioned, it’s not a big deal. One thing that’s pretty weird though is how HP bars lie to you in battle — when a character’s HP bar is halfway depleted, they still have over half their HP left. I don’t understand this design choice.
On the positive side, the art — especially the monster sprite work — and music are fantastic and make the game worth playing just to see the next crazy location. Breath of Fire attempts to be more cinematic than other games at the time — and it largely succeeds. There’s imaginative dungeons, like a Dream World where you interact with personifications of a character’s emotions, or one where you get shrunk down smaller than a mouse and have to fight roaches — that’s just cool. The gameplay itself is pretty standard JRPG — you’ve got your bruisers and mages, weapons and armor to buy, as well as healing items and spells. There IS an auto-battle feature, which I don’t think was common in 1993, and it’s handy for getting through normal battles, since this is a grindy game. The trade-off is that it’ll make all your characters use standard weapon attacks — no spells or anything — so it’s not a good option for tougher battles. On the other hand, there’s no reason not to use it most of the time, and it makes me wonder if I’m even playing the game at that point.
There’s some some other innovative mechanics for the time, like your main character’s ability to transform into a powerful dragon in battle, or another party member who can set up his own shops to haggle for prices in various towns. It’s not super useful, but it’s fun. There’s also fishing, which gives you helpful items rather than just being a throwaway minigame. Some mechanics surprised me, like certain floor tiles making different sounds when you walk over them, which is something I usually associate with 3D games. Your party also gains XP even when they don’t fight, which still isn’t common enough today. That’s pretty nice. Battle backdrops change based on where you are on the map — not just what dungeon you’re in — like when crossing a bridge, you’ll see the bridge beneath your feet in battle. It’s an artistic touch that I appreciate.
If you have a lot of patience, I’d recommend Breath of Fire, but I’ve heard its sequel is an improvement in every way… except the translation. I’ll check out Breath of Fire II in the future, but in the mean time, look forward to next month’s game, Rogue Galaxy.