Role-Playing Games are a genre of video games I used to be rather fond of up until I graduated high school. The dozens upon dozens of hours required to finish most RPGs started to seem insurmountable after going through college and getting a full time job. This is further compounded by the fact that the “reward” for powering through said time sink is often a melodramatic storyline wrapped in pretentious themes to make itself seem smarter than it actually is. Luckily there are still great RPGs out there worth taking a chance on, such as Capcom’s 1993 cult classic Breath of Fire which I recently played for the first time.
In Breath of Fire players step into the shoes of Ryu (not to be confused with Ryu from Street Fighter), a teenage dragon warrior on a quest to save his sister Sara who is kidnaped by a rival clan hellbent on awakening the evil goddess Tyr and destroying the world. Along the way Ryu will recruit a colorful cast of characters such as a bird-winged princess, a bow-wielding wolf-man, and a serpent-tailed sorceress to aid him. Breath of Fire’s story is pretty generic all things considered and doesn’t take itself too seriously, but considering the game is 30 years old it’s a detail I’m willing to overlook. If anything it’s a refreshing change to see a straightforward good versus evil story in a genre that has become increasingly obsessed with moral ambiguity over the years.
Being a game created for the Super Nintendo, Breath of Fire has a hefty amount of that old-school charm in terms of presentation. Characters, monsters, and environments aren’t overly detailed, but the vibrant colors and expressive animations more than make up for the limitations of the hardware. The music is thoroughly enjoyable and sets the tone of the game’s many scenarios quite well, though it’s not as memorable as some of its contemporaries in my opinion. In terms of negatives, the menus use heavily abbreviated names for items and spells which makes it a little hard to ascertain what everything does at first. Additionally while the sound effects are nice and crunchy, they do tend to get a little repetitive after a while.
As far as RPGs are concerned, Breath of Fire is borderline archetypical in terms of its gameplay mechanics. The player wanders the overworld, fights monsters in turn-based combat, acquires experience points to level up and become stronger, uses gold to buy useful items and equipment, and seeks out relevant dungeons to conquer and make progress in the story. The character leading your party can also interact with the environment using overworld abilities such as Nina transforming into a bird to expedite travel or Karn opening locked doors and disarming traps. Nothing here is particularly unique, but the execution of these ideas is so strong that the game doesn’t need any gimmicks to remain interesting. Echoing my issue with the readability of the menus, my primary contention with the gameplay is the fact that it doesn’t always communicate what you need to do to progress very clearly. I can tolerate vague instructions to a degree in most games, but in Breath of Fire it got pretty annoying given how big the world is with its numerous towns, dungeons, and secret areas. I will acknowledge however, that this issue is common in lots of older games so I won’t knock it too hard.
From the Catholic perspective, Breath of Fire’s simplicity offers an interesting approach I believe some of us would do well to emulate. Just as Breath of Fire is a perfectly good Role-Playing game thanks to its straightforward story and refined core mechanics, we can also grow in virtue by taking a step back and returning to the basics every once in a while. It can be tempting to think that growing in our faith requires us to achieve some herculean feat like reading the entire Summa Thelologica, praying the Liturgy of the Hours every day, or giving lots of money to a charitable cause. While such things are very good, not everyone has the ability or means to do these sorts of things all the time. Instead we should start by reading the gospels, praying the rosary, and being more patient with other people as ways of working ourselves up to loftier goals. As St. Francis Xavier once said: “Everything is gained through humility… nothing is achieved by force.”
All things considered, I would recommend Breath of Fire as a cult classic in every sense of the term. The core mechanics are up there with the best RPGs of its time. The story, world, and characters are very charming in their simplicity. The visuals and music remain appealing despite their limitations. The lack of clarity is definitely a challenge if you are used to newer games like I am, but the experience is worth overcoming in my book. So to all fellow role-players I say take up Ryu’s sword, defeat the dark dragons, and save the world from Tyr. Saint George would be proud!
Morality & Parental Warnings: Violence in Breath of Fire largely consists of characters and monsters fighting one another with weapons and magic spells, but it is not very graphic as defeated enemies simply vanish from the screen. Magic is also fairly tame as it is mostly used for things like shooting fireballs or turning into a dragon. Some characters wear immodest outfits, but their effect is minimal due to the isometric perspective. There is a scene where the party spies on a princess while she bathes, but full nudity is not shown. The final boss of the game is a fictional goddess. There are characters, spells, and monsters with names that reference various pagan mythologies throughout the game.