It's kind of funny. I played Breath of Fire I and II for the first time last year but I didn't get around to writing flame baits for either of them. Having never played the series before on SNES, I decided to pick them up on GBA and see what I was missing. Then having enjoyed them, I tracked down Breath of Fire III for the Playstation. Now it looks like I'm going to have to find a copy of Breath of Fire IV too. At least part V will be easy to obtain, since it was just released a last month.
So where to begin? Well, one of the first things that struck me was that the graphics really weren't above and beyond the SNES era. The ground textures looks like they had been pulled straight out of Breath of Fire II in some places, and given that much of BoF2's art came straight from Breath of Fire I you kinda start getting the impression that the artwork is showing its age. Graphically it really wasn't above and beyond a SNES, but being one of the first Playstation games I suppose that was to be expected. I really didn't mind much since it's been so long since I last played a 2D game on the TV, and what really got me wasn't so much the dated 2D as their attempts to introduce 3D into it. Sure the game used the same cheesy swirling, dark sphere affects as the first Suikoden did, but that was forgiveable because though it was crude it was an early game in the system's development cycle. It was the 3D isometric view that irritated me, particularly in the early parts of the game.
Breath of Fire's battles have always taken place in a three quarters isometric view, with the party on one side of the screen diagonally opposite of their enemies. It was an efficient use of screen space that allowed for sizeable monsters who weren't in immediate kicking distance of the party's sprites. And here's where Breath of Fire III got unique. Rather than transitioning from the dungeon map into a separate battle screen, you actually battle on the same map as the dungeon. This creates some interesting fight scenes as you might be on a staircase, crossing a bridge, etc. when an enemy strikes you and you'll actually see that represented in battle. You won't get into fights with three gigantic monsters that theoretically should be not able to fit on the bridge alongside you as you might in some other games, because you'll see the enemies arranged just as you are on the dungeon map. If the battle arena is narrow, they'll be crowded together, but never right on top of each other, allowing for a measure of realism. If some future BoF game took this system a step further and allowed for combat bonuses and penalities based on terrain it would be interesting, but the advantages are largely cosmetic in BoF3. The only possible advantage is that in narrow hallways you don't seem to run into as many enemies or as large an enemy as you might otherwise. The downside to this is that the designers needed to do a better job of enemy placement or dungeon design so that you don't wind up fighting enemies that are hidden behind a tree or arouond a corner where they theoretically couldn't see their targets and the targets shouldn't be able to see them. Surprisingly this problem, which really irritated me early in the game, all but disappears in the later half, as if the early part of the game was an experiment and by the end they had mastered the placement of random encounters to the point that they no longer looked so silly.
Another innovation (near as I can tell) is the Master System. There are various people in the world called Masters to whom you can apprentice your characters. Some of them make sense; the kindly woodsman Bunyan taking Ryu under his arm and teaching him how to fight. Others do not; the Hide-and-Seek kids who will teach battle formations. Uh huh, I'm off on a quest that will take me to the ends of the world and I'm going to apprentice myself to a punk kid who's the same age as me. For good or for ill, apprenticeship changes the stats you gain each level, with some Masters giving you huge penalties in exchange for bonuses elsewhere. As a result you could theoretically take a character with little to no aptitude in something and make them decent. Since I decided Nina was too weak and I wanted a fighter/mage in my group, I found I was able to train Rei up to be a decent speed-demon warrior mage. He wasn't the best warrior or the best mage, but he was good enough at both and was fast enough to get two actions a turn in some battles that it made up for it. But one problem with the Master System was...
...the way the plot was arranged. There are occasions in the story where you are cut off from various parts of the world, and since you must continually report back to your masters every two or three levels in order to receive the benefits of their wisdom in the form of skills, this can be particularly annoying. The worst episode of that actually happens very early in the game. Bunyan will likely be Ryu's first master since he tells the player to come back to him if Ryu can't handle the mountain by himself. However, as soon as Ryu reachs the top of that mountain he's whisked away not to return for another six or seven levels of gameplay. It's very annoying to realize you've leveled up enough to learn a new skill but because of the plot you absolutely cannot get back to your master. And this happens more than once, where circumstances will come between you and wherever your master is located. None of them are as bad as the initial separation between Bunyan and Ryu, but the problem is that most of the time they sneak up on you and you might just be about to level. Since apprenticing under a master causes the character's stats to change from what they would otherwise be upon leveling up, sometimes you don't want to be under the master for any longer than necessary to get the master's skill. While Bunyan was certainly helping Ryu's HP and attack power while leveling up, he was also constantly sapping the amount of AP Ryu was gaining, and all of his dragon abilities depend on AP. So I wanted Ryu to quit as soon as he got all the skills. Rather difficult when you're just one level shy of learning all your master's skills and there's a plot-mandated dungeon between you and him and you absolutely cannot get around it.
Aside from plot getting in the way of gameplay (a strange reversal of the usual problem), it could have stood some trimming. It was a very nice story overall. I like the fact the story, even near the end, never became about saving the world. The story of Breath of Fire III is pure and simple the story of a boy trying to find himself. You don't even have to battle the last boss if you don't want to, because the game gives you a choice at the very end. Based on what you've seen throughout the game, what Ryu's friends tell you, and the history you've learned by then, you decide whether you will defer to the goddess's wisdom or strike her down. And believe me, it's not an easy choice. I was just a hair away from deferring to her, and my reasons for not doing so were partially out of context of the game. I disagreed with her on principle, but that wasn't excuse enough to go off on an otherwise well-meaning deity. No, what I worried about was that if I deferred to her I'd be thrown into the last boss fight anyway plus stripped of Ryu's powers. Also the goddess was a lot testier when she was the last boss in Breath of Fire I and I hadn't forgotten that. But the Ryu of this game wouldn't have known that. If you fight her you go through a typically difficult last boss battle. If you defer to her you get a slightly less detailed ending, no ending credits, and you don't have to fight her, but at least they didn't turn her into a backstabbing goddess like I thought they might. This made the choice I made real, because there really was no good answer other than what I as the player felt was right.
As for the trimming, well, it could have used some trimming in the earlier parts of the game where Ryu just seemed to wander around because he had nothing else to do. Early in the game his friendship is established with Rei and Teepo, but shortly thereafter the two die obscure deaths where their bodies are never found (which of course means that they'll show up again later). Young Ryu's quest to find them starts him on his way, and from there he has lots of misadventures which draw him farther and farther away from seeking his friends, until at last he's told that his friends and probably dead and he really should concentrate on finding out his past.
Breath of Fire III's storyline is largely divided in two, because the first half of the game takes place when Ryu is a child (and a more crybaby child protagonist would be hard to find) and the second several years later (I'm guessing roughly seven) after he's grown up, and it's in this second half where things start to pick up. There are still misadventures, but less of them, and most are tied to the main plot somehow.
Breath of Fire III is also unusual in that it is one of the few games where I'm comfortable with all the characters. Usually I'm ambivalous to somebody even if I don't outright dislike them, but with Breath of Fire III I actually wanted to use everybody in my party. I eventually decided not to rotate Peco in, because I don't like the way he quits being a cute walking onion when he's actually attacking, but I did my best to keep working with Garr, Nina, and Momo, using Ryu and Rei as the base of my combat group. To really show how strength of a character can overcome personal objections to character type, I would put Garr in my party even though he's rock-slow. I like to be a speed demon (no surprise Rei's in my group) and to put someone in my party who consistently goes after all the other enemies takes quite a bit of personal liking to overcome. But Garr's just such a great character that I don't mind anyway.
And on the note of rotating party members, this is where Breath of Fire III falls down. It was actually easier managing the eight party members of Breath of Fire I and II than it is the six here. The reason being that you actually don't have access to all six at the same time. Half your party is in the active combat group and half is not. That is the same across these three games. But in the first two you could freely swap people in and out of the combat group as long as you weren't actually in a battle (and even if you were you still could do one swap a round). Not so in Breath of Fire III. Now you can only swap on the world map or at a particular type of save point. That means you cannot even switch in town. Since this game has the rather unique set of personal actions a particular character can do (pick locks, push large objects, etc.) sometimes this means that you will have to leave the town/dungeon, swap characters, and then return to get rid of the obstacle. If your way is blocked by a locked door you simply cannot proceed if Rei is not in your party. Similarly, if you're dealing with machinery there's a fair chance you cannot complete the dungeon without Momo tagging along. Also, when you find/buy equipment you cannot equip it on someone or even compare stats unless they are in your party. Since this is a game where you don't have money to equip all six party members (unless you run around leveling all day) I generally try not to buy equipment unless I know it will provide me with a significant boost in power or defense, but I can't compare stats unless that person is in my party.
On other notes of frustation, there were a couple points in the game where I could not figure out what to do next. I'm familiar with the old school RPGs of the 8 and 16-bit era being obscure, but for the most part by the Playstation era game designers had quit inserting the sorts of leaps in player logic that make people pull their hair out. I had to find this hidden scientist and I was told he was probably nearby. Since I was in the Factory, I promptly left, went to the worldmap, and searched the nearby Toxic Dump and Coffee Shop. Finding no such luck I expanded my search a little farther, checking out the tower ruins, Wyndia, and the Maekyss Bridge. Still no luck. This was getting ridiculous. Another round of expanding the search I wouldn't even remotely call nearby. So I checked a FAQ and found out that the scientist was still in the Factory, and not only that, but in order to get to him I would have to make Peco kick rocks (his personal action) off the adjoining cliff faces and into these gas-filled greenhouses, because after that the main factory building will start to smoke, revealing the location of the scientist's secret lab. Uh... how was I supposed to know that?
And then the mini-games... Argh... There should be a rule against plot-mandated mini-games. I'm fine when you can continue the game even if you fail, but when I can't seem to advance the plot because I suck at pulling a bucket of water out of a well, well that just stinks. While it's not as bad of a mood-breaker as say the CPR game in Final Fantasy VII was, it's still pretty annoying, and the funny thing is, Breath of Fire III hardly ever uses them. Then suddenly around the thirty hour mark I got two or three of them in a row.
Perhaps another annoying thing is the pace of plot versus battle. I remember one point where I was at play in the first half of the game and even though seven hours had passed I only gained one or two levels because most of my time was occupied with running around doing and subplot stuff. Since overworld battles are not mandatory and I was between dungeons for this stretch of time (doing a subplot), I hardly ever fought anything unless I wanted to. It wasn't particularly bad, but it was very weird. That only happened that one time in the game though.
And... and... I think I've exhausted my flames for now. ^_^ I really did enjoy this game, especially the plot which was a refreshing change of pace (even though it could've been handled better), but there just were a lot of sticklers in it that wouldn't leave me alone.