Thursday, July 16, 2020

Beauty, Dragons, and Isometric Horror: Revisiting Breath of Fire IV

My story's a familiar one.

Back in the late '90s, I was in high school and obsessed—OBSESSED—with Japanese RPGs. I first discovered them on the SNES thanks to Final Fantasy VI, and Chrono Trigger remains my second true love after my family to this day. But it was the PlayStation era, thanks to games like Suikoden 2, Chrono Cross, and Final Fantasy IX, that my love for the genre really flourished.

Most of the time, me and my friends all picked up the same games at the same time. We all played through Final Fantasy VII together, comparing notes the next morning on the way to school, and I even went so far as to haul my Commdore 1702 monitor and my PlayStation to my friend's house so we could sit side-by-side and play Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete all night long.

Every once in a while, though, one of us would go off the beaten path and pick up something new. For me, the one I remember most was Breath of Fire III. The communal aspect of playing JRPGs with my friends was one of the big draws, but I have immensely fond memories of popping that Breath of Fire III disc into my PlayStation, cranking the volume up way past what was acceptable in a house with four other occupants, and losing myself in an experience that was all my own. Eventually I hit the game's infamous desert and, thanks to a translation bug that reversed two directions, never made it to the end of the game.

Maybe it was bitterness at this falling out, or maybe it was because by April, 2000, I only had eyes (and so much money) for Final Fantasy IX, but despite my fond memories for Breath of Fire III, I didn't play its sequel until many, many years later when it arrived on the PlayStation Store and was playable on the PlayStation Portable.

And I didn't like it at all.

The visuals and sprite work were gorgeous, the story seemed interesting, and I loved the battle system, which are generally the selling points for JRPGs, but, many other technical flaws kept me from being able to enjoy the game. I dropped it about five hours in.

But, here I am, a few years later, and, thanks to my deep dive back into retro gaming, I've got my PlayStation hooked up to a PVM monitor and I decided NOW was the time to give Breath of Fire IV another shot.

I'm about seven hours in. Here are my impressions.

The Good   
The Sprites

The sprites.

Oh, god.

The sprites.

I mean. Just look at them.

Source: Asobi Station
By the time of its release, Breath of Fire IV was competing in a JRPG genre that had changed drastically in a very short period of time. Final Fantasy VII ushered in a new era of 3D worlds with visuals that focused on cinematic storytelling and unique set pieces. In contrast, Breath of Fire IV feels like the continuation of 16-bit style JRPGs from a universe where Final Fantasy VII was never released. Its use of brilliantly drawn and animated 2D sprites is nearly unrivalled even today, and they manage to convey a broad range of character and emotion that reminds me of Square's best work from the 16-bit era—like Chrono Trigger or Super Mario RPG, which really showcased how talented pixel artists could leverage their work for storytelling—but upgraded to the nth degree. This is pixel art perfection.

Source: Asobi Station
Over on OneZero, Richmond Lee takes a deep dive into the impressive library of 2D games on the PlayStation, and singles out Breath of Fire IV for its impressive sprite work and some bold artistic styles.

He said:
These are some of the most sophisticated 2D sprites ever made for an RPG. They largely avoid having obvious outlines, which up until this point had been a basic tenet of sprite art. Because of this, the artists on Breath of Fire IV had to be far more deliberate with their shapes and shadows. Most 2D games up until this point had very formulaic shading. You work outside to inside, dark to light, in bands of color simulating a gradient. But without outlines, this style is illegible, meaning it was never optimal to begin with. The shading in Breath of Fire IV raises the bar by being planar rather than broadly spherical. It’s not afraid to have large swathes of flat color, which, as it turns out, can be even better for legibility and visual appeal. The complexity isn’t in the amount of information being thrown at you, but in the decisions behind them.
What sets Breath of Fire IV's spritework apart isn't just the brilliant concept art from Tatsuya Yoshikawa or the obvious talent of the sprite artists and animators, but the way it helps define the world as something unique. As Lee points out, there's a careful deliberation to the sprites, each pixel perfectly chosen and each frame meticulously animated to the point that you as the reader feels like these characters live inside your TV screen.

Just one look at Ryu's sprite sheet on The Spriter's Resource shows the level of effort and care that went into a single character.

As tech continues to evolve, we're reaching ever closer to the point of photorealism, but in many ways I've never felt so disconnected from the visuals in my games. Instead, I think one of the main reasons I'm drawn to older games is that they require a marriage between the game designers and the player. These games hold whole worlds within them, but you can only display so much detail at 240p resolution. And so the game reaches out to the player by offering a level of abstraction and asks them to bring their own interpretation of what they see on screen. The sprites here are not photorealistic, but they're realized, and that, to me, is more immersive than photorealistic models and animations that teeter on the edge of the uncanny valley.


I always find it challenging to talk about 32-bit JRPGs without bringing up Final Fantasy VII. It's the meteor-sized elephant in the room because it so fundamentally changed (and popularized) its genre and its impact can be felt in nearly every game that followed. One of the most notable elements to come from Final Fantasy VII's popularity was the empathetic anti-hero. Golbez was a bad dude. Exdeath was an evil tree. Kefka was straight-up insane. Sephiroth? He was traumatized and abused, he was torn apart and reassembled. He held pain and sorrow. Outside of a handful of games from the 16-bit era (like Lunar: The Silver Star and its wonderful antagonist, Ghaleon), not a lot of games from that era attemped to make the player care about the antagonist. Final Fantasy VII changed that, and many games rode in its wake. Breath of Fire IV is one of the most successful.

Early in Breath of Fire IV, the scene fades to black and the player takes control of a woken god emerging from a tomb. Fou-lu, first Emperor of the Fou Empire, is the game's antagonist, intricately tied with its hero, Ryu, and is controlled by the player throughout the game during specific moments. As a storytelling technique, this sets the stage for the coming together of the two nations fighting an endless war, and offers a perspective on the concept of duality. By seeing the conflict through Fou-lu's eyes, the player gains a new understanding of the magnitude of the game's events. No longer is it simply a story of a young amnesiac hero saving the day—instead it becomes something much more complex than that, and fits in nicely with the more politically intricate games of the era like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Orge (though with not nearly the level of complexity as those two games.)

Almost immediately upon taking control of Fou-lu, the player knows that something is different. Instead of fighting rats and slimes like Ryu, Fou-lu takes down enormous dinosaurs with a swing of his sword. The music isn't the usual scrappy battle theme, but something melodic and evocative of the western continent's Asian stylings. It's a twist on an otherwise fairly straightforward take on the JRPG genre, and showcases a level of ambition rarely seen outside of Square's offerings.

The Palette

I'm gonna take a mea culpa here. In the past, I've written about how Breath of Fire IV's muted colour palette was a negative for me. I'm drawn to bright, colourful graphics—like Breath of Fire III—so the soft pastels and predominance of brown in Breath of Fire IV's first several hours felt flat to me. However, as I've played more, and now reached the western continent, I've noticed my attachment to the world is growing. More colour is appearing here and there, and though the saturation remains muted, it gives the world a different feel than almost anything else I've experienced in a JRPG and I've really begun to dig how it helps to establish the world as its own thing, rather than just another carbon copy faux-fantasy world like the earlier games in the series.

In his OneZero piece, Lee comments on the game's unusual palette. "The color palette of the game is incredibly subdued," he said. But then goes on to explain why it's so effective at conveying the game's mood. "It’s full of earth tones, but never comes off as muddy or dreary because there is so much warm/cool contrast going on."

And once you reach the Wychwood outside Ludia, you're hit with a burst of beautiful colour, and the effect of spending so much time in the desert areas becomes more pronounced. Many games of the era (and especially the following era, which hit not long after Breath of Fire IV was released) directed players through several distinct biomes. A desert, a volcano, the snowy place, etc. With Breath of Fire IV, it feels like the world is more deliberately subtle and intertwined, and therein lies a certain beauty.

Breath of Fire IV was released to a post-Final Fantasy VII world, and the JRPG genre had changed immensely. It didn't rely on big, sweeping set pieces like Square's heavy-hitters, but instead chose to go in a different direction, one in which the characters and flavour of the world was brought to life through subtle touches of colour—conveying an impressive amount of emotion and connection to the game world through its brilliant art design and sprite work.

The Music

Breath of Fire III features one of my favourite soundtracks on the PlayStation. Just like the game's graphics, it's fun and full of colour and wears its jazz influence proudly.

Like the visuals, Yoshino Aoki's score for Breath of Fire IV stands in stark contrast—but is no less brilliant. It's moody and vibrant in a way that feels more natural and aged than its predecessor and adds to the game's wonderful visual texture.

I particularly like the main battle theme:

And then, in contrast, there's Fou-Lu's battle theme, which steps away from Ryu's more traditional sound:

The Asian influence here immediately signals to the player that they're somewhere new, and that this isn't your typical JRPG fare. Coupled with Fou-lu's power level in battle, it immediately helps establish him as a threat, and signals to the player that they're in a different part of the world from the main quest.

And then about seven hours in, you reach the Fou Empire with Ryu and his party. The battle theme you've associated with Fou-lu up to that point kicks in the first battle, and immediately you feel your tension rise. By the music alone, you know that things are about to change. You're not in Kansas anymore. It's an effective long-game approach to using music to define the world as much as the graphics.
The Worldbuilding

As important as the graphics and music are for adding atmosphere and texture to Breath of Fire IV's world, the game's writing also contributes heavily to its effectiveness and uniqueness. Of the many elements that come together to form the world, two things stand out above the rest: the western localization and a groundedness to the characters and cities.

The PlayStation era was very hit or miss when it came to game localizations. They range from Final Fantasy VII's barely comprehensible gobbledygook to Vagrant Story's baroque brilliance. Breath of Fire IV falls somewhere in between on a technical level, but uses one trick to separate itself from its peers. While the base writing in the game is serviceable, and the translation itself lacks the personality of, say, Paper Mario or Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, the western localization team swung for the fences by adding a Korean influence to the cultures and characters of the Fou Empire. This is absent in the Japanese version of the game, and does wonders for creating a feeling of divide and singularity to the two warring nations. A less adept localization might have painted both sides with a single brush, reducing the effectiveness of a story that revolves around xenophobia and pointless war.

But perhaps the most effective worldbuilding element isn't how the people populating the world talk, but what they do. The towns in Breath of Fire IV are small and labyrinthine, and absolutely packed with people. As you flit from NPC to NPC, chatting with them along the way, you discover a world that's populated by blue collar workers, tradespeople, merchants, nuns, orphans, soldiers, travellers, and everything in between. This is a world that feels vibrant and alive, with real people populating even its deepest corners.

The Battle System

To this point, Breath of Fire IV hasn't offered much in the way of challenge, but what the battle system lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in visual style. In many ways, it feels like an ultra-refined version of the turn-based battle system featured in games like Lufia 2 or Suikoden, all through a UI that's clear, snappy, and stylized without feeling like a gamified visual element. The player enters commands for all of their party members, and then the turn commences while the player and enemies trade blows. Breath of Fire IV's twist on the formula is that it gives you access to all of your characters in battle, but only allows you to use three on any given turn. This allows you to strategize as the battle progresses by swapping characters in or out based on how the battle's going. Sitting out of battle in the back row lets characters recover their magic points, which adds another layer to the mechanic. It's fun, fast, and several hours in I still look forward to jumping into battle, but that's mostly because…

Battles. Are. So. Beautiful.

Your party faces off against the enemy on gorgeously drawn battlefields, shown from an isometric perspective reminiscent of Ogre Battle and the earlier Breath of Fire games. It makes the game feel more active and cinematic than the more typical side-on or behind-the-back view many other sprite-based JRPGs used even on the PlayStation, and I prefer its level of polish and detail versus something like Final Fantasy IX's slow-as-molasses 3D battles that take so long to load you can go to the kitchen for a coffee refill and get back before ever having to enter a command.

If I were to conceptualize my perfect JRPG project in 2020, I'd start with Breath of Fire IV's look and feel for battles, which I think is about the highest praise I can hand out.

The Bad

Breath of Fire IV is hardly perfect, though, and there are a lot of little peas in this bed.

So. Many. Minigames.

Mini games were the de jour thing during this era, and Breath of Fire IV is packed full of them. Way too full. Like. Fuller than me after a trip to the candy store. While some of them offer a moderately fun diversion from the main quest, they're too frequent, regularly interrupt the story's momentum, and, in the case of my attempted playthrough a few years ago, actively forced me to quit playing. The game controls like a beached shark, making even the minigames with potential more frustrating than fun. If I have to chase another beast through the forest again in my life, it'll be too soon.

Little annoyances

Speaking of these minigames, Breath of Fire IV is also littered with a lot of little quality of life annoyances. None of them are too egregious on their own, but added together they really take away from the experience. For instance, a lot of those minigames and puzzles require you to run around an environment to chase a thief or track a beast. For whatever reason, Breath of Fire IV's team decided they'd spice these sections up with random encounters. It makes something that should take moments take much longer than necessary, even if you're successful in the first try or two. Couple this with the disorienting camera, and it can be tough to regain your bearings after a battle, often leading to the need to start over again. One little design decision, so much frustration.

The Ugly
Sigh. So close.

The Dragons and Polygonal Baddies

I've gushed at length about Breath of Fire IV's sprite work, which makes its dragons even more disappointing. The game's artists and designers deliver a beautiful polygonal world for the player to explore, but its true beauty lies the detailed characters and monsters. Instead of delivering enormous, intricately animated dragons, which are central to its plot and represent many of the most terrifying moments in the game, the artists instead used polygons for the dragons. The result would be laughably dated in any other game, but when put up against the 2D artwork, it becomes clear there was major pressure on the artists to compete with the 3D battle engines and summons featured in many other popular JRPG franchises at the time.

It's not even that the Capcom artists didn't have the resources to produce large animated sprites. Early in the game, Fu-lou faces off against this monstrosity:

Only to face off against... this not long after:


The Zaurus is a regular enemy faced in random battle, while the Kham is meant to be an imposing and powerful boss. The difference is staggering and unfortunate—especially since Breath of Fire III had some truly impressive 2D dragons.


If the dragons are visually ugly, the whole Marlok sub-plot is ethically and morally ugly. Needing to get across a desert traversable only by sandflier, Ryu's party seeks help from a merchant creep named Marlok, who agrees to help them, but only if they can apprehend a thief that stole some of his stuff. Ryu and co. agree, but not before Marlok insists that Nina stay behind as collateral. It… goes down hill from there. As Ryu and his companions head out, Marlok commands Nina to do his housework. Once that's done, he adamantly requests a massage, and then he forces a massage on her—with a literal wink of his eye and a yelp from Nina as the screen fades to black.

It's gross, sexist, and, unfortunately, totally of the time for JRPGs (something that, sadly, hasn't changed enough in the 20 years since.)

My understanding is that the manga adaptation of the game alters this scene so that Cray bursts in just as Marlok is forcing himself on Nina, which is a better (if still unfortunate) handling of the scene. Unfortunately, we don't see or hear from Nina again in the game until the quest with the thief is over and she shows up at the sand cruiser dock in Marlok's tow. Nothing is said of the massages.
Isometric Horror

And, oh. How I've saved the best worst for last. Generally when I write a piece like this about a game I'm enjoying, I like to sandwich the bad stuff in the middle so I can course correct before the end and wrap up on a positive note.

Breath of Fire IV's camera and controls are so mind-bogglingly bad that I can't do that.

For all its many accomplishments—its brilliant art direction, god-tier sprites, terrific story, fun battlesystem—nothing, and I mean nothing, defines your time with Breath of Fire IV more than the way you view and move around the world.

I'm sorry, but what the hell? Who approved these? At what point did the designers come up with this system and think, "Yeah, this is great." What were the playtesters drinking when they played this and didn't immediately flag this as an issue?

Released contemporaneously with Final Fantasy IX, which featured full 360° movement, Breath of Fire IV is set to a rigid four-directional grid-based system reminiscent of much older JRPGs. It's jumpy, unintuitive, and reduces navigating the cramped environments to more of a guessing game than any experience found in other late-era 32-bit JRPGs. You have to leap frog the SNES JRPGs (which generally controlled really nicely) and go all the way back to the NES and beyond to find RPGs that feel as rigid and unintuitive as Breath of Fire IV. And at least those games didn't feature an isometric perspective, a camera you can barely control (and only turn in rigid 90° increments, when you can control it at all), super cramped dungeons and cities where you literally can't see anything, or time-based puzzles that specifically rely on the bad controls and camera for their challenge.

It's like trying to control Final Fantasy Tactics in real time.



*takes a deep breath*

Despite all that. I'm nine hours into this playthrough of Breath of Fire IV and it's going to be the first time I complete it. Maybe it's playing on a CRT monitor, which really allows those sprites to shine. Maybe it's sheer grit and determination. Maybe it's a growing understanding of how to appreciate games within their context, rather than expecting them to be something more modern. Nah. It's the sprite art.

Breath of Fire IV is a gorgeous experience with a great cast of characters, a simple but effective battle system, and one of my favourite worlds in any PlayStation JRPG, but it's ultimately knocked down a few notches by easily avoidable design decisions and technical elements that hold it back from being a true classic on a system that produced many of the genre's most famous and lasting games.

Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories. He continues to write about video games with his column, Insert Cartridge.