GameSpite Quarterly 8 | Breath of Fire IV: Ying and Yang

I have this condition. When I see an average or outright bad book or movie or game or whatever praised on high by the masses I tend to get a tiny bit angry.

“People!” I want to scream. “Can’t you see this thing that you like is stupid? This more obscure thing that I like is better. Why can’t you see how stupid you are, not liking the things I do?”

If only I could shake lose their horrible opinions, but they offend by insisting their taste is best. I call this condition Guy-On-The-Internet Syndrome. It doesn’t affect just me alone either. Literally millions of guys on the Internet become Guys-On-The-Internet due to its terrible influence. The only cure is to step back, realize that even though someone doesn’t like the same media as you it doesn’t make them inferior, and know that the wonderful world-changing awe-inspiring thing you love is probably just another piece of crap to everyone else. Humility is the name of the game here. That’s why all you stupid jerks need to drop your horrible preconceptions and listen up when I tell you that Breath of Fire IV is inarguably and unequivocally the best RPG on the PlayStation as well as the greatest game ever created, more akin to the work of gods than the failures of man, and the most important piece of fiction ever devised. Simply put, it’s guaranteed to change your life.

Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole (another symptom of Guy-On-The-Internet Syndrome). I promise that future outlandish statements of praise won’t be so comically over-the-top. They will, however, make up for it in painful sincerity. See, Breath of Fire IV spoke to me. With my first playthough came the slow dawning that this wasn’t just another PlayStation RPG, but a good one. Like, really good. Really, really good. The further in I got, the more I sat in admiration of the refined gameplay, the subtle story, the exquisite artist design. I kept on admiring as hard as I could until I had come to the conclusion that Breath of Fire IV was the finest example of the JRPG form in the era. I’m aware that my passion for this game may come across a little… fanboyish, and that for many people IV really is just another post-Final Fantasy VII boom PlayStation RPG. As much as I want to be a Guy-On-The-Internet and let people know how dumb they are for not recognizing its genius, I can respect that not everyone is as impressed with talking dog samurai as I am. All this is just a convoluted way of saying opinions differ, I probably like this game way more than I should, and that you should take it with a grain of salt when I say things like (and here’s the first of those painfully sincere statements), “Breath of Fire IV represents a step towards games as Literature.”

What is it about IV I find so darn compelling? To start with, nearly everything that didn’t work in Breath of Fire III is fixed. What did work is refined to elegant finesse. IV isn’t bigger and more grandiose than its predecessors. And it certainly isn’t that overused and absurd term “epic.” Everything’s smaller, more focused. IV is Breath of Fire matured. There’s a clear line of evolution through the first four games. With IV, it feels like Capcom finally succeeded in what they aiming for in the previous three. No wonder Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is such a radical departure for the series. After IV, the only option was to take things to a new place.

Breath of Fire IV is the story of the Yorae Dragon. If you remember your Korean alarm bells might be going off. “Yorae” is a Korean term for a buddha. “Korean” because the IV translation replaced all kanji in the original Japanese script with Korean hanja to best preserve the game’s Asian-but-not-Japanese aesthetic, and “Buddha” because the game is just lousy with Taoist and Buddhist symbolism. But unlike certain Square games that aped Judo-Christian mythology with little to no regard for original meaning or intent, IV goes out of its way to accurately represent these philosophies and in doing so creates a bedrock of real world subtext to support and enhance the game’s central theme.

The people in the world of IV have a nasty habit of summoning dragons. These “dragons” are more akin to extra-demensional metaphysical beings than the traditional giant winged lizards we’re used to. These dragons, or “The Endless” as they’re also called, are extremely powerful and are worshiped as gods. During a particularly nasty world war The Muuru Empire attempted to summon a dragon to gain a fighting edge. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good at it and after several unsuccessful attempts they managed to partly summon the Yorae Dragon. The summon split the dragon into two halves and strewn one of them across time. The first half was named Fou-lu. He managed to end the war, usher in the first period of peace in centuries, and recast the nation as the Fou Empire, becoming its first ruler and patron god. This accomplished, he sealed himself up in a tomb to await the appearance of the second half so they could reunite and become whole. Six hundred years later, the peace between the Fou Empire and the united Kingdoms of the East is strained. Elina, a princess from the eastern kingdom of Wyndia has gone missing during a goodwill mission to the boarder. Her sister, Nina, and fiancé, Cray, embark on a rescue mission. During their travels, they come across a naked young man with no memory named Ryu. He is, of course, the newly arrived other half of the Yorae dragon. Not that anyone knows this at the time.

The game begins with a wonderfully subdued opening with little in the way of exposition. Nina introduces us to herself, Cray, and their mission to find her sister. Their sandflyer (kinda a hover-boat for crossing the large desert that is the game’s initial setting) crests a dune, a lizard scampers across a boulder, the sun rises from behind a mountain range, all set to the haunting notes of IV’s main theme Endings and Beginnings. The calm ends when a dragon attacks the pair’s ship and the characters are forced into action. But it’s remarkable how quiet and introspective the opening moments are: All appropriate terms to describe the tone that permeates most of the game. It’s cinematic as well, and not in the “over the top action” sense but in the “speaking in the language of the cinema” sense. Even more impressive is that everything is rendered using the in-game engine and never degenerates to FMV.

Breath of Fire IV is similar to Breath of Fire III except, like I said, everything’s better. You still control beautiful 2D sprites in 3D isometric environments. In III everything was presented from a single angle, but you could rotate the camera a few degrees in any direction to get a better viewpoint. This gave the impression you were craning your neck to see around corners and behind obstacles. This allowed the developers to hide items in all sorts of clever places. It served the game well. IV gives more camera control but retains the spirit of III. You can now rotate the camera a full 360 degrees, but only in 90-degree increments. This allows a greater number of vantages to explore environments while still limiting what can be seen. A lot of hidden items and characters are only revealed when the camera is moving from one vantage to the next. There has been some criticism of the horrible camera, especially in the game’s convoluted and crowded towns. What critics miss is that the camera works exactly as intended and that the obscuration is deliberate. Not only does this allow Capcom to hide secrets and maintain tradition, but also to build the reality of the setting. The towns and cities are built for the inhabitants, not for some player with a bird’s eye view. Narrow alleys wind between close set buildings, banners and balconies hang over thoroughfares, and everywhere is the accumulated debris of life. The towns mimic the feel of real places and are not artificial constructs at the service of the player—well, of course, they actually are. But the illusion is intact. By forcing the player to constantly rotate the camera to understand the geometry of a location, Capcom is inviting them to explore and inhabit their world.

That the setting is so well realized accounts for much of the game’s charm. Remember that sailor frog sprite from III? Every character in IV is like that. The NPCs live their world. They run and rest, haggle and argue, gesture and emote, work, play, lounge, loaf, fish, flex, brandish, pace, prod, fight, and feast. Basically everything except wait for the player to walk up and talk to them. Likewise, there’s a singleness of design that unifies the setting and makes it feel like an actual place. III could have a high-tech genetic food farm next to a medieval castle (complete with teleportation pad in the basement) and a stone’s throw away from a magic forest: The regular hodgepodge of JRPG world design. IV’s world is steeped in history and culture, a land grown organically and not at the player’s service. Where III often resembled a Saturday morning cartoon, IV sticks to a muted color pallet. This also helps create a unified realistic setting. Character sprites blend better with the backgrounds and despite a wide range of cultures and locations everything homogenizes nicely.

Combat is also suitably advanced from III’s system. While superficially similar at first, its depths are revealed when you realize that any of the six player characters can be swapped into active combat at anytime and in any order (beating Final Fantasy X to the punch by a year). Special attacks executed in the proper order combine into combos, greatly multiplying their efficiency. However, imprecise planing can lead to an enemy sneaking their attack in and break the combo sequence. A well-executed combo can be devastating, while a single mistake can leave the party very venerable. It’s a robust, fast-paced, and fun system.

Learning skills from enemies returns in a much less frustrating form. Instead of wasting a turn “observing” the baddies as in III, one only has to defend. And defending against a skill once is usually enough to learn it, where in III it sometimes took ten or twenty tries before the skill would be yours.

The masters system also returns, and now characters can apprentice under masters (affecting the rates that stats level up) immediately, receiving new abilities when certain unique game conditions are met. In III you usually had to perform some crazy task before a master would become available and then would impart new skills only after a certain number of levels had been reached. IV’s system allows for more control and customization of character growth, and generally runs a lot smoother.

This smoothness goes a long way towards alleviating III’s biggest problem, that of padding and pointless fetch quests. IV still suffers from a lot of needless detours, but the game moves at a brisker pace, the play is interesting enough, and the world is so fascinating to explore that the bloat doesn’t have the same bite. The tendency for mini-games returns, and they are just as mandatory as the ones in III. Two new things make them more bearable. First, they tend to be more fun than the ones in III. There’s nothing as ridiculous or lengthy as the guild member training sequence. Second, IV tracks “game points,” which are earned by excelling in combat and at mini-games. Game points are used to level up specific dragon transformation forms. Gone is the gene system from III—just about the only thing you’ll genuinely miss. Instead, as Ryu finds hidden dragon gems, he unlocks new forms to transform into. After a certain number of game points have been acquired, the player can choose to increase the strength of one form. Just by progressing normally through the game, the player will accumulate enough points for a couple of transformations. But to get enough to level every form will require some dedication. Not choosing to level forms never becomes a crippling choice, as dragon transformation isn’t as important for success as in previous Breath of Fire games. Finding stronger skills and creating combos is the far more effective strategy. But the game points are there if the player wants to explore them, and it’s always nice to have options.

Speaking of dragons, special mention must be made to their design. Both the dragon transformation forms and the other Endless Ryu encounters on his journey are triumphs of imaginative design. There’s nothing resembling the traditional portrayal of the mythical beast. The closest the game gets is more insect than lizard, and from there things only get more wild. The sky dragon is equal parts snake, elephant, and whale; the mud dragon is a translucent worm with visible spinal segments; the tree dragon is a larval worm rooted to the ground and curled in on itself. Critics have claimed that this somehow diminishes the game because “those aren’t dragons, man. Dragons are supposed to be big fire lizards that are all cool and big! Not these crazy things.” I’m grateful that IV reinterprets what a “dragon” can be instead of repeating old cliches.

But where IV truly outshines its predecessor is in story and character. III had a handful of likable characters and a whole lot of clunkers. Every player character in IV is engaging and appealing. Ryu, having just been summoned into existence at the beginning of the game, is a blank slate, and a rare example of the silent protagonist working as a true player expy in the game world. Besides the charming and kind Nina and down-to-earth determined Cray, Ryu meets three other characters who join him on his journey. First is Ershin, a… thing clad in heavy armor used by the social workers who clean up the “cursed” fallout caused by the Fou Empire’s devastating “Hex Cannon” (basically, the fantastical equivalent to a nuclear bomb). Ershin resembles nothing more than a caped robotic trashcan and speaks in a perplexing semi-third person voice. There’s really no other character like her in the annuals of videogamedom; a true original. When the party is arrested for violating the peace treaty agreement between the two nations they are placed under the care of Scias, a stoic samurai mercenary from the Grassrunner tribe (i.e. dog dudes). He gradually comes around to Ryu’s side and rejects the Kingdoms’ gold in order to help our heroes. It’s revealed that he’s soft-spoken not because he’s a badass warrior (though he is) but because he has a terrible stutter and is shy about it. (In the Japanese version, Scias instead slurs all his words because he’s perpetually sloshed. While drunken sheepdog samurai is a character type I can get behind, I think I prefer shy stuttering Scias. There’s something captivating about a strong fighter who has such a prominent insecurity.) Lastly, Ryu and Co. are captured by a Fou Empire soldier named Ursula. She insists on taking the team to the Fou capital city, just the place they heading to anyway. Hard and stern at first, her tough military shell cracks at times to reveal a tender side. Also, she’s a gun-wielding army ninja fox lady. It’s a pretty cool mash-up.

Outshining them all is Fou-lu, whose side of the story the player experiences at various times. Awakening from his 600-year slumber, he is ambushed by the Fou Empire. Seems they aren’t looking forward to this old god-emporer coming back and disrupting their warmongering plans. Fou-lu is already very strong at the start of the game and decimates high-level opponents with single strikes from his magical energy sword. Just as III Ryu’s subtile change from flailing his sword like a child to confident strikes was the high-point of that game’s visual storytelling, the way Fou-lu nonchalantly walks off the battle screen without a backwards glance speaks volumes about his character. Despite his inherent strength, the Fou Empire exploit his weakness to fire and hunt him relentlessly through the wilderness. Injured, he finds his way to a rural village where he is tended by a young lady named Mami. In a remarkable bit of character development, Mami softens and humanizes Fou-lu. She transforms him from a literally holier-than-thou royal into a genuinely likable guy. Through their interactions we see the loneliness and sadness behind Fou-lu’s aloof facade and come to understand him as a person. The two slowly, quietly begin to fall in love.

Tragedy strikes when the Fou Empire discover Fou-lu’s hiding place and kidnap Mami. Traveling to rescue her, he is blasted with the Hex Cannon and we learn of its terrible nature. This magical weapon of mass destruction is powered by nothing less than feelings of regret and pain from a human sacrifice. The more the sacrifice is connected to and feels for the target, the more devastating the outcome. The Empire tortures and slaughters Mami to fuel the attack on Fou-lu. This doesn’t quite kill him so much as it breaks his newfound spirit (he is an Endless, after all; they’re known for not dying). Devastated by the cruel loss of his love, the corruption of his empire, and the general shittyness of the world, he marches on the capital, intent on revenge.

Running parallel to all this is Ryu’s side of the story. It’s a much more traditional JRPG tale with the gathering of companions, adventures in fantastic locals, and plenty of monsters to beat up. However, it’s not without its dark bits. Ryu witnesses the effects of war: Children displaced, lands ruined by the Hex Cannon, innocents slaughtered indifferently; human cruelty on a believable scale. When finally Ryu and Fou-lu meet, the player must decide which of the two characters’ personalities becomes the dominant one of the Yorae Dragon. Do they agree that the actions of evil and petty men are unforgivable and must be ended through Fou-lu’s vengeance, or do they find that despite all the cruelty and pain there is good in the world and it must be protected? Like III, the choice isn’t so clear. Choosing Ryu doesn’t end the war, it doesn’t ensure that good will triumph, and the real villain of the game goes scott-free. Lord Yuna, the power behind the Fou Empire throne and mastermind behind the Empire’s escalation of war, does something more monstrously evil than I’ve seen in any other JRPG. Completely catastrophic on both large scale and personal levels, it is made all the worst for the utterly banal motivations behind it. This action puts all the meteor-summoning, crystal-gathering, world-destroying master plans of other JRPG villains to shame. And in Ryu’s ending, not only is he not punished, he promises to do it again. At least with Fou-lu’s ending you can be sure Yuna gets his comeuppance.

This isn’t to say that Fou-lu’s ending is all justice and retribution. Not only does Fou-Lu’s path presumably end with the death of all humanity, but it also involves the immediate termination of the game’s primary characters. After the union and with Fou-lu as the dominant personality, the game forces you to battle as the newly formed Yorae dragon against Nina, Cray, Erishn, Scias, and Ursula. Not that they have any chance against what is essentially a god. That you are the one selecting the commands and targeting your former friends adds consequence to choosing Fou-lu’s path. I feel this is even more significant because, as I see it, the other playable characters represent the most compelling case for Ryu’s side. While Ryu meets plenty of nice enough folks on his journey it’s not enough to offset the brutality of men in power. But in each of the player characters we find some sort of genuine good. Cray grows from a selfish and single-minded individual to one who makes a painful and personal sacrifice. The secret source of Ershin’s spirit choses to remain in bondage so that Ershin may live. Scias gives up easy wealth to help those he sees as friends, even if they don’t see him the same way. Ursula loses her jingoistic attitude and discovers that there’s worth in her enemies. If there’s any hope for peace between the nations after the game ends, it’s because of her. And Nina is always there behind Ryu, supporting with kindness and compassion. There’s not a hateful bone in her body. By selecting Fou-lu’s path you have to systematically destroy the most meaningful declarations of virtue in the game.

Everything in Breath of Fire IV’s narrative is centered around this specific choice. The character and plot arcs, the separate point of views, the themes and conversations, and especially the symbolism are all at the service of this one central question. This is why the game approaches capital-L Literature—and while I don’t believe that any videogame so far is Literature, this one is among a handful that have come close. IV is about the exploration of a single idea: a question of the nature of good and evil, of morality, and shades of gray. It’s the same question that the series has clumsily tried to answer since the first game. Partly why it finally works here is because the underlying symbolism is bolstered by real world concepts and ideas. The central motif to IV is ying and yang, the idea that polar forces are interdependent and create a unified whole. Most obviously this is represented by Ryu and Fou-lu themselves. While both part of the Yorae (remember: “enlightened” ) Dragon they are explicably opposite in nearly every way. Ryu is more masculine, Fou-lu more effeminate. Ryu appears in the desert during the day, Fou-Lu emerges from his temple in the middle of a forest at night. Ryu is associated with fire magic and attacks, Fou-lu is skilled in water and ice. Fou-lu is a creature of the past and legacy, Ryu is of the present and is a blank slate. The list goes on. On the back of Fou-lu’s clothing is a symbol that combines the Taijitu (that black and white circle that represents ying-yang), an eastern dragon motif, and the Japanese Sanskrit for “Om.” Likewise, Ryu and Fou-lu meet on a Chinese Ba gua (literally “eight symbols). These designs (or trigrams) are composed of broken and unbroken lines that are known as… wait for it… ying and yang. It’s no accident that Fou-lu stands on the trigram for heaven, while Ryu approaches from the one representing earth. Traditionally, a Ba gua is rendered with a Taijitu in the center, but it is missing the one in IV. That is, until you realize that Ryu and Fou-lu unite in the center of the Ba gua and symbolically create the Taijitu. At first it appears that the symbolism breaks down with the choice of which of their personalities is dominant. The obvious answer would be some sort of option that combines Fou-lu and Ryu equally, but you have to choose one or the other, and there is no third option. Here’s the catch: both choices are the culmination of ying and yang. The Yorae, enlightened, Dragon is formed in both paths. The incompatible ying and yang are made whole, and the Taijitu is formed either way. The only difference is the dominant morality: justice or virtue. And this is chosen by the player, who has been informed by the experiences in the game. It’s not that either path is right or wrong, but which the player feels is the true enlightenment.

This is why I admire Breath of Fire IV so much. It’s finely crafted; a fun and interesting RPG in its own right. But for all of its 40 hours of random battles and side-quests, fishing mini-games and ultimate weapons, powerful magics and optional superbosses it’s all really about one singular idea. And maybe maybe maybe, if you squint real hard, and give it the benefit of the doubt, it might even have something truthful to say about the human condition.

For whatever reason, IV is the black sheep of the series. It doesn’t have the nostalgia that II and III generate for series fans, and it didn’t obtain the cult status that it’s younger brother Dragon Quarter did. It’s just kinda there, the game in the series most people skipped. That it was released at the very end of the PlayStation’s life didn’t help. Dropping just two weeks after Final Fantasy IX and a whole month after the PlayStation 2’s launch, Breath of Fire IV quietly slinked into the background, a place it’s been happy to occupy to this day. It’s found a few diehard fans but mostly it’s ignored. When I advocate the game I feel like I’m selling champagne to beer drinkers. And when I hear outlandish claims like the story is so thin to be nonexistent or that the characters are an unlikable group of bland blobs or that the gameplay is boring and uninspired I just want to go all out Guy-On-The-Internet. However, it’s important to remember that one’s champagne is another’s tap water, and that the virtue of humility lies on the path to enlightenment.

By Philip Armstrong? | August 16, 2011 | Last: Incredible Crisis? | Next: A Console Abroad?