BREATH OF FIRE 3
To be honest, up until a week ago, I had not played any of the BOF releases, though I've seen a lot of email in the past about one version or the other. And when I had first seen the game, with the cover drawn by that guy (I don't know his name, and I'm not really worried about it) that has done the artwork for so many of Capcom's releases (I think). This, of course, depends on if Capcom is the ones that have been doing all of those Street Fighter arcade games... Well, as you can see, I don't play many fighters. But I have played huge number of RPGs on the computer and console systems (dating back to the nes and yes, apple II days). Anyway, I'm digressing. The gist of this is that I wasn't to sure about the purchase of this game at first, especially since it looked like it was aimed at a younger crowd than FFVII was... But I bought it.
Damn, it's a good game. It *is* aimed at a younger crowd, but there is a lot of tongue in cheek types of humor, and a lot of in-jokes for the Japanese audience. The plot moves along quite well, and who ever was directing this project has impeccable timing, with little or no parts that are too long or too short. They didn't cut any corners on this game.
The characters are hand-drawn, living in a 3-d world. And very well animated, also. Every character has several different expressions and movement, which are a delight to watch. As a friend in the industry put it, Capcom's flexing their 2-d muscles. The characters are designed by somebody else than the above mentioned "that guy", which I commend, given that his illustration would be hard to translate well into the character sizes that are used. Character sizes are nice, bigger than the traditional SNES icon characters, but not so large as to fill the screen. And they do have a dash button also, along with a setting for permanent "dash" for those impatient ones among us. The characters are at um, normal height in the dungeon/town/forest scenes, and revert to a scrunched big-head version for walking around the outdoors.
There are 7 characters in the game (at this point), of which you can only carry 6 around with you. The main character is always in your party, and you can have 2 others. You can switch outdoors, but not in dungeons or towns, except under special circumstances. You wander with those 3 characters on the screen, with 1 leading and the other 2 following. They all have their strengths, and weaknesses, and solving many dungeons depend on you having the right character in the party. In the first half of the game, it will automatically switch to the characters you need for a dungeon, but later on, you have to make your own choices, and you can find that you've brought along the wrong characters to complete the dungeon, and have to go back and switch.
The main character also has the ability to change into a dragon (which is why this is called BOF) by the use of Dragon Genes, 18 of which are found throughout the game. You then can combine up to three of those genes to various effects and creatures. You are given an option to save the best 5 combinations also, once you've found one you like. The only problem with this is that it takes a certain amount of your main characters AP points (or magic points) per fighting turn, to remain in Dragon shape, not to mention attack (though most of the breath/claw attacks take no points). It's definitely something you save for the end boss... AP points are only regenerated by sleeping, or through fairly rare potions. Conservation is the key, especially since some of the most wicked Dragon combinations take up to half your AP to launch, much less to keep going through a long fight. This game is really not about long fights though, so it's not that bad.
The outdoors, dungeons, forest, or basically, the background, is done in 3-d. There's no static, 3-d pre-rendered backgrounds a la FFVII, but polygon areas with textures. Quite nice, gives a much more open, airy feel to the game. And also gives you more ability to interact with your background. You can cut down bushes, kick trees and rocks, blow down doors and move large blocks, depending on the character used. Not quite as much as Zelda, but still interesting. Quite a bit of puzzles and dungeons do depend on figuring out what to move (or destroy), and who can do it. To be fair, they generally give a good indication of who's needed for each area beforehand, but then you do have to read Japanese to a fair level to get this information. One feature I like is that when you camp to replenish your characters health/magic, it gives you the option of talking to all of the other characters, who'll remind you of your next objective, or at least give hints. Useful if your stuck, and forgot what the last town said to you.
The dungeons are not large, but they are not quick, small ones either. Once you know exactly where to go, you can zip through them, but if you are there for the first time, looking for treasure, they are about 30 minutes to an hour each, in general. They feel just about right, in my opinion. The encounter rate is completely predictable, since it's really not random. Generally you encounter an enemy at a pre-set distance travelled in a dungeon. You can't really avoid it (though you can run away from a fight), so in some dungeons where you are travelling the same sections at the same pace over and over again, you will encounter enemies at the same spots. There is a good point to this. There's a particular enemy, in a particular dungeon, that if you can swing by the same spot, at the right timing, will appear again and again. The advantage being that while it doesn't give much in the way of exp. points, it gives up to 20,000 zennies if killed in one blow, or by magic. Helps a lot in the grocery shopping... There isn't a huge amount of enemies, only like 4-8 enemy variation (at most) per dungeon. The limitations of hand-drawn animation, but to be fair, all of the enemies are drawn and animated well also. The outdoor encounters are great, you have the choice of checking out an encounter, which is signified by a "!" over the characters head every once in a while. If you ignore it, nothing happens, you keep going on, but if you check it out, you pop into a generic outdoor block, and can pick up a treasure while fighting off various enemies. Perfect if you want to level up, or avoidable if you just want to get somewhere.
The fights themselves are fairly traditional and turn based, you going at different turns, depending on the speed of the character fighting versus the enemy. Along with the traditional fight/magic/item/guard options, theres an option for watching the enemy. Your character does nothing, but watch during that turn, but if the enemy does a special attack (or other special) the character has a chance of learning that special move. Once you've learned it, you can write it down (if you've got the skill ink) and transfer it to other characters (but only one character can know any 1 skill at a time). One skill ink is used everytime you edit the characters skills, but you can move many skills around at once with that skill ink. If you close the skill menu's and try again, that will be another skill ink, though. Skill inks are rare also, so conserve them. You also can pick up various skills from various masters, who you meet throughout the game. Putting yourself under a master gives you bonuses and minuses on your abilities every time you level up, and once you level up a certain amount, they will also give you a new skill, to a maximum of 3-4 new skills, reached after about 10 character levels. The guide gives a good guide to the beginning masters, and how long to stay with them. Beware, leaving a master puts you back at ground zero with him/her. Don't switch masters until you've gotten enough character levels for the next ability, at least. The skills range from very useful to almost useless, and will work better for particular characters than others. There's at least 1 hidden master, and a couple of other hard-to-reach types. The masters, except for the one, only teach 3-4 skills, and as mentioned before, can only be used by one character at a time. So if all of the characters are under the same master, only *one* will get the new skills as they level up. There's only one exception in this matter, as far as I know. That's a particular master that you will not reach until the last stages of the game, and he's tough to find.
You also have an option of fishing at various points in the outdoors. You need the equipment for it, and the right lures, but it's worthwhile, since the fish you catch generally have various healing abilities, making for non-cost potions, and also can be traded for various items (in fact, some of the most powerful weapons/armors/accesories are only available in this manner). The fishing is quite fun, though a bit mindless. At least on puzzle, you have to fish, but in general, it's just an option, not a necessity. You also have the option of building a town, but I haven't figured it out yet, so I cannot say much about it. It involves fairies, and once you figure it out, there seems to be some method to having them create saleable items, some of which you cannot find anywhere else.
All in all, I've got about 62 hours into the game, including fishing, and I've enjoyed every minute of it. The puzzles are hard enough to make you think, but not so hard as to frustrate you endlessly. Japanese ability helps enormously on this, though, since they will give hints to puzzles, but you do have to be able to read them... The story is engaging, and while at first you may think it's designed for a younger audience, it gradually grows more mature as the characters mature and progress. It's not perfect, the speed of the cd access does show up once in a while, but it's not annoying, imo. While the plot is linear enough, you do have different options on where to go and when, so it feels well balanced. Over all, this game is very well balanced. I liked the characters, unlike FFVII (well, I did like Cid and Yuffie, but that's about it), but that's probably because I like more traditional RPG's in the first place. This fairly pure swords and sorcery, with a bit of high-tech thrown in, but only as you get toward the end (sort of a high-tech world that has gone to low-tech, I gather). The main character never talks, just all the characters respond to something he's said, which you can fill in yourself. The japanese in this game is also geared to a younger japanese audience, so there is much more hiragana/katakana than Kanji, though a knowledge on Kanji is still necessary. Still, much easier to read than FFVII, and the characters body language helps. (you should 'ave seen the expression on Deas face when I made an indecent proposal, or at least that's what her reaction (positive) seemed to say...;)
Overall, after playing Beyond the Beyond, FFVII, Saga Frontier, Arc The Lad, and several computer RPGs, I would rate this as among the most enjoyable of the console games played. It doesn't top out the computer games, but is near the top. The atmosphere, when I think about it, is very reminiscent of Dragon Quest V, which is probably one of my favorite games. I would confidently recomend the purchase of this, but only if you read Japanese at at least an intermediate level. Otherwise, wait until next year, when the game comes out in english, and the newsgroups are inundated with other peoples reactions to it.
Reviewed by Paul Hansen, email@example.com