Breath of Fire IV

   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.

 World map
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
Developer Capcom
Publisher Capcom
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD (1)
Platform PlayStation
Release Date  04.27.00
Breath of Fire IV ships
50 English screenshots
15 dragon designs
Japanese commercial