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Breath of Fire IV - Retroview

A wasted opportunity at greatness

By: Phillipe Richer


Review Breakdown
   Battle System 10
   Interface 6
   Music/Sound 7
   Originality 7
   Plot 3
   Localization 7
   Replay Value 6
   Visuals 8
   Difficulty Very Easy
   Time to Complete

30-40 hours

 
Overall
7
Criteria

Breath of Fire IV
 

   Capcom's biggest RPG series has succeeded against its own mishaps in living through the years. The past games were great examples of conformity but still presented some quirky mini-games and decent overall gameplay to keep players satisfied. Breath of Fire IV aimed at creating the series a spot among the all-time greats with a hugely different battle system and a promise of an even more intricate plot. In fact, if not for one complex and crucial fault, Breath of Fire IV would probably have been hailed as a marvel of modern gaming.

   After centuries of war, the two continents floating on a vast area of marshes finally agreed to a cease-fire. The mighty Fou Empire to the west and the Eastern Alliance of the east exhausted their resources because of their relentless conflict, but another incident which could lead to another depression occurred shortly after the armistice. Princess Elina from the Eastern city of Windia has been abducted and it's up to her own sister Nina to discover the whereabouts of her sister with or without help from her country. Added to the mix is an enigmatic and silent boy named Ryu whom Nina meets during her journey, the resurrection of the first Fou emperor, and the waning protection of the divine dragons. So many elements to work with; so little plot twists to keep things interesting.

   Straying far from the previous boring battle systems found in the series, Breath of Fire IV encompasses a blissful gameplay system. The first innovation is something called the "combo system". Basically, characters casting spells in succession will see their puny magic combined with the effects of the previous attack to form a more powerful magic. You can use a physical ability after an elemental spell to add magical properties to your attack, cast consecutive spells of the same element to add more hits, or even use harmonious elements to form ultra-powerful bi-elemental spells. With the innate character spells and the hundred or so learnable enemy skills, the possibilities are nearly endless. Of course, characters possess their own battle speed, but you can dictate the attack order as you wish to properly control the desired combos. Using your slowest character first may give the opportunity to the enemies, but at least you can count on an uninterrupted combo.

   Speaking of character turns, you may interchange any of your six characters between the front and rear line at any time. The rear attackers are shielded against attacks but may still provide cover-fire to your active party. Furthermore, depending on their CPs (concentration points), characters in the back will regain temporary MP during combat, a very useful and important feature when battling tough bosses. Actually, the only fault in the execution is the game's difficulty. With so many possibilities to master, there aren't enough challenges to keep you on your toes and on the edge of strategic cunningness.


There's no such thing as a perfect system? BoF IV begs to differ.
There's no such thing as a perfect system? BoF IV begs to differ.  

   As in BoF III (Breath of Fire III), enemy abilities can be learned by any character during combat. Unlike the previous game however, this task is accomplished solely by guarding. Characters can carry as many as ten skills at once, and you can swap them in your tent. You may set up camp at anytime when on the world map, allowing you to rest, chat, and change both skills and masters. Masters are scattered across the world and studying under them will change your parameter increase during level-ups. They will also issue challenges to your party, such as performing a 30-hit combo, gaining sufficient fishing points, or fighting enough battles, in exchange for skills.

   The fairy village mini-game also makes a comeback and provides a nice diversion from your adventure. You can set up specialty shops, play mini-games, acquire items and more. Very nicely done. Another series staple, the fishing game, has been reintroduced and is better than ever. You may sell your fish to local Manillo (fish-man) traders for items and stamp cards, which you can then turn-in for incredibly powerful items. It's a very exhaustive, thorough, and well-executed mini-game.

   The interface is mostly very good, except for the atrocious camera and weird character controls outside of combat. Instead of presenting your environments straight-up, the four camera views are always diagonally positioned and hindered by various objects. Finding an acceptable angle will constitute about half of your experience since your characters have to be immobile when you switch your perspective. You'll be forced to move your characters diagonally also, which may lead to perilous falls. Similar to previous games, each character has its own field action, leading to slightly more enjoyment dungeons treks. Speaking of which, dungeons are all ridiculously short, so if you're the type who hates thousands of random encounters, BoF IV will fill your cup.

   The opening anime scene portrays some excellent visuals, a wonderful composition, and some great voice-acting...in Japanese. Actually, the excellent battle voice-acting is also completely in Japanese. You like or you dislike, but personally, if it's that expressive and emotional, I wouldn't care what language the characters spoke. Surprisingly, the best tracks in the game happen to be the various battles compositions. The normal battle music is powerful at will, and the many boss themes are also very entertaining. There seems to be a lack of sad and emotional tracks however, and the many dungeon and town songs are good, though not great. The mix of awesome sounds, voice-acting, and music only perpetuate the greatness of the battles.

   The game starts-off strong with many promising plot ingredients. Along the course of the game, you'll switch perspective between Ryu's team and Fou-Lu's single man battalion. The writers could've done so much with the plot, but instead kept things at the mere "go here-go there" level of plot advancement. Even though a great war has been waging nearly forever, you never really get the sense of a global planetary conflict at all. Also, the same problems as with the previous games persist in BoF IV: there are practically no plot twists during your 30-40 hours playthrough. Aside from one event or two, your party's focus remains essentially unchanged for the entirety of the game. You'll learn about the role of dragons, but you'll never be forced to interact further with the gods who support the very planet. In short, nothing happens until the very end! You just roam across the entire world searching for one inconsequential broad and of course to save the planet. If the game could've stacked plot twists over plot twists as in Xenogears, which isn't an easy feat I'll admit, BoF IV would have been spectacular. The ending is very unsatisfactory as well.


Are we still inquiring about Elina!?
Are we still inquiring about Elina!?  

   Characters in BoF IV usually speak with enough sense and conviction to be well understood. There are virtually no typos, and the translation ranks among the very good jobs. However, it seems that the localization process was rushed in order to get the game on store shelves before Christmas 2000. The Japanese voice-overs with no subtitles are a good sign of this, but there is also the matter of the ending credits being in full Japanese as well. I prefer Japanese voice-overs myself, so I'm not too distressed about those omissions.

   The game is filled with optional "quests" and special items to be found, though no alternate paths or actions can be chosen at anytime. Getting every single enemy skill may be rewarding, as much as an expanded fairy village or a perfect fishing record can be. If you wish to find everything in the game, expect to play for an additional dozen hours with the help from a guide. The world map consisting of dot-to-dot locations is very straightforward, and if you miss your chance at acquiring the very useful "shift" ability, which lets you teleport instantly to any previously visited location, you'll find the game to be insanely straightforward. The ability is almost given to you automatically, but you can still miss it if you don't pay attention, like I did my first time around (insinuating that I played the game twice). Just remember, once you go back to Shyde to rent a sandflyer, take the time to go talk to the ventriloquist. Don't ask questions; just do it.

   The environments are usually very engrossing and enchanting. The visuals are made-up of very fluid sprite-based characters mixed in 3D environments, and the result looks somewhat like a sharper version of Xenogears. The portraits displayed next to the dialogue boxes are very nice, although they look pretty pale with their pastel coloring. The most impressive eye-candy can once more be found during combat (a tradition with BoF it seems). The animations are astoundingly fluid and everything from spells to normal attacks looks incredibly beautiful. On every aspect, BoF IV really shines through during the battles despite their excessive ease.


Great battles still don't make up for a weak plot in my opinion.
Great battles still don't make up for a weak plot in my opinion.  

   In short, BoF IV sides with the more gameplay-focused RPGs rather than the extensively story-driven ones. It will please those gamers who denounce the new trend of movie-like production in RPGs, but won't succeed in bringing forth the best aspects of its great battle system because of the lack of difficulty. I am disappointed at Capcom for not capitalizing on the plot's great resources. So much could have been done, yet so little has been accomplished. Perhaps BoF V will finally provide us with a more engaging plot.





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