GameSpite Quarterly 8 | Breath of Fire III: The Turn

Breath of Fire III is kind of a mess. It also has this one unique NPC sprite: a sailor (who just so happens to also be a frog), with a bag slung over his shoulder, a foot propped on a dock post, and blowing smoke rings out of his pipe. He stares out to sea with a big grin on his face, as to say, “Ah, now this is the life.” That is to say, it’s kind of a mess -- but a wonderful mess.

Breath of Fire III was the first PlayStation entry in Capcom’s dragons-punching-God RPG series. Its 1998 release marked a clumsy but distinct step in a new direction for the property. While the SNES entries are defined by their by-the-numbers 16-bit RPG mechanics (except that, like, you can totally turn into a dragon, dude) and their “let’s go take down God, the bastard” story sensibilities, III introduced a fair amount of character development, a toned-down and more understated plot, and some impressive art design, all touchstones of the excellent later series entries. It also retained some of the worse excesses of the 16-bit era, namely a reliance on fetch quests and broken bridges, that keep it from realizing its potential.

As always, the protagonist is a member of the Dragon Tribe named Ryu (part of Breath of Fire’s schtick is that its games are populated by all sorts of animal people who fall into racial tribes. There’s the cat-like Warren Tribe, the fishman Manillo Tribe, etc., etc.). The dragons, known here as The Brood, were mostly wiped out by the Goddess Myria. Apparently, she deemed their penchant for breathing fire and generally being all cool and dragon-like too dangerous for the world, and empowered an army of “Guardians” to track them down and slaughter them. Ryu escaped this fate, mostly because he was trapped as a baby in a chunk of magical chrysm ore, until accidentally freed by a pair of careless minors hundreds of years later. Escaping from the chrysm mines, he soon takes human guise and falls in with pair of two-bit thieves, Rei and Teepo, who become his surrogate family. Here’s where III reveals the type of game it’s going to be. An extended prologue establishes the character ties between Ryu, Rei, and Teepo and the game’s theme of moral ambiguity.

After being caught theving, the trio is sentenced to kill a monster that’s been eating the local livestock. What at first seems like a stereotypical RPG quest takes a somber turn when the monster is revealed to have only been stealing food to feed its (already dead) babies. The trio are shocked by this revelation and question if they would have killed the beast if they had known. They don’t have an answe,r and the game doesn’t provide one. They have to live with the results of their actions, not that there’s much of a consequence in this instance. That changes, though, as this theme of moral uncertainty repeats throughout the rest of the game.

For their next job, the three kids decide to take on the greedy mayor McNeil whose high taxes keep the nearby village poor. They succeed in stealing back the taxes, but in another subversion of a formula RPG plot, when they return to the village the next morning they find that the townspeople have returned all the money in fear of reprisal. Turns out that McNeil is tied to a powerful crime syndicate, and the trio is set upon by a pair of mafia enforcers. Thanks to his innate dragon toughness Ryu survives the hit. He wakes healed, but alone. The tax theft has long-lasting repercussions that drive the action for the next fifteen hours or so. The hitmen remain on Ryu’s trail as he sets out into the world to seek his lost friends.

This search for his family comprises most of the remainder of the game, though it eventually gives way to the “main” plot. Essentially, these opening hours are an example of that hoary gaming troupe: the “destroyed hometown.” But because III focuses on building the relationship of these characters and creating this little surrogate family, the punch strikes with unusual force. As the player, we want to find Teepo and Rei as much as we feel Ryu does. And because it will be a long, long time until we do, the search remains a perpetual carrot and, eventually, becomes a longing for those golden days before the real world intruded into their lives.

Breath of Fire III is often criticized for having a weak or generic plot. Proponents of this criticism are missing the point. It’s not that the plot is bad, it’s that it’s smaller and more focused on character relationships and not painting a black and white scenario than a world-spanning epic adventure. The plot -- that is to say, the events that move the story forward -- of the first few hours can basically be broken down into: Ryu escapes from a mine, Ryu meets Rei and Teepo, Ryu and friends run afoul some criminals and get separated. But such a simple synopsis leaves out the character building that goes on during these opening moments that gives the game its emotional core and direction.

It’s a long time before we’re introduced to the central conflict. Instead the game spends its time building the setting and establishing new character bonds. Ryu meets the princess Nina and takes on a protector’s role. Then the pair meet eccentric inventor Momo who provides guardianship for the children (interestingly, until Momo is introduced there is only one other adult who isn’t actively trying to harm the kids or completely apathetic to their plight). Finally, Ryu finds a mentor in the Guardian Garr, one of the warriors who helped eradicate the dragons. With Garr the main plot begins to take form. At first Garr seeks to destroy Ryu and fulfill his duty but begins to question his beliefs as he grows to know and care for Ryu. And so the team sets off to find Myria and ask her the hard questions about dragons and war and genocide and the state of the world (this being an RPG, tracking down God isn’t an impossible proposition).

Most of the action takes place on a small strip of land along a coastline: There’s a handful of villages, a forest or two, a few mountains, and that’s it. Missing is the world-spanning action that defines most other RPGs. The search for Myria reveals the truth. The rest of the world is covered by an inhabitable desert created by high technology during an ancient war. That there is any habitable land left is only thanks to Myria’s grace. She keeps the desert at bay and controls the distribution of technology so that humanity doesn’t destroy itself again (and seeing as how characters routinely abuse what little they’re given, she may have a point). At the end of the game, Ryu confronts Myria and the player is asked to make a choice: Does Ryu sacrifice his powers and live in captivity, or does he hold Myria accountable for the genocide of an entire race and the totalitarian control of what life is left? At first glance the choice seems clear: Myria’s the evil god and must be overthrown, just like in the first two games. But careful consideration reveals things aren’t so black and white. Myria actually believes what she is doing is right. She killed off the dragons because they posed a real danger (the three hardest fights in the game are all against dragons; even the last boss doesn’t compare), the technology she denies humanity is responsible for the destruction of 99% of the world, and her existence is the only thing holding back the desert. It’s possible to accept her offer and consent to her rule. This ending is just as valid as the “real” one, and the game doesn’t condemn it as the wrong choice. It simply shows Ryu sitting in the artificial environment Myria’s created for him before fading to black with the words “And so time passed… unchanging…” Sure, the world might be stuck in a state of stasis but at least it won’t be destroyed. Here, Ryu sacrifices himself to save the lives of countless thousands of people, a heroic action by any metric.

Likewise, the “real” ending is just as morally vague. Defeating Myria ends her rule and the heroes escape from her fortress. Then in a short, wordless ending cinema they look out at the endless expanse of desert. Roll credits. There’s a “that’s it?!” feeling to the ending, it’s almost a let-down, considering how many hours have to be logged to reach it. The real problem, the invasion of the desert, is still very much at large, and the trouble with Myria is almost trivial by comparison. No amount of ultimate weapons or high-level spells are going to be any help against encroaching environmental decay. The game doesn’t provide a solution to this threat, or even hint at one. In a way, Myria was right again: The power of the dragons really has doomed the world. And so we’re left with the heroes (and player) wondering if they’ve really made the right choice. Regarding that central conflict of dangerous freedom versus confined safety, III merely asks the question and leaves it to the player to make up their own mind.

In Breath of Fire III, we have a interesting spin on a typical RPG plot, with lots of time committed to character development, and a heaping of actual subtext. So why isn’t the game more highly regarded? The problem is that’s it’s too damn long. The story would be great for a twenty to twenty-five hour game. Breath of Fire III pads things out to twice that. Long stretches of time are spent on pointless fetch quest, or navigating around invented roadblocks, or crawling through irrelevant dungeons. The important stuff -- Ryu’s search for his family and the conflict with Myria -- are at either end of the game. In between are a lot of hoops that must be jumped through. The worst of these involves getting around a lava flow from a recently erupted volcano. When the volcano pass is barred from use, the team tries sailing around instead. To do so they have to charter a ship. To do that the lighthouse has to be fixed. To fix the lighthouse, they have to help a ship guild member get strong enough to survive the monsters inside. Doing so involves a tedious mini-game that takes sixty rounds of combat to complete if done perfectly. Most likely it will take much, much more. Training the guild member leaves him too weak to fight, so the team has to fix the lighthouse themselves. After a dungeon and two bosses, they’re told the ship isn’t available and to just use the secret passage through the volcano instead. Something like six hours is wasted on this nonsense, all for nothing. The passage through the volcano is accessible from the start, but the game won’t let the player through until they’ve been told they can use it.

Breath of Fire III can be outright fascinating at times, but it does a great disservice to itself when it forces the player to put up with scenarios that should have been optional or even cut entirely. Interestingly, the same type of constant roadblocks is used later to great effect. The team learns that Myria’s seat of power is on a distant continent across a large and hostile ocean. Numerous attempts are made to find a way across but our heroes are thwarted at every opportunity. Actually making it across the ocean requires several dungeons, a fetch quest or two, and, because this is a Breath of Fire game, a handful of minigames. Yes, this pads out the game even more, but it also gives the distant continent an isolated and lonely feel. It takes work to get there, and there is a real sense of accomplishment when you reach the new continent. There’s excitement at setting foot on forbidden, unexplored ground, and loneliness at leaving the civilized world behind. Aside from a few pseudo-towns there’s nothing resembling the hustle and bustle of the main continent. All the unique sprites and little details that make III’s world so lived-in are gone. I can’t think of any other RPG whose last areas feel as remote as III’s do.

What’s more, the lonely continent is home to the infamous Desert of Death. This mini-game-ish psudo-dungeon area is probably one of the most hated points in the pantheon of JRPGs. I can’t even begin to guess how many players didn’t see the end of the game thanks to it. Basically, the player has to use stars to navigate a huge, featureless plain. The way is peppered with random battles and a limited water supply creates a strict time limit. It takes about a real-world hour to cross the desert one way, and while the solution couldn’t be simpler (turn one degree to the left, walk straight) the game insist on giving you vague and complicated instructions. Worse, the official strategy guide’s directions were incorrect. If you followed the guide, you would walk forever until your water ran out, the whole while cursing the designers who came up with this bullshit. These days, what with our GameFAQs and Googles and YouTubes, the quick and easy way is fairly well known. But back when III first came out, the desert was a hell of a bitch. Now it’s just mildly tedious, not a game-ending gob of frustration.

But the desert, with all its tedium, does something unique as well. If you’re not fighting bad directions, the desert can take on a completive mood. Traveling during the day is certain death, plus there are no stars to navigate by. So for that hour it takes to cross you’re treated to monotonous, unchanging night scenery that after time becomes serene and beautiful in its own way. The stars shine overhead, the leagues of sand roll by underneath, and a cold wind accompanies the beats of synthy lounge jazz (synthy lounge jazz being III’s genre of choice). With nothing to do except walk, fight the odd random battle, and rest during the day, the mind begins to wander. The desert becomes a space to ponder loneliness and beauty, to come to terms with the desert on its own terms, and overcome an obstacle that can’t be beat by grinding. And if you choose to go back in to get the few hidden items, the effect only increases. It’s a bold move to force the player through such a slow and deliberate challenge, especially on the cusp of the end game. And while the desert was the death-knoll for a countless number of playthroughs, I can’t help but admire it for trying something new and inviting me into a mental state I’ve only found in one other game (the similar Golden Plains in Breath of Fire IV).

Perhaps III’s greatest weakness is that it ultimately falls short of communicating its strengths. In many ways it tries to push into a new direction and leave behind the reputation of Final Fantasy wannabe it had gained in the SNES days. But it just can’t let go of outdated pacing conventions. The bold step in a new direction ends up more of a half-hearted stumble. What should have been remembered as a unique spin on genre clichés like Suikoden instead ends up just another middle-of-the-road PlayStation RPG. Thankfully, Capcom was able to learn from III’s mistakes; if III is the learning pains of trying something new, then Breath of Fire IV is the carful refinement by a practiced hand. Breath of Fire III marks a turning point for the series. Behind it lay the second rate 16-bit entries, ahead the excellent Breath of Fire IV and the even more highly regarded Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. III is the awkward middle child, unsure and clumsy. Look past his failings though, and you’ll see he has a lot to offer.

Even detractors of III agree that the game has gorgeous spritework. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; Capcom is known for their fluid and detailed sprites. But what really makes III stand out is how effectively the sprites are used to create a believable world. The cities and towns of III feel lived-in and alive. Countless one-of-a-kind NPCs abound. Portly chefs carry baskets of fresh baked bread right off the line, bums slouch against dirty walls in back alleys, farmers hack at wheat or relax in the fields smoking long pipes. And in one port city, a single sailor looks out at sea, smile on his face as if to say, “Ah, now this is the life.”

By Philip Armstrong? | August 18, 2011 | Last: Zodiac Misfit: Final Fantasy Tactics | Next: Super Adventure Rockman