Breath of Fire IV is the Apex of Original PlayStation RPGs
This underrated gem remains impressive, years later
By the year 2000, the original PlayStation had crowned itself the king of RPGs on the market. Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX, Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Vagrant Story, Star Ocean, Legend of Dragoon, Valkyrie Profile, and Persona 2 just to name a few. While many of these RPGs retained an insistence on “state of the art” three-dimensional graphics, a few RPGs made call-backs to the SNES era instead, utilizing a mix of three-dimensional maps and backgrounds with two-dimensional sprite work characters.
The Dragon Boy
Breath of Fire IV continued the tradition set by previous entries of having recognizable franchise characters in an unrelated story. While this anthology series does include some continuing characters, such as Deis, Breath of Fire IV is entirely playable on its own, and it merits itself by possibly being the best entry in the franchise. Breath of Fire IV did little to push the Capcom RPG franchise forward, but what it did do was cement everything that made the previous games good. At the same time, it added enough flourishes and polish to be a standout RPG in its own right.
This style of using two-dimensional sprite characters against three-dimensional backdrops was used in both Xenogears and Final Fantasy Tactics to impressive effect. However, Breath of Fire IV feels like the culmination of this concept, with both the game and its animations so crisp and polished that it is a dream to behold. The sprite work in Breath of Fire IV is unparalleled in its beauty, every single action performed by both player characters and monsters a sight to behold.
The sprites radiate their aesthetic so cleanly that even against the three-dimensional world they inhabit, they pop to the point of being the primary focus. While other RPGs were considered more “cutting edge” at the time for their looks, such as Final Fantasy VII, they have not retained their beauty or aesthetic, overshadowed by the crisp design of Breath of Fire IV’s unparalleled sprite animations.
Breath of Fire IV is a fairly traditional RPG, the viewpoints isometric with the battles taking place in the three-quarters view utilized in previous Breath of Fire games. Breath of Fire IV contains other mainstays of the series, such as the Master system of its predecessor and the fishing minigames. Where this entry stands out is how much it has been streamlined compared to Breath of Fire III. The game moves along at a fair clip as the story rushes the characters through dungeons that never overstay their welcome and towns that are just large enough to house necessary aspects such as Shops and Inns.
While Breath of Fire IV’s story is nothing intensely memorable, it does contain one of the best, most cohesive localizations of the PlayStation era. Its characters are succinct and human, and the cast of characters is varied enough that every party member and NPC feel as though their place has been earned in the story. While the protagonist is again a silent one, characters such as Ershin and Nina are stand-outs that add a fair bit of charisma to the group. Although the work done on the localization was mostly good, it retains some criticism from fans for unnecessarily censoring certain characters and scenes.
Traditional and Wonderful
What works in Breath of Fire IV really works. While this game may not hold a candle to Final Fantasy in the hearts of many, every single one of its pieces is handled so well that the overall experience results in a well-crafted, hearty, traditional RPG experience. I cannot overstate how beautiful the game’s designs are, the concept art translating remarkably well into the original PlayStation’s sprite capabilities.
The dragons of Breath of Fire IV are designed especially well, adding a creative and unique look to these traditional and overused fantasy creatures. The story is not revolutionary but the dual protagonist/antagonist back and forth makes the narration unique, and it all flows well. While the overworld map in Breath of Fire IV is a little too streamlined, exploration of areas remains fun, and there is a huge incentive to explore the RNG (Random Number Generation) spaces that pop up on the map.
Breath of Fire IV is a touch on the easy side, but this factor might make it more approachable to players who return to classic RPGs and find aspects of them difficult to manage. The battle system is relatively straightforward, utilizing a traditional turn-based mechanic. What makes it different is how all of your party members are usable in battle with a front row and back row system that allows you to swap out characters if you need to heal them or if someone runs out of their spellcasting AP.
This adds an additional layer of strategy and is an awesome incentive to use and maintain every member of your party. Coupled with the unique benefits of training under different Masters, there is actually more customization potential in this game than first appears. There is also a unique Combo system for spells that allows you to stack abilities that your characters cast in order to make more explosive, multi-hit combination attacks.
The game’s ultimate drive is the inevitable meeting between Ryu and Fou-Lu, two members of the Endless who are each one dragon-half of the other. One of Breath of Fire IV’s strongest aspects is how it actually shows the power differential between these two characters for much of the game, setting up the imposing clash between them. Breath of Fire IV delves into the Endless in ways that are more interesting than in previous games, and many fans consider this entry to actually be a prequel to the entire series. Deis, for instance, has a much more robust focus in this game than in previous entries.
While Breath of Fire IV is a spectacular experience for the most part, it’s still mired by the more gimmicky aspects of the era. There are a deluge of mini-games in this title, and most of them are downright not fun. If you can overlook how often the game wants you to do things outside of the core experience, you’ll find that there is much to enjoy here, and the overall experience is a joy. This is a classic RPG at its finest and a shining example of the hardcore era of PS1 design that has never quite been replicated.
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