The arrival of a fourth chapter in the Breath of Fire saga comes as no great shock -- Capcom
games reproduce faster than Final Fantasy Tactics monsters. But for gamers expecting the
same style of whimsical adventuring as Breath of Fire III, the series' latest installment may
be somewhat of a letdown.
Breath of Fire IV begins in a similar fashion as BoF III, with Ryu being discovered naked
and amnesiac. From there, though, the two games take rather divergent paths. While
BoF III was a cheerful journey of discovery, BoF IV follows a grittier, more serious path
-- even goofy characters such as Manilo the fish are now much more humanoid and realistic.
The heroes find themselves searching for Princess Nina's missing sister Elina, whose
disappearance on a peace-keeping mission threatens to ignite a war between the Eastern
Alliance and the Fou-Lu Empire. The resulting adventure manages to incorporate most of
the usual RPG clichés, though it isn't without its occasional charm. Sadly, the game
frequently insists on underestimating the player's intelligence; most of the plot "twists"
should be old hat to those with previous Breath of Fire experience. (Are we really supposed
to be surprised that Ryu is a dragon?)
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Six characters comprise Ryu's party: Ryu, the angsty prophesied hero; Nina, the princess
of Wyndia; Cray, the chief of the Worens (half-tigers); Ursula, a human soldier; Scias, the
obligatory world-weary mercenary who is surprised by the hero's altruism; and Ershin, a comically
bizarre robot who speaks of herself as she though she were another person. Ryu also occasionally
dreams of a seventh character, Fou-Lu, who inherits Ryu's powers in brief playable segments.
These sequences are actually more interesting than the main quest; it's unfortunate that they
weren't more fleshed-out. Of these six main characters, however, only Ershin is really
appealing; the others never progress beyond the level of the standard RPG hero archetypes.
Breath of Fans fans will probably note that the unique, non-human characters of past titles in
the series are largely missing from IV; while adherents to realism may find this a pleasant
change, it's hard not to feel that some of the series' quirky charm is missing.
Also missing from Breath of Fire IV is a lively plotline. Ryu's adventure is a rather
formulaic sequence of "fetch quests" that sees the party venturing through lots of unnecessary
dungeons. For example, in order to fix a broken sandflier vehicle, the heroes must journey
across a cliff to a town, find a man in the bar and play a mini-game to convince him to tell
the party where the information seller is, find the information seller and play another mini-game
to find out where the black market is, visit the black market only to discover that raw
materials are needed to manufacture the missing parts, venture out into the dungeon and
collect said materials, and elude enemy troops in order to return to the black market. This
roundabout sequence of events results in a frustrating feeling that the player is never making
any progress; the actual plot advances forward at only a snail's pace. While the story does
begin to pick up about halfway through the game, the filler material still outweighs the
real action. The game's better moments could easily have been pared down to a shorter,
more exciting adventure.
The new map screen
Breaking up the monotony of the plot are a slew of mini-games and puzzles. Almost every
dungeon and town contains at least one special event. While some are inane exercises such
as the now obligatory hide-and-seek game, others, such as a battle of wits with a fleeing
thief, are fresh and creative challenges. The control scheme sometimes interferes with
the action, however: not only can the camera only be rotated in 90-degree increments, the
characters move in fixed tile-by-tile "steps" that can make it to difficult to line Ryu
up with an object. The series' trademark fishing game also returns, offering players a chance to
catch different kinds of fish and trade them in for various items. Ryu also helps
in the construction of a faerie village, a SimCity-like sequence also in BoF III.
Both of these side quests remain essentially unchanged from the previous game;
while fun, they're rather predictable. The only exciting new excursions are the
hidden locations scattered around the Tactics Ogre-style world map. As Ryu travels
from point to point on the map, question marks pop up over his head and can be
triggered to enter field areas. Most of these are simply blank screens of monsters,
but sometimes you'll stumble across a hidden Master or a new fishing spot.
While Breath of Fire IV may stray from the series' conventions in its plot and
characters, the battles remain solidly in line with tradition. Most of Breath of Fire
III's "systems" can be seen in IV as well. Characters learn magic by gaining levels, but can
also acquire skills by defending at the same time an enemy uses a certain skill. (The
"Examine" command used to learn skills in BoF III has been combined with "Defend.")
The party can only obtain one copy of each skill, but it may be traded from character
to character through the consumption of an Aurum item. New to a Breath of Fire IV is
a helpful checklist that keeps track of all the skills you've learned and hints at
the ones you've yet to obtain.
Changing Masters is now easier
As in Breath of Fire III, skills can also be learned by apprenticing characters to
"Masters"; this system is quite a bit more detailed in Breath of Fire IV. In
Breath of Fire III, characters received new skills from Masters simply by gaining
levels; now, varying goals must be achieved to earn the skills. For example, one
Master might require the party to do a certain amount of damage in one round, while
another simply divulges new skills after the game clock reaches a certain point.
And in addition to changing a character's raw statistics (as they did in BoF III),
each Master now modifies his or her fighting style, such as sacrificing accuracy
for attack power. Masters can now be easily re-assigned on the world map, a
welcome change from the awkward mechanics of the previous game.
In an unusual twist, party members may be freely swapped in and out of the three slots
during each round of battle; you're not even obligated to include Ryu in your fighting
team. Swapping members is remarkably easy. The player simply input
commands for three characters in order; the others automatically move to the back row for
that round. The order in which characters move can be important, as certain spells
create more powerful combination spells when cast in succession. Using multiple magic
attacks in a row counts as a "combo"; while this has little strategic significance, some
Masters only dole out new skills in reward for long combos.
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As easy as it is to switch characters, there's not nearly enough reason to do so regularly.
Most battles can be won with the time-honored "everyone uses physical attacks" method;
since the player can easily call on any member's spells when needed, the healer (Nina) doesn't
even need to stay in the main party. While each character has his or her own set of spells,
they're not different enough to give the heroes a different feel or purpose. The only character
with any functional difference is Ryu, who is able to transform into various dragon forms
by collecting Dragon Crystals.
Capcom claims that over 3,000 frames were used to animate each of Breath of Fire IV's
characters, and the results are spectacular. Smooth sequences of many frames render
even simple animations such as pulling an item out of a bag. Also
fairly impressive are the town and dungeon environments; while they can't compete
with next-generation graphics, they're detailed by PlayStation standards and free
of pixilation. The downside to the more detailed scenery is that, instead of
materializing right on the field map as they did in Breath of Fire III, monsters
appear on a separate combat screen; fortunately, the new environments are pretty
enough that the trade-off is acceptable.
But aside from the graphics and improved Master system, it's hard to consider Breath
of Fire IV much of a step forward from BoF III. In fact, Breath of Fire III is
superior in almost every category. While that doesn't mean Breath of Fire IV is
a bad game -- and it isn't -- it's far from a "must-play" title. Fans of the
series will still want to pick it up, but others may be better off waiting until
Breath of Fire IV hits the bargain bin.
Review by Fritz Fraundorf, GIA.
|Breath of Fire IV
|| 04.27.00|| 11.30.00
|Breath of Fire IV ships
|50 English screenshots
|15 dragon designs